The wrong metaphor – shame on me

Normally we don’t give much thought to the metaphors we use and even less to the ones used by the media; but the ones that really get a pass from the average reader are the professionals –  scientists, politicians, lawyers and historians.  Professional commentators translate events and knowledge from highly technical, esoteric or really advanced and sophisticated areas of knowledge into language the rest of us can understand through metaphor.  Up to a point metaphors are a really valuable tool, but if the commentator chooses the wrong metaphor, or continues to use it past its application it becomes a vehicle for confusion and the spread of misinformation rather than a clarifier.  The more sophisticated the field the more important the use of metaphor becomes, I don’t know about you, but I cannot understand advanced theories in biology, physics or math for example without metaphors and some simple examples.

A few years ago, I went to a week-long business seminar where the latest thinking in science on chaos, complexity and emergence was applied to business; it was conducted by scientists, not business people.  The premise of the seminar was the use of metaphors; by saying “this happens in nature so lets assume business is like an animal or other organism in nature and therefore we can anticipate the same kind of thing happening in business.”  I got two really important things – take a-ways, if you will – from that seminar; first, applying scientific knowledge to business is a legitimate way to think about business; and second, be wary of your metaphors.  The leader presenter was a nuclear physists just retired from Los Almos and very practiced at speaking to non-technical audiences (although everyone else in the seminar had advanced degrees in math, except me).  He spoke in very clear terms, using examples I could follow easily – when explaining the science behind the business analysis – but, he also cautioned us on the use of metaphors.  He said, “choose your metaphors very carefully and never apply them past their applicability.”

That is a long lead-in to say, my use of the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor for the federal government’s move on Friday to shut down three of the largest Internet gaming sites was very badly flawed.  In the first place the piece was confusing, did I mean the Internet was the Titanic and had hit an iceberg (second metaphor meaning an obstacle that could destroy it)? Or did I mean that Internet gambling was the Titanic hitting the iceberg? I only realized later that I had been using the two interchangeably, which obviously they are not.  So, while online gambling might have encountered a major obstacle, the Internet did not; and at this point we can only comfortably say three online gaming companies have encountered the United States government, no icebergs or ships anywhere in the area.

Worse, as the news develops and more people weight in on the fall-out it is clear the Titanic metaphor does not work at all, except possibly for one or two companies – not the online gambling industry and certainly not the Internet.  Now, that does not preclude me from going outside of my field, or outside of business into history, biology or some other field for a like event to use as metaphor; a convenient way to better understand the event and as a tool that might help predict some of the subsequent events.  But it does suggest that I probably ought not to put much credence into that process until I have understood the legal implications, which as everyone knows is most likely to be found in law and not in literature, history or science.  Courts do not make wide use of non-legal metaphors, they stick pretty close to legal precedent.  My hands feel fully and properly slapped.  The events of Friday are going to be important, but how and to whom it is too early to say and much too soon to pick an apt metaphor.

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