Neville Goodman’s metaphor watch: Blind alleys and wrong trees

neville_goodmanResearch is difficult. Long hours in the laboratory, or tedious hours in the clinic, guarantee nothing. There are lots of blind alleys, dead ends, cul-de-sacs, false trails, wild goose chases, and red herrings; lots of barking up the wrong tree and flogging dead horses.

Like single words with similar meanings, these synonymous metaphors are subtly different one from another. They are all good metaphors, and despite familiarity they seem resistant to cliché in the way “moving the goalposts,” “levelling the playing field,” and many other metaphors taken from business are not. Without specialist knowledge, though, it is difficult to know if they are used appropriately in medical writing: a false trail is not a dead end, nor does it necessarily lead to one; it may just peter out. Following a red herring (which, in medical research, has lost the sense of a diversionary trail laid on purpose) is more akin to barking up the wrong tree than flogging a dead horse, although in retrospect the result is the same: wasted time, energy, and resources.

All these expressions can be found in PubMed, though looking for blind alleys turned up some red herrings: many of them were literal blind alleys in experiments with rats. There are plenty of red herrings, and none are real. The red herring in, “Red herring: a rare cause of small bowel obstruction,” was a rare hernia, not a red herring. Zwiefel et al’s 1999 paper on population ageing spawned a “red-herring hypothesis.” A review suggesting new research will “shed a light on the blind alleys… to be explored” was a misinterpretation of that metaphor.

Cul-de-sac tends not to be used metaphorically by medical writers, but descriptively by surgeons who tie the ends off tubes. There is a dead-end gene, and dead-end is used adjectively in a number of sub-specialties. Some of the barking was actually done by dogs (though none at a tree), but some by frogs.

All this is leading to one of the clearest abstracts I have ever read. Many abstracts are unreadable – even more so than the articles they summarise: stuffed with unfamiliar abbreviations; containing long strings of measurements and numbers tagged by formers, latters, and respectivelys; and scripted in polysyllabic gobbledegook. There are not many abstracts that can be read as intended: from first word to last without stopping, to give an overview of what the authors are trying to convey. Not so Arne Dietrich’s 257 words abstracting “Imaging the imagination: The trouble with motor imagery.” As well as using the words glitzy and snazzy, his article is intended to put a machete to the use of neuroimaging studies in sports medicine, which he considers a house of cards casting a long shadow, and resulting in a wild goose chase fuelled by wishful thinking. Rhetorical imagery to debunk radiographic imagery: that’s class.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that my only competing interest is my co-authorship of a book about medical English.

Neville Goodman is a retired consultant anaesthetist and a writer, and co-author of a book on medical English.