Why nerds hate analogies

Nerds hate analogies. I know this because I hate analogies. I know this because I nitpick analogies. Well, I used to.

I’m not using the word nerd pejoratively here. I’m using it as a sort of shorthand for sciency techy people who like facts and logic. So basically… me.

But why? Why do nerds hate analogies? I’ve thought about this for a while and I think I’ve got a bit of a handle on it. Then again I might be full of crap. So don’t listen too closely.

I think this all has to do with arguments.

What Is An Argument

This is a terrible place to start. Sorry for that. But I’m not actually asking what an argument is. That’s pretty obvious, like asking what a star is. An argument is when you have two people with different points of view talking. That’s it.

What happens after that isn’t at all obvious. Because we can all agree what arguments are but we can’t seem to figure out what arguments are for. Like… why do we have them?

For some people, this is like asking what stars are for. They just are! It’s all very obvious.

But as with everything, it’s not so obvious at all. There are at least two things to consider. One is what we say arguments are for. This is easy to figure out. Just ask anyone. You’ll get ten different answers, and different kinds of arguments have different timbres, but they’ll all tend to cluster around facts and logic and trying to get someone else to understand your (obviously correct) view. Leaving aside that other kind of argument, which is actually just a fight and a different beast altogether.

We talk about arguments like they’re debates. And that’s not a terrible way to think about the way we think about them. In an ideal world, two people with different points of view get to present their point of view, and then at the end we all sit down and agree who has the stronger argument. The loser submits, the winner comes out victorious, and facts and logic win the day.

Now if you read that and said “but that never happens!” to yourself, you’re absolutely right.

Because that’s not what arguments are at all. I know this. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen an argument that works like that.

Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people. I don’t think I am. I think most, if not all people work this way. We say that arguments are about facts and logic and strengths of positions, and making good points, and having discussions that lead to agreement… Yet every argument I’ve seen leads to all the participants slinking away to find better arguments, not better positions.

People are slippery that way.

What Are Arguments For

Arguments actually function as a defense mechanism for things you’ve already decided. If you think there’s any semblance of some kind of scientific method in arguments (and a lot of the time in science, but that’s another matter altogether), you’re either a very special snowflake or a very deluded snowflake. I mean, you must know that your response to feeling like you’ve lost an argument, especially one you care deeply about, isn’t to throw your position out the window, but to figure out a better way to justify your existing beliefs.

Arguments are actually kind of traumatic. Someone has come along and is trying to mess up the internal consistency of your thought. Somewhere deep inside you know that your already have a crazy shortage of consistency, so your brain just needs to defend, defend, defend, until you can no longer defend. Then you take a shower the next morning and you have a bolt of insight!… that magically happens to bolster your position.

A Brief Word On Logic

Before I go any further down this path I want to talk about logic for a second.

Logic is a tool. So are a lot people who talk about it a lot. (Excepting people actually studying logic, but that’s a whole other thing.)

It’s a tool that can prove nonsense. Logic takes inputs and produces outputs. The problem is the age old problem of garbage in, garbage out. So let’s say you’re using logic and you feed it a bunch of false premises. You get a result that doesn’t make any sense.

That’s the problem with logic, right?

Well, no, not really. Because most of the people who use “logic” are actually using the word logic and not actual using logic.

I remember reading a book by Alvin Plantinga that had a lot of formal logic in it. I couldn’t make much sense of it because I’m very much not Alvin Plantinga. But the point remains, we just don’t use formal logic. Or really even informal logic.

Or really logic at all. We say “logic” but we mean “this makes sense to me”.

The really annoying result of this is people who use logical fallacies as counter-arguments. Straw man! Appeal to authority! Appeal to the stone! Ad hominem!

Here we have a bunch of yammering ninnies who know enough to critique the informal logic of a statement without actually examining its soundness. Remember, just because some argument has a logical fallacy doesn’t mean it’s not true! (You could almost say that an argument from logical fallacy is… a logical fallacy. But then the snake begins to eat its own tail and universe is divided by zero or something.) That you can analyze a statement by scrolling through a Wikipedia page doesn’t prove or disprove anything.

Okay, so it maybe proves that you’re a jackass. But that’s beside the point.

A Brief Word On A Brief Word On Logic

So why am I talking about logic, other than to gripe about some internet knownothings?

It’s because it’s important to what I’m about to say. I don’t know how to express this well, so I’ll tell you a story.

I knew a guy who was very concerned about facts and logic. He was always talking about is this logical, is that logical. He would take really defined stances on things based on logic (which wasn’t actual logic mind you, just whether or not he could make something make sense to himself). He wasn’t doing anything wrong, not at all. I was really impressed with the amount of thought he put into doing thing that other people just did.

He didn’t like to speed on the highway. Because the speed limit was a law, just like not setting fire to a nunnery was a law, and if we sped on the highway, didn’t that mean that we were also implicitly approving of burning down that nunnery? (There’s a deeper law about speeding on the highway called “not putting your family in danger by obstructing the flow of traffic”, but I didn’t come to that idea until later.) For a while I was very impressed with this argument, except that I kept speeding anyways.

I was impressed but not persuaded. I might have agreed, intellectually, about this kind of absolutist framework of viewing the law as a monolithic entity where speeding and murder were on the same level. But it didn’t change my behaviour. I actually wondered about that a few times. I didn’t realise at the time that I actually didn’t agree. I just couldn’t put into words my objections, which weren’t logical and rational and didn’t have the hollow ring of facts about them, but were actually simply that some laws are law-eyer than others, and that morality isn’t decided by a penal code.

Persuasion is important. Think of all the things you’ve been persuaded to do for love. You may have even converted to a religion for love (and meant it!). Look at all the people who suddenly become devout Christians or Jews or what have you, exactly when it’s conveniently required. Love has this way of making up your mind for you. There’s all kind of stuff that suddenly clicks into place. You become a different person, or at least a different kind of person.

Love kind of short circuits the bits of your brain that want to grasp the facade of logic.

And so do analogies.

An Analogy From Analogies

If you’re a good nerd, you probably hate the meandering train of reasoning I used to get here. I made a few analogies, talked about logic, told a story, then made another analogy. That’s okay!

I did it all on purpose.

Sorry.

The point I’m trying to make is that logic is a domain-specific thing that has certain uses. Arguments are domain-specific things that have certain uses. They are technically meant to do one thing but are press-ganged into doing another, more pernicious thing, which is defense of pre-existing positions.

Analogies are different.

They’re not about facts. They’re about state transfer. By using an analogy, you’re trying to express to someone else your state of mind. You’re making a comparison that is meant to explain to someone why you feel a certain way without using tools like logic and arguments.

It feels a bit like cheating.

There’s a long oral tradition of using extended analogues (aka parables) to help people understand something. You may not like this. If you’re a super-nerd you’ll probably say something like Well, that’s because human minds are silly things that evolved to take stories more seriously than logic and facts. Because after all, the end goal of humanity should be to become correct-thinking computers, right? All this mushy meat instead of the glorious computational accuracy of silicon! What a shame.

That may be. But the reality remains that we are human, and we do respond to stories and analogies and anecdotes far better than we do to lists of facts.

Like, it’s safer to send your kids to the park down the street than it is to let them play in your backyard… if you have a pool. But we don’t fear the pool because we know the pool. We fear the child-snatcher because that narrative has potency.

Analogies are essentially stories, right? And they function in the same way stories do. They provide a slight narrative, they give a small insight into how you think.

Analogies are tools of persuasion. They’re not tools of argument and defense. They can be used that way and maybe even often are, but they’re particularly hard to “defend” against.

But we’re going to try anyways!

Pay No Attention To The Analogy Behind The Curtain

There’s no good way to respond to an analogy without responding in kind. A better analogy. But then you get trapped in an analogy loop where everyone is agreeing to disagree because we all kind of understand where each other is coming from. And we can’t have that.

So the standard nerd turns to the standard nerd toolbox to defeat the analogy…

Logic will save the day!

If analogies short-circuit the logic/argument paradigm, there’s only one way to get back on the offence. Pick apart the analogy. It’s not exact enough! The analogy breaks down! It’s not good! Make a better analogy!

This is all standard stuff. But you have to understand that it’s a distraction the same way presenting a logic fallacy is a distraction. It’s not really salient. We all know analogies are inexact and break down somewhere. If they didn’t break down they’d just be exact descriptions of the argument at hand and would lose their usefulness. Which, come to think of it, if you’re of that sort of disposition, is exactly what you want.

So you nitpick the analogy until it breaks down, wash your hands, and pretend it’s been a good day’s work. The analogy has been short-circuited, and we’re back to logic/argument land, where the free-flowing dialogue can go on forever with no one ever having to adopt a different (read: unsettling, new) opinion.

Persuasion

My point is that analogies are tools of persuasion.

Arguments are not.

Analogies are state transfers.

Arguments are not.

Analogies can be effective.

Argument are almost always not.

Analogies aren’t the only tool of persuasion. It’s just one of many. It might not even be a very good one. But my point is a little bit more meta than simply facts vs analogies. Arguments are not effective in drawing people together. They don’t naturally help people (especially on the internet) understand each others state of mind better. It naturally creates an us vs them mentality, and an isn’t an us vs them mentality the root of all violence? The cavemen who wear pelts of deer who must kill the cavemen who wear pelts of the unclean animal.

And yet we argue. All. The. Time.

I’m not sure what that says about us humans.

Present-day skeptics are smug, lazy, and pointed in the wrong direction

crop-circles-pictures-1

Present-day scepticism sure has taken a turn for the worse, hasn’t it? There’s nothing particularly brave or interesting about debunking alien abductions, crop circles, psychics, miracles, etc. Most of that stuff debunks itself.

Try instead being sceptical about received notions. Be sceptical about what you think you know. And not just what you think you know about otherworldly phenomena (though, by all means, be sceptical about that), but also about everyday, ordinary things.

For instance, when someone asks how much stable institutions promote economic growth, the traditional assumption is that stable institutions must somehow promote growth of some kind (even if we don’t know how much), because states with long-term positive growth seem to have stable institutions. A sceptic might ask whether we’re creating a causation out of a correlation. Maybe the situation is the inverse, that states with long-term growth tend to generate stable institutions.

Or, for another example, you could be sceptical of the idea that science can explain everything. You can be sceptical, because this seems to be a worldview narrative instead of actual objective reality.

Or you could be sceptical of the ability of logic to describe reality, or at least to describe a reality that you’d want to live in.

Basically, take anything from the Enlightenment, and therefore from the Greeks, and be sceptical of that. The Enlightenment is the air that we breathe, the water in which we swim, and it’s important that we remember that despite the massive benefits of the Enlightenment (though, of course, we should be sceptical that these benefits actually flow from the Enlightenment), it’s not sacred. It seems like it is. And to some people, I suppose it actually is.

Fairies, ghosts, occult phenomena, and the appearances of angels and demons are the soft targets. They allow you to rationally debunk something with facts and logic, allow you to be lazy and superior, to get that us vs them rush, without having to do any really hard work. (See also /r/atheism.)

What I’m saying is if your scepticism is (in general) pointed at someone else, you’re using your so-called scepticism as an us-vs-them marker. If it’s pointed at someone else, then you’ve taken your first step toward the violence inherent in demonising (ironically in this case) the Other. If, on the other hand, your scepticism is pointed at yourself, the worst you can do is demonise yourself.

Crime and (not) punishment

I keep hearing from people in my circles (lay-people, pastors, mentors, bosses, friends, etc) that our justice system doesn’t work.

More to the point, they don’t like that we’ve started rehabilitating criminals instead of punishing them.

I’ve heard time and time again that a massive surge in crime has accompanied our new, soft, bleeding-heart liberal justice system.

You could maybe make that case in the 80s. You’d have to ignore that correlation does not equal causation, but you could make that case. Crime was rising rapidly. Things looked bleak.

But crime has fallen precipitously. It’s at its lowest rates in, what, 50 years? We haven’t changed the justice system. We’re still trying to rehabilitate offenders. We’re still not bringing down the wrath of God on guilty heads.

So what now? Are you going to be honest and just admit that your view must have been wrong (I mean, logic and everything)? Or is it the justice system’s doing when crime goes up, but not when it goes down?

Look at it from another direction. Perhaps rehabilitation’s fruits are finally being reaped. Maybe all the hard work of trying to help people be better people paid off after a while.

It’s just as plausible, right?