Carroll’s rule of thumb: “Metaphors have to be part of the toolkit. But they also have to be the means, not the end.” His suggestion? Offer metaphors only as “a gateway drug” (to use yet another metaphor) for understanding abstract scientific concepts on their own terms. For now, though, as we try to absorb as much of the science as we can and then discuss it in language we know, it’s no surprise if we sometimes get mired in molasses.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.