Understanding a MCAT CARS Passage Using the Relationship of Ideas - Part 2

In our last post ("Using the Relationship of Ideas to Understand a MCAT Verbal Passage - Part 1"we looked at how combining rhetoric, grammar, and the relationship of ideas allows us to simplify two paragraphs down to their key ideas and to discern what those key ideas mean in relationship to each other. Now we’re going to look at another paragraph from the same passage so we can make sure that you really understand how these concepts come together.

Again, we’re using Passage III of Verbal Reasoning Test 1 on page 22 of “Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning 2nd Edition.” Here is the third paragraph from the passage for those of you who don’t have the book in front of you:

“Medical research has repeatedly provided evidence that marijuana use causes permanent physical, psychological, and thus emotional damage to those who regularly use it. Studies at the University of Maryland and UCLA indicated that the regular smoking of only two marijuana cigarettes a day would tend to promote toe fungus and thrush. But over the years, much stronger claims have surfaced: for example, that heavy marijuana users perform poorly at work or school and are more likely to be delinquent and develop psychiatric problems, or have abnormal brain waves. Repeatedly, however, such studies have encountered the same question: are the problems caused by smoking marijuana, or is it just that people with problems are more likely to end up using marijuana heavily?”

So let’s take a look at this paragraph. Again, we know from rhetoric that the topic sentence is always important. Let’s see what it has to say:

Medical research has repeatedly provided evidence that marijuana use causes permanent physical, psychological, and thus emotional damage to those who regularly use it.”

Well that’s pretty clear in and of itself, but let’s just stop for a moment to understand how this fits into the entire essay. And you’ll find that as you become more and more sensitive to these issues you can pick them out pretty quickly. In this topic sentence they’re talking about damage to individuals, the damage to those that regularly use it. So that’s what this paragraph is going to be about.

In terms of the relationship of ideas, how is that related to the thesis paragraph? Remember the two key ideas we had in the thesis paragraph:

“many arguments in favor of legalization”

“arguments ignore damage to society and user”

So in this third paragraph the author is supporting the second leg of that argument. Any well written essay is going to be constructed this way and any essays you get on the MCAT are well-written essays, so you can expect them to follow a similar structure.

But see how well these things are related to each other and how one allows you to predict the other? It allows you to really, deeply understand exactly what the essay is about and how it functions. Rhetoric allows us to know that we’re dealing with the second leg of the argument from the thesis paragraph. And the topic sentence in the third paragraph tells us that repeated use causes permanent physical, psychological, and emotional damage to regular users.

Next we have an informational sentence. There’s really no rhetorical cue there so we know it’s not a key idea. But after that we have a sentence beginning with “but,” and we know that “but” is one of our rhetorical cues:

“But over the years, much stronger claims have surfaced: for example, that heavy marijuana users perform poorly at work or school and are more likely to be delinquent and develop psychiatric problems, or have abnormal brain waves.”

So we know this is a key sentence, and it’s really important because one, we’ve got a contrast word as a rhetorical cue and in addition to that we have another rhetorical cue in the sentence: a colon. Why is it so important when you have a colon or semicolon? Well, because after the colon or semicolon you’re going to have either an example or an explanatory statement, which means that the author is telling you the same thing twice. He’s telling you it’s really important so pay attention.

So what’s that key idea here? The key idea here is that regular users perform badly at work and school, are subject to delinquency, and have brain wave problems.

As we keep reading down in the paragraph, we don’t see any more rhetorical cues until the conclusion sentence, which has a number of them:

“Repeatedly, however, such studies have encountered the same question: are the problems caused by smoking marijuana, or is it just that people with problems are more likely to end up using marijuana heavily?”

First, it starts with the word “repeatedly,” which is an emphasis word. So this already tells us the sentence is important. It also has a contrast word,:“however,” and is asking a question. All three of these rhetorical cues tell us this sentence is important and this is in addition to it being the conclusion sentence of the paragraph.

So look at the question the author is asking us: Does marijuana cause these problems or do people with these problems tend to use marijuana? Now this question is really critical. And any time an author asks a question he’s organizing the facts and material in a certain way to come up with a conclusion.

And one of the things you’ll find if you continue to read this essay is that that answer is never explicitly stated. It’s actually the structure of the essay that tells you what the answer is. Nowhere is it stated that it’s marijuana that causes these problems. But each time the author asks the question he follows it with evidence, and all of the evidence is structured in a cause and effect relationship. Marijuana causes this, marijuana causes that, etc. So even though he keeps asking questions, and on the surface it looks like he’s not sure, when you take a look at what he does, the way he structures the argument, as opposed to just what he says, then you know the answer. It’s quite clear simply from the evidence that he presents.

It’s that suggestion, it’s what you can infer from the very structure of the essay that gives you the answer. And seeing the relationship of ideas allows you to do this. That’s the great thing about it. So let’s take a look at what we’ve got. We’ve got a very sophisticated argument. We’ve got a lot of language. Three huge paragraphs. But let’s see what we can reduce it to very quickly.

We’ve got the thesis paragraph:

“many arguments in favor of legalization”

“arguments ignore damage to society and user”

Then we’ve got the second paragraph:

“legal since 1976

“sold in ‘coffee shops’”

“more people have tried it”

“promotes experimentation, and perhaps harder drugs”

And we can see how that’s all related back to the first issue that is made against legalization in the thesis paragraph in regards to society.

Then look at the third paragraph:

“marijuana causes permanent damage to regular users”

“they perform badly at work and school”

“they are subject to delinquency”

“they experience brain wave problems”

So what does this third paragraph suggest? Damage to the user, which is again related back to the thesis paragraph. And although this paragraph ends with a question, when we take a look at the structure of the essay, when we look at what the author is doing with his argument rather than just what he says, we see he’s creating very clear cause and effect relationships. Even though the answer isn’t stated in the text, you can conclude that it is marijuana that is causing these problems and it’s not that people with these problems just happen to use marijuana regularly.

Now that you see how the relationship of ideas and reflective intelligence work, let’s talk briefly about why it’s so important. To really be able to understand a text and to score a ten or better on the MCAT Verbal section (which is what you really are capable of doing and is what you want to aim for), you’re going to have to master the relationship of ideas. Rhetoric is going to allow you to pick out the key ideas. Grammar is going to allow you to reduce it to clear concepts. But it’s the relationship of ideas that’s going to show you the passage’s true meaning and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And why should you aim for a 10 or better on the MCAT Verbal section. Because the MCAT CARS section is becoming the most heavily weighted section on the MCATAnd for some medical schools, it’s the only section they look at. We’ll be discussing why in a future post.