Solving the Puzzle to Reach the Summit: Using Metaphor to Gauge Public Perceptions of Science


Skepticism towards science has risen sharply in recent years. Cognitive scientists can help address this issue by illuminating how people conceptualize the scientific process, paving the way for improved communication with the public. We recruited a large sample of lay Americans, as well as academics in the sciences and humanities, to answer a series of questions assessing their views about science. Because metaphors have been identified as useful tools for communicating about complex domains, we asked participants to choose which of two metaphors––working on a puzzle or scaling a mountain––best captured their beliefs about the scientific process. Results revealed substantial variation in perceptions of science across groups, and we highlight the ways in which scientists seem to conceptualize science differently from non-scientists. Importantly, metaphor preference was associated with particular patterns of thinking, though not always in our originally hypothesized direction. We discuss the implications of these findings.

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