The Gift of Error

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s how the old saying goes. This is often called the Golden Hammer fallacy, and it embodies such a useful piece of advice that it deserves its own theme song.

The Golden Hammer is a metaphor. The metaphor’s semantic payload is an admonishment not to become so enamored of a particular way of thinking that you extend it to areas in which it does not apply. Its literal delivery mechanism is an image of using a hammer in a task for which a hammer is ill-suited. I picture someone trying to pound a screw into a board when a screwdriver is lying nearby.

What makes the image compelling? For starters it’s funny.  Hammers are heavy, blunt, thumb-endangering tools you use by going wham-wham-wham like a caveman. It is just as ineffective to try to a drive a nail into a board with a screwdriver, but Golden Screwdriver doesn’t evoke the same potential for bodily harm. (Though it does sound like it would be delicious.) The image also plays off a whole ecosystem of abstract-intellectual-technique-as-concrete-mechanical-tool metaphors. But the key is the way the analogy breaks down.

You can’t use a hammer to drive in a screw, or make an omelette, or fix a watch. If you try, you will fail, and everyone will agree that you have failed. If you keep things at a sufficiently abstract level you can, however, convince people that class conflict/sexual repression/the law of supply and demand/God’s will/what-have-you explains everything. This is because the criteria for failure here is merely the explanation’s lack of appeal as a metaphor, and if you try hard enough anything can be a metaphor for anything else. So unlike in the physical world, the winner is not the guy who can make the best omelette, but the guy with the keenest desire to always be right. Our laughter at the hammer is a celebration of the fact that there are some things your can’t talk your way out of.

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One Response to The Gift of Error

  1. Pingback: The Golden Hammer of Disdain | Corner Cases

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