Metaphors, Milkshakes and Drainage: A Jargon-Busting Technique

August 15, 2008



Daniel Day-Lewis may owe his 2008 Best Actor Oscar to environmental reporting.

In "There Will Be Blood," Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an oilman who describes a straw and a milkshake to explain to the Rev. Eli Sunday the intricacies of natural resource extraction.

Plainview's maniacal description of oil drainage is an oft-quoted scene – right down to the slurping sound that follows the oilman screaming, "I drink your milkshake!"

If you haven't seen the movie, go to and search for 'milkshake scene.' You'll be treated to a technique that's good not only for browbeating religious hypocrites. Metaphors, similes and analogies are great for explaining difficult environmental concepts. The best simplify and entertain. They are short.

And good journalists use them.

After interviewing a pollution expert, SEJ member Roger Witherspoon decided insect control was the way to explain a plan to render contaminated soil less harmful before the pollution reached groundwater.

"I came back with the notion of the way exterminators treat termites to explain the principles used to block hydrazine from migrating through soil and entering the water table," Witherspoon said. "Exterminators put poison into the ground so termites never reach the house."

Science isn't the only subject ripe for such comparative techniques. Complex legislation, regulation and public policy are often tedious subjects appropriate for such treatment. I once described utility deregulation by comparing power plants to donut shops.

Comparative, visual writing works best when not overdone. Here's a nice, simple, descriptive line from a story by Muskegon (Michigan) Chronicle environment reporter Jeff Alexander: "Numerous studies have found that exotic species imported by ocean ships have unleashed a biological hurricane beneath the sparkling waters of the Great Lakes.

"Biological hurricane" describes a below-water turmoil that nicely contrasts with the deceptively "sparkling" water above. Of course, accuracy comes before technique. Check out this Frazz cartoon below:

The irony here is that this cartoon works on many levels. The cartoonist, himself, has made a mistake while pointing out a mistaken metaphor.

"Somehow, somewhere in the dialog process, I confused Halsey (the admiral) with hawser (a cable used to tow a ship) and had it as Admiral Hawser," says Frazz creator Jef Mallett. "Simple brain cramp."

His editor caught the error, but Mallett was out of the state and he couldn't confirm it—and the strip went out to 150 newspapers.

"Suddenly I'm an example of what not to do," says Mallett. "And I've got smart readers. I'll hear about this."

With the exception of perhaps some personal embarrassment, no great harm was done. But that's the comics. When it comes to news stories, journalists need to use such techniques carefully —and avoid blindly relaying the attempts of others to use them to deceive.

"The nuclear industry, for example, uses the term 'plume' to describe a leak of contaminated water from the power plant," said Witherspoon, who writes for an engineering magazine. "To the average person, a plume is a thin stream. But nuke plants which have had leaks lose tens of millions of gallons into literal lakes underneath their plants.

"So whenever the industry or regulators use the term plume, I insist they describe its characteristics – size, depth, volume, gallons or cubic yards, etc. – and then say, 'Couldn't that fairly be described as a lake? If so, why are you calling it a plume?'"

That brings us back to Daniel Plainview and his milkshake. For as powerfully as that explanation is delivered, it's a lousy metaphor for explaining oil drainage.

Drainage is when your neighbor's oil migrates to your property and is produced by your well because you have the only straw in a "milkshake" that you both share. The entire oilfield naturally flows to where it is drained.

But this is Plainview's metaphor: "If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!"

What he is explaining is more like directional drilling, a technique developed long after the early 1900s when the movie is set. It's when you drill from your property at an angle to reach oil under your neighbor's property. That way you can stick a long straw from across the room into your neighbor's milkshake and "drink it up."

Outside of a few oil drillers and journalists who cover natural resources, that discrepancy likely did not affect anyone's enjoyment of the movie. But it can have significant consequences elsewhere.

A few years ago Michigan developers wanted to expand the practice of directionally drilling from land-based sites to reach more oil under the Great Lakes. The proposal generated a huge environmental controversy and lots of news coverage.

It is a challenging concept to explain quickly in a tight news hole. Superficial descriptions conjured in the mind of the public visions of off-shore rigs piercing the sweet water seas and punching through the lake bottoms to reach the oil. The practice was often perceived as a direct threat to water quality.

Geologists and oil experts explained at public hearings that little danger existed – there is no connection between the well and the water. But public pressure resulted in a ban of the practice.

A good question: Would it have been allowed to continue if the proponents had hired the writers of "There Will be Blood" and asked Daniel Day-Lewis to testify about milkshakes and straws? Maybe. But he'd have to leave out that disgusting slurping sound.

David Poulson is the associate director of Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism where he teaches environmental, investigative and computer-assisted reporting. 

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008

Topics on the Beat: