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05 June 2024

From Trump to the Ballon d'Or – new book exposes how misleading comparisons distort the world

What do Trump’s approach to criminal charges, Boris Johnson’s references to Greek mythology, and the FIFA World Footballer of the Year, have in common? They all give murky, distorted perspectives to the world, according to a new book by a King’s academic, who wants to encourage the world to think more critically.

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Please note: the following article contains language some readers may find offensive.

Dr Andrew Brooks, Deputy Head of the Department of Geography, said his book is not meant to be read as a tirade against comparison - but rather is positioned as a helpful and hopeful guide.

“Like dirty windowpanes, these sort of comparisons give murky, distorted perspectives to the world. The toxic metaphors that brand migrants as ‘invaders’, or the mathematically impossible metrics that all schools should become ‘above average’, are not only distortions they are divisive.”

Dr Andrew Brooks, Deputy Head of the Department of Geography

He said even seemingly harmless examples such as ‘do dogs look like their owners?’ are “floating on a nasty undercurrent of snobbery and class warfare”.

Dr Brooks will discuss his book in conversation with broadcaster Tom Heap next week (12 June) in a free event at King’s Strand Campus.

During the event they will look at examples of such comparisons spanning the globe from childhood rivalries, politicians’ analogies, the FIFA World Footballer of the year award and Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa.

Dr Brooks' new book ‘Bullsh*t Comparisons: A field guide to thinking critically in a world of difference’ stems from his attempts to get students to think more critically.

“As I say in my lectures, comparisons can spotlight injustices and provide the stimulus for progressive action. But use comparisons carefully and selectively. When you read a comparison from any source: in politics, the media or your own social circle, stop and think about it critically: What agenda might the comparison be trying to advance?”

In a complicated world comparisons are used to simplify difficult topics, said Dr Brooks who outlines three types of comparisons in his book.

Firstly, there are comparative metaphors such as when a huge election reversal is called a ‘landslide victory’. Also commonplace are comparative metrics; hospitals are rated against one another in performance tables. And thirdly there are comparative models: the battles in Ukraine are like World War two.

“All these types of comparison can be unhelpful,” he said. “A swing in the popular vote is not akin to the unforeseen natural hazard that is a landslide, but rather is an expression of the will of the people that is often clearly forecast. Ranking different healthcare providers in a competition like a football league isn’t particularly useful, everyone wants and deserves the best medical treatment rather than hospitals competing to win a contest. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has a completely different geopolitical context to the Red Army’s struggle against Nazism.”

He said Donald Trump is a master at building such persuasive and popular arguments. When he faced criminal charges Trump insisted he was not afraid of prison and likened himself to a famous inmate: ‘I don’t mind being Nelson Mandela, because I’m doing it for a reason.’ he said.

The comparison, said Dr Brooks, was absurd: Mandela was imprisoned for leading the fight against apartheid, Trump faced criminal allegations he tried to overturn the 2020 election loss.

“Yet by bringing his personal legal challenges and the anti-apartheid leader’s struggle together and drawing a moral equivalence, he disorientates the audience, who may wonder if Trump has a point about the political context of the charges brought against him. This is a bullsh*t comparison.”

Dr Andrew Brooks, Deputy Head of the Department of Geography.

He is also critical of league tables, used to measure the performance of schools, hospitals and universities.

“They began with good intentions, to raise standards in healthcare and education, but as soon as new measures of performance are established, managers began to shift their resources to a narrow focus on these indicators rather than taking a holistic view to improve conditions in the hospital wards and classrooms,” he said.

This phenomenon, explains Dr Brooks, is known as Goodhart’s Law, an adage attributed to the British economist Charles Goodhart, which can be expressed simply as: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’

“League tables provoke anxiety and change behaviours, sometimes for the worst. Health service providers adjusted their case mix – the conditions they treated – to boost performance, rather than concentrating on local needs,” he said.

“They also produce winners and losers, so the schools, hospitals or universities at the bottom of the league table are a failure by comparison, even if they are actually delivering a good service themselves.”

Dr Brooks, whose previous books include two editions of the popular Smithsonian Children’s Illustrated Atlas and Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes, which was long listed for the Bread and Roses prize.

Book Launch: Bullsh*t Comparisons with Tom Heap and Andrew Brooks

12 June 2024 18:00 to 20:00 The Exchange, Strand Campus, London

Book your free place now


In this story

Andrew Brooks

Reader in Uneven Development & Deputy Head of Department