Beware of the false analogy


It’s beneath you

The thing with analogies is that they inevitably break down at some point – they must, because the two items involved aren’t exactly alike. That’s quite all right of course – provided they don’t break down too soon. However, there’s a problem if they break down before they have performed their job. Which, unfortunately, happens embarrassingly too often.

As Gary Miller pointed out years ago, and which unfortunately has yet to register with far too many ‘intellectuals’, the man who chooses to employ an analogy to convince his audience about something is now faced with two problems where he only had the one problem to start with. For he must first make a convincing case that the conclusion drawn in situation B (which is being used as the analogy) is sound; and then he must demonstrate that situation A (the original problem on hand) is like (analogous to) situation B in terms of the relevant aspect(s). It’s in satisfying this second condition that most analogies break down even if they don’t in the first. Take an illustrative, if somewhat crude, example: ‘Alcohol is addictive. Tobacco is like alcohol because nicotine is addictive. Therefore, in the interest of road safety one must not drive after/while smoking.’ Let’s examine the analogy: While alcohol and tobacco share similarities of addictiveness and being harmful for the body, are the two similar when it comes to the relevant aspect: one’s ability to drive? Does tobacco cloud the mind and cause deterioration in motor skills like alcohol so obviously does?

Usually these false analogies appear slightly more sophisticated than the above example, but any time somebody starts off with something like, ‘You see, this thing is like that one…’, alarm bells ought immediately to go off in your head. For you are guilty if you let anybody to insult your intelligence using a faulty analogy. As for the authors coming up with these hastily cooked up analogies, though these things usually appear brilliant when they are conceived, they have a way of sounding particularly foolish after a couple of days have passed. Be kind to your legacy!

Is a politician looking for votes like the man who wants to be employed as your driver, like a journalist argues in his recent story? The story goes on to compare an expert driver who is dishonest in financial matters with an upright candidate who doesn’t drive properly. The story features the immortal line: ‘I would much rather keep an eye on the shady activities of the dishonest driver than let a novice ruin my car.’ Like most things from liberal ‘intelligentsia’ these days, the moral of the story rather unsurprisingly being: vote for the PML-N. (This is only implied in the text proper; but is explicitly tweeted by the author for the benefit of those who are a bit slow on the uptake.) Even if, for the sake of argument, it is conceded that it’s wise to prefer an expert over a beginner with no regard for their respective characters, is the analogy any good? Is running the affairs of a country like driving a car? It’s a bit of a stretch. Also, is it a demonstrable fact that one political party knows how to run the country to the exclusion of the other? A classic false-binary! Furthermore, being the driver’s boss, you might to be able to keep an eye on him and even fire him if necessary. However, once he is elected, you will hardly be allowed in the same room with your prime minister (or your representative), let alone fire him. One could go on, but it’s already obvious that the analogy leaves a lot to be desired, although I am sure the esteemed journalist had all the good intentions in the world. And in his defense, when you have to rouse an entire nation from its dogmatic slumber on a daily basis – that too in a hundred words or less – you are not exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to tools at your disposal.

As for the authors coming up with these hastily cooked up analogies, though these things usually appear brilliant when they are conceived, they have a way of sounding particularly foolish after a couple of days have passed. Be kind to your legacy!

Other analogies are frequently offered. Are the personnel of the armed forces of a country like watchmen you employ to guard your house, for example? And are the provinces of a country like members of a household? Examples can be multiplied, but that would merely be labouring the point. No doubt, these oversimplifications sound very nice; but do they belong anywhere near serious discourse? Given a little consideration, the answer ought to be obvious.

That’s not to say that valid analogies don’t exist. They most certainly do. But they are not as common as most people imagine. So, next time you are suddenly struck with a brilliant analogy to prove an important point – one that is certain to convince your audience – it’s advisable to sleep on it instead of immediately composing a 100-word-story and emailing it to the publisher. For these things (even on the rare occasion when they are any good) usually need a little more consideration than that.

Let there be no doubt that civilian supremacy, equitable relations among provinces, and other liberal values are extremely worthy goals to be pursued. However, the analogies usually pressed into service to realize these noble goals are for the most part unbefitting of the intellectuals who employ them. They certainly are unworthy of the intelligent reader.

P.S. The author hasn’t smoked a cigarette in his life.