Analogy Abuse (Part 2)
False comparisons and attacking a "strawman"
As I discussed in Analogy Abuse (Part 1), I got into a debate with an old friend of mine several years ago – I’ll refer to him as “Crusty” – because he was preaching online about the horrible unfairness of wealth redistribution programs. But instead of actually debating the pros and cons of the issue itself, he used two analogies to support his argument.
The first analogy was about a classroom, where one student who worked hard and received an “A” had points taken away and “redistributed” to other students to help raise their grades. I stated that redistribution wasn’t appropriate in the situation he had described but was a necessary solution in relation to the gross income inequality we’re currently facing. He disputed my statement with a different analogy. This second analogy was that of a gold bar, which he claimed is valuable wherever he has it – in his house, in his car, or at the beach. In other words, if something is valuable, then it’s ALWAYS valuable.
Both analogies amounted to a false comparison, which I explained a bit in Part 1 (you should read it quickly if you missed it), but there’s more to it than that. So today, I’ll take a deeper look at false comparisons and then explore how Crusty used an analogy to create a strawman, which is MUCH easier to attack than a real issue!
False comparisons aren’t completely false:
The reason false comparisons often work very well, even though I would classify them as a dirty trick, is because they have elements of truth. I say “dirty trick” and not “sneaky trick” because “sneaky” implies the person knows what they’re doing, and I’m unwilling to give most users of this trick that much credit!
Up until the past four years, I would’ve said that the best conspiracy theories always include some observable shred of proof; but as we’ve seen by the rise of QAnon, that’s definitely no longer the case. However, most analogies that rely on a false comparison still must include some element of truth to them, otherwise the analogy comes across as total nonsense (of course, by the time you read this, logic may have completely faded from public discourse).
Anyway, let me try to explain what I mean.
Thing 1 has attributes a, b, c, q, r, and z.
Thing 2 has attributes a, e, h, q, y, and z.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 are obviously different but they do have three attributes in common: a, q, and z. However, by completely ignoring the attributes that are different, we set up the potential for a false comparison.
Let’s take a look at how it works.
Crusty created an analogy where points were awarded, with an assumption that such award was commensurate with actual performance. After an assumed fair distribution of points, the teacher took points away from the best performers and “redistributed” them to the worst performers. Wow! That sure seems unfair – because it is unfair in the classroom.
To understand why this is a false comparison, let’s take a closer look at the shared attributes. First, there is something to indicate reward – points or dollars. In both cases, there is an authority figure – the teacher or the government. And finally, the authority figure takes from one group and gives to the other. Beyond that, things don’t actually align very well.
For example, in a classroom, there is the potential for every student to get an A+ (unless the teacher uses the ridiculous “bell curve” grading scale). The goal in a classroom should be for every student to learn the material well enough to earn an A+ grade. It’s not only possible, it’s desirable and achievable!
In business, there is no possibility of everyone truly amassing ridiculous amounts of wealth. The system absolutely is NOT designed to work that way – and it won’t! The goal in society should be for everyone to have enough to live comfortable, happy lives, which is what redistribution programs try to help accomplish. (Of course, if law, regulation, and policy worked well, then wealth would be distributed more equitably in the first place and we might not have to even think about redistribution.)
So in Crusty’s analogy, there are a couple common attributes – the reward (points or dollars), the authority figure (teacher or government), and the redistribution – but nothing else matches up, including the overall “goal” in each scenario. Yet he held this up as an argument to show how horrible the very concept of wealth redistribution is.
In fact, he not only made a false comparison, he made it worse by using the common attributes to pass judgment on the attribute of redistribution, with no regards to all of the attributes that are NOT common.
Let's get a little clarity:
Okay... I know that sounds confusing, so let me plug in different people and different attributes instead of Crusty’s analogy or generic labels and variables. I think this can help clarify our thinking:
Let’s take a look at John and Joe.
They both have mustaches.
They both work in finance.
Joe had sex with a lady named Kathy.
John had sex with another lady named Kathy.
John’s wife is named Veronica, so having sex with a lady named Kathy means that John is deplorable!
If having sex with a lady named Kathy makes one deplorable, then Joe is deplorable too!
Hopefully you can see the terrible flaw in that logic without me explaining it... but I’'ll do it anyway.
In the scenario, we’ve overlooked key attributes, like the fact that Joe’s wife’s name isn’t Veronica – it’s Kathy. So the Kathy who Joe had sex with is actually his wife... and she’s NOT the same Kathy who had sex with John.
John cheated on his wife. Joe was faithful to his wife. But by ignoring certain attributes (who is married to whom) and emphasizing others (two women named Kathy), we’ve created a false comparison and held it up as a valid argument. It’s simply bad logic in disguise.
Attacking the scarecrow:
The typical “strawman” argument is when someone takes our position, exaggerates it way out of proportion, and then attacks the exaggeration instead of dealing with the facts and the real argument.
Here’s a well-known strawman:
If people are allowed to marry same sex partners because they love each other, then if a man really, really loves his dog, then he should be allowed to marry her! And if someone really loves his car, then they should be allowed to get married! And if anyone can marry anything they like, then families will become more and more scarce! All because you think it’s okay to marry whatever you want, as long you “love” that thing! Men can’t procreate with dogs, cars... or other men! Our society will crumble and mankind will die out if you have your way!
They’ve taken the argument of being able to marry the person you love, exaggerated it ridiculously, and then attacked the exaggeration. This is certainly a clear version of creating and attacking a strawman, but the tactic is far more common than you might think. To be on the lookout for the creation of a strawman, pay attention to arguments or descriptions that begin with “what if...”. Those two words are often the lead-in to an exaggerated conjecture and not a genuine possibility of concern.
When my old friend Crusty created his “robbing school children of their hard-earned grades” analogy, he just kept attacking it. He refused to engage with me on a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of wealth redistribution efforts, or even the underlying problems of the initial distribution being inequitable. Instead, he kept attacking the strawman he had created. In this case, he didn’t create the strawman using exaggeration but by using a false comparison – a bad analogy.
“So it’s okay to take points from students who earned them?” he’d demand.
“Of course not,” I’d reply, “but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people with obscene wealth who aren’t even paying their fair share of taxes.”
“It’s the same thing,” he’d reassert. “Redistribution is redistribution!”
The bottom line:
In the end, I simply gave up on the discussion. Crusty had clearly made up his mind and I wasn’t going to change it. However, the exchange did help me learn a lot about bad analogies, false comparisons, and strawman arguments. If I’ve done my job well, you’ve learned a little bit too.
As Relaxed Leaders, we need to be on the lookout for these common abuses of logic from others, but we definitely need to refrain from using them ourselves. If not, we’re setting ourselves up for a nonstop barrage of “whatabout” arguments... but that’s a post for another day!
Did you happen to miss Analogy Abuse (Part 1)? It’s worth a couple more minutes of your time!