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July 15, 2019

In analogies we trust


July 15, 2019

For some two weeks social and electronic media remained abuzz with surprising similarities between Pakistan’s fate in the 1992 and the current cricket world cups.

In 1992, starting with a dismal performance and having been almost written off, the team came from behind to win the most coveted title in the game. In 2019, the country’s initial performance was almost a replica of that 27 years ago, which fuelled the optimism that the current campaign may also end in a blaze of glory. Alas, the optimism turned out to be a pipedream, as the green shirts were knocked out of the tournament!

The optimism was an instance of analogical reasoning, which consists in arguing from one particular case to another on the basis of perceived similarities between the two. Drawing analogies is a fundamental and convenient mode of thinking, used by both the laity and the professionals for predicting the future as well as for problem solving.

An analogical argument rests on the premise that if two objects or events are similar in certain known respects, they will also be similar in other respects hitherto unknown. A classic example of analogical reasoning is the argument that since the earth has much in common with other planets in the solar system, the latter may also be inhabited.

Now, take a famous couplet from Mirza Ghalib: “Qasid ke aate aate khat ik aur likh rakhun; main janta huun jo vo likhenge javab mein.” Translation: ‘While awaiting the messenger who’s bringing a reply from my beloved, I may compose another epistle; for I know for sure what she has written to me’.

The couplet embodies analogical reasoning: because in the past, the poet’s love interest didn’t reciprocate his feelings; he’s sure this time her response will not by any different. So why waste time waiting for the reply?

Coming back to cricket, the circumstances in which Pakistan found itself in 1992 and 2019 were seemingly remarkably similar. To begin with, the formats of both tournaments were the same: unlike the usual template, the contestants – nine in 1992 and 10 in 2019 – were not divided into two groups; instead each team was required to play against the rest and the top four teams would qualify for the semi-finals. Back in 1992, Pakistan lost the first game, won the second, while the third match was washed-out. The country lost the fourth and fifth encounters but won the sixth and seventh. In 2019 as well, Pakistan followed a similar track.

Not only that, both in 1992 and 2019, Pakistan played their first game against the West Indies. On both occasions, Pakistan were beaten by India, chasing the target. In both world cups, in a must-win encounter, Pakistan, batting first, defeated New Zealand, which until then had remained unbeaten. On both occasions, Australia were the defending champions. Despite this plethora of similarities, Pakistan won the 1992 world cup but in 2019 they failed to qualify for the semi-finals. So the analogy broke down. Why?

The answer is that analogical reasoning is not always a very sound mode of argumentation. The mere fact that two objects or situations share some characteristics doesn’t constitute a compelling ground for asserting that they are alike in other respects as well. That is the reason that analogies fall into the category of an amplitative argument in that the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. An analogical argument is at best plausible; it’s never conclusive. Analogies may be sound or weak depending on both the number of noted similarities between the two situations and their relevance to the question on hand. Skin-deep similarities may cloud the discrepancies that lurk deeper.

Let’s go back to the two world cups and highlight a crucial difference. Pakistan’s team was much better in 1992 than it was in 2019. In 1992, it was led by Imran Khan, one of the best all-rounders cricket has ever seen. Javed Miandad anchored Pakistan’s batting, while Wasim Akram spearheaded the attack. Each of these gentlemen was in a league of his own. Yes, in the initial round, the team failed to give a good account of itself but once it entered the knock-out stage, it never looked back. In 2019, however, Pakistan doesn’t have a world class all-rounder, batsman or bowler. By and large, it’s a team of mediocre players, who, I would say, played beyond their potential.

‘Not so fast’, the proponents of analogies would caution. In 2019, Pakistan could not qualify on the basis of the net run-rate and not on the basis of points. Besides, if India were not lethargic in their run chase against England, the green shirts would have qualified for the semi-finals and maybe in the end crowned champions. So the 1992-2019 analogy was not all that weak.

Such an argument only brings out the chief limitation of analogical reasoning: Unlike inductive or scientific reasoning, it doesn’t rest upon a causal connection between the two events. Scientific forecast is based on causation analysis. We can’t understand or predict the effect without comprehending the cause. When economic analysis forecasts that the stock market will crash, it takes stock of various forces that bear upon the sale and purchase of financial assets.

Non-scientific forecast, by contrast, does not distinguish between causation and mere succession or precedence. If the induction of a new government is followed by crop failure or a massive earthquake, it would be unscientific to attribute the one to the other even if two similar events followed each other in the past. From a scientific standpoint, an analogy can at best suggest a causal connection between two events if one regularly follows the other and thus future line of investigation.

The proponents of the so-called occult sciences, who use their esoteric knowledge of zodiac signs, the movement of heavenly bodies, the shapes of hand lines, or of mathematical numbers to foretell the future, also commit the post-hoc fallacy.

Thus even if Pakistan had won the 2019 world cup, it would have little to do with its 1992 triumph, because there would be no causal connection between the two events. What settled Pakistan’s fate in 2019, as well as in 1992, was its performance relative to that of the competitors and weather and other relevant conditions.

Scientific forecast is not without its limitations. An event that has a high probability may not occur, while a less probable event may come about. That’s because the causal connection between two events that held in the past may break down in future. The limitations of science arise out of the limits of our knowledge. We analyze and forecast on the basis of what we know but we don’t know how little or much we know.

Notwithstanding all the breadth of our knowledge and the depth of our insight, uncertainty continues to rule the world of facts, and as a rule our predictions are always on a shaky ground – more or less. Few, if any, had foreseen in the tumultuous events of the French Revolution the rise of Napoleon, in the Treaty of Versailles the rise of Hitler, in the Pak-India Tashkent Agreement the rise of ZA Bhutto, in the fall of Bhutto the rise of Nawaz Sharif, in General Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamization’ campaign the rise of Imran Khan, or in the Panama Leaks the rise of Maryam Nawaz. We may put down such unexpected events to fate, destiny, providence or pure chance – depending on our beliefs – but, in the words of Hamlet, they serve as a somber reminder that “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio/than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

One star analogy these days pertains to Benazir Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz. In a man’s world, each lady was catapulted into politics after her father was removed from the prime minister’s office. Maryam, like Benazir, has two brothers and another sister but it’s she who became her father’s political heir. They may also have some other similarities. But these similarities don’t constitute a valid ground for predicting that one will be as successful in politics as the other.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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