Monday, January 23, 2012

SAT: tone of passage

I have some students who are occasionally confused by "tone of passage" questions in the SAT I's Critical Reading section. I've just stumbled upon a decent resource that takes you through the thinking process for one passage. Give it a look. Be careful: the article is actually four pages long, so you'll need to click the page numbers just below the first part of the article to see the rest. After you've read the article, come back here and try your hand at determining the tone of the following passages. To see the correct answer, along with an explanation, highlight the bracketed space.

Passage 1 (from here):

[NB: The UK author of this piece is examining Arnold Trehub's theory of consciousness.]

What about the self, then? It’s natural that given Trehub’s spatial perspective he should focus on defining the location of the self, but that only seems to be a small, almost incidental part of our sense of self. Personally, I’m inclined to put the thoughts first, and then identify myself as their origin; I identify myself not by location but by a kind of backward extrapolation to the abstract-seeming origin of my mental activity. This has nothing to do with physical space. Of course Trehub’s system has more to it than mere location, in the special tokens used to signify belonging to me and truth. But this part of the theory seems especially problematic. Why should simply flagging a spatial position and some propositions as mine endow a set of neurons with a sense of selfhood, any more than flagging them as Fred’s? I can easily imagine that location and the same set of propositions being someone else’s, or no-one’s. I think Trehub means that linking up the tokens in this way causes me to view that location as mine and those propositions as my beliefs, but notice that in saying that I’m smuggling in a self who has views about things and a capacity for ownership; I’ve inadvertently and unconsciously brought in that wretched homunculus after all. For that matter, why would flagging a proposition as a belief turn it into one? I can flag up propositions in various ways on a piece of paper without making them come to intentional life. To believe something you have to mean it, and unfortunately no-one really knows what ‘meaning it’ means – that’s one of the things to be explained by a full-blown theory of consciousness.

Moreover, the system of tokens and beliefs encoded in explicit propositions seems fatally vulnerable to the wider form of the frame problem. We actually have an infinite number of background beliefs (Julius Caesar never wore a top hat) which we’ve never stated explicitly but which we draw on readily, instantly, without having to do any thinking, when they become relevant (This play is supposed to be in authentic costume!): but even if we had a finite set of propositions to deal with the task of updating them and drawing inferences from them rapidly becomes impossible through a kind of combinatorial explosion. (If this is unfamiliar stuff, I recommend Dennett’s seminal cognitive wheels paper.) It just doesn’t seem likely nowadays that logical processing of explicit propositions is really what underlies mental activity.

Some important reservations then, but it’s important not to criticise Trehub’s approach for failing to be a panacea or providing all the answers on consciousness – that’s not really what we’re being offered. If we take consciousness to mean awareness, the retinoid system offers some elegant and plausible mechanisms. It might yet be that the theatre deserves another visit.

1. The author's tone in this passage is

a. one of enthusiastic agreement, with only a hint of doubt.
b. politely skeptical, but not entirely so.
c. angrily critical, though not about the essential points.
d. purely humorously critical.
e. respectfully objective, expressing no personal opinion.

ANSWER AND EXPLANATION (highlight the space between the brackets to see): [The answer is (B). Why? Answer (A) doesn't work because, as the last paragraph says, the author has "important reservations" regarding Trehub's theory. The author notes that elements of Trehub's theory are "elegant and plausible," which means we can eliminate answer (C). By the same token, (E) also fails, because the author obviously has an opinion about Trehub's theory, both noting its flaws and acknowledging its merits. Answer (D) fails because the passage contains no humorous elements, and is not relentlessly critical of Trehub.]

Passage 2 (from here):

[NB: The author is writing about how to approach long, involved books on history.]

But apart from this matter of personal learning style, what I’ve found is that many of my students don’t know what to do when confronted by a whole book. Some try to study it as intensively as they would try to study a chapter in a work of philosophy or political theory. They spend hours and hours on their reading, and often end up angry and unfulfilled. They’ve spent an inordinate amount of time preparing, but they rarely feel they have mastered the text. And when the discussion in class focuses on other aspects of the book in question, their frustration grows.

Others read through an assigned book the way they get through their casual reading. They read at forty to sixty pages an hour, take no notes, and give little thought to the content beyond the impressions of the moment. If they are diligent, their eyes have indeed scanned every word in the whole three hundred-page book, but anything that sticks in the student’s memory got there by chance and two days later he or she won’t be able to say anything coherent about the book’s content or point of view.

The easy thing to do for a grumpy old professor when faced with these reactions is to throw up his hands in the traditional gesture of professorial despair, and launch into one of those eloquent and ever-popular rants, ancient already in the days of Socrates, about how young people today have no attention span, don’t know anything and don’t know hard work.

It is all true, and has been true since Socrates was a sprout, but repeating traditional laments doesn’t help either students or professors wrestling with big fat books in political studies seminars. As I’ve reflected on this problem, I’m increasingly aware that reading serious books – not textbooks and not tracts of theory or philosophy – is a skill that not everybody learns. I’ve been reading dozens and even hundreds of books a year for so long that these reading skills are second nature to me; I don’t think about how to read serious books that aren’t textbooks anymore than I think about how to ride a bicycle.

As I teach, though, I see that not everybody learns how to do this in high school. Through no fault of their own, many students are raised on textbooks and treatises rather than novels and history. You aren’t born knowing how to ride a bicycle and you aren’t born knowing how to read big books effectively for seminars. On the other hand, the basic skills required, either for bike riding or book reading, aren’t all that hard to learn — and once learned, they stick.

A history book is different from a book of political theory or logical argument, and it needs to be approached in a different way. When approaching a history book, the first thing to do is to ask the Winston Churchill question. At a dinner, Churchill once criticized the dessert: “This pudding has no theme.” Most puddings and books have a theme. In the case of a book, this is a big idea or subject. Your first job as an analytical reader is to figure out what that is: you must answer the Pudding Question.

What does the author think is the big story the book is trying to tell – and what does the author think is the point of that story?

2. The author's tone in this passage is

a. constructively critical of his students.
b. disparaging of his students.
c. wary or suspicious of his students.
d. condescending to his students.
e. one of pity for and solidarity with his students.

ANSWER AND EXPLANATION (highlight the space between the brackets to see): [The answer is (A). Why? Answer (B) fails because the author never adopts an insulting tone about his students. To the contrary, the author notes that it would be easy to react negatively to students' inability to read a large book intelligently. He is, in fact, sympathetic to his students' plight ("through no fault of their own")-- the opposite of disparagement. Answer (C) fails for the same reason, and there is no direct evidence in the text that the author both pities his students and feels solidarity with them, thus eliminating (E) as a possibility. A test-taker might be tempted to choose (D), but there is no evidence that the author sees himself as superior to students who are obviously inferior. Besides, it's hard to be sympathetic and condescending at the same time. (A) is the best answer given the textual evidence: "repeating traditional laments doesn’t help either students or professors wrestling with big fat books in political studies seminars" and "A history book... needs to be approached in a different way" are both clear examples of a constructively critical approach: the author has perceived a problem and is offering a way to solve it.]

Passage 3 (from here):

[NB: The author, Freeman Dyson, is writing on the need for "heretics" in science in the context of discussions of global warming and climate change.]

We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, “Too bad he has lost his marbles”, and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role.

Two years ago, I was at Cornell University celebrating the life of Tommy Gold, a famous astronomer who died at a ripe old age. He was famous as a heretic, promoting unpopular ideas that usually turned out to be right. Long ago I was a guinea-pig in Tommy’s experiments on human hearing. He had a heretical idea that the human ear discriminates pitch by means of a set of tuned resonators with active electromechanical feedback. He published a paper explaining how the ear must work, [Gold, 1948]. He described how the vibrations of the inner ear must be converted into electrical signals which feed back into the mechanical motion, reinforcing the vibrations and increasing the sharpness of the resonance. The experts in auditory physiology ignored his work because he did not have a degree in physiology. Many years later, the experts discovered the two kinds of hair-cells in the inner ear that actually do the feedback as Tommy had predicted, one kind of hair-cell acting as electrical sensors and the other kind acting as mechanical drivers. It took the experts forty years to admit that he was right. Of course, I knew that he was right, because I had helped him do the experiments.

Later in his life, Tommy Gold promoted another heretical idea, that the oil and natural gas in the ground come up from deep in the mantle of the earth and have nothing to do with biology. Again the experts are sure that he is wrong, and he did not live long enough to change their minds. Just a few weeks before he died, some chemists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington did a beautiful experiment in a diamond anvil cell, [Scott et al., 2004]. They mixed together tiny quantities of three things that we know exist in the mantle of the earth, and observed them at the pressure and temperature appropriate to the mantle about two hundred kilometers down. The three things were calcium carbonate which is sedimentary rock, iron oxide which is a component of igneous rock, and water. These three things are certainly present when a slab of subducted ocean floor descends from a deep ocean trench into the mantle. The experiment showed that they react quickly to produce lots of methane, which is natural gas. Knowing the result of the experiment, we can be sure that big quantities of natural gas exist in the mantle two hundred kilometers down. We do not know how much of this natural gas pushes its way up through cracks and channels in the overlying rock to form the shallow reservoirs of natural gas that we are now burning. If the gas moves up rapidly enough, it will arrive intact in the cooler regions where the reservoirs are found. If it moves too slowly through the hot region, the methane may be reconverted to carbonate rock and water. The Carnegie Institute experiment shows that there is at least a possibility that Tommy Gold was right and the natural gas reservoirs are fed from deep below. The chemists sent an E-mail to Tommy Gold to tell him their result, and got back a message that he had died three days earlier. Now that he is dead, we need more heretics to take his place.

3. The author's tone in this passage is

a. intensely scolding
b. scientifically inquisitive
c. curiously frightened
d. slightly annoyed
e. drily humorous

ANSWER AND EXPLANATION (highlight the space between the brackets to see): [This question may be the most difficult for test-takers to answer, and I deliberately designed it to be that way. The correct answer is (E). Were you, perhaps, inclined to choose (B)? I don't blame you, but if you chose (B), you fell into my trap. You see, sometimes SAT questions are constructed in such a way as to mislead you by playing into your expectations and presumptions. This article is by Freeman Dyson, a well-known scientist, and we all automatically associate scientists with human qualities like curiosity and fascination with the universe. Without a doubt, Freeman Dyson is a scientifically inquisitive individual. The problem, though, is that the test question is asking you about the tone of the passage, not about the attitude of the author. That's an important difference.

Don't be tempted to read anything into the passage: use only the textual evidence before you when answering a question. In this case, you'll observe that the passage contained not a single inquisitive-sounding sentence. This was not an exploration of the universe's mysteries; it was, instead, a fond meditation on the need for different thinkers-- "heretics"-- in scientific discourse. So (B) is wrong. Answer (A) is also wrong because Dyson's tone is gentle, not caustic. He certainly expresses no fear, so (C) is also wrong, and (D) fails because, even though Dyson makes reference to certain problems, he never expresses annoyance about them. Instead, the passage is suffused with wry humor as he chronicles the way in which Tommy Gold was repeatedly right while the rest of the scientific establishment turned out to be repeatedly wrong. The first paragraph, with its reference to being burned at the stake, is also obviously humorous in intent, as is the frequent use of the words "heretic" and "heretical," words normally employed in a religious context. None of this passage is laugh-out-loud funny, of course, which is why it qualifies as dry humor.

I hope this little exercise in determining tone has been helpful to you. Keep on reading! There's no substitute for it. Read a lot, and read widely. Don't stick to just one genre. And as the author of Passage 2, above, recommends later on in his article: read actively. That's the best way to benefit from your studies.


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