The above photo is from the leading US high school biology textbook. The illustration tries to teach students about viral lifecycles through the analogy of outlaws breaking one their posse out of the local jail. Whether the analogy/metaphor of 'viruses are outlaws' is effective pedagogically in communicating to students the idea of lytic and lysogenic cycles, there is an additional question of what other implicit content is communicated by the metaphor. Outlaws do not comply with the law. Are viruses then outside the natural order? As a society we catch and imprison outlaws. Should we do the same with viruses? Notice the outlaws/viruses are dressed in black adding an additional racial association to the metaphor.
More generally, the use and selection of metaphors have real implications for how novel topics are understood. In priming, prior exposures or cues influence the rate of retrieval of subsequent information in subjects.
In associative priming, for instance, presenting a subject with the word ‘virus’ accelerates the retrieval of associated words such as ‘spread’ and ‘infect’ as these are words that are often used in association with ‘virus’. Similarly, describing a Zebra Mussel as an ‘invasive species’ should prime students to more readily recollect other associations with the root word ‘invade’ – such as ‘occupy’ or ‘military control’.
Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) find that the inclusion of a single metaphor namely, crime as a ‘virus’ that infects or plagues cities or a ‘beast’ that preys on and attacks cities, shapes respondent groups’ assessment of how cities should respond to crime. The authors summarize their findings:
“Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences.”
This relatively newfound recognition that not all bacteria are harmful hasn’t yet started to shift our thinking around viruses. But research suggests that enteric viruses may be similar to bacteria. A recent Nature Reviews Immunology article argues that Murine norovirus may promote ‘normal intestinal architecture’ and be protective against chemically created colitis when the right conditions are present. The study’s authors believe that other symbiotic viruses will be identified in the mammalian intestine (Bordon 2015). That we are only now starting to identify these symbiotic viruses may reveal how deep seated our prejudice is against these organisms as anything besides vectors for illness.
Bordon, Y. (2015). Microbiota: A viral understudy for commensal bacteria. Nature Reviews Immunology, 15(1), 4-4. Retrieved from Google Scholar.
Thibodeau, P. H., and Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning. PloS One, 6(2), e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782