How to Use Metaphors and Analogies to Explain Complex Science Topics

Reading Time: 8 minutes

How to Use Metaphors and Analogies to Explain Complex Science Topics

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Get Started

Let’s face it. Sometimes science can be hard to understand and even more difficult to explain. Trying to bring simplicity and clarity to a challenging topic like black holes or chaos theory or mitochondrial dynamics is a little like being asked to summarize James Joyce’s Ulysses or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in a couple of sentences. Capturing the essence of something with such layered complexity takes knowledge of the subject combined with a poet’s love of restrained, yet insightful and evocative, language.


However, tools like metaphors and analogies can be especially valuable in communicating complexity. As writer Anne Lamott aptly described them, metaphors “explain the unknown in terms of the known.” When science writers use these tools, they bridge the gap between everyday things and experiences and the technical world of their subject matter. For instance, a simple way to explain telomeres is that they are the ends of chromosomes and, much like the cap at the tip of your shoelace (an aglet if you want the technical term), they help maintain chromosome integrity by preventing the ends from fraying.

This blog describes how to use these powerful devices to explain complexity and inject creativity into life science content marketing.

Not Just for English Class

Scientists sometimes bristle at the thought of using figurative language to describe their work. Stick to the facts, they say. Let the numbers tell the story. In reality, there is a strong tradition of using metaphors in scientific endeavors. Robert Hooke chose the word “cell” to describe cork cells because they reminded him of the small rooms used by monks in monasteries. Christiaan Huygens used the behavior of water waves to understand certain phenomena he observed in light. And John Archibald Wheeler introduced the term “wormhole” to visualize the space-time bridge first proposed by Einstein and Rosen.

So, metaphors have a long history and have even produced terminology now incorporated into the scientific lexicon. Science-driven companies can tap into this tradition, leveraging metaphors and analogies to help potential customers understand what their offering does, how it adds value, or can help overcome a common obstacle.

What Are Metaphors?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that relates one object or idea to another object in a way that isn’t literally true but helps explain the first idea. It originates from the Greek word “metaphora,” which comes from “meta” (meaning “over”) and “pherein” (meaning “to carry”). Thus, a metaphor carries over the meaning of a word from its normal use to a new use.

Science metaphors are ubiquitous, and most of us encounter them every day without giving them a second thought. We simply hear them, understand them, and often even use them ourselves.

Consider the following metaphors commonly used to explain science concepts (and keep reading below to understand the limitations of some of these metaphors):

  • “Invasive species” to describe non-native species introduced by humans.
  • “Genetic blueprint” to describe how DNA works.
  • “Biological factories” to describe how bacteria can be used to make medicines and other useful products.
  • “Living fossils” to describe existing plants or animals that resemble organisms found in the fossil record.

When Science Leads the Way

Metaphors don’t only flow into science from other domains. They go the other way, too. That is, scientific terms and concepts can be used to describe and understand everyday happenings.

Consider the following examples:

  • Using terms like “velocity,” “quantum (leap),” or “(Asian) fusion.”
  • “It was like it went into a black hole.”
  • “She fell into my orbit.”
  • “The gravitational pull of my bed was too strong to get up this morning.”

What Are Analogies?

An analogy is similar to a metaphor but subtly different. It is a comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on a shared similar trait. Its origin can be traced back to the Greek word “analogos” (meaning “proportionate”).

Perhaps you’ve heard the following science-based analogies:

  • Blood vessels are like highways.
  • A cell is like a busy factory.
  • Electricity flows like water.
  • Receptors and antibodies work like a lock and key mechanism.

The Difference Between Metaphor and Analogy

A metaphor is a direct and often almost poetic comparison that reveals something about an object or idea. It says that one thing is another even though that may not be exactly, literally true.

An analogy, on the other hand, explains how two things are like each other with a goal of making some very specific point about how, in fact, they are similar.

Put simply, a metaphor shows, and an analogy explains. In general, an analogy tends to be more complex and makes a more elaborate comparison than a metaphor. Analogies do often use metaphors to make their point.

How Metaphors Work

It may seem puzzling that metaphors can facilitate understanding because, by their very nature, they present a falsity — they function as a stand-in for the actual idea being scrutinized. So, given that, how do metaphors work at a cognitive level? Here are four thoughts:

Metaphors are invitations. Metaphors invite us to see one thing through the lens of another, which helps us to suppress some details and emphasize others. This drives us toward a certain classification scheme that we already understand. In essence, we borrow knowledge and experience from something known and apply it to something unknown.

Metaphors are “frames.” A frame (or framework) is a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood. If we understand the metaphorical frame, then we can apply those ideas, assumptions, and perceptions to the unknown phenomenon. When science fiction writer Robert Heinlein describes the moon as “a stern schoolmistress,” we immediately understand certain aspects of a lunar civilization as he envisions it: it will teach us harsh lessons and may even hurt us with a rap on the knuckles.

Metaphors are maps. As symbolic representations of a geographic place, maps are simplifications of reality. Using these simplifications, we can understand the real world by making comparisons, drawing conclusions, and interpreting data. Metaphors are also simplifications of reality. They help us efficiently map knowledge from one domain onto another, and they enable us to make important cognitive connections between abstract ideas or complex topics and knowledge we already have.

Metaphors help us extend understanding. At one level, metaphors allow us to process information more efficiently, but they also help us construct information from only partial data. For example, according to his theory of relativity, Einstein proposed that time and space are fused together to form a quantity called spacetime. Gravity, he then asserted, was simply the curvature of spacetime. With that as a starting point, it was possible to suggest that a massive object with enough gravity could cause light to curve, much like an optical lens bends light rays. This, in turn, made it possible to predict gravitational lensing — a massive celestial body, such as a galaxy cluster, observably bending light. This theoretical construct was eventually made real in the Hubble Telescope, which has used gravitational lensing to observe objects that would otherwise be too far away and too faint to be seen.

These are just some of the ways metaphors are thought to function. Researchers and cognitive scientists continue to study the powerful effects of metaphorical language, as seen here and here.

How to Use Metaphors and Analogies in Science Communication

There is a fundamental human tendency to generalize, compare, categorize, and link information. It’s natural for scientists and science marketers to think and communicate in metaphors and analogies. Still, there are some basic rules to follow:

  • Develop your skills. Don’t be afraid to try using metaphors and analogies in your own communications. As you experiment, ask yourself if there are any conceptual, social, or political implications of their use that you should consider.
  • Get feedback. Some metaphors and analogies land better than others, so experiment with various approaches, read them aloud, and share them with others. Get their feedback and reactions to gauge what is working on what’s not. If you’re developing messaging for a large campaign, conduct market research with a focus group to pressure test different figurative approaches.
  • Know and respect your audience. Be sure to understand your audience and choose your rhetorical devices wisely. Are you communicating to scientists? Laypeople? A classroom of middle-schoolers? Remember that frames of reference — and cultural interpretations — change depending on age, experience, and geography (see Inappropriate metaphors below).
  • Build on and extend metaphors over time. Most metaphors make it possible to add conceptual layers that build understanding as you progress through a message cascade. For example, if you establish the idea that the human brain is a supercomputer, then you can advance to discussions of sleep and how resting functions to debug the machine or clean out corrupted code.
  • Read and study the figurative language of others. Some writers have a knack for selecting just the right metaphor or analogy to explain a complex topic. Train yourself to look for these gems, collect them into a clip file, and debate their appropriateness with fellow creatives. These exercises will help you craft better, more revealing metaphors and analogies in your own writing.
  • Choose when you use metaphors carefully. Metaphors can be especially useful in helping us perceive levels of risk or urgency. That, in turn, can influence our behavior and make us more or less likely to do something in response. For example, “facing a climate apocalypse” or “anticipating the silver tsunami” sounds a lot more serious than “adapting to climate change” or “preparing for the rapidly growing population of older adults.” That said, overplaying this urgency can fatigue or frustrate readers. Once you capture attention, it might be appropriate to take a more didactic approach.

This is just one caution. In the next section, we will review some other pitfalls to avoid when employing figurative language.

Use Caution to Avoid Metaphorical Missteps

While great metaphors and analogies let us quickly and intuitively understand something, there are some pitfalls to avoid when using them. Consider the following examples:

Inaccuracies

Inaccurate metaphors and analogies can impede real scientific understanding. This can happen when with oversimplification, in some cases.

  • Example: “Our brain is a computer, and our body is a machine.”

Sometimes they are just wrong.

  • Example: Genes aren’t really selfish.

Some metaphors in this category may have once been more accurate, but as scientific knowledge expanded over time, they’ve become outdated.

  • Example: DNA isn’t as much of a “genetic blueprint” as we once thought. In fact, our genome is really nothing like a blueprint.

There’s also a tendency for metaphors and analogies to be overly competitive, violent, or militaristic.

  • Example: a virus that “hijacks” cells.

Unfortunately, particularly vivid metaphors and analogies capture our imagination and are far more likely to stick, even when wrong.

Anthropomorphizing

Watch out for the innate human tendency to use metaphors and analogies that anthropomorphize (i.e., attribute human form or personality to a non-human entity) too much. They can suggest that a natural process is happening with some sort of deliberate intention.

  • Example: Non-native species are not “invasive.”

These comparisons can inadvertently promote systems of dominance, hierarchy, or gender inequality.

  • Example: Making analogies to harems, colonies, and castes.

Inappropriate metaphors

Along those lines, beware of using metaphors and analogies that perpetuate social or political messages that are racist, reinforce stereotypes, or have the effect of not being inclusive. It wasn’t very long ago, for example, that our society became aware of the many negative implications of using designations like “master” and “slave” in tech terminology.

Overused metaphors and clichés

And, last but not least, there’s the issue of overuse. Even great metaphors and analogies can get stale to the point that they become ineffective clichés.

We bring your Life Science Marketing to Life

Have a project you would like to discuss?
Please use the form on our Get Started page.

Communicating Complex Ideas is Hard. We Make it Easy.

Figures of speech like metaphors and analogies play an important role in the communication of complex scientific topics. Learning how to use these rhetorical devices well will help you and your organization engage and connect better with your colleagues, stakeholders, customers, and the public.

For help with this and to learn more about how Cobalt injects creativity into science writing and helps science-focused B2Bs with all aspects of their content marketing and communications, visit the Cobalt services page or contact the Cobalt team.

Did you know Cobalt publishes an original comic every month? It’s like the toy in a cereal box — a little gem to brighten your day. Subscribe to our email newsletter, Bolt from the Blue, to stay current with the Cobalt Comic and all our latest news.

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

Stay in the Know

Common AI tools and how to use them effectively for brainstorming in creative agencies.

Sign up for our Bolt from the Blue e-newsletter to learn more about topics like this.