We’re living through a period in which some people in the public eye rely heavily on false analogies to sway the way people think. I suspect that those who argue this way do so because they don’t want to go to the trouble of having to present a good argument.
Analogies are similar to similes or metaphors but more expansive; instead of comparing two items, most analogies compare processes or systems. The comparison must be between two things that are different from each other but still have significant correspondences or agreement in the details. This goes farther than mere similarity—an analogy suggests that things that have a similarity in one respect also have similarities in all other significant respects.
The key to a good analogy is to ask if the similarities are more significant than any obvious differences, and whether shallow similarities are treated as more important than the essential differences.
Why do we need to be wary about analogies? Because they have enormous power to cause us to shift our certainties about one subject onto another that we don’t know as much about. Think of all the Hitler analogies you’ve seen on the internet that are inappropriate for supporting an argument. When analogies are overextended or presented as a settled conclusion, you’re looking at an argument put forward by someone who isn’t thinking clearly or who is trying to manipulate you.
1. Running a government is like running a business. Business is concerned more with the bottom line and so must the government.
2. You know why you can enjoy a day at the zoo? Because walls work.
3. A school is not so different from a business. It needs a clear competitive strategy that will lead to profitable growth.
4. Children are like dogs. They need to be strongly disciplined and housebroken.
I started to get a little tired of business analogies during the 1980s. They’re getting stale. Running a business is a far different enterprise from running a school or a government. Sentences 1 and 3 do not show enough similarities to support the analogies they claim. Businesses allow much more flexibility to choose approaches to challenges. A public school doesn’t get to choose who will be educated and has to take all comers. Schools also deal with children rather than customers. The government analogy falls apart because governments must meet many responsibilities that businesses do not face. These enterprises don’t share enough similarities to bear comparison.
This brings to light another fallacy operating here. People tend to think their success or mastery in one field makes them experts on everything. Not many people in education believe it should be run like a business; mostly business leaders put forward such analogies, business leaders with little or no experience in education or government.
Perhaps you recognize sentence 2. Two walls are being referred to and those walls have very different purposes, making this analogy extremely weak. Zoo walls are designed to keep animals in, whereas the other wall in question (the one proposed for the southern border of the US) is designed to keep human beings out. Obviously, there are significant differences between human beings and animals, such as relative intelligence and dexterity. The analogy doesn’t hold.
In sentence 4, we’re comparing children and animals. I’d be concerned for the children of anyone who makes such a claim. Both groups may get a bit unruly and irritating at times, but we know children and dogs do not perform at the same levels or possess the same intellectual abilities. To claim that they are similar enough to compare in this way is illogical at the least and abusive at the worst.