Carbon pollution and other metaphors

This was my October column for Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including my virtual tour of the Science Museum.

There’s a new phrase on the block: “Carbon Pollution”. Barak Obama used it 30 times in a recent speech as he tried to draw more attention to role of carbon emissions. As Carbon Brief’s Ros Donald wrote: “It sounds made up, and it is.”

But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it is not useful. All scientific terms are made up. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Just because it’s constructed by people doesn’t mean it’s either unreal or malign. It just means people fashioned it from the materials they found in the world, with all the good, bad and complex in-betweens which come with that.

Attaching human words onto the workings of the natural world will always be fraught and inevitably contain a fair bit of creativity. Scientific terms are always simplifications – whether they are also a deliberate spin – and to what degree you are comfortable with any particular simplification will vary depending on your position in and around it. They are simplifications of the detail of scientific understanding, which itself is a simplification of the actual reality out there. It’s one of the reasons science gives us so many of our new words, as scientists need to make new terms to cover the new things they’ve found. It is also why maths is often more useful, and scientific publication increasingly looks to new forms of visualisation (if you don’t know JOVE, you’ve been missing out).

There is a fantastical element to much language – especially when it comes to metaphor and analogy – but then science is always a bit fantastical. There is something fantastical about graphs too, indeed most inscriptions of scientific research as they pull out particular bits of the world in detail for us to examine. As our dim human forms scramble to comprehend the huge complexity of our universe we might as well use everything at our disposal, including this amazing thing called language.

As anyone who’s studied the atom in any way knows, at times it can feel like your teacher keeps going “so you know that thing we told you last year, well, about that…” It’s like film stars having special ways to pronounce their name depending on how close you are to them; each different twist on the reality acting as a shibboleth to the core of power. Except that the early simplifications – whilst also kind of lies – are an invitation for further study. If scientists offered their full view of what we should probably call ‘the artist formally known as the atom’ up front, they might alienate a lot of people. And it is, after all, still only their current idea with all the uncertainties and gaps any science has. There is a sort of honesty in the way chemistry teachers lie to their students. Nature is the ultimate annoying teacher pointing out that the thing you thought was true was merely a sketch of reality.

I think my favourite turn of scientific phrase is the start to Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, where is describes a large willow tree pumping seeds into the air with the line: “It is raining DNA outside”. It is a magical image, but hooks you in to wanting to know the reality and offers a way to help you start thinking about it. Dawkins is maybe better known for idea of “the selfish gene” is possibly better known because many felt that particular hook was problematic, offering a particular vision on life via the idea of the gene they took offense to.

It is interesting how some such simplifications of science are seen accepted and others contested. Another good example is the hole in the ozone layer. The actual origin is contested. Joe Farnam – aka the co-discover of this hole – told the British Library’s Aural History of Science project no-one quite owned up to coining the phrase, though it seemed to have appeared somewhere between a NASA press release and a piece in the Washington Post “they had a press release and the Washington correspondents must have asked some questions, someone said, well, it looks like a hole doesn’t it, or something [laughs]” (pdf of full transcript). According to Reiner Grundmann, Sherwood Rowland – another ‘co-discoverer – coined the metaphor, used first when talking to a student newspaper (See Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, p.206). Wherever it came from, the idea of a ‘hole’ to describe what was going on up there might be enough of a simplification that not everyone finds it accurate, and it may well have helped facilitate a particular political outcome, but perhaps because of both of those reasons, it seems to have stuck nonetheless.

I don’t want to suggest metaphor and analogy are always a good thing though. Take, for example, another example of complex and esoteric systems the public often feel confused by: finance. At a recent public lecture from Andy Haldane of the Bank of England, I was struck by the sheer weight of metaphors (yes, I know that is a metaphor). There were fat tails and short minds, logjams, dark sides, siren voices of boom and bust, lumpy outcomes and webs. At times it took a geographical turn, with cliff edges, cross-border flows, storms at sea and even some “sunny uplands” (of stability). It had medical moments too, with antidotes, myopia and a ‘pock-marked’ history.

It was kind of poetic, and one way of looking at this is to congratulate Haldane for his articulate explaining. The Richard Dawkins of economics perhaps. Another would be to argue he used such language to create a further barrier between him and his audience. If he really wanted public involvement he’d invite it; he’d show us the language and ideas of financial workers use so we could talk to them on their own terms. Instead, he just stood on a stage and spouted linguistically-produced pictures at us. Which were pretty, but left little space for audience agency (again, the Richard Dawkins of economics, perhaps).

None of this is simple. As Donald notes of “carbon pollution”, the term seems to be designed with a deliberate political end in mind, compared to climate change or global warming which we might see as having slightly more scientific ancestry (useful blogpost on the two from NASA). It was made to provoke action, not understanding. But scientific terms can be put to political work too. For example, the idea that ‘climate change’ sounds less threatening than ‘global warming’. I also suspect Obama’s application of carbon pollution reflects the increasing tendency of advocates for action on climate change – including scientists – to talk about using the atmosphere as a rubbish dump. The science and politics are rarely divisible, for all that it might suit some to imagine so.

As that wise old teacher Seymour Skinner once said, much science is half BF Skinner and PT Barnam. Linguistic play is part of the latter. As long as we can find ways of playing with words which involve listening and debate along with a strong respect for empiricism (“listening to nature”, if you will), not simply showmanship.

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