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.

Anger, civility, and car horns

Most of you are familiar with the “tone argument” even if you don’t know it by that name. Basically, it goes, “Activists sometimes have the right ideas, but do they have to be so angry? If they were a bit more civil, maybe we could get things done around here.” The counterargument is that activists are angry because they need to be.

The tone argument has been the subject of endless debates in both atheist and social justice movements. However, the tone argument has gone out of fashion in recent years (blame Trump, who provided an obvious justification for anger).  That gives us enough distance to make it a good subject for a case study.

So let’s talk about car horns. Most people will agree with me, that the sound of cars beeping at each other is irritating as hell. Why can’t they get over their road rage, and just shut up? In fact, why do car horns even exist? Couldn’t we just ban them? But no, you can’t ban car horns, and in fact regulations (in the US at least) require all cars to have them. And the reason is obvious: car horns prevent accidents. Our collective irritation at car horns is less important than preventing injury and death.

Angry activism is kind of like car horns. Yes we know it’s irritating, but they’re needed to attract attention towards change that helps people. Maybe some instances of angry activism aren’t really helping, just as some car beeps are solely expressions of road rage. But anger is still a really important avenue of expression.

What good is the analogy?

Let’s begin by introducing a bit of terminology. The target of the analogy, is the thing we’re trying to argue about (i.e. angry activism). The source of the analogy is the new topic we’re introducing in order to compare to the target (i.e. car horns). Generally speaking, in order for an analogy to be any good, the source needs to be easier to understand or less controversial than the target.

My second rule, for an analogy to be any good, is that it needs to be more effective than a direct argument.

Every argument by analogy has a corresponding direct argument. For example, instead of analogizing angry activism to car horns, and then explaining why car horns are necessary, I could just write out the argument for car horns, and substitute all the keywords so that it’s an argument about angry activism from the beginning. Let’s try it out.

Most people will agree with me, that angry activists are irritating as hell. Why can’t they get over themselves, and just shut up? In fact, why do we even accept anger as a valid form of activism? Couldn’t we just ignore them? But no, we can’t ignore angry activism. And the reason is obvious: anger gets things done. Our collective irritation at angry activists is less important than changing society for the better.

To my eyes, something is lost in the word substitution after all. That’s an indication that the analogy is producing value. When it comes to car horns, we have some background information, assumptions, and intuition that make the conclusion feel natural. But our intuition about car horns is hard to explain or justify, and thus it’s hard to make an effective argument just by writing it out the argument for car horns and then substituting keywords.  Generally speaking, analogies work best when we have some intuition about the source domain that is difficult to justify explicitly.

One domain where arguments by analogy are especially effective, is moral reasoning. Most of our moral beliefs are based on intuition, and most people have difficulty explaining the underlying justifications. Or maybe you can explain the justifications, but your explanation is completely different from mine. Arguments by analogy allow us to transfer conclusions from one domain to another while bypassing our disagreements over the underlying reasons.

But here’s another way of looking at it: the analogy is tricking us! The analogy encourages us to import assumptions from the source to the target, without justifying any of these assumption in the new domain, without stating what the assumptions are, or even admitting that they exist! What do you think?

Analogy failure modes

There are several common ways that arguments by analogy can fail. The first way, is if the arguer and listener disagree on the source of the analogy. A quick internet search reveals that some people believe car horns do not improve road safety, and should be banned. For such people, the analogy falls flat on its face. You might even find people who disagree on car horns, but agree on angry activism, putting them in an awkward position. This is why the source of the analogy must be uncontroversial.

A second failure mode is if the conclusion in the source domain does not obviously correspond to the desired conclusion in the target domain. For example, consider the following argument:

What is our conclusion about car horns? We agreed that car horns should be legal, but at no point did we conclude that car horns are good. The argument practically concedes that car horns are bad in the majority of cases they are used. By analogy, we can agree that it should be legal for activists to express anger (something nobody is arguing with), but we do not agree that angry activism is good. Perhaps by discouraging angry activism as much as possible–but without going so far as to make it illegal–we ensure that it will only be used in actual emergencies.

What’s going on here? In our original analogy, we implied equivalence between “car horns should be legal” and “angry activism should be a socially acceptable form of activism”. But someone else might decide that “car horns should be legal” is actually more equivalent to “angry activism should be legal”. And maybe they’re right! When you invent an analogy, you need to pay special attention to the source conclusion, ensuring that it actually corresponds to the target conclusion. Otherwise you get people agreeing with the analogy, but saying that it the analogy supports whatever it is they believe instead.

A third failure mode is if the assumptions in the source domain do not carry over to the target domain. For example, there’s an assumption that car horns effectively draw our attention to emergency situations. But is it true that angry activism effectively draws our attention to important social issues? This might be precisely the issue in contention! The analogy to car horns does nothing to demonstrate the effectiveness of angry activism; instead, it assumes agreement on that point.

How (not) to argue about analogies

Let’s talk about failure modes that aren’t real failure modes. They’re just bullshit things people bring up to dispute arguments by analogy.

I mentioned such an argument at the beginning of the essay. “But the source and target are different!” Yes, and that is what we call an analogy. Think about what you’re trying to say.  What, precisely, is different about the source and target? And why does this difference matter?

People are often good at pointing out differences, but terrible at explaining why the differences matter. For example:

You know how car horns are different from angry activists? Car accidents are easily quantifiable, whereas societal prejudice is not.

But so what? Do car accidents actually need to be quantifiable for the argument to work?  Personally, I’ve never read any research quantifying car accidents, but I still feel persuaded that car horns are likely necessary.

Another thing that people complain about in analogies, is when something really evil is compared with something only mildly evil. In the case of car horns vs angry activism, maybe this could go either way–car accidents and racism are both pretty evil. But suppose we were comparing sexual violence and tea (you can look that one up, it’s a popular analogy). Some people might object that sexual violence is much worse than anything you can do with tea. But remember: pointing out a difference between the source and target isn’t enough, you have to explain how the difference is relevant.


An argument by analogy is when you import knowledge about one domain (the source) to the argument at hand (the target). Analogies work best when we agree on the source, but our agreement is based on some sort of intuition that is difficult to explain directly. Analogies have many pitfalls, but some objections are just bullshit, like when people point out differences between the source and target but neglect to explain how the differences matter.

Arguments by analogy are tricky to use both correctly and convincingly. But if I may return to my first point, analogies are effective at convincing people who are already convinced to begin with. Which is to say, analogies may be at their best when not serving the function of an argument at all. Analogies work best as rhetorical hooks, or lenses to explore a topic.


  1. Mara Jade says

    That was the first time I had ever heard of the analogy between sexual violence and tea. Found a video on youtube used by British law enforcement. Very strange….

  2. yourecrashingbutyourenowave says

    I think that analogy is a tool that should be used more often by activists- specifically, I think it can be useful for having intracommunity discussions/discussions between different marginalized groups. The specific example I’m thinking off is from a post on Tumblr I’ve long since lost that was explaining something about how “all lives matter” was bad. They were specifically addressing white women (and feminists, more specifically), and made an analogy between the phrase “all lives matter” and “not all men” to explain why they didn’t like it. I think this is an approach that activists should be making more often, as it is able to help build connections and solidarity between different marginalized groups. It’s a very specific use of analogy though, and requires an understanding of particular audiences that I feel like a lot of other analogies fail to think of.

  3. says

    Yeah, that’s a great example. And I should clarify, that when I say the source domain must be uncontroversial, that’s relative to the audience. So if you have an audience of feminists, it’s uncontroversial to suggest that “not all men” is a bad expression. And using that as the source of the analogy demonstrates understanding of the audience, and builds rapport.

  4. says

    Car horns and angry activists are a silly analogy. I wouldn’t take it seriously. Such silly arguments remind me countless similar arguments made by Christians (“a watch, therefore a watchmaker; a world, therefore a creator”).

    People are often good at pointing out differences, but terrible at explaining why the differences matter.

    I wouldn’t even bother pointing out the differences. At best I’d say, “Your so called ‘argument’ is ridiculous, do you have anything better to say about the topic, or should I just conclude that your opinions aren’t worth listening to?” Although probably I’d just ignore the so called “argument” without even bothering to point out how illogical it is.

    I do use analogies in arguments, but only where it actually makes sense.
    “If it was wrong for Nazis to confiscate real estate owned by Jews, then it is also wrong for Israel to confiscate real estate owned by Palestinians.”
    “If it was wrong for country X to commit a war crime Y, then it is also wrong for the USA to commit war crime Y.”
    “If it is legal for a man and a woman to get married, then it should be legal also for same sex couples to get married—that’s called equality.”
    “If some society chooses to enact laws based upon the harm principle, then the same principle should be applied to all actions equally. For example, if it is legal to drink alcohol, then it should be legal also to smoke weed, since weed doesn’t cause any more harm than other currently legal addictive substances.”
    “If Christian prayers in public schools are legal, then Satanist prayers must be legal as well? No, you don’t like Satanist rituals in public schools? Then why don’t we agree upon church and state separation and have no prayers in public schools at all?”
    “If a man who chooses to get himself sterilized gets no social condemnation, then women also should be free to choose to remain childfree.”
    “A man who has many female sex partners is a role model; a woman who has many male sex partners is a slut. How comes?”
    “If you think that you have a right to police what I do with my body, then maybe I ought to have a right to tell you where to put your Bible? If you wouldn’t like to be told how to live, so why are you trying to police other people’s lifestyles?”

    I use analogies only when they point out hypocrisy or double standards. A rational person who isn’t a hypocrite cannot excuse USA war crimes while condemning war crimes committed by other countries. However, a rational person could theoretically believe that car horns are necessary while angry activists cause more harm than good.

    By the way, I do oppose tone policing most of the time (it depends on the situation). But if the best argument against tone policing I had heard was a comparison of angry activists with car horns, I sure as hell wouldn’t buy the idea that tone policing can be bad.

    But remember: pointing out a difference between the source and target isn’t enough, you have to explain how the difference is relevant.

    No, the burden of proof is on you. I don’t have to point out a difference between the source and target, nor do I have to explain how the difference is relevant. You have to prove me why your bullshit analogy is something that I should take seriously.

    Granted, in formal debates sometimes you often have to refute your opponents’ “arguments” even when they are illogical and ridiculous. In case of car horns and activists, I’d argue that car horns are necessary, because humans still haven’t figured out a better way how to prevent accidents in situations where it’s necessary to attract another person’s attention. Humans tolerate the annoyance of car horns, because we cannot solve the problem (accidents) in any other better way. Angry activists, on the other hand, aren’t absolutely necessary. In fact, a non-angry activist can do the same job and probably they can do it better than the angry one. If some activist needs to convince others who disagree with them, then a non-angry person who is patient and polite towards the clueless public will be more convincing than the angry one—being angry and mean only alienates an audience who already disagrees with you.

  5. says

    @Andreas Avester #4,
    Glad you think the car horn analogy is silly. I wouldn’t want to waste a good analogy on a case study about analogies.

    Of interest, my take on burden of proof, from 2016. Really, when we’re talking about informal arguments, nobody has any burden of proof, because anyone can just drop the argument and move on to better things. However, I advocate a notion of burden of proof which answers the question, “Whose turn it is to speak, to productively continue the argument?” If I advance an analogy, and you just point out a difference between the source and target, that’s not enough to go on, because I don’t know why you think the difference is important. Granted, you may not want to continue an argument with someone who starts with an analogy you find ridiculous.

    Humans tolerate the annoyance of car horns, because we cannot solve the problem (accidents) in any other better way. Angry activists, on the other hand, aren’t absolutely necessary. In fact, a non-angry activist can do the same job and probably they can do it better than the angry one.

    Great example of a valid counterargument to the analogy.

  6. milu says

    So… analogies should be legal??? 😀

    Oh I agree with your conclusion, or the conclusion to your conclusion. I can only recall finding analogies helpful when they gave an opinion I already felt in agreement with some rhetorical pith and logical charm. On the other hand, when hearing an analogy as a counter argument I think I tend to get frustrated, as I often experience it as a distraction to have to go through the work of debunking the analogy. But sometimes that debunking itself may be a productive exercise in critical thinking that helps me find new subtlety and depth about my own beliefs.
    (However, that can be said about any thoughtful contradictory discussion.)

  7. says

    However, I advocate a notion of burden of proof which answers the question, “Whose turn it is to speak, to productively continue the argument?” If I advance an analogy, and you just point out a difference between the source and target, that’s not enough to go on, because I don’t know why you think the difference is important.

    The problem is that uttering some nonsensical claim takes much less time that refuting it. For example, it takes only a couple of seconds to say, “The eye is too complex to have evolved.” Refuting such a claim, on the other hand, requires a several hour lecture by a scientist or at least somebody who has studied evolution.

    People who enjoy making nonsensical and illogical arguments can easily engage in Gish gallop:

    My first argument is that angry activists shouldn’t face social disapproval, because annoying TV advertisements are acceptable.
    My second argument is that angry activists shouldn’t face social disapproval, because ugly clothes are acceptable.
    My third argument is that angry activists shouldn’t face social disapproval, because boring movie plots are acceptable.

    My fiftieth argument is that angry activists shouldn’t face social disapproval, because car horns are acceptable.

    Now you can have fun spending the next 20 hours at your keyboard typing rebuttals for each argument I just made.

    Of course, my example is silly and intentionally reduced to absurd, but the problem is real. Coming up with bullshit claims is easy. It takes almost no effort at all. Nor does it take much time. If people weren’t demanded to make logical and reasonable arguments before their words are taken seriously, the resulting “debates” would be ridiculous.

    Granted, you may not want to continue an argument with someone who starts with an analogy you find ridiculous.

    In my native language there’s a saying that one shouldn’t argue with fools, because they will drag you down to their level and then win with experience and persistence.

    When you choose to publicly refute bullshit claims, you are giving a platform and some credibility to the person who made up this nonsense. Thus it becomes simpler for the fraudster to spread their ideas and gain more fame.

    Besides, the time you waste refuting nonsensical claims is a time you aren’t spending on more productive discussions.

    Of course, there are situations where it is necessary to refute and debunk nonsensical claims. For example, it’s necessary to educate people about how the claims made by anti-vaxxers are wrong and harmful. Some ideologies are too widespread to just ignore them even if said theories are so ridiculous that even thinking about them makes more educated people facepalm.

    However, if a random person in some blog’s comment section made a silly claim that nobody agrees with anyway, then I wouldn’t bother refuting it.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Arguments by analogy are terrible. They never convince anyone who wasn’t convinced to begin with.

    You didn’t support either of these claims very well, and I think I disagree. Since I like irony, I’ll mention that the problems you identified about such arguments relate to having little or no support for the assertions that are made, or to leveraging assumptions/intuitions which are implicit, without properly specifying them and so forth.
    Perhaps there’s some kind of distinction to be made, about what you call an argument by analogy on the one hand, and on the other, garden-variety analogies which appear routinely in natural language in the form of simile, metaphor, and the like. It doesn’t seem right to say that the latter are “not argumentative,” although that is somewhat tempting. But I’m not really sure what to say about it…..
    I just used “garden-variety” for example, and you probably didn’t care that it makes use of botanical/horticultural concepts (certainly not the topic at hand). It wasn’t there only to make a point that some analogies can be rather innocuous and may escape your attention/concern (but it’s not very clear why). I also wanted something to help me describe what I was talking about, something that would do the job well enough and do it succinctly. The concept that came to mind is familiar enough (I hope), so I didn’t need to use tons of words trying to express the thought some other way. (Those tons of words wouldn’t offer a whole lot more precision, and they would seem to take us deep into the weeds, as you put it. This time, at least, an analogy was a relatively unproblematic option, not the kind of thing you wanted to avoid.)
    Before “garden-variety,” I also used “support” and “leveraging,” a pair of terms used in a concrete sense for structural/mechanical things, which were applied to “stuff” that is much more abstract. And until now, while I’m discussing them a bit, I did both without saying anything about why it’s reasonable/acceptable to talk this way about the things I was talking about, why you should agree with me about them, etc. Anyway, I certainly don’t have any deep regrets about that.
    You did something similar with “source” and “target.” Not that it’s a big deal, but those were odd choices to me…. I don’t know what picture I’m supposed to have. A kitchen faucet is a source, and a dartboard is a target. However, as far as I know, either or both of them may not be the sort of thing you were trying to express with those terms. I think I probably understand the target metaphor, that the argument is aiming for something. But the source is a source of what?

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I can think of analogies that have helped changed my mind on issues, by helping me look at something from a different perspective. One familiar example is Douglas Hofstadter’s “Person Paper on Purity in Language” from Metamagical Themas (can’t find the whole thing on the internet but here is an excerpt: By examining how jarring it would be if racism was as deeply embedded into English as sexism is, it helps us see the sexism in our language in a new way.

  10. brucegee1962 says

    Thank you, Andreas, for coming through when Google did not! (For some reason the address that Google gave me yesterday led to a dead page — today it works. Hmm.)
    Anyway, this is a great example of argument by analogy. Hofstadter wrote at the end: “The entire point of it is to use something that we find shocking as leverage to illustrate the fact that something that we usually close our eyes to is also very shocking. The most effective way I know to do so is to develop an extended analogy with something known as shocking and reprehensible. Racism is that thing, in this case. I am happy with this piece, despite-but also because of-its shock value. I think it makes its point better than any factual article could.”

  11. cheerfuloptimistic (aka M.) says

    This has me thinking about comparisons of one form of oppression to another. Like how people will say stuff like “You wouldn’t say that to a [fill-in-the-blank] person”, which they are usually wrong about.

    For example, physically disabled people have taken issue with neurodivergent, able-bodied people thinking that physical disabilities are taken more seriously/treated with more respect than mental illnesses/autism/etc.

    As another example [CW: rape], people trying to support male rape survivors will sometimes say that a female victim in the same situation would have been taken more seriously and her rapist would certainly have been punished (socially and financially, if not legally). This ignores that female survivors who come forward are frequently subjected to victim blaming, assumptions that they’re lying, or other such nonsense. Plus, there isn’t any shortage of men who’ve assaulted women and still have thriving careers.

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