Friday, February 25, 2011

A thought experiment on thought experiments

The limitations of argument by analogy, particularly of historical analogy, are well-known. Strands of apparent likeness between two situations may be far outstripped by myriad factors that are in no way like.

But of course, we can't do without analogy. All inductive reasoning is dependent on it. Past results may be no guarantee of future success. But everything we know about the course of human events derives from knowledge of the past.

More broadly, every noun and every adjective is an analogy, or rather a classification, which is an analogy extended across a number of discrete entities. A noun is an assertion that different entities are like enough to share a name; an adjective, that different instances of a quality (brown, angry) are like enough to be classed together. For that matter, I suppose a verb embeds an analogy too -- the rapid motion of your legs is like enough to mine that we can both be said to "run," even if you move twice as fast as I do.

And ah, the eureka of a really good analogy! What comes first to mind (through nether pathways) is the instructive assertion that giving birth to a human baby is like "shitting a watermelon." Less viscerally, what I'm meandering toward  is mentally yoking two really excellent extended analogies that I've come across recently -- each complex enough to be deemed a "thought experiment," as I suppose any really good analogy is. If I can find any common element other than aptness (I'll think about it as I paste them, which doesn't work as well for this purpose as typing them out), I suppose I'll have my own meta-analogy.

First: James Fallows recently relayed a sterling attempt by consultant Thomas Barnett to help Americans imagine the strengths and weaknesses of a rising China:

If Americans wanted to imagine what it would take to be "strong" in the way China currently is, he said, all we'd have to do is think of moving the entire population of the Western Hemisphere into our existing borders. Every single Mexican. (Rather than enforcing the southern border, we'd require everyone to cross it, headed north.) Every Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican. Everyone from Central America. All 190 million from Brazil. And so on. Even the Canadians. China, by the way, is just about the same size as the United States, though a larger share of its land area is desert, mountain, or otherwise nonarable.

If we did that, we'd be up to about a billion people -- and then if we also took every single person from Nigeria, and for good measure everyone in hyper-crowded Japan too, we'd finally be up to China's 1.3 billion size. At that point, like China, we'd have tremendous scale in everything. Rich people. Big businesses. A huge work force. Countless numbers of multi-million population cities. And we would also have a tremendous amount of poverty, plus pressure on resources of every kind, from water to food to living space. Just as China does now. Scale gives China some strengths. But it also creates tremendous challenges, as Americans would recognize if we thought about this prospect for even a minute. Seriously, reflect on this, and consider that it is China's reality now.
Next up is Jonathan Bernstein's bid to help political junkies understand the way most Americans absorb public policy questions and political battles. The occasion: trying to wrap one's head around a poll indicating "that 22% of all Americans believe that Obama health care law has already been repealed, and another 26% aren't sure whether it's been repealed or not."  The premise: for those who follow politics closely, "it's hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to." The analogy:

I've said this get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps sports in general -- or, for sports fans, a major sport that you don't pay any attention to. Perhaps it's current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I've had that veer off in that direction. It's not as if I know absolutely nothing. It's just that the stuff I've heard is not organized at all, and I'm sure I've picked up misinformation along the way, since I don't scrutinize any of it.
Both of these thought experiments deploy a contrary-to-fact -- if I didn't pay serious attention to politics (as Bernstein's readers by definition do), if the U.S. had a demographic composition and density something like China's -- to illuminate an unfamiliar reality. I guess it's the contrary-to-fact element (which goes for shitting a watermelon too!) that makes them "thought experiments," isn't it? An ordinarily analogy is very much according-to-fact -- the more so, the better (just how similar is the current U.S. effort in Afghanistan to the Soviet Union's decade-long attempt to stand up a government there, and which is more salient to the outcome, the similarities or the differences?).  Of course, when it comes to policy or historical analysis, many analogies are prior-to-fact, trying to extrapolate a future outcome from an analogous past event. 

BTW, I have some sympathy for those 48% of (polled) Americans who think that the Affordable Care Act has been repealed, or are not sure whether it has been or not. The path from legislation to enacted law in the U.S. is so very tortuous, we've probably all gotten the impression that a bill has become law when it  has not.  The SCA has been a) "repealed" by the House, and b) ruled unconstitutional by two Federal judges (albeit upheld as constitutional by three others, whose decisions got less attention  -- and never mind the 10-plus challenges that have been thrown out of court without ruling on the constitutional issues).  And given the glacial progress, it's not surprising that politicians have all kinds of artful locutions to take credit for legislation that has not yet become law (and in many cases, never will), as in "I fought for" x, or "I led the struggle to provide" for y, or "I cosponsored legislation to ensure" z.  If you're not paying close attention, you might well assume that x, y and z are the law of the land.

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