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When you can't see the wood through the trees

Does metaphor help or hinder Scicom?

Chris Styles speaks to science communicator and poet, Dr. Sam Illingworth from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Metaphors are a powerful tool in language, although we may not realise just how often we use them. You may think that they are only used inadvertently or to add an unnecessary flourish to creative writing, but you may be surprised at just how much we all use metaphors (or analogies) in our everyday speech. We use language to shape our conscious thoughts, and analogies allow us to portray an idea from a familiar starting point, upon which we can build to create stepping stones to more complex concepts. Language is one of the principal ways we have to communicate what is in our brains but while words by themselves are limited, with a slight sprinkle of creativity, we can unlock our imagination to fill in the gaps that words leave unspoken, a glimpse of the ineffable……. a description of something that is hard to qualify, what are known as “qualia”.

Does this mean that having a creative mind and a skillful grasp of language gives you an advantage when it comes to science communication and innovation? We need to delve a little deeper, so we asked science communicator and poet, Dr. Sam Illingworth from Manchester Metropolitan University tells us what he thinks.

Dr. Sam Illingworth
What came first for you, curiosity or creativity? How were these nurtured?

Definitely curiosity. I remember always trying to try and determine how things worked, usually by taking them apart and annoying my family and teachers in the process! My inner creative was probably nurtured during my early school years, and I have been fortunate to always have teachers in my life who have encouraged both curiosity and creativity.

How has a skilled grasp of one of these skills helped the other?

Having a curious nature has certainly given me the confidence to be creative, and to make many, many mistakes in the process. It has also encouraged me to enjoy the process itself and to realise that this is actually where I am often at my most creative.

Do you think developing a creative vocabulary can help you process new information and idea creation? 

I’m honestly not sure. One of my biggest failings as a human being is my inability to speak any language fluently other than English, as I truly believe that having access to different languages is an excellent way to better understand different needs, cultures, and experiences. And with such understanding comes creativity.

What is the potential hazard of a poor Metaphor?  

Metaphors can be difficult to use effectively. A poorly chosen metaphor will likely cause confusion, at best, and could even act to alienate or offend. I always think that maps are strange metaphors to use (e.g. the map of the human genome), as maps are such politically charged objects; you are literally staking a claim for what does and does not belong to certain communities.

Can this creativity be instilled early (before science knowledge is known), is this important? 

Absolutely! Creativity does not need to be fuelled by scientific accuracy and in many instances the truly bizarre or inconceivable need to be imagined before they can be realised.

How important is maintaining the status quo of spoken/written communication?

I think that language is an incredibly important tool that all of us potentially have at our disposal. However, there can be a real snobbery with language. In reality, it is constantly evolving, and in my honest opinion, it should be used to include and diversify rather than to exclude or alienate.

Do you think speaking to people with different backgrounds and nationalities- People who may use language in a different way, can lead to the generation of novel ideas? 

Absolutely! See above.

There is a dark side of language, which come with applying coding and potential bias (either intentionally or not) – what responsibilities do creatives have to police their own work? 

I think that any discipline has a set of ‘jargon’ that can be used to alienate, and which experts in that particular field can turn to in order to convince others of their worth and intellect. Creatives, scientists, and indeed human beings more generally have a responsibility to try and make their work as accessible as possible to a variety of different publics, as doing so also opens up such work to a range of interpretations that can ultimately lead to its development and eventual improvement.

Hear what Sam thinks about the importance of combining the arts and science.

Dr Sam Illingworth  is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Western Australia, whose research involves using poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists; in particular he aims to give voice to audiences that are traditionally under-served and underheard. You can find out more about Sam and his work by visiting his website or connecting with him on Twitter @samillingworth.


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