27
May
09

Real vs Metaphorical arguments

I’ve recently expressed some disgust with those who confuse the metaphors used in teaching with reality. Metaphors are very important in teaching as they provide a means by which to explain that which does not fit into common language. I have previously discussed several specific examples of this ranging from the DNA “code” to the “Big Bang.” What strikes me as particularly upsetting is that these metaphors are used as arguments against the specific theories which they are used to explain. With the concerned scientists, this does not particularly disturb me as many will easily dismiss these arguments as based upon several false premises. What does concern me is the public use of these arguments are effective at swaying the general public as this is the only explanation for these theories they have heard; thus attacking and refuting the metaphor or using it as an argument for a certain cause (“Intelligent Design” for example) is effective for lay audiences.

Now that I have completely alienated most non-scientist readers, and bored the scientists, I shall move on to the metaphor of the “DNA code.” Why use this phrasing? It alludes to the binary codes of computers and the three “letter” codons of mRNA. This mostly dates back to a very old argument about the hereditary material in cells. Any portion of DNA which was not responsible for the production of a protein was seen as “junk” with the sequences resulting in proteins being referred to as “genes.” I’ll spare the details, but as such, comparing DNA sequences to “code” makes it far easier to explain just as it is far easier to use “Big Bang” than to go into all the very complex mathematics which were used to derive this.

We have an obligation, as the scientists, the scientifically literate, and the students of science, to explain that attributes of a real code such as in computers or cyphers do not extend to the metaphorical code of DNA. In the same way, real explosions are absolutely nothing like the “Big Bang,” other than very superficially. When you hear someone very publicly state things such as “DNA contains information because it is a code,” you cannot just laugh histarically and walk away, very publicly explain why this is incorrect.

Note: you are allowed to giggle, laugh, or chuckle before you do so

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4 Responses to “Real vs Metaphorical arguments”


  1. May 28, 2009 at 3:11 am

    I would recommend that you define what your purpose is before even stepping into the ring. Not all arguments are entered into to find or clarify truth. For example, your reference to the Intelligent Design community. Activists in this area are not fighting the same battle you might be when you confront them. The IDer will already assume that they know the truth, and if what you speak is contrary to that truth then you are the enemy and attacking their lifestyle and the fundamental beliefs upon which it is founded.

    Thus you are defined as the enemy, and they may respond with any mode of argument to impeach your credibility and rob you of power. Most of them will not lie outright, as that is contrary to their belief system. However, many have learned the art of dancing about the truth with such finesse that they can lie without lying. The purpose is not to discover or define the truth. They believe that they already have that. The purpose is to overwhelm and crush the lies of the opposition.

    To oppose the IDers, or most other groups that pose a threat to your way of thinking, you must do as any such activist must do. You must meet them in the arena of public policy and opinion, and sway the decision makers. In our particular system that means the voting masses, most of whom will not wish to be educated to the point of making the decisions rationally and intelligently.

    Pehaps Darwin or Newton can have a designer fragrance? Maybe a line of housewares available at Target or KMart? A cooking show on the Food Network? Public appeal is important.

    Perhaps Science needs an agent.

    Mike

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    May 28, 2009 at 8:12 am

    The title of this post did so; to illustrate that arguments based upon metaphor are not the same as those based upon observation. The assumption of an IDer that s/he already knows the truth is the crux of the issue. Additional information, such as the “DNA code” is a metaphor used to teach, but not to actually explain, is a message which needs to reach the ears of the lay audience.

    As for the assumption they already know the truth, this is an additional issue dealing with fundamentalism in general. Additionally, I want other “ways of thinking” to be included in scientific discourse. This provides new perspectives which may be useful.

    I do not agree with treating scientific understanding as another activist perspective. Science is a method by which to gain insight into the natural world. It is not a matter of “is/ought,” it is a matter of “is/is not.” It should be treated as such. “Ought we allow homosexual couples to marry?” versus “Is the allelic frequency in Ensatina salamanders in equilibrium?”

  3. June 5, 2009 at 12:12 am

    hey jared. i wanna know more about your dna is not code argument. write or point me to something to read… thanks. –john


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