Analytical or Analogical?

Like most other engineers, I have prided myself as being super-analytical. We engineers keep throwing words like analytical around with a matter of pride. I have often wondered how exactly analytical I am. As per the definition, analytical means “skilled in or using analysis especially in thinking or reasoning”. Now isn’t that a confusing definition, since it means that an analytical person is skilled in using analysis. However, in general, we all seem to agree that it means ‘having to do with careful examination; good at examining things.’ Analysis then is really our ability to examine things carefully. Usually, it requires us to break a complex issue down into multiple smaller issues, which tend to be much simpler. Whether we are solving a complex problem, or simply examining an argument, the same theory applies. However, how do we actually solve these smaller, simpler problems?

To be completely analytical would mean that we must continue to break down the problem into its smaller simpler sub-parts, and so on. At some point, however, we must know the answer to solve the smallest unit of our problem. More likely than not, we know this answer either through experience, or through knowledge. Thus, as our own knowledge grows, we can then jump to the correct answers much faster with only a minor break-down of complex problems, trying to attain a goal of zero breakdown. This practice is evident in the game revered to be the most analytical of them all – chess. A novice chess player (like myself) needs to break down each move into the exact effect it will have on every possible square on the board, and I need to calculate the various combinations of my and my opponent’s moves. A chess grandmaster, on the other hand, is easily able to recognize patterns and ‘feel’ the position on a board, even though he might never have seen the exact same position ever before. Thus, the grandmaster is reaching into the reserves of his knowledge and drawing a parallel to a situation he has experienced, and applying it to the more complex problem at hand.

This then suggests that as we become more and more knowledgeable or experienced in solving more and more complex problems, we become less and less analytical. In fact, we start becoming more and more analogical. As per the dictionary, ‘analogy’ means ‘Similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar’. As an example, I used chess in the above paragraph to illustrate a point which would have been way more laborious for me to get to without the use of the analogy. Personally, I have found that even for small problems, we rely so much on our own knowledge of how things work, that we constantly apply it to other similar (but new) problems all the time, irrespective of their difficulty. Maybe there is more pride in being analogical than analytical.

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