What’s a good metaphor for doing science?


How do you explain what research is?

My go-to metaphor has been a jigsaw puzzle.

We do research to get a picture of what the world looks like. Every time we figure something out, we are putting pieces together. Unlike other jigsaw puzzles, the science jigsaw puzzle doesn’t have picture on the box top. We are figuring out what the picture looks like as we go.

You know how when you’re putting together a puzzle, that some pieces are more critical than others, that you can build off of? But sometimes you’re just putting pieces into a big patch of blue sky or a monochrome quilt or whatever? This is the difference between transformational research and confirmatory research.

Let’s say we get so many pieces of the puzzle together that we figure it out. But here’s the rub: this picture is just one image of what we’re trying to understand. From a single perspective. It might even be a cartoon drawing. Research helps us draw that picture, and we understand it better, but that just means we need to pull a new box off the shelf, which often is just a different perspective on the same subject. That change in perspective, I suppose, is a paradigm shift.

A different description of research that has gotten a lot of visibility is from Matt Might. I like this one, too, though I’ve argued with some aspects of it, but there’s an elegance in its simplicity.

Anyway, I’ve milked the puzzle metaphor in a variety of directions. What’s your metaphor for scientific discovery?

3 thoughts on “What’s a good metaphor for doing science?

  1. I’ve used the analogy that building scientific consensus is like building a shelter in the woods. A shelter doesn’t come with a blueprint so what you end up with is something you can’t really guess in advance. Some studies are really important and equate to big bits of load-bearing wood that are the base of the shelter. Other studies are like thatching: they wouldn’t exist without the existing structure and most people won’t notice the individual contribution, but they are worthwhile nonetheless.

    I think this analogy works well since it highlights how nearly all studies (sticks in the shelter) rely on other ones in order to hold up. And also the somewhat haphazard way in which scientific fields evolve.

    Paraphrasing myself from brushingupscience.com/2019/02/04/benefits-of-avoiding-replication-studies/

  2. I would agree with you. My issue with the jigsaw puzzle metaphor is that the “puzzle” assumes a picture to be arrived at. The consensus of science helps define a picture, sure, but that picture is induced, not discovered or revealed (as is often the notion of modern science). Because we must use languages and cultural backgrounds to build that scientific consensus, the puzzle metaphor assumes there is one way of seeing reality, and I am convinced that that kind of modality of making science obfuscates the process of that science and further disenfranchises other views of reality that may provide important avenues of inquiry. We may arrive at seemingly similar views, but translation between those views are further evidence in the constant play in that construction. Therefore there is never arrival, and more questions are multiplied by further questions.

    If the puzzle metaphor includes a fuzzy-edged, process orientated, fractal, non-cartesian, and idiosyncratic construction, I’d be more okay with it. But as metaphors go, most puzzles don’t come that way.

    In finding better ways of describing science, its processes and worldviews, showing what is not science is equally edifying. If science is not poetry, then why (mind you, I was just at a panel for scientific poetry, so that’s a tough definition)? If science should be peer reviewed and replicated, what do we do with all the science that isn’t? If science must challenge the standard models that exist but can’t get funding and political clout with other scientists within the gate-keeping arena to even get started, does that make it science or not?

    I find just as many useful metaphors from religion and contemplative studies for the practices of science, but the genre, communication, and establishment of constants of science to be the only slight differences. We’re all trying to observe reality and come up with vastly different views of what to keep track of. That said, yes, clearly we’ve been able to establish worldviews that allow us to do vastly different things that what religion, metaphysics, and contemplation have afforded—I love my cell phone and many technologies. But if those technologies aren’t integrated with further understanding within the methods of scientific production and their effects, their situations, is that myopic scientific view worthy of metaphor?

    Which is to say, I’ve been using snail metaphors most of all. Snails’ connectedness to the ground gets at the detail and depth of reading the complex ecological texts of the ground of being. Their shells remind us to take a home in the world, an actual reality, and not fanciful ideas that fly faster than the complexities of resources, production, and pollution can support. Their spirals remind us to consistently come-back and reiterate, re-check our knowledges, lest we assume and prefigure a world view and a paradigm of knowledge that prevents new insight. Their eye stalks and poor vision remind us that to see the forest, even a whole tree, may be impossible, and localizing and situating whatever view we have is the best we can continue to hope for.

    I welcome discussion.


  3. The jigsaw metaphor doesn’t work if you dissect it logically; I’d agree with Jason’s point above, we really don’t know what the picture looks like. So much of what we discover as scientists really is previously unknown, e.g. novel plant-pollinator relationships, Denisovans and other unprecedented fossils, new astronomical phenomena, etc. As a generalist I think that a house- (or other structure-) building metaphor works better.

    A slightly cynical metaphor that I’ve used in the past for scientists jumping on bandwagons is of the Keystone Cops tearing around, jumping on and off their cop car, crashing into dead ends….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7jItMuXbS8

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