Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bad Analogy Fest August 2007

The Mutt email client's tagline:

All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less.

Well, that's kind of how I feel about analogies.

If you pick at it, you can find something wrong with any analogy. Obvious, right? When you're comparing two things that are not the same, there's bound to be some relevant dissimilarity. That doesn't make analogies useless, it just means you have to use them in good faith - both as speaker and as listener. An analogy will carry you as far as it will; it's never enough to complete an argument. All analogies suck, in other words, but some definitely suck a lot worse than others. And no analogies suck worse than those that are superficially convincing. This week, I ran across two sterling examples.

Exhibit A is this essay by IU's own Douglas Hofstadter. It's meant to be ... well, in the author's own words:

Perhaps this piece shocks you. It is meant to. The entire point of it is to use something that we find shocking as leverage to illustrate the fact that something that we usually close our eyes to is also very shocking. The most effective way I know to do so is to develop an extended analogy with something known as shocking and reprehensible. Racism is that thing, in this case. I am happy with this piece, despite-but also because of-its shock value. I think it makes its point better than any factual article could.

The specific MO is to imagine an alternate-universe version of English where pronouns were based on race rather than sex in an attempt to "shock" the reader into realizing that our own use of sex-distinguished pronouns is sexist. Their use of "whe" and "ble" is to our use of "he" and "she" etc. etc. But anyone with half a brain can, I believe, see how disingenuous this "clever" setup is. It ties its own rope with the very device it uses: the fact that racial pronouns are shocking to us and sex-based ones are not well illustrates that using "he" as a universal pronoun does NOT actually offend anyone or cause them to think only of men in the general cases. The "y-part" of Hofstadter's analogy strikes us as racist because is is in our English. Refering to a "spaceman" as a "spacewhite" sounds very exclusive - but only because the word "white" in the language in which the essay is written only ever refers to caucasians in its race-relevant usages. If it were a universal pronoun, like "he" is in English, it would obviously take on an inclusive meaning when applied in its general sense, and would therefore cease to strike us as racist.

When you really think about it, Hofstadter's analogy is about as disingenuous as they come. Distilled to its essential mechanics it goes something like this: "Take a word that has two meanings ("he"), directly compare it to another word that only has one ("white"), and then be shocked by the abuse of the second word which is being used as though it had two meanings when really it only has one, which of course isn't at all the same thing as using another word that has two meanings as though it did, in fact, have the two meanings it really does have. Conclude from this that the first word, which has two meanings, must really only have one, your daily linguistic experience to the contrary - you know, because the second word that I cherry-picked right off of the dingleberry bush in my ass happens to only have one meaning."

I suppose Hofstadter is also one of those morons who think that "there" only ever means "not here," and that it never has a purely expletive useage as a grammatical placeholder. I guess when people say things like "I have read Remembrance of Things Past in French," Hofstadter gets confused because he doesn't understand what a "read Remembrance of Things Past in French" is that someone could possess. Unaware, as he apparently is, that functional categories often coopt their pronounciation from existing lexical content words, Hofstadter has no doubt spent hours pondering what to him must be the very deep question of what "it" is that's doing the raining when someone tells him "it's raining, Doug." And I guess if we asked him along on a fishing trip on the Gulf of Mexico, the first thing he would do would be to go to the Mexican Consulate to apply for a visa.

In fact, "he" is just a function word. It is, alternately, the pronounciation of the third singular masculine pronoun, and also the pronounciation of the third singular universal pronoun. For someone who jokingly refers to himself as pilingual, it is remarkable that he wouldn't have noticed that the same string of phonemes often serves multiple functions in a language, and that this phenomenon is especially prevelant in functional category paradigms.

But enough about His Haughtiness. Exhibit B is even more disingenuous. This one's a recent column on abortion by the conservative columnist I'm reluctantly starting to hate: Mike Adams.

In his heyday, Adams was a great read. He was witty - and more importantly, his victims were the members of the campus leftist orthodox propaganda machine - a group that needs regular public pummeling. I think there is little more hypocritical in American society than these people who, out of one side of their mouths, talk about university as a great mind-opening, idea-sharing experience, a "marketplace of ideas," and then out of the other side routinely fail, denounce, humiliate, blackball and otherwise punish anyone who doesn't absolutely agree with everything they say. Kudos to Mike for taking them on.

But of course it's all pointless if you end up becoming a demagogue yourself - and dear Dr. Adams is on the fasttrack. Recently, his columns have become increasingly religious and, as is often the case with religion-based arguments, replete with straw mans.

Consider this recent column about abortion. Here the device is a comparison with Michael Vick's hobby of torturing animals - indeed, ambition - to torture as many animals in as cruel a way as possible.

I also dreamed that before long there was an organized movement to make dog-fighting legal. The feminists were outside of courthouses wearing t-shirts and holding signs that said "Keep your laws off my doggie," "My doggie, my choice," and something I couldn't understand about a case called "Rover v. Wade."

Right - so we're supposed to apply our shock and horror at the animal torture that goes on at dogfights and somehow equate this with abortion, coming, in the end, to the conclusion that if there are laws against the former there should also be laws against the latter.

But just like with Hofstadter's analogy, this one is flawed on its face to anyone who cares to take a second look. The disingenuousness is on display in turns of phrase like "keep your laws off my doggie" and "my doggie, my choice." In the original slogans, the word "doggie" is being subbed for wasn't "baby," it was "body," in fact. But Dr. Adams is trying to draw an analogy with babies, not bodies. The baby in an abortion is to the dog in a dogfight - because that's the "thing that's being tortured," no?

Fine, as far as that goes - it's just that it doesn't go very far. When arguing against an opposing position, you cannot hope to be convincing if you simply ignore the main points of that position. And you'll be even less convincing if you not only ignore the opposing position's main points but in fact claim that they are something else entirely - accusing your opposition of something they've never advocated, as in this case.

For Adams' analogy to work, babies would have to be things that people went out and acquired fully formed, be completely separate from the mother's body at all times, and freely transferable to other "owners" at all times during the pregnancy (which, remember, is taking place fully outside the mother's womb in Adams' fantasy world). People would never, ever acquire babies by accident, nor would they ever have babies forced on them through rape. Babies would always and in all circumstances be things that they willfully went out and bought, trained to behave in a certain "entertaining" way, and then killed for sport.

In other words, things would have to be so different from the way they actually are in the real world as to be virtually unrecognizable.

Now, I guess the point of Adams' analogy is to try to focus our attention on the injustice done to the "victim." But that is patently a point that supporters of legal abortion do NOT dispute. You will not find anywhere a supporter of legal abortion who advocates as a "fun thing" that a woman go out and get pregnant and off the little critter just for shits and giggles. They pretty universally agree that abortion is an ugly affair to be avoided if at all possible. Most abortion counsellors are well aware of psychological trauma that it causes in some people, and this is something that they should and do factor in when giving advice. They support legal abortion on the principle that a woman has the right to decide in what way her body is used. A new life may not gestate there without her consent - and they righly recognize as oppressive any regime that requires people to give up their bodies in the service of another in this way. In that sense, being for legal abortion is (as Dr. Adams well knows) fully compatible with legal opposition to dogfighting. Because after all, what happens in a dogfight is that you take another's body and use it for fun in a cruel way without its consent. NO ONE would EVER support abortion as something that people should do for sport. Abortion is a last resort for unplanned circumstances. No one denies that the killing of the baby is gruesome. They simply maintain - wholly plausibly - that there is no other way to secure the woman's rights once the pregnancy has begun. It's the mother's body, and the existence of another life inside it does not diminish that fact. If abortion only ever involved the fetal victim, as Dr. Adams is sneakily trying to suggest with his "analogy," then the political issues surrounding it would be a nobrainer: OF COURSE it would be illegal! But it DOES NOT only involve the "victim." It involves the mother too. And trying to write her side of the equation out of existence with a poorly constructed analogy is about as pedestrian an argumentative strategy as one can adopt. Confronted with an issue which is NOT clear and NOT simple, Dr. Adams dreams of a world where it were clear and simple, and where his side were clearly and simply the only available moral position. Too bad for him and his feeble editorial that the rest of us live here and not in his tidy thought experiment.

What's hurtful about the whole thing is the (not-so-)sly suggestion that any woman seeking an abortion is on a moral par with troglodytes like Michael Vick. Michael Vick is the kind of person who goes out and purchases an animal for the SOLE PURPOSE of causing it as much pain as he possibly can - because he's the kind of person who enjoys watching other creatures suffer. There was no part of his motivation that was outside of this: all he did he did for the sake of causing pain. If Dr. Adams thinks that EVEN ONE woman seeking an abortion has a similar motive, he's clearly off his rocker. It's as if he thinks that patients at abortion clinics regularly say things like "Yeah, doc, I know the procedure is less invasive now - but I'm gonna go ahead and wait three months and have that partial-birth abortion, just because those are so much more satisfying. And I want you to film it in HD please, so I can watch it over and over and over again, 'cause I'm the type o' bitch that really gets off on watching people suffer." I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no abortion clinic anywhere in the world has ever had such a request.

What's really "shocking" about both of these essays is not the analogy employed, as their authors smugly choose to believe, but rather the number of suckers out there in the world who get taken in by this kind of second-rate writing. Dr. Hofstadter's essay is available online and turns up instantly on a quick Google search decades after it was written. This very week I heard it spoken of in approving terms by a professional Linguist - i.e. someone who is really trained to know better. Dr. Adams' editorial, for its part, has a 4-star popularity rating on, which tells me he's not hurting for approving readers either.

I get what's going on. People have opinions, and they like hearing arguments in support of those opinions. Everyone likes being told they're right, and the more shocking the argument, the more convinced they feel that they are on the side of good; it's all the more fun if you're the "good guys." But it's an empty feeling if the argument itself doesn't work, as these two clearly do not. And while good fun is good fun, and it's fine to preach to the choir to vent now and then in private, public discourse should really operate on a higher standard. So let me just beat this dead horse a bit more: universities should really, in place of diversity training and campus climate seminars, require all freshmen (if they're going to require core classes at all, I mean, which I'm not sure they should) to acquire some basic critical thinking skills. I would suggest that Drs. Hofstadter and Adams will have many essays on file that such courses can use to neatly illustrate logical fallacies to be avoided in intelligent discourse...


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