In their groundbreaking work, Lakoff & Johnson (1980) demonstrated that metaphors are a pervasive and core aspect of communication, leading to the development of new areas of study such as cognitive linguistics (Ibáñez & Masegosa, 2014; Indurkhya, 1992) and embodied cognition (Clark, 2011; Shapiro, 2011). Following from this is the notion that metaphor is a foundational aspect in science progress and communication (Carey, 2009; Nersessian, 2008; Thagard, 2012). With terms like greenhouse effect, DNA code, big bang, elastic waves, space-time fabric, elementary particles (or strings) and laws of nature, it is obvious that metaphors are so ingrained in science as to be unrecognizable from normal, everyday speech. Metaphor enables scientists to reason about abstract phenomena, facilitating scientific progress (Beger & Smith, 2020). Once thought to be adornments to liven up text, we are coming to understand that our language is almost completely based in metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999). More important than their ubiquity in science are their cognitive effects (Steen, 2014).
Metaphors work by using aspects of something concretely familiar (source) to represent and give meaning to parallel aspects of an unfamiliar or abstract concept (target), a process called mapping. During mapping, the brain unconsciously and automatically invokes the experiences of the source, to prime or frame understanding of the target in terms of the source (Kahneman, 2011). For instance, Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2013) showed that people approached crime prevention depending on the metaphors used by media to portray crime. The participants in the study were more inclined to take an enforcement approach with the metaphor, CRIME IS A BEAST ATTACKING, and more likely to take a reform approach with the metaphor, CRIME IS A VIRUS INFECTING. Hauser & Schwarz (2019) also showed that the metaphor SURVIVING CANCER IS SURVIVING A BATTLE caused cancer patients to perceive cancer treatment as more difficult to endure and cancer was less controllable, potentially causing poorer health outcomes.
This same influence on perception appears in science as well. Allchin (2013, p. 140) described an example this way: “The language of ‘laws of nature’ is a metaphor that can powerfully shape thinking. That is, all of the familiar meanings of laws in the human political realm are transferred to nature” [emphasis original]. As a result, we view scientific laws not as empirical descriptions of natural phenomena, but as controllers of natural phenomena. Scientific metaphors are part of the language of science, and their effect has been documented in advancing science (Brown, 2020; Kuhn, 1993; Palma, 2018), but metaphor framing is also implicated in hindering scientific advancements. For instance, the PROTEIN AND SUBSTRATE IS LOCK AND KEY metaphor was so powerful that it inhibited the molecularization of genetics for decades (Müller-Wille & Rheinberger, 2012) and achieving true artificial intelligence will be impossible until researchers abandon the BRAIN IS A COMPUTER metaphor (Zarkadakis, 2015). Metaphor influences how teachers teach (Dolphin, 2016; Dolphin & Tillotson, 2015; Tobin & LaMaster, 1995), and how students learn (Dolphin & Benoit, 2016). Teaching invokes deliberate metaphors (Steen, 2014) to facilitate student learning of scientific concepts (Niebert & Gropengiesser, 2015; Niebert et al., 2012).
Purposeful use of conceptual metaphor to facilitate learning is receiving greater attention (Amin, 2015). Due to the large scale of most geologic phenomena (time and space) and the deliberate substituting of time with space (going down the rock record is going backward in time), the use of metaphors is an important tool for making these abstract phenomena concrete (Gómez-Moreno, 2020; Moore, 2014). Importantly, metaphors highlight and hide aspects of the concept they represent (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Experts are not immune from their misleading aspects and novices, who think differently than experts (Clement, 2008), can easily interpret the metaphors in unintended ways. This sets the stage for our project. Research into common geoscience misconceptions (Cheek, 2010; Francek, 2013) implicates students’ lack of domain-related concrete experiences. Additional research indicates students’ conceptions are seldom changed in lecture-based environments (Clark et al., 2011; Libarkin & Anderson, 2005; Wandersee et al., 2003). What different metaphors (deliberate and scientific) do introductory geology textbooks use? How do they correlate with common geological misconceptions? Dolphin & Benoit (2016) found that the scientific metaphor, tectonic plate, caused difficulty for students in understanding the nature of the lithosphere which impeded their conceptual development about earthquakes. How can we mitigate difficulties in student learning due to conceptual metaphors? Niebert & Gropengiesser (2015) developed a framework for external (experiential) representations to facilitate conceptual development. It includes 1) enabling experience in the target domain, 2) enabling experience in a source domain (metaphor), 3) referring to an embodied source domain, and 4) reflecting on embodied source domain (what is highlighted/hidden). For instance, Dolphin & Benoit (2016) proposed using marble tongs to demonstrate elastic behavior in rocks (Hubenthal, 2018) (number 1), giving students experience with a molecular model of a rock made with wooden balls and springs as the elastic bonds between atoms (number 2), and introducing the metaphor, the lithosphere as the skin of the earth, (number 3). The rationale was that students have concrete, embodied experience with their skin, and it highlights the properties of elasticity and wholeness (number 4) needed to understand earthquakes.