Frequent commenter T. Greer had an outstanding post on historical analogies and cognition at Scholar’s Stage:
You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page.* Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.
….The implications of this are worth contemplation.
The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, Yalta, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.
Most of these metaphors are misguided
Agreed. Read the rest here.
Actually, we have two cherished analogies: hawks look at a situation and see Munich, but doves see the same conflict and exclaim”Vietnam!”. Neither does much for recognizing unique circumstances or complexities. These analogies are political totems signifying group affinity; or are rhetorical weapons to bludgeon the opposition in debate.
Metaphors and analogies are extremely powerful cognitive tools. But like all forms of power, they can be used for good or ill, well or poorly. Those that capture the essence of previously unrecognized similarities are the basis for generating novel insights from which innovations are derived and problems are solved. Poorly constructed but attractive analogies or metaphors capitivate our attention and transmit misinformation that is efficiently remembered and stubbornly retained, at times in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.