Day 6 – Passage Types – Argumentative

Ok, today we’re going to continue what we started yesterday by turning our attention to the two general categories of passages the MCAT gives you. Today, we’ll look at argumentative passages and in a couple of days, we’ll take up the second category: descriptive passages.

The Argument:

You’ll know when you’re reading an argumentative passage when you feel like you’re talking to a used car salesperson trying to convince you to buy a car. The author has an agenda and is trying to advance a particular thesis. If you can learn to breakdown the author’s arguments into their various parts, you’ll get a lot of “easy” points on the CARS. Now if you’ve taken an analytical logic course, what I present here is going to drive you crazy, as there is so much more to argumentation than what I’m going to include.But for the MCAT, this is all you’re going to need. If you’re able to learn to recognize these various parts, it’s going to pay off big time come test day!

The Parts:

There are five major parts to any argument. Not every argument has every part, but most have at least a few. Many of these parts are will be familiar. Well over half of the questions on the CARS section are going to deal directly with one of these five parts.So if you can practice seeing them, you’re going to be eating up points like they are cookies and you’re the cookie-monster. Take a look at the diagram and definitions below.

We’ll start with the two most basic parts and then build from there.

Claim – The claim is the point the author is trying to make. (e.g.Burritos are better than pizza.) Claims are almost always stated. They have to be for there to be an argument.

Support – The support is the evidence the author provides to convince you her claim is true or actually the case. (e.g. 9 out of 10 people would prefer to eat a burrito over a slice of pizza.) Support is almost always stated in some form. However, a weak or poor argument may lack support in part or completely lack any.

An assumption is the connection between the support and the claim. In the example of burritos, the assumption is that there is a correlation between the number of people who eat burritos and whether or not a burrito is better than a slice of pizza. Assumptions are usually not stated. If the assumption turns out to be false, then often the entire argument will fall apart.

Next, we’ll take a look at the two more nuanced components of an argument. Both of these are unstated and accordingly, frequently more difficult to “see.” This is the area from which most of the CARS section’s most difficult questions come from.

Implication – An implication is a necessary but unstated conclusion of the argument. It has to be true in all cases for it to be an implication. Implications are external applications of the argument to new situations or conditions outside of the argument.(e.g. Sinceburritos are better than pizza and more people eat burritos, we should open a burrito stand instead of a pizza parlor.)

Inference – Inferences are the squishiest of them all. They require a leap to a necessary and unstated conclusion about the evidence and assumptions of the argument. Inferences are the opposite of implications in that inferences reveal something unstated internal to the argument. (E.g. Mexican food is better than Italian food.) We’ll go into another example below to make this clearer, so don’t worry if it’s still a little fuzzy.

Example Arguments:

I’m going to write out a few brief arguments below. Take a moment on your own to identify the different parts of each, and then we’ll come back and review them together.

1) Bill has a reputation for having excellent taste in movies. Jill is talking to Frank about a new movie that just came out last week “Die MCAT Die: Part II.” Jill tells Frank that he should go see the movie because Bill went and saw it.

2) Either you or I have to scrub the tub, and I’m not going to be the one to do it.

3) Billy is a good guy. Billy lent me $20, helped me move and backed me up in a bar fight. Joe also lent me $20, helped me move and backed me up in a bar fight. Carl is a good guy.

Ok, were you able to identify the parts? I’ve color coded each of the parts present, and we’ll go through each one.

1) Bill has a reputation for having excellent taste in movies. Jill is talking to Frank about a new movie that just came out last week “Die MCAT Die: Part II.” Jill tells Frank that he should go see the movie because Bill went and saw it.

So if we break this down we get:

Claim – Frank ought to go see “Die MCAT Die: Part II.”

Support – Bill went and saw “Die MCAT Die: Part II,” and Bill has good taste in movies.

What’s the assumption? That if Bill goes and sees a movie, it’s likely to be a good movie.

Implication – Sometimes there are no clear implications for a particular argument, and sometimes there are many. In this case, it’s not quite that clear, but one might go something like, “Frank ought to see all the movies Bill goes to see because they are good movies, and Frank likes good movies.”

Inference – Again, with inferences, there aren’t always clear ones. In this case, a reasonable inference might be that Bill liked “Die MCAT Die: Part II” because if he has good taste in the movies he goes to see, he is also likely to enjoy said movies.

2) Either you or I have to scrub the tub, and I’m not going to be the one to do it.

Claim – In this case, we have a cross between a stated and unstated claim. The claim is that one of us is going to have to scrub the tub.

Support – The explanatory power of the support in this argument is fairly weak, as it’s not clear why only you or I can scrub the tub. Why not Tim or Kathy? Furthermore, it’s not clear why I’m not going to do it.

What’s the assumption? That I can be taken at my word and if I say I’m not going to do something, I’m actually not going to do it.

Implication – This argument shows an implication at its very best. What is implied by this argument? Well if I’m not going to scrub the tub, and if only you or I can scrub the tub, what’s the necessary, unstated conclusion? You’re going to scrub the tub.

Inference – The inference here is fairly weak, and there are many possibilities, but you might infer from the argument that there are some set of constraints that limit the number of people who can scrub the tub to just you and me. Another inference might be that I don’t ever scrub tubs, or that I don’t like to scrub tubs.

3) Billy is a good guy. Billy lent me $20, helped me move and backed me up in a bar fight. Joe also lent me $20, helped me move and backed me up in a bar fight. Carl is a good guy.

Claim – The claim is that Billy is a good guy.

Support – The support provided is that Billy lent me $20, helped me move and backed me up in a bar fight.

What’s the assumption? That good guys lend people $20, help people move and back people up in bar fights.

Implication – An implication of the argument is that since Joe also lent me $20, helped me move, and backed me up in a bar fight, that Joe is also a good guy. This is a necessary, but unstated conclusion of the argument. Joe must be a good guy if the argument is to hold.

Inference – Based on the set up of the argument, we can infer that because Carl is a good guy, that Carl must be the kind of person that lends people $20, helps people move, and backs people up in bar fights.

How’d you do? Don’t worry if you struggled. It takes time to get an eye for breaking down arguments. Just keep it up and with time, you’ll begin to see the parts.

CARS Arguments and Question Stems:

To wrap up today’s post, we’re going to take a look at a few different question stems and how they relate to the different parts of an argument. There are a ton of different ways for the MCAT to ask these questions, so don’t memorize them.Instead, try to get the feel of what the question stem is pointing towards and asking you to identify.

Claim – These are some of the easiest questions on the MCAT if you learn to spot them. In later posts, we’re going to look at the various question types and how to attack each of them, but until then, here are a few ways the MCAT might ask you to identify the claim of an argument.

The central thrust of this passage is:

The main idea of the passage is:

The author asserts which of the following concerning those who participated in the American Revolution?

Like I said, we’re going to break down questions like these in more detail later down the road, but the important point to take away right now is that Main Idea questions require you to not have too narrow or too broad of a view of the author’s central thesis. With these types of questions, you’re always asking “What is the author getting at?”

Support – A very common question often seen on the MCAT will ask you to identify support the author gives for a particular argument and/or to evaluate the strengths or weakness of said support. Sometimes, the MCAT will give you new information in the question stem and then ask you how it affects the author’s argument. These types of questions require you to identify whether or not the new information affects the support the author gives. Like I said, we’ll break this down in more detail later when we review each of the question types on the CARS, but until then, take a look at a few different ways the MCAT could ask about support given in the passage.

The author claims but offers no supporting evidence for which of the following conclusions?

Which of the following underlying reasons for the methods described in the passage is the most reasonable?

If baby pandas were found not to be cute as was once thought, all other things being equal, which of the following conclusions in the passage would be challenged?

The author’s claim that donkeys are actually highly evolved miniature horses is supported by:

Assumptions – Assumptions are critical components to any argument. If the assumption is weak, the argument is weak. If the assumption is proven to be false, the entire argument is proven to be false. Returning to our three previous arguments, if Bill goes and sees terrible movies all the time, the argument that Frank ought to go see “Die MCAT Die: Part II” because Bill has good taste and went to see “Die MCAT Die: Part II” is severely weakened to the point of breaking. If good guys don’t lend $20 to people, help them move, and back people up in bar fights, the entire argument falls apart. Developing the capacity to identify and evaluate assumptions underlying arguments will pay huge dividends come test day.

Implicit in the passage is the assumption that all golfers:

The fact that some airlines actually factor in wrongful death payouts to passengers’ families into their ticket prices would most directly challenge the assumption that:

An unstated assumption of the author’s discussion concerning the US Navy’s action readiness is that:

Implication – An implication question is in essence asking you “What must be true about some external case based on the passage?” Implications are not stated and yet must necessarily be true if the argument outlined is correct. Implication questions are most commonly seen on the MCAT by asking you what the author might think about a related topic or issue based on the arguments he or she makes in the passage. The relation is always one from the argument to something external to the argument. You’ll have to keep an eye out to make sure the conditions outlined in the new situation do not change the basic claims and support thatare assumed in the argument itself.

What distinction is implied in the passage between parents who send their children to public schools and those who send their children to private ones?

Based on information provided in the passage, which of the following forms of pollution would probably pose the greatest threat to humanity?

Which of the following educational policies would the author of the passage be most likely to agree with?

Inference – With inference questions, you’re going to be deducing from the argument some specific internal conclusion of the argument. An inference is an unstated, but necessary conclusion about something internal to the argument’s parts. Try to develop an intuitive sense of the strength of your inference. Some inferences are stronger than others. Here’s how the MCAT might ask you about inferences:

One can infer from the passage that the underlying goal of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was to:

If the passage information is correct, which of the following inferences is justified by the fact that all Americans love Billy Joel?

It may reasonably be inferred from the passage that most airline pilots ought NOT do which of the following while flying a jetliner?

Wooh! That was a long one today. If it was too long, take a break and go over this again a little later. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and many of the skills that you’re developing are completely new to you. Keep up with your daily passage assignment and try to keep an eye out for the various parts of the author’s argument(s). Tomorrow, we’ll finish up arguments and then move on to descriptive passages.

Today’s Assignment: Do One CARS Passage Under Timed Conditions

Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”
– Swami Vivekananda

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