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Analogies

Posted by ktarthan , 28 February 2012 · 94 views

Part I
Analogies can be a good thing. They can be incredibly useful in education; when trying to explain an unfamilliar concept by relating it to something familliar. This is a completely neutral action and I urge you to use them in this manner whenever you wish. You have my blessing.

Analogies used in an argument are nearly always utter crap. But even when a great analogy is used, it more than likely shouldn't have been. There are many issues, but they all stem from one thing: analogies are not equivalencies. Meaning that even in a great analogy, the situations will always have differences. "Oil is like water" gives you some understanding of what oil is like if you have never seen it, but it doesn't give you the full picture. You would never want to drink oil, for instance, but it is still a "valid" analogy.

Immediately, we come across what is likely the biggest reason that analogies in arguments are a terrible idea. Right now, in your head, you're probably thinking of all the ways that oil is unlike water, and all of the qualifiers that could be added to the analogy to make it more accurate and "correct". There's nothing wrong with this in itself, for at the moment, you mostly just have concern for the hypothetical person who doesn't know what oil is, and want them to have as clear a picture as possible.

But now imagine there are two people addressing this poor fellow. One has a vested interest in communicating that the oil is more like water, and the other has a vested interest in communicating that the oil is less like water. We then land ourselves in a death-spiral where both sides offer more and more detailed versions of the analogy that are "more correct" while still supporting their bias. The end result is an analogy so needlessly complex and detailed that it's useless as an analogy; you might as well just be discussing the actual subject directly.

And yes I realize the humour of using an analogy to elucidate my reasoning on why not to use analogies. The tl;dr:
Analogies are never perfect, so they are prone to ridiculous bias when used in an argument. They are also prone to pointless back-and-forth revisions to make the analogy "more correct". This makes the analogy useless, as it'd be simpler to discuss the subject directly.

Part II
Pretty much everyone sucks at making analogies anyways, so don't even try. Even you, special snowflake, are at the mercy of confirmation bias.




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Augustus Autumn
Feb 28 2012 02:17 PM
Very nicely put. I doubt you'll see any avoidance of such tactics going forward since, ultimately, using analogies and then arguing over their validity is a great way to side-track any discussion into oblivion and thus avoid it all-together. Still, this post is definitely worth keeping around as a future reference point.
I make excellent analogies, and find them very useful in explanations, that said, I hate using them in debates and will advoid it where-ever possible, for the reasons you listed above. Even if one could make a reasonably accurate analogy pertaining to the situation, it seems like a crutch or intellectually lazy method of explaining one's points.

I am enjoying this blog theme you've got going.
Your argument against analogies is like an old man trying to play Minecraft
This entire thread is like the scent of whale turds being offered half-price in India the exact moment they announce a whale turd scent shortage in Pakistan.

This entire thread is like the scent of whale turds being offered half-price in India the exact moment they announce a whale turd scent shortage in Pakistan.


Actually if you replace whale turds with month-old mouse turds it's a lot closer to the truth, and this really only works if it's 1930's India.
This blog is like the time my granddad got drunk and tried to teach me how to swim by throwing me in a lake.

What I'm saying is my grandmother is going to have to save it.
I like using analogies for legal purposes. Sometimes you just don't have a specific law to address a situation, you just have to go with the closest laws and similar decisions, and make some kind of analogy. But it doesn't work if you have some kind of personal agenda to those laws and try to stretch an analogy to have it say what you want.

They're also good for explaining concepts to someone.

They suck for arguing, though. And anything with any kind of bias, since you can just pull them in so many directions. I mean, if you want to argue why you believe something, sure. Not if you want to argue why you're right.
I love your blog, ktarthan.

I am not sure that I agree that analogies are never useful in a discussion/argument, though. If you can make an analogy between two things you can also use the analogy to infer something that is grounded in the common aspects that allowed you to make the analogy in the first place. In other words, an analogy is a model, which (like with all kinds of models) you can correctly use to make inferences as long as you don't cross the borders of its applicability.

"Oil is like water" as both are liquid. Like water, oil will then take the shape of the container. This is a correct inference, that works on one aspect the two have in common. You don't want to drink oil as oil (unlike water) isn't drinkable.

In fact there's one fundamental problem in outright disqualifying analogies from arguments: if you decide that models (analogies) can't be properly used in arguments because the very idea of modelling has limits, you shouldn't use any kind of model. The problem being that, without models, you can't even communicate at all, as language is a model as well (the word "oil" is not oil). That would mean that the only "real" way to explain what oil is, would be to show it... Which some believe to be the case, but which is also probably impractical in most situations.
Worst I've seen is people trying to draw analogies between in-game stuff and RL criminal acts...and of course, it's always gotta be the worst possible crime instead of something that makes any sense at all, but I think that points more to a tendency for hyperbole than failure at analogy.

Can't remember who did it, but I can recall at least one instance of someone trying to draw a line from tech raiding to rape.

Worst I've seen is people trying to draw analogies between in-game stuff and RL criminal acts...and of course, it's always gotta be the worst possible crime instead of something that makes any sense at all, but I think that points more to a tendency for hyperbole than failure at analogy.Can't remember who did it, but I can recall at least one instance of someone trying to draw a line from tech raiding to rape.

This post is as bad as what Hitler did to the Jews.

Worst I've seen is people trying to draw analogies between in-game stuff and RL criminal acts...and of course, it's always gotta be the worst possible crime instead of something that makes any sense at all, but I think that points more to a tendency for hyperbole than failure at analogy.Can't remember who did it, but I can recall at least one instance of someone trying to draw a line from tech raiding to rape.

This post is as bad as what Hitler did to the Jews.


Your post is like Stalin's policies in the Ukraine.
Yes. This is a great post, like a post that Aristole would have made!
Analogies are useful, or else they wouldn't exist.

To suggest they aren't "equivalencies" is irrelevant. To someone who has never seen oil, I could say it is "sort of like water, because they're both liquids". Unless they're actually mentally challenged, they probably won't decide to drink it based on that evidence alone.

Analogies are useful, or else they wouldn't exist.

To suggest they aren't "equivalencies" is irrelevant. To someone who has never seen oil, I could say it is "sort of like water, because they're both liquids". Unless they're actually mentally challenged, they probably won't decide to drink it based on that evidence alone.

Analogies are indeed incredibly important in how we learn about the world. This is why I specifically made the case against analogies being used in arguments, and prefaced everything by saying that analogies can be incredibly useful.

Also I think you missed the point.

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