Publish at December 08 2021 Updated December 16 2021

Analogies, to clarify, to convince and to (mis)understand

Analogies, at the crossroads of science and rhetoric

Evocative analogy

Very useful for attracting attention and making ideas, abstractions, and technical explanations concrete, analogy is a very effective tool for persuasion and clarification. But beware, some authors warn. Analogy is also a great way to get us to accept poorly constructed ideas and reasoning.

Orders of magnitude

Making visible with animals and sensibility

In all honesty, numbers and measurements bring needed precision, but also often boredom. No one has a clear vision of what a mile is unless they translate it into walking time or a route they know.

No one really knows what a ton is. On the other hand, if someone tells me that a particular piece of construction equipment weighs four elephants, it speaks to me. If someone tells me the length of a diplodocus in meters, I might quickly forget it. Twenty meters, thirty meters or forty meters? I get lost and I'm not interested. Many popularizers use a less precise, but much more evocative system of measurement. We count in buses, blue whales, elephants or giraffes. If we describe something small, we'll talk about elements 500 times smaller than an ant or a flea or a hair!"


Childish and not very serious? Economists, tired of manipulating numbers we don't understand, translate into minimum wages or compare to the cost of a common item. We can say that a luxury car costs what an average employee would earn in 20 years or that a subscription to a magazine barely costs the price of two coffees on the terrace!

From the narrative:

Schrodinger's cat enjoys more notoriety than what he describes... Locked since 1935 in a box. He makes us perceive that the measurement comes to disturb a system. Until we open the box, there is no way to know, and there is superposition of two states.

In quantum mechanics, an elementary particle can occupy several positions at the same time. This seemed absurd, especially to Schrodinger, who would give up studying physics. But at almost 90, his cat continues to intrigue.


Analogy often goes further, stories about animals, characters are used to illustrate paradoxes or abstract ideas. To be precise, the term "analogy" will be used less and we will more readily speak of allegory.

A deceptive seduction

But if the analogy helps to clarify an idea, it can also be deceptive. It seduces, it seems simple. It invites us to think about another object than the one we are interested in, only to return to that object. It can thus make us admit simplifications that we would have found excessive without this detour.

In deceptive analogies, architectural images ("the 5 pillars of ...." [replace the dots with whatever you like]) and pyramids have seen good days. The pyramid of needs that we have retained from Maslow's work, and Bloom's pyramid for formulating educational objectives, give an impression of evidence: a hierarchy exists, a path from the most basic to the noblest and the rarest is possible. We must aim for the top of these pyramids. The form alone makes these statements obvious to us. This is the power of analogies.

Philosopher Jacques Bouveresse warns us against the abuse of analogies, especially when the human sciences borrow some expressions from the mathematical, physical, or biological sciences.

The Mobius ring, Brownian motion, or the uncertainty principle bring an aura of credibility and scientificity to whoever uses them. And often, these analogies take no precautions about their conditions of validity. In "analogy's wonders and dizziness", he shows both the heuristic [useful for discovery] scope of analogies and the scientific shams they allow...


An expert on rhetoric and the media, Clement Viktorovich published "Rhetorical Power" in 2021. He gives us some examples of arguments supported by analogies. According to him, analogy groups together several figures of speech: comparison, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and ... It speaks to the emotion, condenses meaning into a few words, and speaks to each of us in a personal way, when the images are strong.

The author quotes General de Gaule, in his call to resistance: 'The flame of the Resistance must not be extinguished. It will not be extinguished."

But while it can simplify, make tangible and touch the heart, it can also bore. There are countless "I'll stay the course in the storm" from politicians who often resign the week after declaiming that phrase. More seriously, they can end up misleading when one pursues a line of reasoning from the analogy and finally comes to plaster it on its primary object of study.

Illustrations : Frédéric Duriez


Clément Viktorovitch : Rhetorical Power. Learning to convince and decipher speeches, Seuil, 2021, 478

Jacques Bouveresse, Prodiges et vertiges de l'analogie : De l'abus des belles-lettres dans la pensée, Éditions Raisons d'agir, 1999, 158 pp.

Michel Volle: Synthesis of Jacques Bouveresse's book - 2002
Prodiges et vertiges de l'analogie (

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  • Analogies

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