The Second Version

23/03/10

The Analogy That Is Not

Another worrysome aspect that I have seen emerging in recent times - mainly from recent polemics in the Italian political scene - is the misuse of analogy.

In this particular case, one politician was lamenting that a change to electoral law1 less than one month before local elections was akin to changing the rules of a football game while it's being played.

Well, no. Because in football laws are decided by a body designated to do so, of which players are not part if not with their representatives, and with the clausole that rules cannot be changed during a game. While as far as I know the Italian parliament can pass any law within its self-imposed bounds at any time.

One important point is in fact this: a government operates largely unders self-imposed bounds - its procedures and unwritten customs, and these bounds can be modified. In most republics, the outside bound on what the government can do is the constitution, but even that is not immutable.

On the other hand, football players enter the field willingly submitting to laws imposed on them by a separate governing body.

Three paragraphs detailing the differences between government and football games, and where are we? The politician I mentioned fell into the trap of false analogy, maybe - but I suspect something worse. That this man does not know what an analogy is, so he thinks that any superficial similarity between two systems means that the systems have almost the same properties.

It is not a matter of being stupid or dumb, but ignorance of the underlying logic and philosophy of this analogy thing.

In its most common use, analogy is only a figure of speech, often a didactic exemplification intended to bring a difficult and distant concept closer to the listener's experience. In this case, analogy is never perfect - otherwise, it would be pointless. Science and technology textbooks do not use analogies, for example.

There is reasoning by analogy that can be quite rigorous - this is a discussion of analogical reasoning in the field of law, too. Rigorous as far as law goes, anyway.

The ultimate analogy is this:

A = B and B = C

then A = C

But this kind of formalism is unforgiving: the above is true only when A is equal to B and B to C; there is no such thing as similar or "kinda like" here.

Now you want a recap? Here's a recap: if someone is using analogy merely as a figure of speech fine, some leeway is given. But when analogy is used as a method of reasoning, it has to be rather rigorous. If not, the whole reasoning is impaired.

1 - A change in the fine details of the rules of admission, exclusion and appeal for parties interested in taking part to the elections.

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