Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Danger of Metaphors

Metaphors are surely a necessary aid to thinking, at least at a preliminary stage in the effort to understand some phenomenon. But they can also prove to cloud issues as much as shed light on them. The reason is that metaphors by definition do not involve a literal application of language to describe a problem.

I encountered a very interesting set of metaphors in a Guardian Unlimited article, which is an excerpt of a book by Paul Brown, on climate change. The first occurred in the headline for the story: "How close is runaway climate change?" The use of "runaway" in connection with climate change likens the climate to a horse that has tossed its rider and galloped off into the distance. This use of "runaway" evokes the idea that unless we gain control of climate change, we will lose our ability to affect it. Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn't.

A "teaser" below the titles reads:
In an extract from his new book on global warming, Paul Brown looks at how close the planet is to irreversible damage
This provides a very explicit way of characterizing what might be meant by a "runaway climate." It would be irreversible damage. The catalyst for this climate change is said to be greenhouse gasses, specifically the production of unwanted Carbon Dioxide.

We are all aware that climate change is cyclical. The book excerpt suggests not that it will cease to be cyclical but that the average temperature of the globe will irreversibly increase. The meat of the article is presented in this paragraph:
The phrase "tipping point" is heard a lot more from scientists. This is where a small amount of warming sets off unstoppable changes, for example the melting of the ice caps. Once the temperature rises a certain amount then all the ice caps will melt. The tipping point in many scientists' view is the 2˚C rise that the EU has adopted as the maximum limit that mankind can risk. Beyond that, as unwelcome changes in the earth's reaction to extra warmth continue, it is theoretically possible to trigger runaway climate change, making the earth's atmosphere so different that most of life would be threatened.
In this case, our metaphor has changed from that of a runaway horse or train or bride to that of something tipping over or toppling. Indeed, the word "tipping" normally occurs with "over" but interestingly one does not read or hear proponents of the global warming hypothesis ever referring to the "tipping over point." If they did then the fact that they are using a fundamentally spatial metaphor would be clear to all. It would also sound rather silly. Likening the climate to, say, a free-standing vertical object that can be said to have a tipping point -- say the amount of force exerted on the tip of the object that would cause it to fall over -- is not helpful to understanding the issue of global warming. I also draw attention to the weasel phrase "theoretically possible."

I am also intrigued that the EU has decided that a 2˚C rise is as far as we can safely let the warming go. I don't know whether some set of EU scientists voted that 2˚C is the most we can allow the average global temperature to rise or a bunch of politicians decided this but the last I checked scientific hypotheses are net decided via the democratic process. In point of fact, unfortunately, scholars can tend to come together to hold a consensus view. That view then becomes enforced by journal editors and panels that select the papers for presentation at conferences and select the grants that will be funded. These views can come to be proved incorrect.

We are invited by the idea that the globe will get hotter and hotter to believe that some day summer will not change over into fall but will become hotter and hotter until it reaches some limit at which all thermometers will stick. That we know will not be true since as the temperature rises, evaporation of bodies of water will accelerate and that will lower the average temperature. So, at worst, we would arrive at a cyclical warming and cooling as we have now but at different average temperatures. What this equilibrium would entail for living beings is anything but clear. It could mean that we all live in a Sahara-like environment or all live in Hawaii-like environment. Or that all life is extinguished. No one has a clue about this.

The article moves on to an American political metaphor when it says:
Runaway climate change is a theory of how things might go badly wrong for the planet if a relatively small warming of the earth upsets the normal checks and balances that keep the climate in equilibrium.
"Checks and balances" -- imagine that. The climate works in something like the American political system with each of the three branches of government able to check and balance the others (whatever that means). I also draw attention to the use of the weasel word "might."

The article makes one fantastically false statement:
Warming is directly related to the quantities of greenhouse gases there are in the air, the chief of which is carbon dioxide.
In fact, the chief greenhouse gas is water vapor. The Florida State University Meterology Department gives these figures for the composition of our atmosphere:
PERMANENT gases in the atmosphere by percent are:
Nitrogen 78.1%
Oxygen 20.9%
(Note that these two permanent gases together comprise 99% of the atmosphere)
Other permanent gases:
Argon 0.9%
Neon 0.002%
Helium 0.0005%
Krypton 0.0001%
Hydrogen 0.00005%
VARIABLE gases in the atmosphere and typical percentage values are:
Water vapor 0 to 4%
Carbon Dioxide 0.035%
Methane 0.0002%
Ozone 0.000004%
Our concern is with variable gasses, of course. The article/book excerpt suggests that we will have runaway expansion of the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now, as the FSU figures make clear, it would take an enormous expansion of the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere for it to catch up with water vapor.

We are faced with a very large array of answered scientific questions, not all of which we are even aware of if climate science is like the rest of science, a scare, and a political problem. If the scary activists are right we need to do something. This will entail diminishing greenhouse gasses, which is our only tool. I have no clue who is right in this debate but I do know that this Guardian offering is so full of misleading metaphors and weasel words and phrases that I can't take it seriously. What I do know is that the US will not give up its standard of living willingly nor will developing nations give up their ambition to reach or surpass our standard of living. Maybe the human race will die off. Would that be all that bad?

Some will be upset that a mere linguist has the temerity to blog on this topic. But note that I have pretty much stuck to the language of the article. Moreover, the fact is that if there is a problem and if we must act, it is essential that people like me and you understand the problem and what I can tell you is that Paul Brown is very far short of being persuasive.

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Blogger Mr K said...

To be fair, any good scientist should use qualifiers, although might is weaker than probably. As I understand it the concensus that global warming is happening and has a significant human component to it. Predictions of the direct causes of this should always be taken with a pinch of salt- in such a chaotic system as this planet has, nothing can be very certain. For example, if the ice caps do fully melt, we will lose a LOT of land, many places will be flooded, and indeed currently they are melting at a rapid rate... but that does not necessarily mean they won't stop.

But I approach this from a mostly lay perspective, this is what I gather from what I've read on the topic. I've read enought to know that climate change is having effects even now, and may well have caused desertification in parts of Africa, and that we do need to do something about it.

I don't think it's beyond any of us to cut down our energy usage somewhat- walk rather than drive, or get the bus, make sure you switch things off after use, basic things like this can save a lot of power overall.

11:21 AM

Blogger Ripple said...

Are you sure about your carbon dioxide figures? It seems like there should be more because we all exhale carbon dioxide. We breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. And what about methane gas? Isn't that a consideration too?

I have a theory on the ice caps melting too. Right now a great deal of weight on both poles due to the large amount of weight that the ice contains. Ice being a solid mass, will stay at the poles of the earth, but what happens when all that stuff melts and all that weight goes away and gets distributed evenly around the earth's oceans? It doesn't seem like a good thing to me. Possibly this could cause the earth's axis to shift. Part of the reason that human life is even possible is because the earth's axis is shifted 15 degrees. If it was straight up and down then the climates would be too extreme for human habitation. We will have to go underground or something and become pastey-white mole people.

2:23 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

LG, I think you handled this blog very well, taking into consideration your expertise. Bravo!

I personally have no idea who is right on this issue. I think it's irresponsible for a scientist to make such claims when we've only been measuring these variables for a relatively short period of time (even 100 years is too short) and there's no way we can measure all the relevant variables.

Mr. K: I believe poor farming processes have also had a great effect on the expansion of the Sahara. I'm not sure where I heard that, but I don't think my brain made it up (it does do that sometimes). This could be due to population increase, or due to Western "help" in agriculture that's not tailored to the needs of the climate, terrain, and crops of the area. (A problem much like the latter has occurred in Haiti, where center-pivot irrigation was introduced--a huge waste of water from evaporation in such a hot climate.)

Paul F: I believe LG is right on the composition of the atmosphere. This Wikipedia article (I know these may be unreliable) has the combined quantities of N and O at about 99%, with CO2 amounting to about 0.035%. The thing is that humans and animals generally exhale mostly oxygen and nitrogen. Yes, the body converts some O to CO2, but not all that it takes in. That's why mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works.

8:37 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

As for the composition of the atmosphere, this University of Florida web site (specific course)gives the figure of 20.9% for Oxygen and 0.1% for Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and other gases. There is no question that Carbon Dioxide is increasing. The question is whether the metaphors of "runaway climate" and climatic "tipping point" accurately convey the circumstances we face. Is there a concentration of Carbon Dioxide (or Methane or both) in the atmosphere that will "trigger" (another metaphor) irreversible, undesirable, climatic change?

According to this scary web site we have already passed the tipping point. One Tom Burke claims "we have actually entered a new era - the era of dangerous climate change. We have passed the point where we can be confident of staying below the 2 degree rise set as the threshold for danger. What this tells us is that we have already reached the point where our children can no longer count on a safe climate." But he also says, "We have very little time to act now. Governments must stop talking and start spending. We already have the technology to allow us to meet our growing need for energy while keeping a stable climate." So he is telling us we cannot count on having a safe climate no matter what we do but if we act immediately, which will not likely happen, we can have a stable climate. Stable, but unsafe. He is not offering a coherent message.

This article also notes that the areosol (band of dust from polution) reduces warming. I'm not sure what to make of that.

There is nothing to be gained from courting disaster. On the other hand, changing would be extremely expensive and while the US has actually gone through a longish period of conservation (under President Carter in connection with the oil boycott), developing nations will be a problem. They want what the "haves" have.

4:52 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

LG, I'm not so sure that "trigger" used in that context is a metaphor. I think the word started as a metaphor, but has evolved to have an alternate meaning all its own, that of "cause." You're the linguist, so I'll leave that up to you, but that was my impression.

"They want what the 'haves' have."

That's also what Japan wanted in the first half of the 20th century (in terms of an empire), and the international community didn't approve and let us take care of it (this whole point is a metaphor). When international norms changed in the past, countries haven't been allowed to catch up (a metaphor?) using the same means as their predecessors. Whether or not history will repeat itself (metaphor) in that fashion remains to be seen. But first we need to change our practices, and doing it one person at a time (rather than a complete overhaul--another metaphor) isn't working.

9:38 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, of course use of "trigger" is a metaphor in that it evokes the notion of a pistol trigger's action. It doesn't mean "cause" but something more like "catalyst." Moreover, nothing is ever the cause of something all by itself. Something can be a catylst all by itself under the interpretation that "catylst" means "potential cause."

But when people start using the term "catylst" they are obligated to provide a very specific account of the conditions in which the catylst will be effective. The beauty of "trigger" is that it is so technical (because it is a metaphor) significance.

Linguists before my time used Bohr's model of the atom as a metaphor for accounting for linguistic structure. This "building blocks" theory didn't work out very well. Such things rarely do.

9:50 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I mean that "trigger" is nontechnical, as metaphors will be unless they are turned into techical terms by being given a precise significance. The word "force" in physics would be an example, as would "mass."

9:52 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

"anything, as an act or event, that serves as a stimulus and initiates or precipitates a reaction or series of reactions."
from dictionary.com

It would seem you're right, that it does mean "catalyze" or "catalyst," at least in one definition of those words. So in the context in which it was used, it could be seen to have both a literal (bring about, initiate) and a metaphorical (reminding of a gun) meaning.

1:19 PM

Blogger Girliedydy said...


What do you mean by "weasel words "
I have never heard of that before and would be interested by what you mean by that. I saw your example of might as a weasel word. So, would this mean that maybe is a weasel word?


7:23 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Under "Advertising" in my blog menu is an item called
Weasel Words -- The Modal Verbs
. There are other weasel words besides modals but this blog does concern "might," which was the one I cited in the present blog.

8:47 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I am pleased to note that Gmail is now identifying these things as spam. Excellent result. I would like to know how they do it.

12:33 PM


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