Using Analogies on the Internet Is Like Doing a Really Futile Thing

Josh Rosenau is thinking from California about the role of analogy and metaphor in arguments. This follows from a series of posts arguing with Jerry Coyne et al. about the usual science vs. religion stuff. The analogy thing comes in because in the first post, he made reference to Slacktivist’s excellent post about vampires and crosses, saying:

Vampires don’t exist, and slacktivist makes it absolutely clear that he knows this. But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.

With depressing predictability, this has devolved into a bunch of people claiming that Josh is in favor of people not knowing the difference between fiction and reality, or thinking that vampires are real, etc. This eventually required a clarification post, and now the note on analogies.

Josh is rediscovering something important about arguments by analogy on the Internet, which is that they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

No matter what the analogy is, any attempt to use analogy, simile, metaphor, or any other lofty rhetorical technique in a debate being conducted on the Internet is doomed to end badly. No matter how carefully you set up your analogy, somebody will come along and interpret it in the most stupidly literal way possible, find some tiny point where it fails to correspond perfectly with the actual topic of discussion, and decide that this disagreement is an utterly devastating counter-argument to whatever point you were trying to make.If the topic is anything remotely controversial, like religion or politics, tens of somebodys will jump on the stupidly literal interpretation, and arguments about the validity of the analogy will come to totally dominate the discussion.

This is incredibly frustrating, because argument by analogy is a tool with a long and distinguished history among intelligent people debating topics in good faith. On the Internet, though, it fails every time, or close enough that it makes no difference. I don’t know quite why– it may be some trait of the geekier-than-usual people who hang out on web sites, or a result of the perceived high stakes of the debates causing people to be uninterested in good-faith argument, or something else altogether. But just about every time I see an attempt to argue by analogy on the Internet, the subsequent discussion falls apart into quibbling over tiny points of disagreement between the analogy and reality, completely ignoring the relevant point being made.

There are only two ways to go with this: either abandon the use of analogies entirely, or refuse to engage those who are only interested in quibbling with the analogy. Any other course of action risks disaster, in the form of complete distraction from the important argument to some complex squabble over trivialities.