Josh Rosenau is thinking from California about the role of analogy and metaphor in arguments. This follows from a series of posts arguing with Jerry Coyne et al. about the usual science vs. religion stuff. The analogy thing comes in because in the first post, he made reference to Slacktivist’s excellent post about vampires and crosses, saying:

Vampires don’t exist, and slacktivist makes it absolutely clear that he knows this. But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.

With depressing predictability, this has devolved into a bunch of people claiming that Josh is in favor of people not knowing the difference between fiction and reality, or thinking that vampires are real, etc. This eventually required a clarification post, and now the note on analogies.

Josh is rediscovering something important about arguments by analogy on the Internet, which is that they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

No matter what the analogy is, any attempt to use analogy, simile, metaphor, or any other lofty rhetorical technique in a debate being conducted on the Internet is doomed to end badly. No matter how carefully you set up your analogy, somebody will come along and interpret it in the most stupidly literal way possible, find some tiny point where it fails to correspond perfectly with the actual topic of discussion, and decide that this disagreement is an utterly devastating counter-argument to whatever point you were trying to make.If the topic is anything remotely controversial, like religion or politics, tens of somebodys will jump on the stupidly literal interpretation, and arguments about the validity of the analogy will come to totally dominate the discussion.

This is incredibly frustrating, because argument by analogy is a tool with a long and distinguished history among intelligent people debating topics in good faith. On the Internet, though, it fails every time, or close enough that it makes no difference. I don’t know quite why– it may be some trait of the geekier-than-usual people who hang out on web sites, or a result of the perceived high stakes of the debates causing people to be uninterested in good-faith argument, or something else altogether. But just about every time I see an attempt to argue by analogy on the Internet, the subsequent discussion falls apart into quibbling over tiny points of disagreement between the analogy and reality, completely ignoring the relevant point being made.

There are only two ways to go with this: either abandon the use of analogies entirely, or refuse to engage those who are only interested in quibbling with the analogy. Any other course of action risks disaster, in the form of complete distraction from the important argument to some complex squabble over trivialities.


  1. #1 Emory Kimbrough
    September 19, 2009

    Damn, you were even blocked from using the “screechy monkeys” analogy in your post. That is indeed a loss.

  2. #2 Michael Nielsen
    September 19, 2009

    Weirdly, I see this only a little on my blog, and probably no more than is deserved – it’s good to have your analogies questioned occasionally. No idea why – it’d never occurred to me before you pointed it out.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    September 19, 2009

    It is in vendors’ interests to have allegory become dogma, then legislated and heinously enforced law with useful penalties. (CFR saves the cost of leasing legislatures’ transient sympathies while not diminishing the penalty phase.)

  4. #4 AnalogyElf
    September 19, 2009

    Frustratingly true post… in the past 15 years of discussing things on the internet, every attempt to use analogies has ended in dismal failure.

    It comes down to the lowest common denominator – it’s easier to nitpick somebody’s analogy, than it is to open your mind to an alternative way of thinking about something. Easiest route always wins.

    Analogies only seem to work for a discussion amongst the willing – that is, people who are actively *trying* to understand each other. For a combative debate/argument, it becomes more about scrapping, and nitpicks rule the day.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    September 19, 2009

    Weirdly, I see this only a little on my blog, and probably no more than is deserved – it’s good to have your analogies questioned occasionally. No idea why – it’d never occurred to me before you pointed it out.

    I think subject matter has a lot to do with it. When you’re dealing with something controversial like science and religion, a great many people will get all fired up to post a devastating comment, and not bother to read the previous fifty comments in which the same overly literal argument was made ten times.

    There’s also the fact that, in a lot of places, contentious debates are seen as a competitive sport. The argument becomes more about trying to score points against your opponent than about making a good-faith effort to understand a different point of view, and it’s easier to get in a good zinger about some flaw in an analogy than to confront the parts that it gets right.

  6. #6 miller
    September 19, 2009

    My very first thought was “good riddance”. But then, maybe my negative view of analogies comes from spending too much time on the internet, seeing them horribly fail all the time. It’s not always the nitpickers’ fault either. People make a lot of really bad analogies on the internet.

  7. #7 Cecil
    September 19, 2009

    I think part of the problem is the non-realtime nature of the conversation. That is, on the internet you can’t stop someone from going down a minor, nitpicky path with a curt “that’s irrelevant for reasons X,Y,Z”. They have the time and space to fully expound on a stupid literal interpretation, forcing it into the discussion.

    I think this is why in general discussions on the internet tend to lack focus.

  8. #8 Jason A.
    September 19, 2009

    A good criticism of slacktivist’s post, err, a criticism of Rosenau’s claim that slacktivist’s post demonstrates a different way of knowing, should have pointed out that there’s no way to actually offer evidence for your argument in metaphor-land. An analogy alone basically becomes an exercise in making up a narrative, an ad-hoc fallacy. The actual ‘way of knowing’ comes from adding some sort of real evidence to compliment the analogy, which is just a device to help organize the evidence.
    I say this as a huge fan of the analogy.

  9. #9 agm
    September 19, 2009

    You can have the geologist’s analogies when you pry them from their cold, dead hands. Which of course drives those of us with hard science backgrounds crazy but gets the job done convincingly often…

  10. #10 my one cent
    September 20, 2009

    Sorry to intrude, but I think you may be missing one major problem with using analogies on the internet. Basically, an analogy only really works if the analogy-user and the analogy-receiver share enough in common culturally and linguistically for the analogy-receiver to understand what parts of the analogy are relevant to the point the analogy-user is trying to make. However, the internet is a global place and so a given discussion thread will involve people from all walks of life (including people who do not speak english as their first language). WIth such a broad community involved, it is almost impossible to properly set up an analogy that works for everyone and isn’t liable to be misinterpreted in a way that can derail a thread. Thus I would posit that analogy really is a bad way to make an argument on the internet (or to diverse groups in general).

  11. #11 Brian
    September 21, 2009

    As a friend of mine in college once said “A bad analogy is like a coke can.”