Richard Dawkins & the Power of Analogy

13 September, 2007

Anyone regularly charged with communicating new or complex information, either via presentation or the written word, will know how difficult it can be to pitch it at just the right level for the intended audience. Pitch it too high and people won’t understand, pitch it too low and they’ll feel patronised.

For a good example of just how to pull this off, try reading The God Delusion, British scientist Richard Dawkins‘ superb critique of religion. Dawkins broaches daunting topics such as quantum theory and the anthropic principle but presents them in a way that is understandable to the layman without ‘dumbing down’. He does this via a fluid, seemingly effortless writing style, plenty of personal anecdotes, some often hilarious witticisms, and best of all, plenty of well-chosen analogies.

Analogy is an essential tool in the communicator’s arsenal, and Dawkins is a master. In attempting to convey just how much science has expanded human consciousness after centuries of religious repression, he uses the image of ‘the mother of all burkas’, a giant black cloak which for thousands of years had only allowed humankind to see the world through a small slit. Over the last few centuries, science has gradually widened that slit, allowing us to understand more about the world and the universe in which we live. And he hopes that, one day, we may metaphorically (or, in the case of those unfortunates forced to wear real burkas, literally) cast off the offending garment and have a full 360-degree view of our universe.

I regularly do presentations on the topic of Customer Retention (in order to set up the context for CRM software demos), and tend to use the ‘leaky bucket’ analogy to convey its importance. When you have a leaky bucket, there are two ways to deal with it – either you keep going back to the tap and filling it up with fresh water, or you simply patch up the hole. Just as companies can either keep looking for new business, or look after the business they already have. No prizes for guessing which alternative is cheaper.

Using an image such as the big burka or the leaky bucket simplifies complex topics, grabs people’s attention, and is more memorable than simply stating the facts as they are, especially when you’re communicating with speakers of other languages. So next time you’re called on to present a complex topic, try and come up with some good analogies – it’s fun for you, and fun (and a lot easier) for your audience!

6 Responses to “Richard Dawkins & the Power of Analogy”

  1. David Says:

    Dawkins is also a case in point for the risk of analogies to cause offence or misunderstanding. The burka image can hardly be taken as a ‘good’ example of an analogy for the supposed blindness of religion given the understandable sensitivities of Muslims on the subject and the actual offence that has been caused by politicians criticising women who choose to testify to their faith in that way.

    Similarly, Dawkins’ re-use of Russell’s analogy that belief in God was like belief in a celestial teapot, while it is both offensive and idiotic, also has the potential to cause the effectiveness of his message to be diminished. This is because while belief in something material whose existence we can’t prove can be compared with belief in something immaterial (God) for which we don’t have a material scientific proof, the objects of belief and the nature of that belief are qualitatively distinct. If you mistake analogy for logic, then the logical cohesion and explanatory effectiveness of the argument built on that analogy can break down.

  2. leveragethis Says:

    Thanks for posting the first comment on this blog David! I understand your point about Dawkins’ comments causing offence but you rather disingenuously omit to mention that one of the key ideas advanced in The God Delusion is that religious belief has no more right to respect than political opinion, taste in music etc. Which is why Dawkins pulls no punches with some of his analogies. If we can openly criticise people’s political allegiances, choice of football team or taste in art, we should be equally free to criticise their choice of religion.

  3. David Says:

    Point taken, but some degree of tact needs to be taken in the language used about other cultures or women’s choice of clothing, which is what’s involved in the burka analogy as much as a criticism of religion. And there’s a distinction between criticism and ranting or mockery. The latter discredits the criticism it is intended to support. Equally, religion (or other cultures and women’s dignity), while having no more right equally have no less right to our respect than anything else. Human beings have a right to our respect, and that involves respecting their feelings.

    In their simplistic and caricatural tone, Dawkins’ analogies pay as little respect to religion as the ridiculous contemporary caricatures of Darwins’ original theories paid to science (cartoons showing progression from apes to mankind). No substitute for serious engagement.

    Thirdly, Dawkins wouldn’t make mocking analogies about traditional African animism (or would he?) in case that seemed racist; but it’s OK to make fun of Muslims. Double standards?

  4. leveragethis Says:

    Dawkins does mention animism in the book and there are several mocking references to witchdoctors, witches & other such superstition. He is nothing if not consistent and inclusive 🙂

    And yes, people have a right to our respect but it goes both ways – religious fundamentalists are probably the most disrespectful, offensive, intolerant people on the planet.

  5. David Says:

    True enough. But fundamentalists represent a minority of religious believers (though perhaps not in America?!).

  6. […] some examples. This slide is to illustrate the ‘leaky bucket’ analogy I mentioned in my recent entry about Richard Dawkins – the audience read the question and saw the picture, and their interest was piqued. This meant […]

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