False Analogy

The tactic of switching from the original question into an example or metaphor which causes confusion.

The Duke of Clarence, the good guy who was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine in Richard III, had a premonition in a dream about skulls on the seabed with jewels in their eyes. It was not a bad analogy, as it turned out. And, although it didn’t help him much, it told him something about what was coming; wetness, death and greed were neatly wrapped up. The trouble starts when the power of analogy is misused to take people’s mind off the argument and leave them gazing into the eyes of an image that has nothing whatsoever to do with it. The former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in Britain, Charles Kennedy, once asserted that if Britain continues to use the Pound Sterling (£) instead of the Euro (€), this would be like Manhattan deciding to withdraw from the dollar and set up its own currency. The deception—the image of Wall Street switching its business from financial services into, perhaps, the cultivation of cucumbers, with the deranged support of the locals—was (one hopes) intended; it is true that Manhattan would be poorly-advised to take such a step, and if Britain’s continued use of sterling were like it, then that, too, would be a mistake.F4

Mr. Kennedy’s tactic is successful, in that his opponent has no option but to point out that the analogy is not relevant to the question of Britain’s membership of the Eurozone. All of a sudden, the argument has to make way for an elementary tourist guide explaining that the service supplied by the US banks and stock exchanges to their clients is not the same as the trading relationship between the UK economy and the rest of Europe; that a national currency allows an economy to be responsibly supported by the economic policy and interest rates that are relevant to it at the time; that the Eurozone’s economic cycles are moderated by the presence of the United Kingdom as a trading partner on a different economic cycle; that flexible currencies have a stabilising effect, giving weaker economies the advantage of a soft currency operating at a low exchange rate, which makes it easier for them to sell their goods and services, acting as a protective tariff, and enabling them to compete with stronger economies on more equal terms; and that the United States is not strictly a single currency area anyway: it is the world leader in the use of local currencies, which have benign effects on jobs and local economies, and which will be even more significant in the turbulent economic conditions that can be expected to develop in the coming years.F5

But, in the end, the absurd image of the false analogy persists, not least because the analogy is an easier subject to think about than the matter itself. If difficult questions are reduced to conversation about (say) level playing fields, everyone can join in. Even a well-intended analogy can keep the argument indefinitely engaged in the question of whether the analogy applies or not—and that can often be harder to settle than the argument itself. Analogies are everywhere in the English language, heard but not seen, like rats in a dark cellar, and a debate may be conducted almost entirely in terms of little analogies. They are fragments of the language of poets: comforting, a reminder of being at home. But they are also (as The Tempest’s Ariel said of the victims of shipwreck) infected with the fever of the mad, and play tricks of desperation.F6

 

Related entries:

Straw Man, Distraction.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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