Wait – stop right there. Do I have to explain how analogies work? Apparently so.
Arguments using analogies are a weak form of Reductio ad absurdum – a reduction to absurdity. The case being argued has features that make supporters believe that the case has merit. Attack by analogy requires preserving the essential features of the base case while replacing others with what is basically a parody of the original. The absurd features of a successful analogy allow open-minded supporters to see the errors in the base case.
As an example, let’s imagine that people paid to make money in a given industry were also paid to regulate that same industry. Perhaps a good-faith argument could be made that these are the people that know the industry best and therefore know what regulations will be most effective. Opponents will analogize that this is like the “fox guarding the henhouse.” While we are not talking about literal foxes or hens, the meaning is clear. The incentives are wrong. If you had a real henhouse to guard you’d buy a dog. Dogs might bark at the hens or get in fights with the rooster, but if you got a fox instead – despite their similarity to dogs – a fox would want to kill the hens and steal the eggs. By analogy perhaps we can see that using lobbyists as regulators is a bad idea.
This is actually one of the most universal forms of human reasoning and argument, but it does require a little bit of discipline. It especially requires that everyone understand how the analog maps to the real case. By focusing on the absurd features of Russell’s teapot analogy, Douthat demonstrates that he has no serious interest in engaging the argument and simply wishes to dismiss it out of hand. Complaining about the crazy-sounding parts of an analogy is like complaining about the alcohol in a cocktail; it’s a defining feature and if you take it out you have something completely different.
The teapot analogy is really about the epistemic status of unverifiable belief. The theist says, “I cannot prove the existence of god, but neither can you prove his non-existence. Therefore our beliefs are both equally valid.”
“Not so,” says the atheist, “The default position is to disbelieve in the absence of evidence. By your logic we should seriously entertain belief in a celestial teapot.”
“But a space teapot is absurd,” rejoins the theist, “while belief in god is reasonable.”
“Then please give those reasons,” replies the atheist, “for those constitute the evidence underlying your positive belief. Universal ignorance can never be a satisfactory reason to accept belief in anything.”
Bloggers who try to dissect logical arguments need to understand what those arguments are about before displaying how ignorant they are. Glad I could help.