Analogies are comparisons made in an argument to help prove a point. You’re arguing about one thing and you put it in the terms of another, to help people to see it in a different light. For example:
Getting into your car to drive a few hundred metres to the corner shop is as ridiculous as hopping that distance: both are clumsy, grossly inefficient, and enough to make you a laughing stock.
The analogy here is between driving a car and hopping. Obviously, the two are not the same, but the argument tries to make a point about the inefficiency of driving short distances by getting us to imagine it in terms of hopping. Driving does not have to be entirely the same as hopping for this to be convincing: just similar in the relevant way. In this case, the relevant way would be in terms of the clumsiness, inefficiency, and ridiculousness of both.
There are obviously some parallels here, but that doesn’t mean that the analogy is particularly successful. One reason for its lack of success may be that we tend to view inefficiency in using fuel rather differently from inefficiency in using our own bodily energy. Hopping a few hundred metres might just be seen as a good, though rather bizarre, form of useful exercise, whereas driving that distance wastes fuel – which we can more easily measure. The ridiculousness of hopping might also be exactly what makes it positive fun for some, whereas driving a car a few hundred metres would only be ‘ridiculous’ in the sense of drawing condemnation from the ecologically-minded. What looked like similarities at first turn out to be rather stretched and thin.
A well-judged analogy can be really helpful. It can help people to ‘think outside the box’ of the cognitive models they’re in the habit of using, and bring in the imagination to allow them to consider their experience in a more open way. However, it’s also very easy to dismiss a poorly-applied analogy. The problem is that there will always be dissimilarities as well as similarities between the two things being compared, so it is very easy just to latch onto the dissimilarities and use them as an excuse to dismiss the argument, if you’re a bit resistant to it in the first place. But a Middle Way approach involves trying to reach a balanced appreciation both of the similarities and the dissimilarities.
So, when you come across an analogy, it helps to think clearly about what the analogy is being used to support, and what sorts of relevant similarities and dissimilarities there are. The analogy may also need to be seen in a wider context, as there may be counter-arguments based on strong dissimilarities that just aren’t being considered. Here’s what I hope is a useful checklist:
- What is the analogy trying to show?
- Is the analogy relevant to what it is trying to show?
- What are the relevant similarities?
- What are the relevant dissimilarities?
- Are the assumptions being made about the things being compared correct?
- Are there other important dissimilarities that are not being taken into account?
Here are a couple more examples to illustrate the application of some of these questions:
Politicians in Britain today are just like African dictators, only out to get what they can from the country and squirrel it away in their offshore bank accounts. We will never get straight politicians.
This analogy is weak because the assumptions being made about British politicians are factually dubious. There may be a few cases of corruption, but these are nowhere near the scale of certain well-known corrupt African dictators (such as Mobutu in Congo). Of course, African dictators themselves are also rather varied, and some may not be particularly corrupt.
Jess has red hair and likes reading like her sister. She’ll probably become an English teacher like her sister.
Here the analogy is between Jess and her sister, but the fact of her having red hair is of no relevance to the probability of her becoming an English teacher. The fact that she likes reading is relevant, but is not strong enough by itself to support the conclusion, as lots of people who like reading do not become English teachers.
Assess the strength of these analogical arguments:
1. Cars should be restricted just as guns are, because they are lethal weapons just like guns. Cars kill and injure people just as much as guns do.
2. Motorists who kill people through reckless driving should be given a life sentence just like a murderer. The outcome is the same: a dead person.
3. More people are killed by horse-riding each year than by taking ecstasy. Ecstasy is thus less dangerous than horse-riding, and it is inconsistent to maintain horse-riding as a legal activity whilst banning ecstasy.
4. The practice of arranged marriage (as practised, for example, in Asian and Islamic cultures) is necessary to take into account young people’s lack of experience when they choose a partner. We need someone else to make this choice for us when we are inexperienced. This has been effectively admitted in Western culture when people use dating agencies and dating websites to select a partner for them, so it is hypocritical for people who use these services to criticise arranged marriage.
Picture: Nude man hopping on right foot (Edward Muybridge studies in locomotion)