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On the Danger of Metaphors in Scientific Discourse

From the Appendix to my post Objectivist Law Prof Mossoff on Copyright; or, the Misuse of Labor, Value, and Creation Metaphors, quoted below. See also “Objectivist Law Prof Mossoff on Copyright; or, the Misuse of Labor, Value, and Creation Metaphors”; “Hume on Intellectual Property and the Problematic “Labor” Metaphor”; “Thoughts on Intellectual Property, Scarcity, Labor-ownership, Metaphors, and Lockean Homesteading“; also Intellectual Freedom and Learning Versus Patent and Copyright, text at note 21.


Appendix: On the dangers of metaphors in scientific discourse

The following observations and quotes assembled from previous email and other conversations re same:

See the following, from Mark Thornton’s The “Market” for Academic Research: this is a great quote; I think it would be a useful project to collect various comments on dangers of the use of metaphors into one place:

“For it would be an absurd undertaking to banish from the language of economic theory every manner of speaking that is not literally correct; it would be sheer pedantry to proscribe every figure of speech, particularly since we could not say the hundredth part of what we have to say, if we refused ever to take recourse to a metaphor. One requirement is essential, that economic theory avoid the error of confusing a practical habit, indulged in for the sake of expediency, with scientific truth.

–Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, (1881), “Whether legal rights and relationships are economic goods.” In H. Sennholz (Ed.), Shorter classics of Böhm-Bawerk, Volume I. Spring Mills, PA: Libertarian Press, 1962, p. 135. As Mark noted on a list: “Bohm Bawerk took up this issue [of misuse of metahpors] in Shorter Classics. I quote him at the opening of this paper (attached). The whole public choice agenda is based on the use of market methaphors for government institutions.”


I’ve long noticed the over- and mis-use of metaphors. For example Paterson or Lane’s use of “energy circuits” …. very scientistic. Similar to the way people talk about the “momentum” of a football game or the “energy” of a crowd or a crystal.

Or in the idea of mixing or owning labor, or owning ideas, or in the idea that prices “convey knowledge”.

Also, as I noted elsewhere: “Mixing labor” is horribly misleading and a sloppy metaphor: if I turn a piece of land into a farm, did I *actually* mix my labor? I mean, is there like an amount of labor “in” the soil? It’s really sloppy and imprecise.

I’ve always liked this observation of Huelsmann’s:

Only in a metaphorical sense could one say that prices reflect or contain information on present conditions. …

… It is asserted that prices communicate abridged relevant information. This, however, is only a metaphorical expression.

It is not prices that coordinate the actions of sellers and buyers of tin; prices are the outcome of (coordinated) action, not its coordinators. It is property, rather than knowledge, that coordinates the separate actions of different people. The terms coordination and communication rather obfuscate than adequately express this fact. This is another example of the dangers linked to the use of metaphors in scientific discourse.

From p. 29 of this article

And Rothbard:

“The term “consumers’ sovereignty” is a typical example of the abuse, in economics, of a term . . . appropriate only to the political realm and is thus an illustration of the dangers of the application of metaphors taken from other disciplines. “Sovereignty” is the quality of ultimate political power; it is the power resting on the use of violence. In a purely free society, each individual is sovereign over his own person and property, and it is therefore this self-sovereignty which obtains on the free market. No one is “sovereign” over anyone else’s actions or exchanges. Since the consumers do not have the power to coerce producers into various occupations and work, the former are not “sovereign” over the latter.”

On Mises:

“Mises rightly criticised treating imaginary things (collectives, analogies, metaphors, etc.) as real and warns us to be very cautious when using fictitious auxiliary constructs to explain things” —Benjamin Marks

Also, from others’ comments about this on an email discussion list:

Roderick Long:

“Ironically, in his memoirs Mises accuses Bohm-Bawerk (in their dispute over Cantillon effects) of being led astray by the idea of “friction” and other metaphors from the physical sciences.”

On a thread, I had written: “Right, and this is the danger of metaphors (BTW I wonder if anyone has examined this issue in any detail–? The dangers overuse of metaphors in scientific discourse?).” Roderick Long replied: “Right, such a study might be called “How Scientific Discourse is Being Savagely Bitten to Death by Rabid Metaphors.” Tom DiLorenzo’s reply:

“A fun paper (Vedran, are you listening?) would be to ridicule the metaphors in macroeconomics with all the talk of “injections,” “Leakages,” shocks,” etc. I would start by comparing it all to the movie Young Frankenstein, where they tried to “shock” the monster to life, just as “infusions” of money or tax dollars supposedly shock the economy out of a recession. Then when shock therapy didn’t work, Gene Wilder pulled out a giant needle and “injected” the monster, just as money is supposedly injected into the economy by the Fed. The possibilities are endless.”

John Brätland:

In this connection, I would put in a strong plug for Peter Lewin’s paper: “Methods and Metaphors in Capital Theory.” (Advances in Austrian Economics, vol. 2B).

I might add that important parts of Mises’ “Ultimate Foundations… ” and “Theory and History” deal with the issue of inapt and misleading metaphors in economic science.

See also The Problem with “Fraud”: Fraud, Threat, and Contract Breach as Types of Aggression, discussing problems resulting from uncareful use of concepts like “fraud” in libertarian reasoning.

Update: See also:

It is not particularly helpful to think of real and intellectual property as structurally unified. The differences matter significantly and resorting to rhetorical metaphors distracts attention from critical issues. As Judge (later Justice) Cardozo cautioned in 1926, “[m]etaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.”

–Peter S. Menell, quoted here

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