Stupid analogies are like stupid analogies

I have always had a love-hate relation with analogies, though it has mostly veered towards hate. I agree that they can occasionally be illuminating and can make difficult concepts more palatable, but I have often considered them evil and felt that they do more harm than good. Usually, they over-simplify a concept to “dumb it down”, so to speak, but end up creating easy-to-kill straw-men, or make arguments go into a tangent just because people start arguing over the analogy instead of the original premise. Also, I feel they sometimes fail to achieve their purpose—which was providing a meaningful insight into the issue at hand. If I understand a concept well, I would be able to appreciate the analogies that can be drawn from it. I would also have the necessary insight to understand places where the analogy would fail. However, all this is fairly opaque to the person at whom that analogy was aimed, so it often defeats the purpose. This is especially so because it is extremely rare that an analogy maps with the original bijectively. Usually, an analogy connects only a few aspects of both situations, and that too in a fairly tenuous fashion. And if your listeners try to over-explore an analogy, it just ends up backfiring.

I am particularly wary of analogies that are part of school teaching. Plenty of the Sanskrit shlokas and Hindi dohe rely on analogies to bring home the point, but the way they are taught, the analogies are used for justification rather than exposition, which is just plain wrong. Of course, I realize the value of these pithy sayings/couplets/expressions/etc. so I am not objecting to them—all I am saying is that I prefer to keep analogies at arm’s length in discussions and arguments.

A particularly delicious abuse of analogies is the whole animal analogy business—a treacherous (and highly convenient) ground to base your argument on. It works both ways, so you can use it irrespective of which side of the argument you are on. There’s always an animal analogy out there. Sample this—

Premise: Humans are like animals.

Argument: Dogs don’t discriminate on the basis of breed! Why should we discriminate on the basis of caste?

Never mind the fact that no one would even question this bullshit. What do you know about whether dogs discriminate on the basis of breed or not? I don’t know much about dogs, but I suspect that an Alsatian won’t usually have sex with a Pomeranian (unless, of course, it’s getting bored or something). Should that be considered as animal casteism? Should humans refuse to procreate with people from other races because dogs apparently do the same? It’s just pile upon pile of stupidity made to look profound.

Premise: Humans are not like animals.

Argument: Dogs have no problem having sex in the open. That doesn’t mean humans should start doing the same!

Dude, settle it once and for all whether or not humans should look at dogs as models for emulation.  Note that you can’t resort to circular arguments claiming that ‘discrimination is bad, hence humans shouldn’t definitely do it if even animals aren’t doing it ‘.  ‘Discrimination is wrong’ was supposed to be the conclusion, not the explanation. If your audience could have understood that at face value, you won’t have needed a stupid animal analogy.

I could use the humans-are-like-animals argument to say that it is OK for men to kill weaker men while looking for a suitable mate, and I could use the humans-are-not-like-animals to claim that it is OK for men to kill for pleasure. Both are stupid arguments, but the animal analogy didn’t shed any light on them. In fact, it made them worse.

This is why I hate them in serious discussions—they are argument-crutches. What sounds like a cool analogy is often just a way to cover up shitty arguments and get rid of the burden of serious proof.  Deep-seated issues such as those of ethics, morals, ‘freedom’ etc. cannot be solved by animal analogies, and heck, can’t even be understood using animal analogies. You need to face the problem in its entirety, and you have to face it on its home ground. It’s tough, yes, but it’s the only real solution. Otherwise you have idiots who will claim that contraception is bad because it is unnatural (!) and that gay marriage is wrong because it is unnatural. How about I claim that polygamy, adultery and cannibalism are OK because all three are found among animals? Animals have been known to have sex forcibly. Does that mean rape is natural? These analogy-toting idiots don’t spend even one minute on any actual justification. They get away with bullshitting about nature.

In some ways, this worse than bullshit, which I use here to mean content-less blather that is so convoluted that its truth value is difficult to evaluate, and which was never even intended to convey a particular truth value. That’s because while BS makes you look like an idiot, analogies make you look smart and witty and profound, thus ridding you of the burden of proof and giving your audience a false sense of awe and understanding. It helps you get an upper hand in an argument without actually making a great deal of sense.

I often hear arguments which treat human languages and programming languages as practically the same thing, and freely try to justify and rationalize their opinions and assertions regarding human languages by giving analogies with computer languages. Leaving aside the sheer audacity of someone comparing something as deep, complex and intensely fascinating as human language with something that pales several orders of magnitude in front of it (I speak from a pretty objective viewpoint), the simple fact is that such an analogy is highly untenable, and is almost always likely to derail the argument.

  • Anonymous

    It is risky to use analogies for serious argument. But they’re indeed great tools for emphasis.

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      Agree and disagree. They can drive home points, but they do it in an insincere fashion. 

      In some ways, they are worse than bullshit, which I use here to mean content-less blather that is so convoluted that its truth value is difficult to evaluate, and which was never intended to convey a particular truth value. That’s because while BS makes you look like an idiot, analogies make you look smart and witty and profound, thus ridding you of the burden of proof and giving your audience a false sense of awe and understanding. It helps you get an upper hand in an argument without actually making a great deal of sense. You see why I hate them in debates and arguments?

      It’s like this—the relativity analogy by Einstein is good as a joke but he couldn’t seriously have meant it as a real explanation of the phenomenon.

      As I said, if an analogy is shared between two smart people, it is usually safe, but then it is serving only the function of being witty, which is totally fine. It’s not really being used for explaining or justifying, which is where it fails. 

      What sound like cool analogies are usually just ways to cover up shitty arguments and get rid of the burden of serious proof.  Deep-seated problems such as those of ethics, morals, liberty etc. cannot be solved by animal analogies, and heck, can’t even be understood using animal analogies. You need to face the problem in its entirely, and you have to face it on its home ground—it’s tough, yes, but it’s the only real solution. Otherwise you have idiots who will claim that contraception is bad because it is unnatural and that gay marriage is wrong because it is unnatural. They didn’t spend even one minute on any actual justification. They got away with bullshitting about nature.

      • Sanyam

        I completely agree on one thing, using analogies with audiences only wanting to prove themselves smarter is disastrous. Usually then entire point of the discussion is lost to an entirely senseless tangent. Analogies are best used when both parties to communication can be safely assumed to be sensible and smart.

        And since the quoted example is from my facebook post.
        All I meant by “not even dogs discriminate between breeds ” was that if dogs of different breeds can live under one roof without fighting why cannot we try to do the same ?
        And well I know a lot about dogs. And the comment emerges from, having cared for lots of dogs in one house (pomeranian(Mickey), dalmatian(Lucky), labrador retriever (Bruno), a desi (Ramlal)) and having no fights whatsoever, even over food.

        If you try and extend it to say, gay sex, cannibalism, having sex in the open, other bullshit, it is likely to seem absurd and totally irrelevant.

        If I may dare, assume the readers of this blog to be smart and sensible. Analogies are like simplified system models, there is usually a finite domain of validity and lots of assumptions involved ;)

      • Sanyam Mulay

        I completely agree on one thing, using analogies with audiences only wanting to prove themselves smarter is disastrous. Usually then entire point of the discussion is lost to an entirely senseless tangent. Analogies are best used when both parties to communication can be safely assumed to be sensible and smart.

        And since the quoted example is from my facebook post.
        All I meant by “not even dogs discriminate between breeds ” was that if dogs of different breeds can live under one roof without fighting why cannot we try to do the same ?
        And well I know a lot about dogs. And the comment emerges from, having cared for lots of dogs in one house (pomeranian(Mickey), dalmatian(Lucky), labrador retriever (Bruno), a desi (Ramlal)) and having no fights whatsoever, even over food.

        If you try and extend it to say, gay sex, cannibalism, having sex in the open, other bullshit, it is likely to seem absurd and totally irrelevant.

        If I may dare, assume the readers of this blog to be smart and sensible. Analogies are like simplified system models, there is usually a finite domain of validity and lots of assumptions involved ;)

  • Arvind

    Good piece. As a rule, I tend to stay away from analogies in a discussion. Show me an analogy to prove a point, and I’ll show you an analogy to prove the counter point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shashwat.gandhi Shashwat Gandhi

    I really love this post as much as the peacock loves the rain and the chakor loves the moon!

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      Your comment taught me a new word. Thanks! 

      I had always assumed that the song line was ‘chaand ko jaise dekhta jagor hai’ and thought that jagor referred to ‘the world’=जग 

  • http://www.facebook.com/abhinay.jain Abhinay Jain

    You sir, are mad as a hatter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/milind.ravindranath Milind Ravindranath

    I agree with you. Analogies rarely help, because they’re never fully applicable. 

    Yet the general perception is that you’re deeply knowledgeable if you’re able to make an unexpected, awkward analogy :-|

    However I feel differently in the specific case of natural languages and computer languages. I feel its just the sheer vast number of EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE that result in natural languages being more “beautiful”. :-|

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      Do you wish to claim that natural languages are like programming languages, except the latter don’t have as many exceptions?

      • http://www.facebook.com/milind.ravindranath Milind Ravindranath

        Yes. Natural Languages are considered beautiful because of their variety. Which is precisely quantified by the number of exceptions.

        Programming languages, OTOH, are _carefully_ *constructed* to have maximum consistency, ensuring similar semantics even where context is different.

        Every statement that we make today can always be better expressed in a programming language, than a natural language. Just that we’re more used to natural language.

        Sanskrit is a language that kept much of its peculiarities away from the basic grammar. That was the reason for the interest shown by the computer science community in Sanskrit for Natural Language Processing. Also, sadly, it may be the reason for its dead status today. Maybe people love exceptions.

  • Leo Karabeg

    I’ve always liked analogies as a tool for imparting understanding of abstract concepts. However, a friend has asked me to have a look at a paper he wrote, to try to help him express himself more clearly. The paper is laden with less than helpful analogies, so I searched for “abuse of analogies” and found this post. It has really helped my perspective on the matter. Thanks!

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  • singhvi

    I think using analogies to explain stuff is good, as long as both parties understand that it has it’s limitations, it is being utilized to only display the similarity in one or few aspects of the subjects. If we push it, every analogy will turn out to be ‘stupid’ and useless, ‘coz the only way it won’t fail is if the subjects are similar in every aspect, which would mean they are the same, not analogous.

    I don’t think there is a perfect analogy, but that doesn’t mean we must not use them, but use them judiciously taking into account the other person’s intelligence and knowledge of the subject, and perhaps cautioning them that it is just to give them a first idea and not an exact description of the subject. Some analogies are ‘stupid’ but that’s because they look at the one-to-one correspondence in a function and simply impose that because A->B then C->D, without looking at how and why, and whether the how and why are similar in the two cases, like the dog-racism/casteism example. But if for a second we assume it is a good example for racism, it doesn’t mean dog behavior is to emulated in every aspect, context matters. Otherwise no analogy is ever good enough.

    • http://www.facebook.com/antariksh.bothale Antariksh Bothale

      That’s correct. I wasn’t vilifying analogies in general. But like all tools, people need to be careful of how they use them.