Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sharp Blue & analogies   posted by Razib @ 12/16/2006 01:09:00 PM

The whole Razib-is-a-pig blow up resulted in me finding Sharp Blue, a smart blog. Check out his post "Heraclius, Persia and the Arab Conquests," I have issues with it, but anyone who links to the term Dominate gets props.

Also, over at my other weblog I chided Ali for using The Thirty Years War as analogy for sectarian conflicts looming in the Middle East. My main issue is that I don't think the public, even the literate news-watching public, really knows enough about the The Thirty Years War to convey new or novel information. The emphasis is on added information. I think most would get a sense that The Thirty Years War was a massive sectarian conflagration. So, the implication is that we are looking at a massive conflagration in the Middle East. First, I could object that this is a bad analogy in terms of the scale, The Thirty Years War was the World War of its time, but perhaps that's what Ali is implying. Nevertheless, the main issue is that I don't think that for most people it adds anything aside from being a exclamation point reiterating what we already know. In other words, sometimes (most of the time?) analogies are essentially rhetorical devices, kind of like stars and rocket ships in Space Opera, they're background props which enable the story to move forward. On my other blog I said that "For an anology to work like so: X → Y, you need to know a about X to map inferences onto Y, for the nature of Y is unfamiliar and X is familiar." In other words, you have to have a familiar base of information from which you can map structures and data toward a target which is novel or unfamiliar. When I use an analogy on this weblog I try often to attempt this, because many readers here know a great deal about a, b, c, etc., but very little about 1, 2, 3, etc., though they wish to know more about 1, 2, 3. Analogies are an aid to precise conceptualization of new ideas or terms. For example, if I met an evangelical Christian and they asked me what a mosque was, I would use some analogy to an evangelical church. Now, I could start from the basics and explain all the details of the Islamic religion, the role of mosques, prayer leaders and communal worship, but it seems obvious that much of this information can be conveyed by analogy. To this, Ali responded:
so your critique is not that the analogy is wrong but that "the people" don't know enough about the 30 years war for the analogy to be relevant?

that's the nerdiest critique of an analogy i've ever seen.

If you know me well you'd know of course that I don't take "nerdy" as some insult or take down. There is a role for nerdy and non-nerdy in the world, and as I noted in the follow up comments there is a little space for more nerdiness in this world, especially in public policy. In terms of substance what would I offer is that instead of focusing on wars from the 17th century when the average American can barely remember which century Lincoln lived, something from World War II, or perhaps sports or what not, would transmit more genuine informational structure across the two concepts. You can't get something from nothing.