The Discipline of Comparison

At an event a couple of nights ago, I heard a handful of smart people make a bunch of none-too-sophisticated arguments about the state of society and democracy.

“It’s 1930s Germany!” said one.

“It’s industrial-age Britain,” countered another.

“Change is happening faster and faster,” offered the third.

“It’s not so bad — data and markets will win out,” concluded the fourth. (Over both idiocy and democracy, if I understood the argument correctly … an outcome that might be worse than the other two by quite a ways.)

I’d been looking forward to the event and left frustrated. We all know better, and we ought to act better, too.

Everyone argues in metaphors and comparisons, and that’s not about to stop. (I don’t wish that, either — if I couldn’t use metaphor, I couldn’t write!) But we can be responsible speakers and listeners by simply demanding not better facts but better comparisons.

In honor of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, who developed this framework in Thinking in Time, let me urge that we don’t offer or accept a comparison that doesn’t come with a clear statement of the specific likenesses and differences intended in the comparison.

Better yet, we could also demand to know what’s known, unknown, and presumed in the data from which the argument is constructed.

If we can’t ask — or an author or speaker can’t answer — these deceptively simple questions, treat the argument as an emotional opinion rather than a solid, fact-based comparison.

Deliberate misinformation is indeed a problem. But 90 minutes of shoddy comparisons made and (apparently) accepted by people who think they’re smarter than that isn’t much of a step on the road to truth.