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Analogize This: A Is to B as C Is to...?
The Correct Answer Is More Vital Than Ever
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Tests Show: Skill at Seeing Unlikely Parallels Yields Multiple Career Choices
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The Internet Is Like a Road
By Cynthia Crossen

08/22/2000
The Wall Street Journal
Page A1
(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 Vietnam."

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."

 
     
 
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