I’ve observed with interest the recent multiplication of swing dancing analogies. Perhaps it’s the rise of the swing dancing blog, or there’s more people thinking about dancing but I’m beginning to think that it’s getting a bit much. Some of them are cute, some of them show the nerdiness of Lindy Hoppers and yet others can get the user into hot water.
Don’t get me wrong, I like analogies and they have their uses. But that’s the problem. An analogy is a comparison used to explain a difficult concept, by stripping out the complexity and comparing it to something within the bounds of common experience. Back when I did science and math tutoring they came in handy to take concepts and ideas beyond experience (like electricity – electrons flow around a circuit like water in a pipe) and make them easier to understand.
But here’s the catch. Dancing is something that is within the bounds of regular experience. You can see it and feel it. Even though some things can be difficult to get I can’t see how trying to wrap your head around something involving boxes, springs or flashlights helps the matter. The concept being proposed can be more complex than what it’s trying to explain. A writer will then spend more of their time trying to explain the analogy than they devote to the original concept.
Much of the time I feel that analogies are being used to make a point and fair enough. It can be hard to get heard in the lindysphere these days so anything to get your point across is a plus in this marketplace of ideas.
Remember, though, that analogies will always fail. There’s only so far they can be stretched. This is the opportunity for real understanding. When my student asked “what happens when all the electrons (ie water) runs out of the pipe?” they can learn that the electrons don’t “run out” but are conserved in the system.
That’s where the true success of an analogy is: its failure.