Beware Scientific Metaphors

I’m about a quarter finished with Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, which I’m finally reading after several years of intending to. So far, it’s been both pleasurable and interesting. My main reservation, however, has been an extended metaphor which both illustrates the central idea and potentially undermines it.

Paterson develops a notion of energy to describe the synthesis of material resources, cultural virtue, and human capital which results in creativity and production. As metaphors go, this is not a bad one. That said, my engineering background gives me cause for concern. It isn’t clear that Paterson has a clear understanding of energy as a scientific concept, and her analogy may suffer for it. Complicating matters, she sometimes also phrases “energy” as if it were electricity, which is another can of worms in and of itself.

Mechanical energy behaves oddly enough for human purposes, being generally conserved between gravitational potential and kinetic energy, and dissipated through friction and heating. It emphatically does not spring ex-nihilo into cars and trains. Coal and oil have chemical potential energy, which is released as thermal energy, then converted into kinetic energy and thus motion to drive an internal combustion engine.

Electrical energy is even weirder. It’s been enough years since I finished my physics that I won’t attempt to explain the workings in detail. (My electronics class this spring bypassed scientific basis almost entirely.) Suffice to say that the analogy of water moving through a pipe is not adequate beyond the basics.

Atomic energy, the most potent source yet harnessed, does create energy, but at a cost. A nuclear generating station physically destroys a small part of a uranium atom, converting it via Einstein’s famous relation to useful energy. But more on that in later posts.

I won’t say that the “energy” metaphor is strictly-speaking wrong, because I haven’t done the work of dissecting it in detail. Paterson was a journalist and writer, but she was also self-educated, and therefore we cannot easily assess the scope and accuracy of her knowledge of such phenomena. But I don’t think it matters: even if the metaphor is faulty, the concept which it tries to communicate seems, on the face, quite plausible without grounding in the physical sciences.

I bring this up now, well before I’ve finished the book, because I’ve seen much worse analogies from writers with much less excuse to make them. The God of the Machine was published in 1943. Authors today have a cornucopia of factual knowledge at their fingertips and still screw it up. For instance, take this caption from my statics textbook:

HibbelerAstronaut

Hibbeler, R. C., Engineering Mechanics: Statics & Dynamics, 14th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall, Hoboken, 2016.

There is no excuse for a tenured professor (or, more plausibly, his graduate students) to screw this up. The correct equation is on that very page and they couldn’t even be bothered to run the numbers and see that, no, you’re not significantly lighter in low Earth orbit. From my perspective, such a blatant error is unconscionable in the opening pages of a professional text.

Now that isn’t exactly a metaphor, but it illustrates the risks of discussing fields nominally close to your own which nevertheless you know very little about. Imagine the danger of using metaphors from totally different fields you’ve never formally studied.

So, I would advise writers to be sparing with scientific metaphors. If you can learn the science correctly, that’s great: you’ll construct metaphors that are both interesting and accurate. But as we’ve seen above, even PhDs make stupid mistakes. Err on the side of caution.

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