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The Misadventures of the Three-Legged Stool -- Writer's Poke #336

I suppose the charm of using “the three-legged stool” analogy is that it helps readers visualize your argument, because let’s face it: trying to keep three different concepts in your mind at the same time can be so taxing.

So, writes Arthur Allen, HPV vaccination is a good thing, but that’s only one leg of the stool. According to Arthur’s 2007 piece in the Washington Post, two other stool legs necessary for a successful vaccination program are positive public perception and appropriate government funding. Without those two “legs,” the stool won’t stand.

When creating a three-legged stool, though, don’t chair builders make one leg at a time? And don’t they attach each leg individually? In other words, even if all legs are “equally” important, one leg must be installed first.

Think about it for a second: Does it really make sense to secure funding first? Why would the government secure funding for a stool leg that hadn’t yet been built? Why would the public be more likely to support a concept than an actual program? These are just questions. My main point is this: the three legs of which Allen speaks may be required, but which leg should come first?

One must consider whether or not the analogy is appropriate to the argument, too. For example, replace “HPV vaccination” with “Slavery.” Imagine if Abe Lincoln used the following logic: 1. Slavery is a bad thing, but 2. The public supports it, and 3. The Federal Government doesn’t have the will (or ability) to outlaw it. Actually, Lincoln probably did use this logic initially, but eventually he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and that ended slavery. Note that it was the “mandate” that was essential. In essence, slavery existed in the United States for years because people used three-legged stool logic.

Using analogies can be a good technique, and everyone can picture a three-legged stool in their minds, but what techniques can one use to determine if the analogy is appropriate to the argument being made?

“I go from stool to stool in singles bars hoping to get lucky, but there's never any gum under any of them.” – Emo Phillips


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