Most Analogies Are Wrong

by Jemist1 min read16th Apr 20213 comments


RationalityWorld Modeling

I remember when I was taking a plant biology class at university, and our lecturer said something along the lines of  "A plant needs to take in resources and spend them like a business or a bank, but this analogy isn't great, can anyone explain why?". It took a while for someone to come up with a good response but the one the lecturer was looking for was "plants take in and spend multiple 'currencies' whereas a bank only uses money". There is a better response.

It is up to the person making argument by analogy to explain why their analogy is good. It is not up to other people to explain why their analogy is bad. Analogies can often sneak in assumptions, or lose much of the incredibly deep detail present in the subject. People often end up arguing over the analogy rather than the substance.

The strongest analogies have the form [A], [A] is like [a], [a] implies [b], [b] is like [B]", therefore [B]". Many analogies run as "[A], [a] implies [b], therefore [B]", skipping over the steps which are both the most important (and often where the cracks in the argument show).

Morality as taxes goes into this a bit. Intuition pumps for philosophy are more akin to a rhetorical device than a strong argument.. If you need to use an analogy to convince someone of your point then they are not worth discussing an issue with. The need to use an analogy may mean they don't understand or want to engage with the subject matter. The other likely option is that they think you can't understand the subject matter, or even worse, they want you to accept their conclusion without engaging with the subject matter.

Instead of analogies I tend to use examples: in a discussion about AI risks, rather than saying "Imagine if gorillas decided to create humans to solve gorilla problems. No matter how much the gorillas outnumber the humans, the humans will be able to escape their cages by acting in ways which a gorilla could not have imagined." I would much rather say something like "Imagine creating an AI system which manipulates sensors and billboards in order to discourage crime in an area. If the crime is evaluated by humans watching video feeds, the most effective billboard messages will simply tell criminals where the blind spots in the camera systems are." The second one is a much stronger argument. (Here I have used two examples within an example)

Most people are aware that analogies can fall down or fall apart. Most analogies that people use do not fall apart rapidly for this reason, but they are still wrong. If you cannot argue without analogy you are likely confused about the question at hand, and you will improve your thoughts by either learning more about the technical details of the subject, or by dissolving the question.


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If you need to use an analogy to convince someone of your point then they are not worth discussing an issue with.

Explaining and convincing can be regarded as two separate stages. if you are explaining to someone something that is novel to them , you pretty much have to use an analogy.

Good point, perhaps my view is skewed as I do almost all of my learning and explaining in technical fields (mostly chemistry and biology) and with people who are on a similar knowledge level to me. I can imagine that in a situation of trust but little knowledge (e.g. I am explaining my work to a family member) or in a different field to mine they would be more useful.

I think my assessment here may have been too focussed on a specific subset of analogy use, which I did not properly specify in the post.

Edit to clarify: I still believe intuition pumps in philosophy are a bad sort of analogy in that they are too easily manipulated to serve the philosophical interests of the speaker

I think this is simultaneously too weak a statement, and too harsh a judgement of analogies.  In truth, ALL analogies are wrong.  The entire point is that there are two distinct things/situations that you're comparing. There are going to be differences which your analogy ignores.  

However, this is just a subset of the fact that all models are wrong.  The entire discussion is about maps, not territory.  Reality is simply too complex to fully understand or communicate, so you internally use analogies and models to predict bits of it.  There's no avoiding that.

I take your point that arguing and convincing are generally indicators that you're moving away from truth-seeking.  In those cases, analogy isn't the problem; there's a more fundamental power dynamic that's getting in the way.