Feature Christmas 2012: Research

Building a metaphor: Another brick in the wall?

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8302 (Published 17 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8302

Re: Building a metaphor: Another brick in the wall?

Prof Altman states that science is not like completing a giant jig-saw with explicit boundaries. However, I believe that the jig-saw metaphor to be more useful than the bricks and houses metaphor.

Science is like a vast jig-say with boundaries that extend beyond the horizon and the overall picture is not known. The scientist searches for a small piece of the jigsaw and puts it together with other pieces. These combinations of pieces may make up a feature of the overall picture that is interesting but minor, such as the face that is on the periphery of a crowd scene; it may be boring but important, such as all those bits of plain blue that make up the sky but are so hard to piece together; or they may be the bits that make up the centre-piece.

The problem for the scientist is that they do not know which part they are working on. If the metaphor must be extended to meta-analysis, the meta-analyst is that annoying person who watches while one (the scientist) finds all the bits of the jig-saw that make up a small feature and then, just as all the relevant bits have been found, the meta-analyst steps in and puts them all together and declares triumphantly that they have found something important.

Competing interests: No competing interests

21 December 2012
Paul D.P. Pharoah
Public health doctor
University of Cambridge
Strangeways Research Laboratory, Worts Causeway, Cambridge, CB1 8RN
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