How to Reason by Analogy

Issues echo one another. Unimaginativeness alone prevents us from connecting any two of them. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the usual Climateball ™ suspects voice Covidball (tm pending) concerns that sound familiar. While similarities may be infinite, tropes converge.

Take how contrarians connect the alleged collapse of the consensus over the origin of the virus with the consensus over Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). The subtext is loud and clear: the consensus over AGW should collapse too. Does the argument work?

§1. How Analogies Work

There are many ways to evaluate analogical arguments; cf. the Stanford entry for an overview. Borrowing from Mary Hesse, we can ask (a) if the analogy between the source and the target domains display observable properties, and (b) if each part of the analogy sports any causal efficacy {1}. Let’s see how the consensus collapse analogy meets these questions. Take Judy’s

What does all this mean for institutionalized climate science? Well the IPCC, along with supporting governments and industries, is much more entrenched as a knowledge monopoly and research cartel. But the Covid origins example illuminates the social, political and careerist motivations that are in play in attempts to prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus.


The material condition is that the consensus around AGW is like the one over the origin of the COVID virus; the causal condition is that motivations “prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus” in both cases. In diagram form:

Diagram of the Consensus Analogy

Because of this representation, researchers often say that the material condition is a horizontal relationship, and the causal condition a vertical one. Vertical relationships articulate each object of the analogy within its own domain. Horizontal relationships rule the transposition from the source to the target domain.

The analogy therefore makes on breaks if the following two claims can be supported:

(M) The consensus over the origin of the virus is similar to the AGW consensus;
(C) Motivations prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus in both cases.

I suspect we could question every single part of these claims. We will dispute two.

Contra the first claim, labelled M because it represents a material condition, Freedom Fighters see consensus enforcement in one letter from individual scientists. This is far from unanimous statements on AGW by almost all scientific organizations in the world. Contra the second claim, it’s not clear what the establishment is enforcing regarding Covid. To that effect, the relevant paragraph of the Lancet letter is worth quoting in full:

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens. This is further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and by the scientific communities they represent. Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.

(Source: Lancet)

Institutions that stand against spreading fear, rumors, and prejudice should be welcome. Having witnessed the last Climateball decade should be enough to agree that toning down conspiracies indeed helps data sharing. When properly read, the letter does not forbid anyone to cry foul, as long as due diligence is paid to the evidence basis.

I simply don’t think scientists stay silent because of some Omertà. Alina crushed Peter on Twitter. Everybody moved on. He’s no megaphone for the epidemiological community.

§2. A Better Analogy

The analogy does not float. Could there be better ones? You bet. Let’s take the argument by David Relman, the author of the other letter:

Evidence favoring a natural spillover should prompt a wide variety of measures to minimize human contact with high-risk animal hosts. Evidence favoring a laboratory spillover should prompt intensified review and oversight of high-risk laboratory work and should strengthen efforts to improve laboratory safety. Both kinds of risk-mitigation efforts will be resource intensive, so it’s worth knowing which scenario is most likely.

Source: Stanford Medicine News Center

A similar argument can be seen in Climateball. It goes like this: unless we get to the bottom of some problem P linked to AGW, we risk wasting resources. The problem P could refer to many things: policies, regulations, technologies, etc. Versions of it should be compiled in the But Cost Bingo square. They all presume a false dichotomy.

Suppose you get burgled. This time the thief went through your window. Does that mean you should leave the door open until you spot him with your cameras? No. That’d be silly. In security matters, simplicity is key. Every layer adds risks. In the long run, our policies better be simple and cover for all the risks, otherwise both time and resources will be lost trying to save money. This applies even if we find eventually something conclusive.

The analogy clarifies how we manage risks by simplifying policies and diversifying resource allocation. The causal condition I underline dispels a false choice {2}. As to the material condition, how we view risks will impact how we deal with the two societal issues. There are differences (e.g. we may die from it whereas the real victims of AGW will be non-Western grandchildren), but our response should be guided by similar considerations.

§3. The Company You Keep

Scientists ought to be able to say whatever they please as long as it is supported by the evidence they can judge. That idea is so vague as to be compatible with almost anything, including a letter allegedly symbolizing consensus enforcement. It’s also not very realistic. As the main researcher who pursued the lab hypothesis admits, conspiracy theorists were spinning bioweapon fantasies, and Chan was loath to give them any ammunition.

We’re social animals. While we can’t be made responsible for our friends, we are still judged by the company we keep. That’s just the way it is.

Conspiracy fans cite scientific authorities as much as everyone else. Tune in on Alex Jones. Go on Twitter. They will recycle anything that confirms that the truth is out there, including misguided analogies by contrarian scientists who ought to know better. If Denizens want to entertain theories that can easily be turned into News Corp red meat, it is their responsibility to distance themselves from it. Victim playing won’t do.

So once again the COVID rubber meets the Climateball road. This disinformation problem isn’t the Denizens’ alone. We’re all in it together, some more than others {3}.

§4. Notes

{1} These two conditions should also reinforce the analogy more than the disanalogy. This subtlety can be ignored in what follows.

{2} Same for our energy portfolio. AGW is a Very Big problem. We need all the tools to fight it. Why waste time on wondering which technology is best?

{3} We sure can do things before being 100% sure on everything regarding climate science! There are other reasons to get to carbon zero. We can revamp our energy production for national security reasons. Public health reasons compel us to reduce pollution. Financial reasons to manage assets properly. The list goes on an on.


About Willard
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25 Responses to How to Reason by Analogy

  1. anoilman says:

    This all seems nutty. There was no consensus over the origins of COVID. There simply was no evidence that something other than a natural leap to humans had occurred. Hence scientists had and have been studying the issue all along as they tend to do. Maybe someday something interesting will be revealed.

    I believe the Big Lebowski can help shed some light on this whole situation.

  2. Willard says:

    As a dudeist, I can only abide by your suggestion, Oil Man!

  3. Steven Mosher says:

    Speaking of analogies. Since we are talking about origin stories at some point we need to compare intelligent design arguments. Personally I think the wuhan lab had bats biting pangolins to accelerate evolution of virus. It happened naturally in a lab setting

  4. David B Benson says:
    provides the generalities. After this one might care to become quite proficient with Bayesian reasoning.

  5. We’re social animals. While we can’t be made responsible for our friends, we are still judged by the company we keep. That’s just the way it is.

    There are a number of people in the climate debate who either don’t understand this, or don’t like it being pointed out.

  6. Willard says:

    > There are a number of people in the climate debate who either don’t understand this, or don’t like it being pointed out.

    Everybody wants to rule the Climateball world, but nobody wants the responsibilities with which that comes:

    (Hope Andrew does not mind Tears for Fears!)

    Perhaps I should clarify that direct responsibilities pertain to one’s own work. Junior is responsible for his work being constantly featured in contrarian outlets. That he is in contact with Marc Morano does not help dispel the idea that it’s not accidental. So if Marc promotes Junior’s work, it’s his duty to correct the record if Marc is going too far with it.

    Gavin is not responsible for Mike’s work. So when Junior burdens Gavin with Mike’s work, he’s going too far. But that Junior tries to burden Gavin is quite understandable, Mike being Gavin’s friend.

    All this should be fairly clear to anyone who had any school experience.

  7. Bob Loblaw says:

    “There are a number of people in the climate debate who either don’t understand this, or don’t like it being pointed out.”

    Oh, I know! I know! It’s b), isn’t it?

  8. Joshua says:

    Expecting people to wear masks in indoor spaces and close proximity is like Nazi Germany.

    Bret Weinstein is like Galileo.

    Gavin Schmidt is like the shanko.

    There’s an endless list of viable analogies as long as there’s no reasonable expectation of congruence, and no standards of measurement, or specification of definition, or intent to do anything other than argue a rhetorical point.

    I have long said that there are two primary purposes for analogies. One is for helping to explain a concept, to clarify. The other is to leverage a rhetorical device (often in service of glorifying or demonizing groups or individuals). Of course, there is often some overlap.

    But almost uniformly, in my experience and perspective, in blog comment wars analogies are not used (in balance) to clarify ideas or clarify meaning – but to glorify or demonize.

  9. Joshua says:

    Oy. Gavin Schmidt is like Leschenko

  10. Russell says:

    Mark, Willie & Junior should publish only in outlets where their receivables might raise the tone:

  11. Steven Mosher says:

    We’re social animals. While we can’t be made responsible for our friends, we are still judged by the company we keep. That’s just the way it is.
    –Antonio Lasaga

    extra credit for the auditor post where this is discussed.

  12. Willard says:

    There you go:

    If nothing else, the case stands against the simplistic attribution of the Penn State scandal to football.

    With a little more effort, the Auditor could have been able to connect Antonio with Kevin Bacon.

  13. Joshua says:

    I loved how Stevie Mac compared climate science to a sex scandal and then claimed he wasn’t making that comparison.

    An added advantage of reasoning by analogy is that you can always reverse engineer to refine the nature of the comparison you were making to claim you’re being misunderstood – even when it’s easily predictable how people will interpret the analogy.

  14. Joshua says:

    Stevie Mac and Jack the Ripper = same, same, but different.

    See if you can figure out what is my point of comparison.

  15. Willard says:

    Easy peasy. Bitcoins:

    It is a sad fact that the enigma is almost always more interesting than the explanation; the secret greater than the solution. This week we woke up to the news that a bloke called Craig may be the mystery genius behind the world’s newest and most exciting financial system. It was not — at the time of writing — absolutely clear that Craig is the secret genius. There are still those who think that Craig has not entirely proved his credentials. But some experts are convinced that he may indeed be the elusive and pseudonymous figure known as Satoshi Nakamoto, who invented the digital currency Bitcoin and then vanished.

  16. Steven Mosher says:

    craig wright. pulleaze spare me.

    WHO exactly do you think sold the weapons in this war?

    View at

  17. Steven Mosher says:

    create conflict then sell weapons.

  18. Steven Mosher says:

    pseudonymous figure known as Satoshi Nakamoto, who invented the digital currency Bitcoin and then vanished.
    and so we have no explicit social layer in our governance stack.
    people can attack wright, but not satoshi

    social layers

  19. Willard says:

    > WHO exactly do you think sold the weapons in this war?

    Mike Hulme?

  20. Willard says:

    A reminder of a more important relationship between cryptocurrencies and AGW:

    According to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, Bitcoin currently stands between the Netherlands and Philippines at 94.79 TWh per year:

  21. Susan Anderson says:

    Thank you for this. Here in the US, Covid lab leak conspiracy ideation has been supercharged, unfortunately, by Jon Stewart who joined Colbert late night Monday, also rerun Friday (18 June), with a simplistic claim that the virus has to have spread from the Wuhan lab based on its name. Though it was partly comedy, it put steroids into the argument that the lab has to be the source. Unfortunately, given the wholesale attacks on facts and truth, it is all too easy to go from possible to probable, and leak to manufacture, and you can guess that it is now a common assumption everywhere, even among people who “believe” (hate that word) in science (Science?).

    Jon Stewart is a funny case. “We don’t get nicer as we get older, we get more like ourselves” (quote from my mother). He did a wonderful interview with Brian Fagan some years back.

    Then there is this weird bit (“WWE SummerSlam: Seth Rollins won the ‘Winner Takes All’ match at SummerSlam 2015 after host Jon Stewart attacked John Cena with a chair.”

    Unfortunately, we all give credit to Stewart for giving us reality in the face of delusion, but nobody should become an authority to the point when if they go off the rails they will be believed without proper skepticism. There’s a lot of it about.

    I have come to the conclusion that most humans simply don’t want to think about uncertainty, or assign degrees to it. They follow the leader. This is not good news. [Granted, a lot of people simply don’t have time or energy for it, either, being too busy with the 24/7 business of survival and entertainment.]

  22. Russell says:

    I’ve shoped at some sopping wet fish-and if it moves we can get it markets here and in Asia dined in the epicenter of Siberian anthrax research, handled a pangolin, and ,(eat you heart out , Willis Eschenbach,) seen french fried fruit bat on the menu in the New Hebrides, all without ill effect,

    OTOH vectors are where you find them- I got hit with SARS after a dusty horse ride 200 miles east of Wuhan

    Bioweaponization didn’t come up when the Hong Kong flu or coronaviruses 1 through 16 came around; too bad the Times didn’t put Wade on the case decades ago.

  23. afeman says:

    Peter Jacobs on twitter (@past_is_future) reminds us of Stewart’s previous contributions to conspiracy thinking:
    Watching him scarf up James O’Keefe’s work is interesting too.

    Apologies if this has been covered before, but other people have been coming up with their own narrative diagrams:

  24. Russell says:

    A belated epiphany – there was one climate skeptic worth listening to on matters of epidemiology, a shrewd MD , with enough biowar expertise to script:

    The Satan Bug (1965) –

    Directed by John Sturges. With George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews. A germ that could destroy life on Earth is stolen from a biological warfare lab and the thief threatens to release it into the open, prompting a security officer to act.

    He died of natural causes .

  25. Susan Anderson says:

    Russell, I always enjoy your vast knowledge and deep sense of the ridiculous. Thanks.

    @Afeman, I tried the links again (failed first time), and those are excellent. In general, I find the new Jon Stewart more prejudiced and sharper in the elbow, and I wouldn’t mind if he hadn’t fed the universal ignorance of the difference between possibility and probability, and eagerness to believe simple narratives that involve finding somebody to blame. With QAnon and vaccine resistance, along with Covid complexity and danger being fed by the heightened confusion as to fact and truth vs lies and delusions, this is not good.Thanks.

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