Analogies

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 7:56 PM EST

ANALOGIES....Matt Yglesias warns us about the use of analogies, especially historical analogies:

I did a post the other day that used an anecdote from my real life to illustrate a point about the concept of self-defense. Since the point was relevant to the debate over the fighting in Gaza, I tried to explicitly say that I didn't want the story to be read as an analogy since I don't believe in trying to conduct arguments by analogy. Well along comes Michael Moynihan to point out that the facts in my story don't precisely parallel the situation in Gaza.

This, though, is why I don't believe in analogies. If you make an argument that hinges on an analogy then people fire back by pointing out some respect in which the situation you described isn't precisely analogous to the thing you're arguing about. It then becomes a contest to specify the analogy so as to exactly mirror the situation you're debating. In which case you may as well just debate the situation. Long story short — these analogy fights are stupid.

This is all true, and anyone who's ever used an analogy in a blog post knows exactly what Matt is talking about. The nitpicking is especially annoying since imprecision is inherent in the form itself: after all, if all the facts matched up precisely, it wouldn't be an analogy. It would be a xerox copy.

Speaking generally, though1, there's another side to this. The point of an analogy isn't precision (we have long, little-read white papers to fill that niche), it's to help people understand a situation better by relating it to something they already know and have some opinion about. So the question is: did Matt's analogy succeed at that purpose? If it did, then it probably made some converts to the cause regardless of whether it was perfectly apposite. The people who pick analogies apart know this perfectly well, of course, and that's why they try to pick them apart. They're hoping to irritate their opponents enough that they cave in and stop using an effective rhetorical tool.

But that's obviously no reason to stop using them. If an analogy is bad or ineffective, then sure: toss it out. But if it's good, keep using it regardless. When the other guys are reduced to cavilling over trifles, you're probably on the right track.

1Which is to say, I'm not defending the specific analogy in question. Just making a broad point about the usefulness of analogies regardless of whether or not they get attacked.

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