Ideologies, Metaphors, Tautologies, and Urbanism

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 10, 2006


As I prepared my response to Andrew McKillop's essay on Darwinism, I went back and refreshed myself on Karl Popper's philosophy of science, in which he argues that a scientific theory, by definition, must make what he calls "risky predictions" that can be tested and, if the predicted events do not occur, refuted.

As examples of non-scientific theories (he calls them "pre-scientific" or "pseudo-scientific"), Popper discusses astrology, the Marxist theory of history, and Freudian psychoanalysis, among others. These three theories are characterized by irrefutability: no matter what happens, the theory can explain it.

In other words, they're ideologies. I have described ideology in the past as:

a self-contained system of belief that offers an explanation of past social and economic events, makes predictions about future events, and indicates what kinds of behaviour are appropriate for people in a society. In explaining the world and our place in it, an ideology espouses moral, social, and economic systems which are consistent with its assumptions and analyses about the world. As a result, it insists on specific answers to the questions of how people ought to behave, in what people ought to believe, and how the government of the society ought to be conducted.

Ideologies are models or abstractions of reality: they seek to explain the complex, messy, arbitrary hodgepodge of actual events by likening it to something simpler and easier to comprehend.

This is necessary. The stream of perceptions that bombard every human 24 hours a day would be an incomprehensible miasma without some way of filtering important details, recognizing patterns, and making predictions about how one's environment will behave. That's what an abstraction is: an attempt to identify the "important" details in the flux of events and create an overarching model based on those important details, which allows us to ignore other details that the model regards as "trivial".


These models are extended metaphors, patterns of thought that attempt to describe an object or event, often an unfamiliar one, in terms of another object or event, often a more familiar one. (Contrast similes, which do the same thing but use "like" or "as" to make the comparison.)

When an aerotropolis opponent claims Hamilton is "putting all its eggs in one basket" (or, alternately, when an aerotropolis supporter claims Hamilton is not doing this), that's a metaphor, albeit a tired, cliched metaphor. The "eggs" are jobs and economic opportunities, and the "basket" is the industrial development node around the airport.

It's a never-ending shame that metaphors are relegated to grade school poetry criticism (Neil Postman was a tireless and eloquent advocate for raising metaphors to the level of conscious thought): understanding how metaphors can shape our thoughts may be one of the most important tools in understanding why it's so hard for people to see eye to eye (another metaphor - seeing eye to eye, in this case, means understanding each other).

I just read about a fascinating study in an article that attempts to explain why people are so reluctant to do anything about climate change and oil depletion. Researchers filmed two movies that consisted of basketball players passing a ball back and forth. In one movie, a woman walked across the set at one point holding an umbrella; in the other, a gorilla walked across the set.

Participants were divided into four groups. Two groups watched the movie with the woman and two groups watched the movie with the gorilla. For each movie, one group was asked to count the number of passes and the other group was asked to watch for anything interesting.

Among those asked to watch for anything interesting, everyone noticed the woman or gorilla (depending on the movie). Among those asked to count passes, a third of those watching the movie with the woman did not notice her, and half of those watching the movie with the gorilla did not notice it.

That's the power of filtering. To the extent that different people filter reality according to different models, it can be extremely difficult to find common ground (another metaphor). If an ideology has enough traction - and they generally do, since they form the foundation of how we perceive the universe - then mere evidence is not nearly compelling enough to dislodge it.

I first became really conscious of ideologies in university, when I majored in sociology (I later dropped it). Sociology attempts to be a science, but it deals almost exclusively in various ideologies that purport to explain group behaviour.

For example:

These examples should suffice to demonstrate my point: they are all models of reality that seek to explain big, complex phenomena by abstracting out what their adherents feel are the most important aspects of the phenomena.

Each model is an extended metaphor. A symbolic interactionist might believe, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, that "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players./They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts." A conflict theorist might see two children in a sandbox tugging at a single dump truck. A structural functionalist might envision a great machine with many moving parts that must all act in concert so the machine does not fly apart.


Getting back to Popper, these ideologies all share one vital attribute: any event can be interpreted within the prism of a given ideology (although some events fit better than others). It's impossible to refute, say, symbolic interactionism, because it makes no clear predictions that can be tested.

If Bob, a long-time Stelco worker, is promoted to management and turns into a caricature of a hostile foreman, the symbolic interactionist explains that Bob is just trying to act out the role as he understands it. When Jane, another long-time worker, is also promoted but manages fairly and maintains a good rapport with her employees, the symbolic interactionist explains that Jane obviously has experience with management, so she understands better what the new role requires.

Thus, the theory turns in on itself, referring to its own premises to justify its conclusions. That's a tautology, a theory that is internally consistent but impenetrable from outside challenge.

I picked on sociology because I'm somewhat familiar with the academic field and because, like most "social science" subjects, it's more susceptible to tautological metaphors than other fields, but metaphors play a central role in every field of study.

Is light, to take a single example from science, a wave or a particle? Whatever light actually is, scientists and engineers often find it helpful to regard light as if it were one or the other depending on what they're trying to accomplish.

Economics, like sociology, is a "social science" in that it dresses itself in the cloak (another metaphor) of scientific precision but wallows (now I'm mixing my metaphors) in tautology. When free market ideologues tries to explain away the clear evidence that a well-managed, public health care system delivers better care to more people for less money, they resort to criticism about market distortions, arbitrary rationing mechanisms (as if the ability to pay is not an arbitrary rationing mechanism), and so on.

These issues may offend the ideology that markets allocate resources most efficiently, but they do nothing to undermine the fact that public health care is both cheaper and more effective than private health care. Ideologues who refuse to accept that the ideology may not be an accurate model of reality would rather dismiss as irrelevant the overwhelming empirical evidence than take the painful step of subjecting their mental models to a painstaking overhaul (another metaphor - ideologies are not actually machines that need to be repaired).

Now, I don't believe that the only source of knowledge is empirical science. (In fact, since science itself rests on a number of philosophical premises that cannot themselves be confirmed scientifically, positivism hoists itself on its own petard.)

I happen to think that the sociological models I mentioned above all have some value, not as predictive models but as ways of thinking about a problem that can potentially point the way to a solution. Metaphors often jump from one discipline to another, opening up new avenues of thought and transforming theoretical paradigms.

At the same time, an important measure of a metaphor's value is in its usefulness. In other words, can symbolic interactionism actually help Bob to be a better manager? Metaphors that can make testable predictions tend to be more useful than metaphors that cannot make testable predictions.


I have been giving considerable thought lately to what Raise the Hammer is about. I've heard from a few readers that our views lean to the left. This never ceases to fascinate me: of the four core contributors, two are conservatives, one is a small-l liberal, and only one could be characterized as "left" (I'll let you guess whom).

One thing we have tried to do with RTH is escape the constraints of political ideology. The method we seem to have adopted - without necessarily making a deliberate choice to do this - has been to approach the subjects we cover from the perspective of urbanism.

Our ideology, if you can call it that, is that we believe in cities and in city life. When analyzing an event, a development, or a proposal, we ask: Is this consistent with the conditions that cities need to thrive?

What's the best set of rules for improving the choice and quality of life for all citizens? Keeping different kinds of destinations separate from each other in zones; mixing them together in close proximity throughout the city; or something else?

What's the best street layout for vibrant streets? A five-lane, one-way expressway; a narrow, two-lane street with wide sidewalks; or something else?

One benefit of this is approach is that it does generate testable predictions. Here are a few predictions:

It's possible that we might be wrong about some of these things. It's a certainty that our own ideologies lurk in the background, blinding us to some things that others, with different ideologies, see clearly.

However, one of our prime inspirations is the legacy of Jane Jacobs, an independent thinker who decided to subject the tautological metaphors of urban planners to observation, and who discovered that most of the urban planning ideology was pure nonsense.

We don't pretend to be in the same league as the late, lamented Jacobs, but we do aspire to her honest, empirical approach and her willingness to let the theories defer to the evidence.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.


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