16 October 2015

On [Metaphors]

Not much time this week, so this'll be a quick entry. Last Thursday, I took a ten-hour drive. This trip is part of the reason I don't have much time time week, but since I did the drive out, it meant I was able to do a lot of catchup listening on my iPod: four Doctor Who audio dramas, two episodes of On the Media, two episodes of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!, and two short episodes of Radiolab.

On the Media is a good little podcast/public radio program that I don't think gets its due among the Serials and This American Lifes and Invisibiliae of the world. It appeals to the academic in me: it's not a news podcast, it's a podcast about the news. For example, I once used this story about Edward Snowden in class, because I felt it modeled academic discourse well: rather than take a side as to Snowden's actions, they explored the rhetoric people used to discuss him.

Both of the episodes I listened to this past week were good; the 2015-09-25 one discussed the rhetoric around the Pope's recent visit (especially the kneejerk reaction of the American media to work him into the Republican/Democrat president race narrative), the AP stylebook's switch from "climate change denier" or "skeptic" to "climate change doubter" or "those who reject mainstream climate science" (co-host Bob Garfield actually gets into an argument with an AP science reporter), and a discussion of while abortion turns out to be a more complex issue than most polling reveals.

But the 2015-10-02 episode was even better. It was actually a rerun from earlier this year, but I'd missed the original airing, so that was fine. "The Cancer Show" was a set of stories about the way we discuss cancer, including a history of cancer, an analysis that shows how people don't know which cancers are actually the most common, and a moving piece by literary critic Susan Gubar (of Gilbert & Gubar fame) about the language of cancer treatment.

Most interesting to me was a discussion of metaphor. Cancer and the fight against it is often described with metaphors of war and battle and survival. But these metaphors have very real effects on the way we think about cancer; co-host Brooke Gladstone interviews David J. Hauser, a University of Michigan graduate student (how come I'm not on NPR!?), who did a study demonstrating that people who think of cancer as a battle are actually less likely to engage in preventative strategies, because they just don't fit into the war metaphor:
When you metaphorically frame something, it forces you to think about that concept in terms of another, easier to understand concept. So whenever we metaphorically frame cancer as an enemy, then that causes people to bring attributes of how to deal with enemies onto their ideas about how to deal with cancer. And a major part of dealing with enemies involves active engagement and attacking at all costs. In contrast to that, it de-emphasizes self-limitation and behavioral restraint. [...] [S]imple exposure to these enemy metaphors for cancer were actually dampening people's thoughts of limitation and restraint because that's just not how you fight enemies.
Of course, this reminded me of Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, which I read (part of) back at the beginning of my graduate career, and also my current work, about how science is often understood as a way of seeing. Sometimes I wonder if it really is a way of seeing, or if sight is just a convenient metaphor for understanding science. But it might be a difference that makes no difference.

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