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Science historians ponder naming 'enemies' in science literature

In a perspective article published in the July 4, 2003 issue of the journal Science, Arizona State University biologists and historians of science Matthew Chew and Manfred Laubichler discuss a fundamental problem in the science of ecology its use of metaphorical language.

In the process, they are asking a question that has even greater consequences: can the way scientists communicate their findings warp or even dangerously mislead our perspective on science's meaning?

Chew and Laubichler argue that scientists' pervasive use of metaphors to encapsulate and express scientific ideas (for example, the use of literary metaphors such as "translation," "editing," "reading" for describing molecular processes), while necessary and powerful, also can carry with it the danger of adding false or misleading connotations to the concepts. The article, entitled "Natural Enemies Metaphor or Misconception?" focuses in particular on ecological science and its use of war and conflict metaphors to describe ecological dynamics involving introduced species.

In particular, the authors were struck by the pervasive and often casual use of the metaphorical phrase "natural enemies" to describe predator/prey and other similar inter-species ecological relationships. Though the metaphor is limited in its accuracy and carries with it unscientific connotations of conflict and antagonism, Laubichler notes that it is heavily used in ecological literature, often without explanation or definition.

"Though we didn't expect the term to be common, in the last four years we found about 60 references to 'natural enemies' in Science and Nature alone," Laubichler said. "It's a use of language that I find highly problematic. A scientist first uses 'natural enemies' as a metaphor for a particular ecological interaction but then it gets used in a different context and it doesn't take long for the idea to take hold that the category "natural enemy" actually exists out there in
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Contact: hathaway@asu.edu
Hathaway@asu.edu
480-965-6375
Arizona State University
3-Jul-2003


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