The war against war metaphors

The age-old practice may harm both science and scientists

Melinda Wenner
Feb 15, 2007
Last month, when the University of Nottingham in the UK opened its new Centre for Healthcare Associated Infections, a facility dedicated to studying and controlling "superbugs," The Guardian newspaper interviewed its director, Richard James, about why such a research center was necessary. He said:"This is a sophisticated army with astonishing weapons. And each time we develop something new, [bacteria] develop a defense for it."The use of such war metaphors in science and medicine is not new. As early as 1934, the British Medical Journal wrote about the "War Against Cancer," a phrase we still often hear. But today, militaristic language pops up in almost every scientific domain: conservation biology ("invasive species," "biosecurity"); global warming ("global war on global warming"); and biomedicine ("killer cells," "hitting multiple targets"). The attraction to such language is understandable, as it draws attention, and perhaps even funding (who can forget US President Richard Nixon's...