A Fish Is to a Catholic as …

In 2005, bemoaning the College Board’s decision to drop analogies from the SAT in order to make room for the writing section, Adam Cohen observed, “Nowhere are analogies more central than in politics.” That truth has been echoing for me in the latest round of analogizing in the debate over insurance coverage for contraception.

Carving out one tiny corner of that debate, readers’ responses to my local newspaper’s coverage, I find the following analogies:

1. Under your logic the government should have the ability to force Jewish nursing homes to serve pork if some bureaucrat determines it is healthier than beef.

2. The Mormons were forced to abandon polygamy because it’s illegal under this nation’s laws.

3. Should institutions run by Jehovah’s Witnesses be able to refuse to cover the cost of blood transfusions in their health insurance?

4. The same thing holds true for cutting funding from an organization of women’s community-based health clinics.

5. So if my corporation has a religious belief against paying taxes, I don’t need to follow any tax regulations.

Now, analogies seem to me the love children of metaphor and logic. (Oops! No birth control there!) So every time I run across one of these scrambled political comparisons, I can’t help fiddling with it.

After all, to understand an analogy is to understand the language in which it’s couched. That’s why those outmoded test-prep analogies matching rose:flower with hammer:tool depend on the student’s knowing that a rose is a kind of flower and a hammer is a kind of tool. It’s also why more advanced examples got me daydreaming. For instance, in the test question—

Invective : blame ~ a) homage : copy; b) grandeur : admire, c) duplicity : increase; or d) depravity : corrupt

—I rather like c), however incorrect, because of its charming implication that the function of duplicity is to increase.

Similarly, the joke that a woman needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle works only if you have some sense of what not only “woman’s needs” but also “fish’s needs” might comprise and therefore understand exactly how the bicycle fits in (or not).

Back to ham and blood transfusions. To make sense of any of these political analogies, we need to understand what employer-sponsored health care coverage (ESHCC, just for now) means and what it means to mandate that it include provisions for contraception. Most of us don’t, at least not the way we understand that a rose is a flower. If, for instance, we take ESHCC to mean the employer must provide medical services, and the contraception mandate to mean that the employer is thereby supplying contraception, then analogy No. 1 works like this:

Female employees using contraception : ESHCC ~ Senior citizens eating ham : Nursing home cuisine.

If, however, we take ESHCC to be insurance the employer elects to provide as part of total employee compensation, and the contraception mandate to mean that any insurance package must include contraception coverage, then analogy No. 1 would be more properly put:

Female employees using contraception : ESHCC ~ Senior citizens buying ham sandwich at local deli : Nursing home allowance provided to entice senior citizens to live there.

Similarly, with No. 2, if you believe that the Roman Catholic Church’s disapproval of contraception coverage is akin to the Mormon Church’s approval of polygamy and that the mandate for such coverage is the law of the land, you get:

Mormons give up polygamy : Mormons obeying marriage laws ~ Catholics accept ESHCC for contraception : Catholics obeying health-care law

If you find no basis for comparison between approval of polygamy and disapproval of contraception coverage, or if you do not accept the current mandate as the law of the land, you get something more like:

Mormons give up polygamy : Mormons observing state laws on marriage ~ Female employees give up contraception : Female employees observing employer’s religious laws on contraception.

It took me a half-hour to work out these two analogies, and I’m still not sure I’ve got them right. My logician friend tells me that analogies are an informal fallacy anyway. More often than not, they beg the question—that is, if we could establish a correspondence between the first elements of the analogy such that their relationships to the second elements seem comparable, we would have already proved the argument we are trying to make. Perhaps that’s why I can’t even begin to sort out analogy No. 5. And I like analogies; I think I’m good at them.

When I consider the twisty effect of these false parallelisms on folks whose strengths lie elsewhere (and who never got those test-prep drills), I understand the political centrality Adam Cohen is talking about. Whether you like analogies or despise them, our only defense against such manipulation is to understand and deploy language whose logic is as clear and unassailable as that rose and that hammer.


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