The Limits of Metaphor

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This is a bit off-topic for me, but as it's not possible to have your eyes open for five minutes without seeing another reference to the economy, I have to say it. We have officially reached the point where metaphor is hampering, not aiding, our understanding of events. Especially as commentators speculate about what may be next, the language they're using to simplify—or to avoid concrete predictions?—is adding to the fear without adding to understanding.

Analysis Hits the Wall
I lose track of which talking head on TV ended his comments with "or things will really go over a cliff." What does that mean, really? It's the analytical equivalent of shouting "boo" in a crowded bank. If you're going to predict, make a prediction.

Let's not even get into the many variations on "worst [fill in the blank] since the Great Depression." True, but is it helpful or just inflammatory?

"But I was taking the metaphor literally"
Howard Lindzon—one of several in-depth finance sources I've started reading—advised readers this morning to "keep your powder dry." I think I know what he means in context, but it's a troubling choice when some people are applying that advice literally.

Yes, It's Hard
Just by reading about current events, we're all becoming finance experts and macroeconomists (maybe just a little). Complicated and opaque transactions are a big part of why we're in this mess, and the consequences are playing out on a global scale, so of course it's hard to figure out. A lot of people will never understand what's happening (which won't stop them from forming opinions, of course).

People who traffic in news and opinion are going to look for metaphors to simplify, but I'd like to see them exercise more care in avoiding the choices that incite fear while failing to explain. The colorful descriptions of what might happen, in particular, need to be toned down. Specific, literal descriptions (and predictions, if you insist) are scary enough.

If you want to come up with a dozen creative ways to say the same thing, stick to covering sports.


1 Comment

>>>Let's not even get into the many variations on "worst [fill in the blank] since the Great Depression." True, but is it helpful or just inflammatory?

Not to mention bad journalism... Increasingly main stream media is a hype machine. And a broken-record hype machine at that due to playing the same news over and over and over and over...

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target

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