In the weeds with analogies

Sometimes I make an argument from analogy, and I deeply regret it. I say, “X is Y for the same reason A is B,” and commenters counter, “But X and A are different!” and I say, “I never said they were the same!” And so it goes back and forth, and into the weeds.

Arguments by analogy are terrible. They never convince anyone who wasn’t convinced to begin with. Never use them. Or so I say. But before I know it I’m using analogies again, because they’re just so darn effective for making a point.

But maybe I’m still right? Perhaps analogies really don’t convince people who aren’t already convinced, it’s just that I have an audience who is already convinced. Come on, readers! Think for yourselves!

I’d like to share my thought process about arguments from analogy, and the best way to do this is to discuss a specific case study with all its messy details. So I came up with a novel analogy for a subject that most readers are familiar with: the tone argument.

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Link roundup: November 2019

A few plugs:

There is a video of me talking about the Ace Community Survey.  Also cat and dog persons.

I wrote about my approach to putting asexuality on my resume.

And now the links:

Why I Can’t Trust You With The Term “Purity Culture” – Coyote explains purity culture, which is the Christian culture surrounding chastity, and virginity before marriage.  And then explains how “purity culture” is now being (mis)used on Tumblr, to refer to… something to do with supposed problems around social justice discourse?  It’s rather confusing, honestly.  Anyway, if you’ve ever talked about Christian purity culture, Coyote has some insightful commentary that really lays out what you’ve been talking about, even if you hadn’t realized it.

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After atheism, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop

In New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed, Scott Alexander explains how New Atheism was a much bigger phenomenon than younger people realize, and theorizes about its demise.  Scott’s hypothesis is that New Atheism seamlessly transitioned into the social justice movement (while leaving the remaining atheist movement behind with all the anti-social-justice folks).  I don’t entirely agree, but I’ve advocated similar theories myself.

But as much as I enjoy theorizing about the demise of New Atheism, I’d like to highlight a point Scott makes in his conclusion:

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

The “current trend”, the current paradigm of the culture wars, is social justice.  As a former atheist activist, and current social justice activist, I am perpetually concerned that social justice will crash and burn the same way atheism did.  I mean, isn’t it practically guaranteed?  Do you really think that 10-20 years down the road, people will be concerned about the same things?

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Explain at various lengths

One sentence

This article explains itself at various lengths to demonstrate a common communication technique.

Two sentences

There’s a tradeoff between the accessibility of short explanations and detail of long explanations. Essays can get the best of both worlds by doing it both ways, and this essay is an explicit example.

One paragraph

If you’ve ever written essays on the internet, you have likely been disappointed to learn how few people read your words carefully. You can either get upset about it, or learn to account for it. Different readers have different degrees of investment, and you want them all to come away with something. Having multiple explanations of different lengths makes your main point accessible to everyone, while also rewarding those who pay closer attention. Although this is a common essay structure, we don’t always think about it, so this essay explores the structure by way of direct example and discussion.

Three paragraphs

One of my major goals as an essayist is to explain difficult concepts in an understandable way, while sacrificing little complexity. In this way, I give myself impossible tasks, like explaining no-go theorems in quantum mechanics, or explaining how race is constructed in different cultures. And I do all of this on the internet, where people have notoriously short attention spans, because there is so much other internet to look at.

Nonetheless, there are techniques for explaining the impossible. One technique starts with the realization that some people only read the first and last paragraphs, some people only read the first few sentences, and some only read the title. Each of these parts of the essay should summarize the main point, and provide detail as space allows. Often, the length of the explanation dictates what kind of detail is provided. A sentence merely states the thesis. A few lines or paragraphs might explain the motivation. Many paragraphs will include details for people who are unconvinced or want to learn more. In this way, essays repeatedly reinforce the main point without feeling repetitive.

Writing explanations of different lengths is a useful technique that accounts for many kinds of readers, and invites each reader to read more. Of course, it does not substitute for other common writing techniques, such as the opening hook, or using a narrative structure. And it’s not a technique I use all the time myself. Nonetheless, it’s a good tool to keep in mind, and use when appropriate.  This essay adopts the gimmick of explicitly labeling each explanation, which serves to make the technique more memorable to both the reader, and myself.

One sentence

I have demonstrated and justified a technique for explaining complex topics, by having a series of explanations of different lengths.

Origami:, sourced from Eric Gjerde’s Origami Tessellations, which credits it to Shuzo Fujimoto.

This month, I felt like posting one of my really old models, this one made in *checks notes* 2014. This is surely one of the very earliest tessellations I tried making.  But surely this was after practicing a few times, because these aren’t exactly a cake walk to make.

Providing a back light for the tessellation illuminates its structure.  The tessellation consists of a series of hexagonal twists and triangular twists.  Adjacent twists are connected by pleats, which are darker because the light is going through three layers of paper instead of one.

I looked up the symmetry group, and I’m pretty sure this is p6 wallpaper group.