Words matter: can language be used ‘responsibly’ in science?

When certain metaphors and language is used in science, can we distinguish between metaphors that are used unconsciously or lazily and metaphors which are chosen purposefully to stimulate hopes, fears, financial investment, emotional reactions, or even prejudices and barriers? An editorial published in Life Sciences, Society and Policy, launching a new collection of papers, investigates the impact of language science, policy and public in the context of biology and life sciences.

Modern genetics could not have emerged without metaphors. As Francis Crick wrote in a letter to his 12-year old son Michael in 1953: “It is like a code. If you are given one set of letters you can write down the others. Now we believe that the D.N.A. is a code. That is, the order of the bases (the letters) makes one gene different from another gene (just as one page of print is different from another). You can now see how Nature makes copies of the genes.” Alongside the code metaphor, metaphors of maps, blueprints and books made genetics and genomics happen. Synthetic biology too cannot exist without its own set of metaphors, from ‘writing’ and ‘editing’, to engineering and designing, from chassis and machines to biobricks and Lego, and beyond.

Social scientists and communication experts have been studying the use of metaphors in genetics, genomics and post-genomics for many years. More recently natural scientists too have begun to scrutinise the advantages and disadvantages of certain metaphors, especially in the context of synthetic biology. Some have begun to look at the ethical implications of metaphor use, something we, Carmen McLeod (Oxford) and Brigitte Nerlich (Nottingham), want to encourage through our editorial and thematic series for Life Sciences, Society and Policy.

Metaphors enable us to establish bridges between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the unimaginable and the imaginable, for example between computers and viruses; genes and computers; clocks and universes, humans and machines (CC0 Creative Commons on Pixabay)

Metaphors are not just rhetorical flourishes. They are fundamental to human cognition and human action. Metaphors are based on the (mental) perception of one thing through another, of seeing something as something (else). They enable us to establish bridges between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the unimaginable and the imaginable, for example between computers and viruses; genes and computers; clocks and universes, humans and machines.

Inspiring or misleading metaphors

Metaphors enable us to see the world, think the world and talk about the world and ourselves in it. However, they not only have cognitive and communicative functions, they can also have performative and political force, as they commit those who create and use them to accepting a system of standard beliefs or commonplaces associated with them – for good or for ill. The visions of the world that we create through metaphors make us act on the world in the way we see it or want to see it or, indeed, may also prevent us from acting in or on the world. What is perceived as real or not real is real in its consequences. Is it right to imagine and talk about a world of printable life forms, for example, or about so-called designer babies in the context of gene editing?

Certain words can have performative and political force, as they commit those who create and use them to accepting a system of standard beliefs or commonplaces associated with them – for good or for ill.

This then raises the question of ‘responsibility’, an issue that has become increasingly important in the context of science and society. ‘Responsible Research and Innovation, as a new science governance framework, has attracted increasing of attention since around 2010. Researchers interested in ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ want to create a better world in which research and innovation happen more responsibly, taking the needs of people from all walks of life into account. The literature on responsible innovation has been expanding rapidly alongside many conferences, events and activities.

A gap in the literature

However, there are two gaps in the scholarly landscape sketched out above. First: Although a lot of research has focused on metaphors used in genetics, genomics and post-genomics, it is surprising that we still lack a systematic study of the normative implications, and associated moral and ethical assumptions, inherent in this metaphors use, although interest in these topics is growing. In this thematic series, we aim to address this gap.

Second: Although numerous books and articles have been written about responsible research and innovation, there has so far been no reflection on the role that language plays in both promoting this new science government agenda and in reflecting on how the language of the social scientists promoting responsible research and innovation and the language used by the natural scientists doing the research and innovation interact or, indeed, don’t interact. In fact, nobody so far has thoroughly researched the issue of ‘responsible language use’. This too is a gap we want to fill in this thematic series.

We want to stimulate an interdisciplinary and international discussion of the impact that metaphors can have on science, policy and publics in the context of synthetic biology, and in all sciences.

In our editorial for the thematic series we provide a launching point for considering the empirical and theoretical examples and concepts raised by the contributors to this thematic series. We summarise the history of the terms ‘synthetic biology’ and ‘responsible innovation’; we then offer an overview of research into metaphors in the context of genetics, genomics and synthetic biology, and we end with presenting some recent work on synthetic biology, metaphor and responsibility – work that will be carried forward, extended and critiqued in the thematic issue on ‘Synthetic biology: How the use of metaphors impacts on science, policy and responsible research’.

Read the full editorial here.

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