#205 from R&D
Innovator Volume 5, Number 3
Hints from History
is a geologist, author, and translator residing in Seattle,
recent research into issues regarding science and language are
collected in The Scientific Voice (Guilford Publications, New York, 1996).
He has authored papers in the field of petroleum geology.
and engineers don’t think much about the influence of language
on their research strategies.
But the language we ordinarily use can have a significant
effect on the way you try to solve problems.
This was made
clear to me not long ago, while reading an article in a well-known
popular science journal. In
this article, I came across some lines that inadvertently altered
my entire outlook on medical science.
The topic was HIV infection and the words ran something
like this: “Organic
invaders enlist the full range of immune responses, yet many of
these enemies have evolved devious methods to escape detection....
The AIDS virus in particular, most insidious of all,
employs a range of strategies... to invade and kill helper T-cells
and therefore render the body’s defenses hopeless....”
me, first of all, was the ordinary quality of these words.
As exaggerated as they may seem out of context, they are
actually a verbal extract out of our common speech about disease.
The only real difference, perhaps, is the rigor of their
imagery. At the time,
I assumed this might be confined to popular discourse:
How often, after all, have we heard of a “war” being
waged against some deadly illness; about the “hunt for magic
bullets;” about various “crusades” for new therapies? But curiosity, and much study, soon proved me wrong:
Medical language too, it seems even at the research level,
is prone to such imagery, and has been for some time.
The field of immunology, for example, is replete with such
terms as: natural
killer cell; killer T-cell; target cell; response triggering;
viral proliferation; ion mobilization; supressor cells; and the
absorbed many other images of war into its conceptions of the ill
body. Our popular
speech in this area—in which illness “attacks” and
“strikes,” releasing various “warning signs”—has been
derived, historically, from medical knowledge itself.
Calling the AIDS virus an “invader” is umbilical to
labeling part of our immune system a “killer T-cell.”
Limits the Perspective
this beyond any doubt. It
also shows that this image-system of war can not be called
an “analogy” or a “metaphor,” as sociologists and
philosophers may want to do.
Disease is not like, or incorrectly likened to, such things
as “viral proliferation” or “bacterial invasion;” it is
these things, in the same way that the body is composed of
“organs,” “tissues,” and “cells.”
What might be called biomilitarism is endemic to our formal
knowledge of illness, at the deepest level, and as such, has
provided a kind of deep-seated logic or rationality for helping
guide certain conceptions of therapy.
Many things might be mentioned here:
The long-term focus, for example, on disease “agents”
rather than on disease “environments” or “ecologies;” the
overriding preference for so-called “invasive” therapies meant
to “strike back” at such agents; the long-standing resistance
to more holistic treatments involving diet, exercise, and
mind-body connections. All
these aspects of 20th century medicine can be linked at some deep
level to the embedded outlook of biomilitarism.
admittedly, simplify a complex aspect of medical scientific
knowledge. The role
of images and language in scientific thought is a profound subject
and deserves no small amount of attention.
That this role has concrete cognitive effects, however,
should be apparent to anyone who considers the matter in detail.
Image systems in technical knowledge have proved limiting
in some ways, but also extremely fertile in others.
Some of the most fruitful areas of medical research have
turned out to be those which have pursued some particular aspect
of the logic embodied in the imagery devoted to disease.
Recent examples abound.
Approaches to therapy in immunology (since we have
mentioned this field) now involve a range of procedures to enhance
“T-cell mobilization;” to sharpen the body’s “detection
and communication system;” and, on the other side, to “jam”
a virus’ own ability to detect a potential host cell.
point is simple: language
is the means by which any perception, discovery, or hypothesis
acquires a solid and communicable reality.
What this means, in turn, is that technical knowledge and
its advance are never wholly separable from the forms used to give
them an existence. Language
and images can work upon the mind in many quiet, subtle
ways—they can seem like part of the wallpaper, something we pass
by every day without much notice, while actually comprising a
crucial part of the architecture of our very ability to speak and
more conscious of this architecture, its strengths and weaknesses,
can be one avenue to enhanced creativity.
Taking hold of the images that dominate in certain areas of
science and engineering is one possible way to help understand,
perhaps even to discover, new directions for thought and research.
can be gleaned from Stephen J. Gould’s and Richard Lewontin’s
work on evolutionary biology.
Roughly a decade ago, they challenged the reigning
explanatory theory on the basis that it was simply “too neat.”
This theory held that all physiological phenomena serve
some purpose of survival. Gould
and Lewontin rightly perceived this as a narrative
hypothesis, a logic for telling little “Darwin histories”
always with a perfect type of happy ending (e.g. every physical
feature being preordained in purpose therefore fulfills that
however, was much messier, Gould and Lewontin observed, being full
of evolutionary “dead-ends” that defied any such scheme.
To describe Nature’s history, one needed recourse to a
different sort of language, one able to emphasize non-development
Rocks” Limits Perspective
can be found in the history of recent geology.
The theory of “plate tectonics,” ushered in during the
late 1960’s, strongly emphasized the relatively brittle behavior
of the outer 30-100 kilometers of the Earth, its break-up into
various plates, and the collisional or frictional interactions
occurring along their boundaries.
The connotations inherent in this language of rigid and
breakable phenomena helped create a shift in perspective as to the
types of geologic structure considered most important.
Prior to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, geologic
thought had a long-standing interest in folded rocks as a crucial
indicator of Earth forces. Since
then, it has become apparent that the folded rocks are almost
entirely a secondary result of faulting.
The change for geology has made for distinct progress in
many areas, not the least of which has been petroleum exploration.
is Language Limiting Your Perspective?
hold of language can be a path to innovation. The question then becomes:
How to do this? Here,
several suggestions might be made.
These, I should say, will not guarantee sudden or
breathtaking insights and are no doubt more appropriate to some
fields than to others. But, as a means of possibly gaining a window onto processes
of innovative research logic, they are extremely likely to provide
some measure of enhanced awareness, both for those involved in
managing and those pursuing such research directly.
These suggestions are as follows:
Read or re-read the literature in a particular field,
subfield, or frontier area with an eye to identifying the more
obvious and consistent images (or image systems) that guide the
description and explanation of relevant phenomena. This can be aided by studying glossaries and by glancing
through recent textbooks. Reflect
on the implications inherent in these images and how they might
relate to current directions in research.
Communicate with the past:
browse the historical literature in a particular area to
discover what metaphors and images have dominated its discourse
and how this may have changed or remained consistent to the
present. Often this
is easier to do than with contemporary literature, because of the
“aged,” slightly foreign character of the writing (an
indication, one might note, of how technical discourse has evolved
like any other portion of our semantic heritage).
Try to discern if, and to what degree, such metaphors and
images have helped guide the development of the field.
Become conscious of how researchers talk to one another,
what language they use when describing, explaining, or summarizing
their work. Much of
this language will be fairly standard, but perceiving it as an
important part of scientific exchange, will provide an added
opportunity for grasping the images that help guide conception.
Moreover, research jargon has a tendency to be modified and
made more vivid by the natural inclinations of conversation; such
modification, then, can make more apparent the hidden seeds of a
useful imagery. In
this connection, also consider the value of such tuned listening
with regard to meetings and conferences (more formal than hallway
talk), email messages, and any other settings where spoken or
conversational language is used.
Read the work of science writers, journalists, and other
popularizers with a similar sensitivity to imagery.
As in the case of medicine, these interpreters often take
images that exist within technical language and exaggerate them
considerably (at times beyond reason), bringing them to the
surface. (At the same
time, ignore most examples of the all-too-common sports metaphor,
which tends to be reflexive and therefore possess too little
Consider the value of writing a summary report or abstract
of current work in simpler language than is ordinarily the case,
language intended for an educated lay reader for instance.
Note what types of abridgment need to be made, what terms
require explanation or non-use, what kinds of details become
necessary and what kinds expendable.
This will help reveal the more central metaphors or images
that currently dominate your work.
If you or someone on your staff is multi-lingual, or can
read adequately another language, have them scan the foreign
literature with a similar view to identifying the dominant
metaphors, images, or image-systems.
You will find that these are sometimes quite different in
different languages (the time-honored notion of scientific
discourse as a wholly universal form of communication is much less
true than commonly assumed).
Having seminal or important articles translated, or
re-translated, may also help in this regard. A focus on the languages of countries (e.g. Japan) that have
proven strong superiority in specific research areas may also be
only a few possible methods for using the tool of language as an
added lever for insight. Doubtless,
as you gain experience with any of them in a particular field of
research, other ideas will arise.
The point, overall, is not to develop a set of fixed
exercises or tests for evaluating research results.
It is, instead, to try and make flexible, adaptive use of
this most central and unavoidable element to scientific
work—language—as a means to gain new understanding of research
directions and to uncover new opportunities for taking charge over
them. As every
scientist and engineer well knows, creativity and innovation very
often come not from ideas that arrive “out of the blue,” but
from the discovery of latent possibilities.
The study of language, then, is one means for making
visible the previously invisible.
It is one more instrument, a new an untried one at that, in
the conceptual laboratory of the manager or researcher.