The Destructive Power of a False Analogy


The other day I read an article based upon a false analogy and realized anew the power that such an analogy could wield over the minds and emotions of readers who did not realize it was false. The writer, a leader in corporate “reform,” expressed with what seemed to me a phony and condescending sadness his dismay that parents would refuse the tests for their children. He likened this supposedly misguided protectiveness to refusal to take one’s child for an annual exam by a physician. Of course, the child might not enjoy the exam, but surely even minimally enlightened parents can appreciate the value of this checkup for the child’s physical well-being. No, taking standardized tests is not fun and there is some anxiety involved, but the children survive and are, he implied condescendingly, helped by these annual evaluations in the progress of their education.

It plays on parental fears

The analogy is insidious because it is false and shaming. It plays on parental fears of overprotecting their children and so doing them harm in the long run. It implies poor parenting. It is a lie. How is it a lie? The two evaluations, the medical checkup and the standardized test, are not analogous. It’s a false comparison.

The physical examination by a pediatrician is specific to the individual child being examined. Yes, it draws upon data from the general pool of children and from research into diseases, but the particular child is not just a data point for a larger agenda. Standardized tests are not designed to help any particular child. They provide teachers with no useful information about that child, nothing by which to adjust the education of that child, and teachers do not need such information anyway because they have it already. They get it daily in the classroom.

The standardized tests evaluate children, not any particular child, and individualized child development is not their goal. They provide data by which managers who know little of child development can control and punish. The tests are mechanisms for empowering remote authority, control from a safe distance. They are impersonal, unfair, and nearly useless except for the exercise of unreasonable authority.

Parent, would you take your child for a medical examination if all you got back from it, months later, were a score? Nothing specific about your child to help her, just a score telling you where she fell on a scoring curve designed to make sure many children fail? Does my daughter have a disease? Who cares? She has a score. But overall, your pediatrician’s patients had acceptable scores this year, and so she will be rewarded as a good doctor. Next year, her patients may get low scores, and so she may be fired. Heaven help her if she gets too many actually sick children because then her scores will be very low indeed, and she will be exposed as a bad doctor. But don’t worry, we’re providing software to guide new medical workers with six weeks of training through preparing the patients and doing the evaluations. Who needs real doctors anyway?

A good analogy can serve as a helpful teaching method if (1) the two situations really are analogous in some insightful ways, (2) the analogy is not pushed beyond those ways to include factors that are not analogous, and (3) the hearer or reader knows it is only an analogy and not an exact parallel. Analogies have sticking power because they relate something I know well to something else I do not yet understand. But how far should I allow the analogy to take me? If I tell you that raising a child is like training a dog, will you believe me? There are parallels. For example, dogs respond well to love and they need to experience success; both are true also of children. But dogs and children are very different, and the goals of training the dog and of teaching the child differ vastly. You do not want to raise your children as though they were dogs.

The danger in the false analogy between medical checkups and standardized tests comes in the tone and clear intent of the article: to make parents question their own judgment by suggesting they are overprotecting their children, to shame parents into submission, and to arouse fear in parents for their children’s well-being and future success. The analogy is a deception. The two types of exams are not analogous.  When you refuse the standardized tests for your child, you do NOT become the kind of parent who would not take your child for a medical checkup.  The implied accusation is a lie.