Monday, July 2, 2012

More Angst on Analogies

The previous post looked at analogies, which often are unrecognized as such in information management.  It posited that analogical terms are applied to new and poorly understood concepts, which go undefined or poorly defined.   As a result attributes of the concept to which the analogical term originally signified are transferred to the new concept.  Of course, this transfer also tends to go unrecognized.  The result is a bad definition of the new concept, which can have severe negative practical effects.

I came across a discussion of analogies by Robert B. Stewart in the book Come Let Us Reason (2012, Copan and Craig, editors, ISBN 978-1-4336-7220-0).  Stewart points out that analogies "are not evidence that something is so, but rather illustrations of how  something could be so" (Stewart's italics).  Here I think Stewart is discussing analogies in controversy - how they can be used to support a point, or in the search for an explanation.  The passage made me realize that this is not what I had in mind in the previous post.  What I was discussing was when a new concept emerges in information management - which is quite frequent - an analogous term is used to signify it, and brings with it the associations of the definition of the original concept signified by the analogous term, and this becomes a big part of an informal de facto definition.

But also, I find people in information management inventing their own terms all the time, even if good terms already exist.  These invented terms are always analogies.  For instance, I have heard a lot recently about "viewing" a topic space "through different lenses".  What is meant by "lens" here?  I think it must be conceptual model that filters part of the concept system that constitutes the topic space.    Putting it in these terms might raise a lot of questions in the mind of listeners.  For some reason, analogical terms seem to slide by without question.

Stewart goes on to say that "analogies can distort our view of reality and lead us down many dead-end paths".  He uses the example of the luminiferous ether.   This was the hypothetical substance that was rigid with respect to electromagnetic waves, and thus the medium in which these waves were propagated.  The ether was supposedly permeable to matter.   The ether was supposed to exist based on the analogy between light waves and sound waves.  After all, sound waves propagate through air (and other substances).  As Stewart points out, the analogy was plausible, but it held up scientific progress, until the Michelson Morley experiment eventually disproved it.

So, we can see that there are even more worries about the effect of analogies on definitions, and how analogies can negatively affect the way we think.

No comments:

Post a Comment