This: A Is to B as C Is to...?
The Correct Answer Is More Vital Than Ever
Tests Show: Skill at Seeing Unlikely Parallels Yields Multiple
The Internet Is Like a Road
By Cynthia Crossen
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Remember those questions on standardized tests called
analogies? They went like this: RAIN is to DROP as SNOW
is to (a) hail (b) blizzard (c) flake (d) ice.
The answer, (c) flake, is obvious: Rain comes in drops,
snow comes in flakes. But try this more difficult example:
OPTIMISM is to NOTARY as BLAST is to (a) wall (b) posse
(c) antic (d) hose.
Sooner or later, almost every student in America will
cross paths with these word puzzles. So-called classic
analogies, which compare relationships between two pairs
of words, remain a pillar of most achievement, aptitude
and I.Q. tests, including the SATs. Many graduate schools
require candidates for admission to submit a score for
the Miller Analogies Test, which gives students 50 minutes
to complete 100 analogies like this one: AURICLE is to
VENTRICLE as VENTRICLE is to (a) jugular (b) carotid (c)
coronary (d) aorta.
Yet beyond raising scores on standardized tests, what
does the ability to solve analogies really gain a person
in life? Aren't analogies as irrelevant to most adults
as their 10th-grade biology texts?
As it turns out, analogies are more applicable to the
real world than ever. Simple analogies, which compare several
properties of two unlike things, may be the best way to
help ordinary people understand such complex and invisible
systems as the Internet and the human genome, not to mention
killer viruses and black holes. Employers and educators
in fields ranging from psychology to business agree that
the ability to analogize well can distinguish the perspicacious
from everyone else.
The late J.C.R. Licklider, a computer expert who played
a major role in organizing the Internet, once said: "I
had a kind of rule. Anybody who could do 85 or better on
the Miller Analogies Test, hire him, because he's going
to be very good at something." (The mean score on
the Miller Analogies Test is about 43.)
"In areas that change too rapidly for bodies of known
rules or laws to develop -- such as technology or business
-- analogies end up being one of the most useful teaching
tools," says Keith Holyoak, a professor of psychology
at the University of California, Los Angeles.
It's easier to conceptualize the Internet as a superhighway
with on- and off-ramps than an exchange of bytes in the
ether. The Internet music company Napster, under legal
attack, analogizes its product to early videocassette recorders:
Just because something can be used illegally doesn't mean
it should be outlawed. Microsoft Corp., arguing in its
recent antitrust action, claimed that forcing it to integrate
competitors' browsers in its operating system would be
like ordering Ford Motor Co. to install Chrysler engines
in its cars.
Speaking of Microsoft, how can the average person grasp
the magnitude of Bill Gates's personal wealth? According
to one popular analogy, if Mr. Gates pays the same percentage
of his net worth to take his spouse to a movie as the average
person does, it would cost him almost $19 million. Analogies
also help people grasp other unimaginably large numbers:
In chemical concentrations, one part per billion is equivalent
to one bogie in 3,500 golf tournaments; one part per quadrillion
is like one human hair out of all the hairs on every head
in the world, according to a nonprofit education group,
Foundation for American Communications.
"A beautiful analogy is accurate, rich and suggestive," says
Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor at the University
of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Dr. Thagard himself is
studying "dynamic visual analogies" such as how
a gymnast's cartwheel might be like the motion of a windmill.
In this campaign season, a clever analogy can zing an
opponent without sounding excessively negative. Speaking
on the day he was officially announced as Al Gore's running
mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said the Republicans responded
to the news "by saying that George Bush and I think
alike. With all due respect, I think that's like saying
the veterinarian and the taxidermist are in the same business,
because either way you get your dog back."
Analogies -- of which similes and metaphors are two forms
-- can be as simple as "a truck is like a car." But
the best ones illuminate the similarities between two things
that seem very different. Children can't analogize before
the age of about five, but after that, the ability to analogize
is almost universal. Advertisers have found that analogies
allow them to compare their products with just about anything.
An Internet company called Mail.com has been running an
ad campaign in New York that features the slogan, "Plato:
thinking; Melville: fishing; Mail.com: email," using
the traditional notation of colons separating word pairs.
In recent years, analogies have become a popular subject
of research in the field of artificial intelligence, where
scientists try to program computers to think like humans.
But sometimes they just help real humans grapple with
a world that has become increasingly complex. At a U.S.
Steel plant in Gary, Ind., Dean Larson uses analogies to
teach his employees highly technical training material
they are required to understand.
"If I want to talk about a chair, I can point to
a chair," says Dr. Larson, the plant's department
manager for safety and hygiene. "How do I point to
a threshold limit value or adsorption?" His answer:
A threshold limit value is like a posted speed limit for
safe driving; adsorption is like rain that beads on the
hood of a newly waxed car.
Of course, analogies can also be bad -- so bad they're
funny. High-school teachers routinely urge students to
enliven their writing with metaphors and similes, but the
idea is sometimes lost in the translation. These analogies
came from a list of high-school duds published a few years
ago by the Washington Post: "The whole scene had an
eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in
another city, and `Jeopardy' comes on at 7 instead of 7:30." And: "The
politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after
the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can."
And from a list of bad suspense-novel analogies posted
on the Internet: "His face looked like an ice sculpture.
Not one of those pretty ones in the middle of a cruise-ship
buffet, but the kind they do in a contest with a chainsaw
-- and it had been out in the heat too long."
The classic analogy was introduced to the Western world
by Plato, who argued that "the idea of good makes
knowledge possible, as the sun makes vision possible." (The
word "analogy" comes from the Greek "ana
logon," which means "according to a ratio.")
In the Middle Ages, despotic rulers liked to analogize
themselves to the sun. Today's politicians are slightly
more subtle, but they often use what linguists call "hot" analogies
-- comparisons designed to stir up emotion. During the
buildup to the Persian Gulf War, for example, proponents
of U.S. action likened Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler,
while opponents worried about America getting into "another
All of this comes as no surprise to the publishers of
the Miller Analogies Test, which was introduced in 1926
at the University of Minnesota and is still going strong.
Currently, the test, which has been revised several times
since its inception, is being rewritten to reflect recent
changes in higher education. Earlier editions tested not
only reasoning and vocabulary, but also scholarship in
several fields. For example a 35-year-old test guide includes
this analogy: KOLN is to WIEN as COLOGNE is to (a) Vienna
(b) Prague (c) Warsaw (d) Hamburg.
"We want to make it a stronger measure of general
verbal reasoning instead of relying on specific sorts of
knowledge," says James Augustin, director of postsecondary
assessment at Psychological Corp., the Harcourt General
Inc. unit that publishes the Miller test. Test companies
also like analogies because they are relatively inexpensive
to devise and standardize. "We regularly create analogies
tests for practice," says David Stuart, research director
of Kaplan Inc., the test-preparation concern that is a
unit of Washington Post Co. "We find they are easy,
quick and cheap to write and correct."
In his famous textbook, "Principles of Psychology," the
19th-century psychologist William James asserted that "the
faculty for perceiving analogies is the best indication
of genius." People who could analogize , he continued,
were "the wits, the poets, the inventors, the scientific
men, the practical geniuses."
Does this describe you? Check your answers on the three
analogy problems in this story. For OPTIMISM is to NOTARY
as BLAST is to (a) wall (b) posse (c) antic (d) hose, the
correct answer is (c) antic. All four words contain the
letter "t." For AURICLE is to VENTRICLE as VENTRICLE
is to (a) jugular (b) carotid (c) coronary (d) aorta, the
answer is (d) aorta. Blood flows from auricle to ventricle
to aorta. And for KOLN is to WIEN as COLOGNE is to (a)
Vienna (b) Prague (c) Warsaw (d) Hamburg, the answer is
(a) Vienna. Koln and Wien are German for Cologne and Vienna.
Perhaps now you feel more like the man whose intelligence
P.G. Wodehose once described as "somewhat lower than
that of a backward clam -- a clam, let us say, which has
been dropped on its head when a baby."