A war against war metaphors

When the University of Nottingham, UK opened its new Center 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 ear

Melinda Wenner
Apr 1, 2007

When the University of Nottingham, UK opened its new Center 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 declaration to "conquer" cancer...

Who can forget US President Richard Nixon's declaration to "conquer" cancer in his 1971 State of the Union address?

Scientists who frame problems in a militaristic manner also likely have a drastically limited perception of the problem and how to tackle it, notes Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff. "This is not language, this is the way people think." In microbiology, for instance, scientists often frame viruses and bacteria as the enemy, and may focus on destroying them and be blind to alternatives, says Brigitte Nerlich, professor of science, language and society at the University of Nottingham. With bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), however, "You have to look at multiple factors, and not just in terms of attack and defend," she says. Indeed, some argue that our militaristic use of antimicrobial agents has, by introducing new selection pressures, only made pathogens stronger, while a consideration of other factors - like host behavior and the social and physical environment - could offer better solutions.

Brendon Larson, assistant professor of environment and resources studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, argues the same of "invasion biology," where scientists may automatically assume an invading species must be removed. But in some cases, a sustainable relationship makes more sense - for example, removal of the "invading" Himalayan blackberry from parts of California hurts the native tricolored blackbird, which used the plants as nesting habitats. "We're entrenched in a particular way of seeing this situation, that [invasive species are] enemies, they're bad and we have to get rid of them," Larson says. Indeed, according to Larson, the modern use of military terminology may have contributed to US President George Bush's decision to merge part of the government agency responsible for invasive species into the Department of Homeland Security.

Still, scientists are not likely to move beyond the adversarial metaphor anytime soon, says Columbia University's Barron Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America. "They're here to stay," Lerner says admitting that when he was writing about the prevalence of such metaphors, he unknowingly began using them himself. Writer Susan Sontag, who explored the use of metaphors in describing illnesses, advised that relying on war metaphors can be particularly misleading - remembering that, and remaining aware of metaphors' effect on science, is the best scientists can do, Lerner notes.

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