Knowing when metaphors fall apart will help you understand ideas better

Neil Kakkar
Jul 10 · 7 min read
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At 13, I began tinkering with every random device around my house. I pulled apart hundreds of them: remote-controlled cars, table fans, aquarium purifiers, and even my PS2 controller. Figuring out how the vibrate function worked on my PS2 controller was pretty awesome! I could visualize how things worked on the inside.

I couldn’t always put them back together. I broke a few, I lost a few, but I realised this process was crucial to understanding how they work and the limits of their use. If I don’t get to the breaking point, how can I know where the breaking point is?

Growing older, this translated into doing the same with code: visualizing how systems like Facebook, Reddit, and Snapchat work, going on their tech blogs to confirm my design, and sometimes simply inspecting the code running in my browser.

And recently, thanks to writing, I realised this breakdown and build up process works in language as well. To understand concepts better, you need to understand their breaking point.

That’s where analogies come in.


Strengthening Ideas Via Analogies

An analogy is a comparison between two similar things. Metaphors and similes are just two ways to express that comparison.

Do you see what I did there with the introduction?

Analogies are great to internalise difficult concepts. They help you relate things to what you already know, and that helps build the base.

One step forward is figuring out where the analogies break down. By definition, since it’s an analogy, it isn’t the same thing. So, what makes it different?

If you can answer this, you’ll understand the concept better.

This idea of understanding (and making decisions) via analogies has a name: reasoning by analogy.

What does this look like?

Since this new thing you’re facing is similar to the old thing you faced ages ago, let’s do what worked then. It has been getting a bad rap recently, thanks to the popularization of first principles thinking.

Reasoning by first principles is the opposite: Assume nothing, go back to the basics, the axioms, and figure out the structure, not just the surface.

That’s bloody difficult to do and not feasible for every small problem. However, if you can figure out what’s the same and what’s different, you can start there. But then again, you need to figure out where analogies break down, the breaking point, to then use that as a base for first principles.

As Roald Hoffmann wrote in The Metaphor, Unchained:

A naked metaphor clearly shows the analogy’s limitations, its capacity for misinterpretation and its productive extensions. It aids its creator as well as its audience.

An example ought to make this clearer.

An electric circuit is like water in a pipe. That’s why, when you switch on a circuit, the light immediately switches on; there’s already water (electrons) in the pipe. And you’re just pumping them forward (voltage).

Do the electrons follow fluid dynamics? I don’t think so. There’s no optimal voltage at which the current will be greatest. (This is one breaking point)

This also helps figure out unprecedented properties. In the process of asking questions, you’re forced to think if they obey the same properties.

If one such property shows up in both that you didn’t know about earlier, it’s a big win! You’ve deepened your understanding.

… Or you could flip it to understand the supposedly “easier” concept better. Resistance in an electric wire exists because the electrons have to navigate all the atoms in the wire. The collisions heat the wire.

Does water face any resistance inside a tube? Yes, indeed. Resistance proportional to its viscosity and length and inversely proportional to the fourth power of its radius. The smaller the tube, the higher the resistance.

Hey, electrons do the same! The resistance is proportional to the length of the wire and inversely proportional to the area of the cross section of the wire (second power of its radius). The longer the length, the more atoms the electron has to evade.

Why the second power for wires but fourth power for tubes? Wait, now I’m comparing an invisible and a visible phenomenon, surely some rules of the game change? The visible phenomenon (water) has electrons as well. Does that give rise to its surface tension and adhesion? Which results in the “friction”?

Even blood vessels are like tubes carrying a fluid, blood! High and low blood pressure. How does the human body regulate that? By controlling the size of the blood vessels? Yep, we have muscles surrounding the vessels which can contract and expand, thus changing the size of the blood vessel and thus its resistance to flow and thus the blood flow.

Also, arteries, veins, and capillaries are different in size. Is that related?


Here’s another example.

Humans die when exposed to radiation just like most living things. Errr, why were there so many plants in the “Chernobyl” TV series? Confirm the real Chernobyl has a lush forest too … What? Analogy breaking down? Turns out, plants are different from animals; they aren’t as specialised. They adapt since they can’t move anyway.

Oh, not as specialised? Let’s take another mass extinction: the dinosaurs! How did our ancestors (the mammals) survive? They were very small, could survive in adverse conditions, and weren’t as … specialized … as the dinosaurs.

Wait, today, we are pretty specialized too. Does this mean higher risk of extinction? Um, not sure. The analogy doesn’t carry over fully because we learnt to adapt to and change our environment. At greater risk of extinction given a mass extinction event? Yeah. Can we nuke the asteroid before it reaches us?


In Language

Analogies aren’t limited to concepts either.

Say you’re writing about something and find a word that doesn’t quite fit. You look up synonyms and find the perfect one.

What’s the implicit difference between synonyms that makes one fit and others seem awkwardly wrong? Is it a nuance in your writing you can explore further?

As hinted in a previous example, you can use an analogy both ways, figuring out where it breaks on both sides to understand both concepts better. Here, that translates to understanding the synonym better, where it doesn’t mean the same as others, and leveraging that to build nuance into what you’re writing about.


In Business

I want to build an Uber for chewing gum.

A Superhuman for X. A Google for Y.

They’re all analogies. And, while building such a business, figuring out similarities and dissimilarities will help make a better decision.

When do things fall apart? When you take the analogy past its breaking point.

Or sometimes, you’re convinced the analogy is correct because it worked before. This is particularly brutal when you were involved in the success last time.

For example, Giovanni Gavetti and Jan Rivkin write in HBR:

On the broadband opportunity, Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay told Gas Daily, “[Broadband]’s going to start off as a very inefficient market. It’s going to settle down to a business model that looks very much like our business model on [gas and electricity] wholesale, which obviously has been very profitable with rapid growth.” But Enron’s executives failed to appreciate important, deeper differences between the markets for natural gas and bandwidth. The broadband market was based on unproven technology and was dominated by telecom companies that resented Enron’s encroachment. The underlying good-bandwidth-did not lend itself to the kinds of standard contracts that made efficient trading possible in gas and electricity. Perhaps worst, in broadband trading, Enron had to deliver capacity the “last mile” to a customer’s site-an expensive challenge that gas wholesalers didn’t face.

Paras Chopra on InvertedPassion:

All “social networks” are not created equal and (the right kind of) tiny details matter. Their its-like-Facebook-but-with-X-feature could potentially make it a very different thing.

This breakdown also shows up between discovered and consumed knowledge. Discovering something for yourself gives you nuance. It helps you avoid learning too specific or too broad a lesson. When you experiment and find things out for yourself, you have a better feel for the causal loops influencing your field and which factors are important to consider.

“I was up close and personal to the internet stock bubble in 1999, and 2000, which is ancient history to a lot of people at this point. I got into a [lot of] back and forth with people in email telling me I was stupid because I told them that they shouldn’t speculate on dot-com stocks. [After the crash,] the lesson people learned from that was not, “I should never speculate on overvalued financial assets.” The lesson they learned was, “I should never speculate on internet stocks.” And so the same people who lost 90% or more of their money day-trading internet stocks ended up flipping homes in the mid 2000s. And getting wiped out doing that. It’s dangerous to learn narrow lessons.Jason Zweig

And, for the climax, my favourite analogy breakdown.

Survival of the fittest was a metaphor to explain natural selection. It was too specific a lesson, coming from a time where we couldn’t control our environment. It has broken down. We sometimes have survival of the (un)fittest now. For example, woolly sheep and slow chickens.

Next time you’re reasoning by analogy, ask yourself, “Where does this analogy break down?”

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Neil Kakkar

Written by

I write about Code and Life philosophies. Sometimes both. | https://neilkakkar.com | Engineer @Bloomberg | Write (Code). Create. Recurse.

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