Would you jump off an analogy?

I think this strip is witty enough, in a changing the topic kind of way, but anyone taking this seriously as a counterargument would be missing the point [edited to add: see postscript], and I’ll use that to illustrate another point.

Alt-text: "And it says a lot about you that when your friends jump off a bridge en masse, your first thought is apparently 'my friends are all foolish and I won't be like them' and not 'are my friends ok?'"

Let’s assume “all my friends” are going to a party. It doesn’t make much difference. What I think the offscreen strawman should be saying in in the last panel would be:

  • “So literally every single person you know is going to this party? If not, why are you equivocating? Can’t your argument hold without your changing meanings of expressions in the middle of it but pretending we’re still talking about the same thing?”
  • “Are you going to this party because you’re thinking that some harm is going to befall everyone who doesn’t? Is that how you derive ‘I should go’ from ‘All my friends are going’? If not, what has what you just said have to do with this issue? Are you trying to change the subject?”
  • “Do you, in fact, understand how analogies work? That they stand or fall by the parts that are relevantly similar to the thing they’re an analogy of, not the rest of it?”

That last is the point I want to make. An analogy is illustrating a thing, let’s say thing A (going to a party because all your friends are going), by comparing it to thing B (jumping off a bridge because all your friends did so), by saying both have properties x, y, and z (doing something regardless of what the thing itself is like because your friends did). Of course, both things will have some further properties that they do not share (people jumping off a bridge would have to have a good reason to do so). If you’re looking at those features, though, guess what? You’re not understanding the analogy, or you’re willingly arguing back with sophisms that have nothing to do with the original point.

You can, of course, argue against an analogy by saying it does not hold. There isn’t a very good example of that for the “jumping off a bridge” argument, because if it’s used properly, it’s making the true point that it’s a stupid argument, more like revealing your own psychological weaknesses than giving a reason, that you should do something (at least if that something is not totally harmless) just because everyone’s doing it. (Calvin’s mom in Calvin and Hobbes uses a more effective analogy, although specifically in relation to smoking cigars: “Flatulence could be all the rage, but it would still be disgusting.”) I suppose a possible argument against this analogy could be “Jumping off a bridge would be harmful, this is neutral, so I can do this for no good reason.” But that would only work if it was neutral. You’d still be left with having said you want to do something for a bad reason. If that’s not your reason, then why are you using it as an argument? Why don’t you just say what better reasons you have to go? (If you actually meant “I want to be there because all my friends will be there and it’s going to be really fun to see them all,” then replying using the bridge analogy would be nonsense in the first place. But then the problem would not be with the analogy but with people not understanding it.)

When you come across an analogy, look at the relevant parts. The only thing you can do otherwise is confuse the issue. Even “winning” an argument like that would really be nothing but cheating. Missing the point of analogies and then being smug about it strikes me as annoyingly stupid, as being smug about being right when you’re wrong always does. I’m not sure how often people actually do that seriously, but there’s another and more important reason to understand how analogies work: that you don’t accept genuinely bad analogies and false equivalences, and that you can argue against them properly when you see them.

PS. On later reflection, I was partly wrong here. There is a way in which the strip’s treatment of the analogy could be meaningful. You could see an analogy between the judgement of “all my friends” about the bridge and the party or whatever, if it was about trusting their judgement whether to go. In that case, though, I’m not sure what exactly the situation could be. This doesn’t affect the point of the post, it just makes the example less apt.

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