Effective Analogies are Made of Good Judgment.

Good analogies go beyond similar physical features.  If you want people to hear you, and maybe even be swayed by your reasoning, make sure that your comparisons are roughly equal in intensity and judgment.  Otherwise, no-one hears what you have to say.

Not all broken windows are the same.

Both sides of a good analogy contain a similar “intensity.” For example, Digiorno Pizza is as good as ordering takeout.  A good analogy because neither side of the comparison is ‘out of its league’.   A certain humility of comparison makes for their effective tagline “It’s not delivery, It’s Digiorno’s” 

What if, though, they thought they could make an EVEN BIGGER impression by comparing their pizza to something even better?  After all, if comparing it to takeout raises the estimation of frozen pizza a little, comparison to something really grand will raise it even more!  More is better, right?  So why not say Digiorno’s Pizza is as good as a 3-star Michelin  restaurant?

That would make our product sound even better! 

No, no it doesn’t.

Witness what happens to the tagline:  “It’s not Emeril, It’s Digiorno’s”.   In the earlier analogy, the quality-proximity of the two lifts our opinion of the frozen pizza.  Take-out pizza is good. It is believable that a frozen pizza could be that good.  It does not jar the mind to think that a frozen pizza may be as good as what I’m ordering from the pizza place, and a bit cheaper too.  We are able to entertain the framework that frozen pizza is (or may be) like takeout. 

Now let’s look at the ‘spiced up’ analogy. Would comparing frozen pizza to the best pizza possible put our frozen pizza on the all-time hit list of pizza’s?  The answer is no, and it is apparent immediately in the new tagline: 

“It’s not Emeril, It’s Digiorno’s”. 

A great tagline now becomes an insult to the poor frozen pizza. Why?

People might like Emeril’s pizza better than takeout.  So, that’s not what’s wrong with this analogy. 

Michelin star chefs cook pizza. So, that’s not what’s wrong with the analogy. 

The problem is Michelin star cooking is so far above *anything* frozen, that the comparison is a bad joke. To paraphrase from Billy Madison “We are all dumber for hearing it”.

How good the analogy is here has nothing to do with the physical similarities. It’s not a good analogy, because the “intensity” of the two experiences is so different that people do not feel the analogy. The judgment is so bad it is jarring.  It’s like a giant pothole in the middle of a sentence.  Reading along … “hey this isn’t so bad … BAM … what the hell was that”? 

Big potholes ruin the road and become a point of hyperfocus for criticism.  Big potholes are stupid and offensive. They are so jarring they eclipse anything else you have to say. Nothing else gets heard.  and the plausible idea that the frozen pizza was tasty, is now erased. 

Unfortunately, this happens in ethics all the time.  Somebody perceives something wrong.  They want to raise awareness of this immorality.  Like any analogy, in order to make the comparison we find elements of both things that are similar – e.g. two examples that both involve legislative buildings, or two examples that both involve broken glass.  The mistake is not in this physical comparison. The mistake is believing that raising awareness requires comparison to the worst thing possible that contains those physical similarities.    

With the physical similarities firmly in place, we are ready to make our knock-out argument against the current immorality. —– and it fails every time. 

Mind you, people who already agree with you may cheer the analogy, but that doesn’t make it a good analogy or argument. 

People who disagree with you will attack the analogy.  But that doesn’t make it a bad analogy. (But did you have to give them that ammunition?) 

No, what makes it a bad analogy is that it fails to move the neutral bystander – the person on the fence. 

“I was thinking about trying that frozen pizza, but that comparison is not even plausible.  I don’t trust it.”  – trust brings people close to accepting your framework, if they lose trust in your interpretation of the event they lose trust in your judgment.

The entire argument is now “wrong” because it comes from a person of such flawed judgment.  And once again note, the similarity dispute is not over the physical description, but about the similarity of severity.  It’s about the judgment that places these two things on the same level.  Now it’s not just a flawed argument, it’s a lack of credibility. “Who can believe them after they said this!” And while it’s not a valid inference to go from the argument to the person like that, we need to realize it still happens -every time. In these cases the credibility of the argument and the author hang or fall together.

Today we have yet another example of what I am warning against. 

Arnold Shwarzenegger made a video about what happened at the U.S. Capitol Building recently.  It’s actually well spoken, and the message is a pretty good one.  But in this case Mr. Shwarzenegger compares what happened at the U.S. Capitol Building to Kristallnacht – because both instances contained broken glass, and Arnold experience both countries. 

He makes this comparison very early in the video.  The consequences are sad and predictable.  You can see for yourself.  How many people don’t get past the analogy and never hear what else he has to say?  I’m posting the thread here, check out the comments.  You can also check out the comment threads of news outlets for further verification: people balked at the analogy, got no further in the argument, and didn’t let that stop them from criticizing what they never heard.

Good analogies go beyond physical features. If you want people to hear you, and maybe even be swayed by your reasoning, make sure that your comparisons are roughly equal in intensity and judgment.  Otherwise, no-one hears what you have to say.    

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