Is there a word or phrase to describe a situation where a person masters a system, but does not understand the underlying principles?

Here are a few examples of such situations:

  • Person A is expert at finding mathematical functions of almost any shape, but person A only has elementary mathematical knowledge. He/she is only expert at this particular task because of a massive amount of experiments.

  • Person B is a very good player in a business simulation game (which
    happens to be based on realistic economic models). He/she is an
    excellent player despite being completely ignorant of economic models.

  • Person C knows how to replace electrical plugs, but has very poor knowledge of electricity. He/she only knows about the proper placement of wires. If you ask him/her what "live", "neutral", and "ground" actually do, you will be met with a blank stare.

  • Person D programs computers by "poking". He/she has no idea what the programming constructs actually do, and has learned to program computers only through a large amount of failures (program results in error, program will not compile, etc.) and a large amount of examples (the memorization of idioms, and the copying of code). This person is capable of producing useful programs, but is still clueless about what the programming constructs really mean.

closed as off-topic by lbf, JJJ, TrevorD, jimm101, TaliesinMerlin Apr 11 at 18:35

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  • I've seen this referred to as the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge. – jlovegren Apr 5 at 21:03
  • ...perhaps "instinctual"? – Cascabel Apr 5 at 21:14
  • superficial mastery? empirical knowledge? – Philip Wood Apr 5 at 21:31
  • @PhilipWood I think "superficial mastery" doesn't give enough credit to the people possessing such mastery. One can make a living and be a productive member of society even when one does not understand the underlying principles. – Flux Apr 5 at 21:38
  • Well, mastery is mastery, but I see your point. – Philip Wood Apr 5 at 21:41

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but "idiot savant" might fit the bill. E.g., someone really good at fast mental arithmetic but with no deep mathematical understanding.


I would suggest the word rote and more particularly the phrases "learned by rote" or "rote learning"

from merriam websters rote noun (1) \ ˈrōt \ Definition of rote (Entry 1 of 4)

1 : the use of memory usually with little intelligence learn by rote

2 : mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition

While the word rote itself doesn't say all you mean, I would imagine that in most cases it could be a polite yet firm way of pointing out your misgivings while giving a little more credit than "dumb luck"

What word you couple 'rote' with would be pertinent.

from wikipedia: Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. Some of the alternatives to rote learning include meaningful learning, associative learning, and active learning.

rote knowledge is another possible word coupling.

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