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Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Power of an Analogy

Analogies can be very powerful things.  They are, after all, one of the four basic types of evidence.  They can provide support for a main point all on their own.  It’s important to keep one thing in mind:

With great power comes great responsibility.


To properly understand how analogies can be abused, we have to look back to the definition of an analogy.  SIL International has the following to say about analogies:

An analogy is a comparison of certain similarities between things which are otherwise unlike.

The important part to remember is that there must be some similarity between the two (or more) things, places, or people you are comparing, or the analogy falls apart.

For example, it’s not uncommon to hear jicama called the apple of Latin America.  That’s because jícama is similar to apples in texture, shape, and taste.  If someone were to call it the banana of Latin America…well, then there’d be a problem with the analogy.  Although a banana and a jícama do have a shared similarity – they both taste like fruit – that’s where the similarities end. 

When you try to link two things that aren’t similar enough to be linked, you’ve done more than just abuse the power of an analogy; you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  This fallacy is called a “weak analogy.”

When it comes to analogies, there is no “right” or “wrong” because, if you search hard enough, some kind of similarity can be found between two things that link them – even if it’s something as remote as “they’re both made of atoms.” 

Analogies are weighed on a scale of weak to strong.  Because of this leeway, analogies can be abused.  One such example of a comparison stretched to its limits comes from Orly Taitz, a staunch supporter of the Birther movement.  In several interviews on and off t.v., she has compared the Obama administration to Nazi Germany.  She even said that “We are getting another Stalin” when commenting on Obama’s presidency.  Here’s a link to the interview she gave on the Colbert Report: Orly Taitz on the Colbert Report

You can either like or dislike Obama, but compare him to a man who organized the deaths of millions of people as he “purged” his country of dissenters?  Wow. 

The following Doonesbury cartoon is an example of what happens when people notice how ridiculously weak your analogies are:

Doonesbury Sep 27 

So next time you think about using an analogy, make sure that the similarities that exist between the two items are strong, otherwise you might end up being made fun of in the Sunday comics. 

Photo credit: RiptheSkull


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