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Fallacious Argument Of The Month: The False Analogy

With the aim of improving public discourse and combating sloppy thinking, I continue with the next installment of my series, Fallacious Argument of the Month.

This month’s fallacious argument is a particular favorite of mine: the false analogy.  A false analogy is an effort to claim similarity between two items that even a desultory glance will reveal to be dissimilar. Those who wield the false analogy in its most noxious form don’t bother to compare apples and oranges; that’s for amateurs. Shameless masters of the false analogy appreciate that the more outrageous the comparison, the greater its shock value.  This makes the false analogy a favored weapon of demagogues.

Among the best known, most virulent, and most widely deployed of the false analogies are comparisons with Nazis: to compare someone we dislike to Hitler, things we disapprove of to the Holocaust, or negotiation with our opponents to Chamberlain’s appeasement.

The best defense against the false analogy is a vigilant and discerning mind. In fact, an op-ed column by Adam Cohen, “An SAT without analogies is like: (A) a confused citizenry,” should be compulsory reading for every citizen. That’s according to my friend David Giacalone, a retired mediator and lawyer with a tremendous talent for reasoning and writing, and I agree. Observing that “more lawyers ’should think like lawyers’”, David wrote,

Adam Cohen’s op/ed piece in today’s NYT should be required reading for all educators and all who wish to fulfill the role of lawyer, pundit, politician or citizen competently.

Lamenting the decision of the College Board to drop analogies from the SAT – an admissions test administered to high school students – Cohen warned,

Nowhere are analogies more central than in politics. When Karl Marx wanted to arouse the workers of the world, he compared the proletariat’s condition to slavery and, in “The Communist Manifesto,” urged them to throw off their figurative chains. When Roosevelt argued for a balanced budget, he put it in homespun terms. “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns,” he said. “But you and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

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.” An error-producing “fallacy of weak analogy” results when relevant differences outweigh relevant similarities. On [the NPR program] “Fresh Air,” Mr. [Grover] Norquist seized on a small similarity between the estate tax and Nazism and ignored the big difference: that the Holocaust, but not the estate tax, involved the murder of millions of people…

Since the SAT no longer contains analogy questions, here is one: A nation whose citizens cannot tell a true analogy from a false one is like – fill in your own image for precipitous decline.

Be a good citizen, friends: be ready to tell the difference.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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