anatomy of a failed analogy

On yesterday’s radio show, Sean Hannity made the following comparison:

Liberals have been clamoring for advertisers to stop supporting Rush Limbaugh because he said some offensive and insulting things about Sandra Fluke. Bill Maher has said offensive things about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, and liberals have not demanded that president Obama return the one million dollars that Bill Maher donated to him. This is hypocritical. If liberals demand that advertisers stop supporting Rush for being offensive, then they should also demand that Obama return Bill Maher’s donation because of Maher’s offensive comments.

It’s difficult to know where to begin peeling back the onion layers of wrong in this argument. I suppose I could point out that attacking public figures is not the same as attacking private citizens; and in fact other people have made that point. I could mention that calling someone a name once during a rant is different from making a prolonged three-day-long argument defending the very idea that someone should be thought of as a prostitute; and other people have pointed that out as well. But since I’m really into logic and reasoning, instead I’m going to say this: even if we were to take as given that Bill Maher has said things that are exactly the same as Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Ms. Fluke, Sean Hannity’s analogy, above, would still be completely and utterly broken.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is an analogy? An analogy is a relationship between two things that have a similar structure, but that are not similar in their details.  Structure is the set of relationships between the different parts of a thing. So, when we say that there is an analogy between something (A) and something else (B), we are saying that while A and B are not similar in their details, the relationships between the parts of A are similar to the relationships between the parts of B.

The classic example of an analogy is the relationship between the solar system and the Bohr model of the atom. In the solar system, there is a large sun that has smaller planets that circle around it. In the Bohr model of the atom, there is a large nucleus that has smaller electrons that circle around it. Now, the nucleus of an atom is not in any way similar to a sun, and electrons are not similar to planets; however, the relationships between the parts (i.e. smaller things orbit around a bigger thing) is the same. That is an analogy.

Okay, so let’s take a look at Sean’s argument. First: the Rush Limbaugh situation. In that case, you have advertisers who give Rush Limbaugh money to have their advertisements played during his radio program. You have Rush saying things that are offensive. And you have liberals demanding that the advertisers stop giving Rush Limbaugh money. This set of relationships is shown on the left side of the figure below.

Sean Hannity's Broken Analogy

So what is going on in the scenario with Bill Maher and his donation to president Obama?  In that case, you have Bill Maher saying offensive things. You also have Bill Maher giving money to president Obama. And in Sean Hannity’s argument, in order for liberals to be consistent and not be hypocrites, they have to demand that president Obama not accept the money from Bill Maher. This set of relationships is illustrated on the right side of the figure below.

Is this a good analogy? Are these two structures the same? Look at the picture. Are the relationships between the parts the same in both cases?

Obviously they are not. The relationship between Rush Limbaugh and the advertisers is actually the exact opposite from the relationship between Bill Maher and president Obama.

Why does this matter? It matters because it means the two situations are not parallel. The best way I can think of to illustrate the problem is by making another broken analogy, so that maybe you can see the illogic of it more clearly:

“Dogs chase cats, and  cats chase rats.  You know what that’s like? It’s like how lions chase deer, and tigers also chase deer!”

You see? The two situations are not alike, at all, because in one case one of the relationships is reversed. If someone ever came to you with the above comparison, you would say: “No…. no, those two things are not alike in any way!”

Sean Hannity is hoping that you won’t notice. He is hoping that you don’t think too hard about the comparison he is making. Instead, you will simply take it for granted, and you will miss some of the details, and you will say: “Sure! Those two situations are exactly the same!”

But behind all of Sean’s passionate speeches, his confident proclamations, his abuse of callers who disagree with him, and his long-winded lecturing, the fact remains: the analogy is completely and utterly broken.

All you have to do is think it through.