The greatest analogies of modern times

The quip goes that there was once a man who, upon hearing his wife was pregnant, went to see his doctor. “How on earth could this happen after the vasectomy you gave me several years ago?” exclaimed the exasperated man.

The doctor kept calm in the face of his annoyed and angry patient and replied: “There was once an avid hunter who, in a mad rush, accidentally went out hunting with his walking stick instead of his gun. Suddenly he was set upon by a wild animal, and he lifted his stick and shot the creature dead.”

“That’s ridiculous”, said the man, “there must have been someone else”.

The doctor smiled wryly. Nothing more needed to be said.

Analogies are perhaps the most powerful tool available to us in our communication. Winston Churchill once said “Apt analogies are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician.” He wasn’t short of a few apt analogies himself.

Churchill was right — analogies are incredible weapons, but they do need to be apt. Someone should have told that to Al Gore when he famously proclaimed “A zebra does not change its spots!”

I have always worked in fields that deal with complex concepts and intricate analytics, and the analogy has been my greatest friend over the years in helping me get my message across. I strongly believe that the field of data science could benefit greatly from a more frequent use of analogies in communication of key concepts.

Why are analogies so effective? To illustrate, let me demonstrate four properties that analogies can have that make them incredible tools for communication. To illustrate each property, I will draw upon some of my favorite examples of analogies from the past.

1. Efficient analogies (Rob Muldoon — Prime Minister of New Zealand)

New Zealand and Australia have always had both a common bond and a healthy rivalry. They have also had their fair share of outspoken political leaders. Rob ‘Piggy’ Muldoon was among the pick of the bunch. Known to be fond of a tipple, one night in 1984 Muldoon switched from his usual whiskey to brandy. He shouldn’t have. Frustrated with the political situation and riled up by significant amounts of liquid courage, he blindsided his colleagues by calling a snap election. He lost. As the brandy went down, so did his nine years in power.

If there is one quote that Muldoon is remembered for it was his reaction to questions about the increasing emigration of New Zealanders to Australia — always a political hot potato in NZ. His response was a superb demonstration of how to get several points across memorably and efficiently. Muldoon said that he thought it would “raise the IQ of both countries”.

In a few short words, Muldoon had communicated his admiration for his compatriots and his disdain for both those who leave and the place they go to. Pretty awesome and remembered to this day by most Kiwis. Just ask them!

2. Unifying analogies (Bertrand Russell — Mathematician and Philosopher)

In the early 20th century a major debate was occurring in the most fundamental field of mathematics: set theory. The debate was concerning the basic rules of logic and reasoning, and whether a certain new rule should be added to the accepted axioms that were already in place. While the existing rules were all fairly intuitive, the problem with the new rule was that it was a bit weird and it was hard to understand why it was necessary.

Known as the Axiom of Choice, the rule stated that if you have infinitely many sets of things, you can choose one thing from each of them. It’s hard to believe it, but this statement wreaked havoc in the mathematics community. Although many of the leading brains understood that this rule was needed to prove a whole bunch of important theorems, many argued that it didn’t need to be stated as a rule. If you have a never-ending row of buckets with stuff in them, isn’t it obvious that you can just choose something from every bucket?

Enter Bertrand Russell who, as a preeminent logician and philosopher, was uniquely positioned to speak about a topic on the edges of reality like this one. As eccentric as they come, Russell made the following analogy: if you have infinitely many pairs of shoes, you can always choose the left shoe. But you can’t do that for socks.

Russell’s analogy had an amazing effect of unifying the mathematics community in accepting that there are situations when you cannot define your choice and therefore you just need to know that it is possible to choose. The Axiom of Choice is broadly (but not universally) accepted as a fundamental mathematical rule today, and Russell’s analogy had a lot to do with that.

3. Powerful analogies (Carl Sagan — Astronomer and Science Communicator)

Sometimes academics break out of their discipline and into the popular media because of how they communicate. Often this is down to the analogies they use and the way they illustrate their insights. Stephen Hawking is a great example, but my personal favorite is Carl Sagan.

Sagan was a huge figure in the science and policy landscape in the US in the 1970s-1990s. He was also a great sci-fi writer (my favorite book of his is Contact which led to the superb 1997 movie with Jodie Foster). One of Sagan’s greatest analogies was his ‘Calendar Analogy’, where he described the life of the Universe in terms of a year in a human calendar, with the creation of the solar system on September 9th and the appearance of the first humans at 10.30pm on December 31st.

In 1983, the ABC in the US broadcast a movie depicting a nuclear holocaust and its impact on rural Kansas and Missouri. Entitled The Day After, it was a major TV event which represented the pinnacle of public fear about the consequences of an arms race that was showing no signs of stopping. Immediately after the broadcast, Ted Koppel hosted a live panel discussion with Sagan and some foreign policy behemoths of the time such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft.

Sagan stole the debate. With one simple analogy he pulled the panel out of the intricacies of mutually assured destruction or whether a nuclear war was winnable, and highlighted how ludicrous the entire premise of the discussion was. “Imagine a room”, said Sagan, “awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches. The other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.”

In one extremely powerful analogy, Sagan communicated the fear, pointlessness and sheer suicidal recklessness of US and Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s. The Day After and the debate that followed its screening was to have a profound impact on Ronald Reagan. In his memoirs of Reagan’s presidency, Edmund Morris speculated that this event had no small part to play in Reagan’s decision to pursue the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union. It could be said that Sagan’s explosive analogy of the nuclear arms race contributed to its eventual decline.

4. Enduring analogies (Sir Winston Churchill — Prime Minister of Great Britain)

One of the greatest speechwriters of all time, it was good fortune of historic proportions that Churchill was coming into his political prime at the outbreak of World War II. Britain, for many years on its last legs and only a channel’s width from invasion, needed the greatest of motivators and orators to keep the nation going. Churchill delivered, and then some.

Churchill’s reward for bringing Britain through its greatest trauma of all time was to be unceremoniously dumped out of office in the general election of 1945. He was to return six years later, but meanwhile he devoted much his time as Leader of the Opposition to writing, touring and speaking.

In early 1946, Churchill embarked on a speaking tour of the US. Half-American himself, he was welcomed as a native hero by the public. US President and close confidant Harry Truman arranged for Churchill to receive an honorary degree and deliver a major foreign policy speech at the sports hall of his alma mater: Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

The speech was laced with analogies — in one, he described peace as a temple which cannot be built without co-operation — but a particular analogy stood out and remained enduring to this day because of the simple image that it generated in people’s minds, and because it perfectly captured the dynamic that would dominate international relations for the next half-century,

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” Churchill delivered in tones of great gravity, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

It became known, unsurprisingly, as the ‘Iron Curtain speech’. You can read the full text here. The image was so simple, yet so prescient, that it took hold worldwide and became the defining language to describe European geopolitics until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech shows how an analogy can be so simple and apt in describing a situation or concept that it can become part of our natural language going forward, generating a common starting point for how people discuss the issue in the future.

So analogies can be efficient, unifying, powerful and enduring. What a combination! Shouldn’t you be using them more?

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