Case-Based Reasoning

Perhaps the most harmful misconception people have about intelligence is that being smart comes from knowing a lot of rules. Behind this notion is the sense that reading a lot of textbooks and absorbing what they say will lead one to become an expert. It's funny, though, that this is largely what medical students do for the first two years of their graduate education, and nobody would want to be operated on by a second-year med student, no matter how well they did on their tests. While it does make sense to say that intelligence comes from knowledge, most of that knowledge looks quite a bit different than what you find in a textbook.

Much of human reasoning is case-based rather than rule-based. When people solve problems, they frequently are reminded of previous problems they have faced. Everyone has vast experience in facing the problems brought up in daily life. How often are you reminded? When you wait in line for a long time at the post office, are you reminded of other times you have waited in line? When you face a problem at the dry cleaners, are you reminded of other problems you have had with the dry cleaners?

People constantly experience such remindings, comparing one experience to another so as to learn from both. Often we believe that our mind is wandering as it seems to flit from thought to thought, leading us in directions that often seem irrelevant to our needs at the time. But the reminding process is reflective of our mind's constant search for old information to help in processing new information. We are, in essence, creating theories about the minute details in the world around us, trying to create a theory of dry cleaners that will help us to select the right one, or a theory of state government, or the behavior of our friends that will allow us to better function in the world. We are constantly accumulating cases and comparing those cases to the cases we have already accumulated in a effort to understand the next case that will appear.

The world is too complex a place to be adequately characterized by the theories we develop, and for the most part we know this. Our rules may be useful for the most common situations we encounter, but we cannot help but encounter many situations which violate or are outside the bounds of the generalizations we make. Having a broad, well-indexed set of cases is what differentiates the expert from the textbook-trained novice. Or, to put this another way, being educated means, in its deepest sense, having access to a wealth of cases from which to generalize.

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