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On arguing by analogy

Filed under: — gavin @ 2 September 2014

Climate blogs and comment threads are full of ‘arguments by analogy’. Depending on what ‘side’ one is on, climate science is either like evolution/heliocentrism/quantum physics/relativity or eugenics/phrenology/Ptolemaic cosmology/phlogiston. Climate contrarians are either like flat-earthers/birthers/moon-landing hoaxers/vaccine-autism linkers or Galileo/stomach ulcer-Helicobacter proponents/Wegener/Copernicus. Episodes of clear misconduct or dysfunction in other spheres of life are closely parsed only to find clubs with which to beat an opponent. Etc. Etc.

While the users of these ‘arguments’ often assume that they are persuasive or illuminating, the only thing that is revealed is how the proposer feels about climate science. If they think it is generally on the right track, the appropriate analogy is some consensus that has been validated many times and the critics are foolish stuck-in-the-muds or corporate disinformers, and if they don’t, the analogy is to a consensus that was overturned and where the critics are the noble paradigm-shifting ‘heretics’. This is far closer to wishful thinking than actual thinking, but it does occasionally signal clearly who is not worth talking to. For instance, an article pretending to serious discussion on climate that starts with a treatise about Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union is not to be taken seriously.

Since the truth or falsity of any scientific claim can only be evaluated on it’s own terms – and not via its association with other ideas or the character of its proponents – this kind of argument is only rhetorical. It gets no-one closer to the truth of any particular matter. The fact is that many, many times, mainstream science has survived multiple challenges by ‘sceptics’, and that sometimes (though not at all often), a broad consensus has been overturned. But knowing which case is which in any particular issue simply by looking for points of analogy with previous issues, but without actually examining the data and theory directly, is impossible. The point being that arguments by analogy are not persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you on the substance.

Given the rarity of a consensus-overturning event, the only sensible prior is to assume that a consensus is probably valid absent very strong evidence to the contrary, which is incidentally the position adopted by the arch-sceptic Bertrand Russell. The contrary assumption implies there are no a priori reasons to think any scientific body of work is credible which, while consistent, is not one that I have ever found anyone professing in practice. Far more common is a selective rejection of science dependent on other reasons and that is not a coherent philosophical position at all.

Analogies do have their place of course – usually to demonstrate that a supposedly logical point falls down completely when applied to a different (but analogous) case. For instance, an implicit claim that all correct scientific theories are supported by a unanimity of Nobel Prize winners/members of the National Academies, is easily dismissed by reference to Kary Mullis or Peter Duesberg. A claim that CO2 can’t possibly have a significant effect solely because of its small atmospheric mixing ratio, can be refuted as a general claim by reference to other substances (such as arsenic, plutonium or Vitamin C) whose large effects due to small concentrations are well known. Or if a claim is made that all sciences except climate science are devoid of uncertainty, this is refuted by reference to, well, any other scientific field.

To be sure, I am not criticising the use of metaphor in a more general sense. Metaphors that use blankets to explaining how the greenhouse effect works, income and spending in your bank account to stand in for the carbon cycle, what the wobbles in the Earth’s orbit look like if the planet was your head, or conceptualizing the geologic timescale by compressing it to a day, for instance, all serve useful pedagogic roles. The crucial difference is that these mappings don’t come dripping with over-extended value judgements.

Another justification for the kind of analogy I’m objecting to is that it is simply for amusement: “Of course, I’m not really comparing my opponents to child molesters/food adulterers/mass-murderers – why can’t you take a joke?”. However, if you need to point out to someone that a joke (for adults at least) needs to have more substance than just calling someone a poopyhead, it is probably not worth the bother.

It would be nice to have a moratorium on all such analogical arguments, though obviously that is unlikely to happen. The comment thread here can assess this issue directly, but most such arguments on other threads are ruthlessly condemned to the bore-hole (where indeed many of them already co-exist). But perhaps we can put some pressure on users of these fallacies by pointing to this post and then refusing to engage further until someone actually has something substantive to offer. It may be pointless, but we can at least try.

210 Responses to “On arguing by analogy”

  1. 1
    Nichol Brummer says:

    There is one snag: arguments that muddle and confuse or distract from the real issue can have a rhetorical effect. And that is why losers of an argument so often fall back to such arguments by analogy. It works.

  2. 2
    Geoff Russell says:

    “…arguments by analogy are not persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you on the substance.” That’s an empirical claim. Do you have any evidence? The fact that you later argue that analogy can serve a useful pedagogical purpose shows you don’t believe the former claim at all. Analogies can both illuminate and persuade, they serve a similar role in most sciences to diagrams in mathematics. Diagrams don’t prove theorems, but they are incredibly useful in constructing proofs because they are at the heart of how we understand stuff.

  3. 3
    Tony Noerpel says:

    Hi Gavin

    Just musing. We are coming to the 40th aniversay of Wally Broecher’s 1975 Science paper. We have lost ground. Climate scientists have done an impressive job of explaining the science. Climate hawks have done all the important things such as writing LTE, protesting, advocating, marching, etc. All of the possible arguments have been made, some good, some not so good. None of this has been effective. anybody have a better idea? :+)

    Tony Noerpel

  4. 4
    Lee Hustead says:

    To other readers — don’t miss reading the article this is referring to in Forbes, but don’t read it with a full stomach. That Forbes would print such yuk is beyond anything I would ever expect. Maybe humanity deserves extinction.

  5. 5

    #3–I don’t agree that “Climate hawks have done all the important things such as writing LTE, protesting, advocating, marching, etc.”

    – See more at:

    Or at least not in sufficient measure. The most important thing is organizing, which means building (and maintaining) relationships. That, we need much, much more of, but I see it happening in my communities, slowly.

    In Atlanta we put 500-1000 people in the streets at midday to rally in support of the proposed EPA regulations on carbon emissions. Though we need many more than that, that has never happened before. But it’s sure going to happen again–especially if we make it our business to work toward it, with others of like mind.

    For instance:

    I’m sure that those not willing or able to go to NYC can find (or organize) local events in support.

    And, since I was speaking a moment ago about the EPA regulations, let me repost the link to comment online in support:

    There’s another month or so to get your two cents in to the EPA.

  6. 6
    BojanD says:

    Interesting post. Just the other day I was thinking about arguments by contradiction, which work the same way. Sometimes they can be very effective and I am always on a lookout for them when engaging in a discussion. But this strategy sometimes backfires since some things are true even though they seem to be in contradiction.

  7. 7
    Salamano says:

    So, just to be clear… Use of analogic arguments and appeals in the arena of ” flat-earthers/birthers/moon-landing hoaxers/vaccine-autism linkers” are good and decent, but whoever alludes to “Galileo/stomach ulcer-Heliobacter proponents/Wegner/Copernicus” are worth excluding from the table, yes?

    [Response: No. Please read it again. – gavin]

    Is it just the “foolish stuck-in-the-muds” or “corporate disinformers” that need to be referred to this thread should they respond in kind? I noticed that “Denier” didn’t make the list, despite being the most common.

    Confusion arises because you did also say you wish there was a moratorium on “all” of them, despite also acknowledging their effectiveness.

  8. 8
    Chris Dudley says:

    The explanatory analogy is quite important. And it is used to make progress in science. Numerical models stand in for earth, wave and wind when trying to understand the response of climate to different forcings. These are mathematical analogies. It is really rather astounding that such mappings can be constructed and their failings can be used to find missing elements of our understanding. It is the foundation of the scientific method, yet who’d of thunk it would work?

  9. 9
  10. 10
    Radge Havers says:

    You can go different ways with analogies. They can be a creative precursor to deeper thinking, realizing that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, or they can lead to a morass of obfuscation and sympathetic magic. Much of the history of science has been spent [metaphor alert] hacking through the jungle of primitive, unnuanced thinking.

    Handle with care.

    Hmm. Do you think maybe Gavin is making a nuanced distinction?

  11. 11
    Edward Greisch says:

    “578 comments, 31 called-out” on the Forbes article. 4 comments on the RC article. Guess who is winning? It is possible to make a comment on Forbes. First you have to log in and then open the article in a new page. If Forbes was as easy to comment on as RC, Forbes would have even more comments.

    The percentage of scientists in the general population is maybe 7%? No, fewer. The rest have not been trained to think like scientists. They reason by analogy and metaphor. Gavin, you are correct. But what can we do about it? I can’t give up trying, but a friend of mine had a sign in his office that said: “Since I gave up hope I feel much better.”

    Another metaphor: The Forbes article is like all propaganda: Soldier words meant to die while preventing thinking by their sheer noise.

    Most people will never understand the situation. We had to undergo years of training to get as far as we have. There will be a population crash.

  12. 12

    I dunno, it’s just conversation. A classic favorite is:

    “The problem is like we stepped out of an airplane, and now we have to knit a parachute on the way down”

  13. 13
    SecularAnimist says:

    I categorically reject ALL argument by analogy. In fact I consider it to be a fundamental rhetorical fallacy.

    Clarification by analogy is another thing entirely, and can be a useful communication tool.

  14. 14
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Forbes
    “Capitalist tool” — its use is to keep digging the hole you’re in deeper, and deeper, and deeper.


  15. 15
    Chris Colose says:

    Put more simply, we should avoid the Van Gogh fallacy.

    The follow-up point is that the scientific community may be wrong on an issue, but it is only that relevant community that will recognize if a counter-argument is actually a game-changer.

  16. 16
    Dan H. says:

    The clarification by analogy as put forth by SA would be a much better tool than argument by analogy, as it places the argument in a context better understood by the recipient. Since 93% of the populous are non-scientists (per Gavin), than it follows that these 93% need some sort of clarification of the argument, in order to better understand. Based on the arguments from analogy that I have heard recently, I must agree with Gavin that these are only convincing to those who already agree, and that the truth or falsity of any argument must be evaluated on its own terms, and not via its association with other ideas of characters.

  17. 17
    Alex Glass says:

    Interesting thoughts Gavin. I would however add that although we shouldn’t use “just” the analogy to be dismissive, there are REMARKABLE parallels between pseudoscientific movements, their motivations, style of argumentation, their limited view of what science is, etc. It might be a poor analogy to use but climate scientists and educators can learn a lot about how to fight denialism in their own field by talking to say biologists who have been fighting creationism since the early 20th century (and beyond).

  18. 18
    Pete Best says:

    I thought that metaphor was the ideal way of delivering understanding of scientific concepts and ideas but maybe not as a way of describing your position on ACC/AGW. After all there is only one position to have, namely that 2C is coming due to our magnificent job of emitting billions of tonnes of carbon annually. We spend so much time refuting the other side that we perhaps lose perspective on what has to be done. Oh yes, that is their role, to argue to the point of keeping the status quo, to delay action to the point then when action is actually accepted by the other side it going to be a few runs up the ladder than we would of liked.

  19. 19
    Meow says:

    ACC is particularly difficult to understand because untutored common sense is such a poor guide to its science.

    “Common sense” says that a few hundred parts per million of anything is meaningless, especially if it’s a colorless, odorless gas. “Common sense” conflates the difficult term “global average temperature” with the term “temperature”, to which it then attaches the term “outside my door”, with the resulting conclusion that a few degrees change is no big deal. “Common sense” doesn’t even entertain the question of why earth has the climate it does, beyond saying, “That’s how it’s always been” or “God made it that way”.

    How you argue around these and other “common sense” (but incorrect) narratives is the central issue in whether we respond appropriately to ACC. Any practical rhetoricians here?

  20. 20
    Kevin King says:

    Given the rarity of a consensus-overturning event, the only sensible prior is to assume that a consensus is probably valid absent very strong evidence to the contrary, which is incidentally the position adopted by the arch-sceptic Bertrand Russell – See more at:
    How naive. This assumes your industry isn’t driven by enormous amounts of my tax dollars/euros/pounds. It is. Your argument is void.

    [Response: ha. There is no shortage of interesting and salient things to research. If you think that my ‘industry’ (scientific research into our climate, or our universe) would run out of useful things to do in the absence of global warming, you really need to think about what it takes to bring you accurate weather forecasts. There’s a lot of other topics to get interested in – exoplanets for instance. – gavin]

  21. 21
    Fergus Brown says:

    Never mind analogy, try (as I have been on the blog) having an argument with an individual who doesn’t recognise the fundamental principles of reason, such as the law of non-contradiction. The nearest any contra-rationalist comes to coherence is in invoking solipsism.

  22. 22
    ziff says:

    One might suspect that physics has made GW a forgone conclusion and all that is left is to find the evidence. The use of complex statistics that few understand makes many doubtful. Government/media now seem to have taken up the cause, but they are part of a proto-police state. The wise are likley to disregard their views. In addition, the major banks that have been engaging in corrupt practices are using co2 emission schemes to generate money. Good luck.

  23. 23
    Rob Ellison says:

    ‘The climate system has jumped from one mode of operation to another in the past. We are trying to understand how the earth’s climate system is engineered, so we can understand what it takes to trigger mode switches. Until we do, we cannot make good predictions about future climate change…’ Wally Broecker

    Someone mentioned Wally earlier. Wally was amongst the first to recognize the new climate paradigm.


    What we have instead of rational policy is projections that are clearly misguided – e.g. – linked to scenarios of catastrophe supporting overweening ambitions to transform economies and societies.


    Rather than science as such it is the insanity of a social movement turned groupthink. There should be little wonder that there is a visceral reaction to this fringe nonsense.

  24. 24
    Chris Dudley says:

    Edward (#11) argues that scientists are like pollutants in society, but really aren’t they more like yeast?

  25. 25
    Fergus Brown says:

    Never mind analogy, in a dialogue I had elsewhere it was clear that the other person was unaware of the fundamental principles of reason, such as the rule of non-contradiction. There isn’t even the chance of communicating under such circumstances.

  26. 26
    Stefan Elieff says:

    The CBC Radio program “Ideas” did a 24 part series called “How To Think About Science” a few years ago. One of the episodes dealt with dangers of over-extended metaphors in science. It came to mind as I read Gavin’s thoughts on analogies.

    The episode can be found here:—24-listen/#episode18

  27. 27
    Meow says:

    @20: In other words, avoid losing the scientific argument by accusing the scientists of revolutionary Marxism. Perfect for a Heartland Institute forum.

  28. 28
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Gavin on this issue.

    I have used the analogy of calling many of my comments on RC and some other people’s comments on RC as “noise” that was distracting from the “signal.” I think that this characterization is close to being overreaching and value laden.

    As Gavin also notes occasionally analogies can be useful for pedagogic purposes. I have explained to a relative who is a big baseball fan that the difference between climate and weather is similar to batting averages and individual at bats. That was a useful analogy to explain a not on it’s surface obvious distinction.

    The worst analogies are those which are thinly veiled insults. These we can definitely do without those. Gavin is right that we should avoid engaging commenters who use them until they can add something substantive.

  29. 29
    Thomas says:

    [Oh how I hate catcha, hit sayit before filling in the number, and all your text goes to the bit bucket]
    Other than for introductory level pedagogy analogies are about as likely to midlead as lead. Any true scientist tries to rigorously validate the analogy before using it as a component of theory.

    Now, we do have many many things in science/engineering that lead to perfect analogies, namly the equations can be shown to be equivalent. Then techniques can be borrowed from one field rather than re-invented.

  30. 30
    John Mashey says:

    See Pete4 Ferrara profile @ DeSmogBlog. Why would anyone believe anything he said about science?

    Note that Heartland’s Joe Bast recently got squashed by a Texas judge.

  31. 31
    Radge Havers says:

    Analogies sometimes have subtle uses in addition to poetic explorations of the human condition:

    “In vivo” investigations of scientists reasoning in their laboratories have not only shown that analogical reasoning is a key component of scientific practice, but also that the distance between source and target depends on the purpose for which analogies are sought. Scientists trying to fix experimental problems draw analogies between targets and sources from highly similar domains. In contrast, scientists attempting to formulate new models or concepts draw analogies between less similar domains. Analogies between radically different domains, however, are rare (Dunbar 1997, 2001).

    Food for thought on sympathetic magic and the Forbes article

    The term is most commonly used in archaeology in relation to Paleolithic cave paintings such as those in North Africa and at Lascaux in France. The theory is one of prehistoric human behavior, and is based on studies of more modern hunter-gatherer societies. The idea is that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shamans. The shamans would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves.[citation needed] This goes some way towards explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints). In his book Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell stated that the paintings “…were associated with the magic of the hunt.” For him, this sympathetic magic was akin to a participation mystique, where the paintings, drawn in a sanctuary of “timeless principle”, were acted upon by rite.

  32. 32
    Les Porter says:

    I would like the editors to review the posting and publish the comments, which were sent AS the 7th comment, to this posting that I made earlier today as a response to the comment made by Tony Noerpel, Comment #3. I was told that it had too much of spam phrasings and to ask you to review it then you might see it published. It is about science and perhaps some of why we are having trouble getting a real start on the solution. thanks les porter

  33. 33

    2 Sep 2014 at 4:42 PM

    Rather than science as such it is the insanity of a social movement turned groupthink. There should be little wonder that there is a visceral reaction to this fringe nonsense.

    Given that the topic of this thread is arguing by analogy, are you equating science with a “social movement turned groupthink”?

    Exactly what value did that opinion of yours add, Rob Ellison ?

    You may be an example of what Gavin is describing.

    We should thank Rob Ellison for presenting himself as an archetype … and he may not even realize it.

  34. 34
    Alastair McDonald says:

    “There’s a lot of other topics to get interested in – exoplanets for instance. – gavin]”

    That’s just pie in the sky:-)

  35. 35
    wili says:

    First, there is a small typo at the beginning of the third paragraph: “Since the truth of falsity…” Should read: “Since the truth _or_ falsity…”

    Second, I tend to agree with Russell at #2: you have made a claim but provided no data to back it up. One is left with the impression that you simply find certain approaches to argumentation distasteful–a perfectly legitimate opinion, but not good evidence that such argumentation is never effective.

    Third, on blogs and other fora, I rarely expect to actually convince the person (or bot!?) I am directly engaging, since they are often not sincere in their apparent convictions, anyway (as far as I have seen). The object is to counter misinformation and to educate lurkers reading both sides and trying to make their own minds up. For this educational purpose, even though it is in an argumentative context (and even if your main claim has some validity), use of analogies may have some value.

    I also think it is important in discussing false balance on climate in the media (for example) to point out that they don’t include flat earthers’ positions every time an astronomical issue comes up. Unsupported and easily disprovable positions don’t and shouldn’t really have a place at the table, in most cases. Why shouldn’t this be said using that example as a piece of evidence?

    Finally, analogy is a kind of comparison. We can’t really communicate without using comparisons in some way, even though all comparisons are flawed in some way. Nearly all content words used in most contexts originate from such use. Consider the previous sentence: ‘way’ in this use is a metaphor from a physical path; ‘flaw’ is similarly a metaphor from the physical world; even ‘communicate’ has a root that once indicated exchange of physical objects…You can’t really use language without constantly using recent or ancient comparisons or analogies.

    If you think we can communicate effectively to the public by only using mathematical language…well, I would have to disagree (or at least, again, to request from supporting data). As long as we are using natural language, we will be using comparisons, metaphors and analogies of various sorts, whether we fully realize we are doing so or not.

    Better to be more aware of the metaphors and metaphorical systems we inevitably employ, and to use them skillfully and purposefully. I refer you to the works of George Lakoff, among many others.

  36. 36
    Mal Adapted says:

    Kevin King:

    How naive. This assumes your industry isn’t driven by enormous amounts of my tax dollars/euros/pounds. It is. Your argument is void.

    Wow. Did you arrive at that conclusion by rigorous examination of empirical evidence, Kevin? Did you test any alternate hypotheses? How do you know you’re not fooling yourself?

    If you’re sure that the scientific consensus on ACC is down to the lust for gold, what do you think Peter Ferrara‘s motives are?

    Good grief!

  37. 37
    prokaryotes says:

    Since, i have just read and wrote about Symbiogenesis, i mention the following anecdote:

    Andrej S. Famintzin was a powerful professor at a prominent university (St Petersburg), unlike the author. Famintzin and Merschkowsky (The author) corresponded, and the former criticized the latter while laying claim to salient aspects of Mereschkowsky’s conceptual advance (Sapp,1994; Höxtermann, 1998). Höxtermann surmised (translation): ‘After publication (1905) Merezkovskij harvested the criticism of Famincyn, who found neither the parallels between plastids and cyanobacteria, nor the analogy to zoochlorellae, which in contrast to plastids possess a nucleus and a cell wall, convincing.

    Famincyn did not address the issue of the ancestors of the organelles among contemporary algae and bacteria. In this matter, he evidently feared speculation and analogy to a greater extent than his more creative colleague did’.Given the overall strength of Mereschkowsky’s argument, one wonders how the notion that chloroplasts arose from cyanobacteria could have possibly fallen out of grace. It was hardly a translation problem since German was a standard scientific language. Further more, Ivan E.Wallin, an American professor, discussed the topic in English (1927), albeit only briefly, since he was primarily concerned with arguing the symbiotic origin of mitochondria.

    From today’s standpoint, one scorching paragraph (pp. 738–739) in the 1928 third revised edition of Wilson’s textbook (the same Wilson that Mereschkowsky challenged in his opening statement) stands out. Wilson was primarily concerned with the nucleus and categorically rejected Mereschkowsky’s weakest argument, that for the symbiotic origin of the nucleus – but he did so viciously: ‘…Mereschkowsky (’10), in an entertaining fantasy, has developed the hypothesis…[…]… in further flights of the imagination Mereschkowsky suggests…’.

    His concluding sentence, whether prophecy or curse, was painfully self-fulfilling: ‘More recently Wallin (’22) has maintained that chondriosomes [mitochondria] may be regarded as symbiotic bacteria whose association with the other cytoplasmic components may have arisen in the earliest stages of evolution (p. 712).Source

  38. 38
    Fred Magyar says:

    Don’t be too hard on Forbes, they are just doing their job to sell more of this little pill, which by the way everyone reading this post is taking. Once you decide to exit the Matrix life can get very hard and lonely and not too many people are willing to do it… The only problem is the Matrix is full of bugs and it will crash regardless!


  39. 39
    robert says:

    Sorry, couldn’t help but notice… Did someone up there actually invoke the Judith? I do love good irony… : )

  40. 40
    Meow says:

    Dynamic renumbering has struck once more; my message of 2 Sep 2014 @ 5:38 PM was written to respond to the Ellison message of 2 Sep 2014 @ 4:42 PM, which at the time had index #20, not the message bearing that index.

    Gavin, is there a way to prevent renumbering?

    @2 Sep 2014 @ 9:36 PM: Usually you can recover your message by hitting your browser’s back button. Even better, compose your messages in a text editor first, then copy-paste them into the site.

  41. 41
    DF says:

    A fallacy is incorrect argument in logic and rhetoric resulting in a lack of validity, or more generally, a lack of soundness. Fallacies are either formal fallacies or informal fallacies.

    There is a long list over fallacies as shown in this article on Wikipedia.

    All logical fallacies are obstacles when trying to reach real insight in a topic.

    I think we should try to avoid all logical fallacies. Not only the fallacy you call arguing by analogy.
    (I think this kind of logical fallacy is also called “False analogy – an argument by analogy in which the analogy is poorly suited.”)

  42. 42
    Dan Miller says:

    There is an implication in Gavin’s article that we should stick to scientific descriptions to explain ACC and that will hopefully lead to action to address it. I don’t think so. People make decisions based on emotions, not data. I like this quote from George Marshall’s new book “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”:

    “Ironically, one of the best proofs that information does not change people attitudes is that science communicators continue to ignore the extensive research evidence that shows that information does not change people’s attitudes.”

  43. 43
    T.T.T says:

    In academic and science forums you wouldn’t need rhetorics or analogies because everybody involved knows what they are talking about. Rhetoric and analogy are used simply because we don’t know or understand the issues at hand well enough. They are used in a general term, always.

    However, some seasoned sceptics use rhetorics and analogy for reasons. They sound random but it is systematic.
    They use them to appeal to human everyday commonsense, again simply because the general public who are their target or intended audience don’t know the science or even basic science well enough.
    Commonsense is the #1 enemy to science because things in nature work to counter intuitive and counter commonsense, very effective and easier to (mis)understand.

    Another reason is to move the subject to somewhere else. If they didn’t feel comfortable with a subject matter, science matter to political or economical matters so that they wouldn’t have to talk about the issue at hand. Or simply blaming or doubting the messengers instead of the messages.

    Another reason is to to insinuate or be suggestive to some certain notion (of commonsense). For example, the notion of we, human are so insignificant to nature it is inconceivable or impossible to affect or change nature (climate). Mind you though, this is notion is very strong amongst the religious and not-so-religious, and the uneducated, educated and well read as well.
    Because it is a true statement by itself in a general term. How are we facing strong storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, … look at the universe, there are billions of billions of stars. How small we are. How insignificant we are. This notion is deeply seated in our heart from our culture, history and religion. Trick is you insinuate, suggest vaguely so that you can’t connect two directly but somehow you’d know you are right deep in your heart.

    In this quantum mechanics is often used along with philosophical thoughts to uncertainty of climate science. We can’t know everything. Maybe things are meant to be uncertain to us humans, look at how quantum mechanics works. (Dr. Curry). Maybe there is some cosmic consciousness in the sky managing climate. Some people actually believe this (me, a little), some insinuate this to suggest appeal to commonsense.

    Another thing is it’s not random. They’re through out bits and pieces but suggestive. When people finally connect the dots it all come clear. You’d believe it because you connected the dots yourself eventhough you don’t really know ‘why’ and ‘how’ scientifically or logically. It’s the Occam’s razor? If it sounds too simple and good to be true it’s probably true.

    For example, “For instance, an article pretending to serious discussion on climate that starts with a treatise about Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union is not to be taken seriously.”

    True. But it connect the theory of warming to the Soviet Union, >komumism > scosiarism > secularism > lies from unbelievers > scienece > liberals. Of course you don’t connect directly them because it would be too absurd, and then again you’d have to let people connect the dots.

  44. 44
    prokaryotes says:

    Dan @42, i did not read that book, but the argument you present might be further fine grained, for instance see these (similar) study conclusions from 2011.

    A study assessed the public perception and actions to climate change, on grounds of belief systems, and identified seven psychological barriers affecting the behavior, that otherwise would facilitate mitigation, adaptation, and environmental stewardship. The author found the following barriers: cognition, ideological world views, comparisons to key people, costs and momentum, discredence toward experts and authorities, perceived risks of change, and inadequate behavioral changes.

    Via, The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation

  45. 45
    Radge Havers says:

    DF @ ~ 41
    ‘False Analogy’
    Strictly speaking that’s probably correct. Maybe it’s better from a scientific stand point to say that analogies are inherently weak? In any case, the practically normalized abuse of analogies in general public discourse needs to be addressed somehow.

    From a NYT op piece by Adam Cohen
    An SAT Without Analogies Is Like: (A) A Confused Citizenry…

    The power of an analogy is that it can persuade people to transfer the feeling of certainty they have about one subject to another subject about which they may not have formed an opinion. But analogies are often undependable. Their weakness is that they rely on the dubious principle that, as one logic textbook puts it, “because two things are similar in some respects they are similar in some other respects.”

    If nothing else, I think it’s reasonable to call attention to something that’s being used to goober up discussions in open forums.

  46. 46
    GORGIAS says:


    It is fallacious to regard all fallacies as being equally false and equally undesirable in its usage.

  47. 47
    Matthew R Marler says:

    “Of course, I’m not really comparing my opponents to child molesters/food adulterers/mass-murderers – why can’t you take a joke?”

    Are there any other analogies/metaphors that you would like to dispense with? “Holocaust Denial” and “Crimes against humanity” for example?

    [Response: We never allow rhetorical references to the Holocaust/Nazis on this site – I find such usage deeply offensive and singularly ill-advised. Discussion of criminal activity (of whatever stripe) is relegated to actual or potential criminal activity rather than rhetorical excesses. You might be confusing us with some other blogs. – gavin]

  48. 48
    Danny Yee says:

    I agree that analogies are useful only as intuition pumps in science proper, not a replacement for actual analysis. But when you move up to philosophy of science maybe that’s not so clear? I think this is a direct parallel, not an analogy as such, mind you:

  49. 49
    prokaryotes says:

    Analogy per se doesn’t appear to be a bad choice when making a scientific point during a discussion, but when you add rhetoric or a flawed concept it begins to weaken and raises eyebrows, at least to the critical observer. Analogy/metaphor should be used when messaging science, since it helps to build a bridge for learning. But the science itself in most cases should be presented based on the facts and sound conclusions, empirical data etc, because science should be able to stand on its own feet and any noise would simply distract.

  50. 50
    prokaryotes says:

    Re learning – messaging.

    Analogies and many classes of metaphors can be viewed as devices for highlighting and carrying over relational structure. Because of this, analogies and metaphors allow us to focus on relational commonalities that would otherwise be difficult to express. Further, beyond their communicative uses, analogies and metaphors have enormous conceptual utility as tools for the extraction of relational structure. They allow us to become aware of potentially important relational structures that are not yet explicitly represented in our conceptual and linguistic system, and which may then be abstracted away from the objects to which they apply. In Russell’s words, “It must have required many ages to discover that a brace of pheasants and a couple of days were both instances of the number two.” Research in analogy and metaphor may provide a way to understand this achievement.Evidence for relational selectivity in the interpretation of analogy and metaphor (1988)