Understand A MCAT CARS Passage Using the Relationship of Ideas - Part 1

In this post we’re going to combine reflective intelligence and the relationship of ideas with grammar and rhetoric to really comprehend and understand an MCAT CARS passage’s full meaning. This skill is going to be what allows you to answer MCAT CARS questions correctly. Please read and review "How to Make Sense of a MCAT CARS Passage," if you haven’t already, to gain an understanding of reflective intelligence and the relationship of ideas.

In our last post we combined grammar and rhetoric to simplify a long paragraph in a MCAT CARS passage down to its key ideas (see "Simplify a MCAT CARS Passage by Combining Grammar & Rhetoric"). From this analysis we were able to reduce the thesis paragraph in the essay we used down to two key ideas:

    “many arguments in favor of legalization”

    “arguments ignore damage to society and user”

With just the relationship of these two ideas, the author is recognizing that a lot of people are in favor of legalization, but, at the same time, he is taking a position against that. One reason he is taking a position against that is because the arguments ignore the damage to the user and society.

Now one of the key things to keep in mind is that the thesis paragraph has a very, very unique relationship to the rest of the essay. It’s in the thesis paragraph that you see the argument, the main idea in the essay. You see the main points that the author is going to make to support that main idea, what usually ends up being the topics of the subsequent paragraphs. It gives you a preview or a blue print of the entire essay.

So it’s very important to realize that the relationship of key ideas in the thesis paragraph is going to give you a bird’s eye view of exactly how the other ideas in the essay relate back to this basic argument. Everything is going to relate back to the key idea in the thesis paragraph. And what is the key idea in this essay again? It’s that these arguments in favor of legalization ignore the damage to society and the user.

So let’s continue on with the rest of the passage and see how this relationship of ideas keeps on playing out. It is going to show us how the passage is coherent and completely understandable, but it is also going to suggest and imply some things that we can infer from the passage that aren’t entirely apparent from the surface.

Let’s look at the second paragraph. Please read it carefully. Again, this is from Passage III of Verbal Reasoning Test 1 on page 22 of “Examkrackers 101 Passages in MCAT Verbal Reasoning 2nd Edition.”

“In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976. ‘Coffee shops’ sell cannibis over the counter in many parts of the country. However, more people have tried cannabis since it has been legalized. At the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, Arjan Sas and Peter Cohen divided Amsterdamers surveyed regarding their marijuana use into two groups - those who were born before 1958, in other words who were 18 or older in 1976, and those who were born after 1976, for whom cannibis has always been legal. Only 19 percent of the older people had tried cannabis, compared with 38 percent of the younger group. It would seem then that legalization promotes experimentation with cannabis, if not also even harder drugs.”

From the rules of rhetoric we know that the first sentence is going to be pretty important; it’s the topic sentence. We have, “In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976.” Let’s reduce that by using rhetoric to bring that to “legal since 1976.”

Next we have a rhetorical cue. We have quotations in the second sentence: “‘Coffee shops’ sell cannabis over the counter in many parts of the country.” Those quotation marks are a rhetorical cue and this is important to recognize because rhetorical cues relate to how we are supposed to interpret certain signals the author is giving us.

So what do those quotes mean? Very often when something is important it is put in quotes. But there’s something else here. Something that’s suggested, something that’s implied, something they’re asking you to infer. What is that? Well, sometimes when you see quotation marks like that, they’re used ironically. So here the author is saying, “Yeah they’re so-called coffee shops, but they’re not actually coffee shops. They’re really marijuana dispensaries.” So he’s calling something by what it isn’t to suggest to you what it is.

That’s a very, very important suggestion for us to understand. It’s something that’s implied and you need to infer. But what else does that tell us? Let’s take it a step further: what does that signal to us? It signals that he’s not just making an argument. He’s using sarcasm to show that he’s dead-set against the legalization of marijuana. Now notice the next sentence: “However, more people have tried cannabis since it has been legalized.” It also begins with a rhetorical cue: “however,” which is a contrast word.

We know that contrast words are always used to highlight important ideas. So what’s the idea here? It’s that: “More people have tried cannibis since it has been legalized.”

So let’s take a look at what we have so far. It’s that cannabis has been legal since 1976’ and sold in “coffee shops,” with all the sarcasm that that implies. And what’s the result? What’s the cause and effect? It’s that more people have tried it.

Reading on, there’s an awful lot of information starting with “At the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam…” There’s an awful lot of facts and statistics in there. But remember when you’re reading these texts you’re not reading them for memory you’re reading them for understanding, because if you understand the flow of ideas the facts will stick to that.

So as you’re reading through that, and you’re reading about all these studies and everything that has happened, you’ll notice that we don’t see any rhetorical cues, which means there are no key ideas there.  And we really don’t see any key ideas until we get to the very last sentence:

“It would seem then that legalization promotes experimentation with cannabis, if not also even harder drugs.”

Now, this is a very important sentence, if not the key sentence in the whole essay. How do we know that? Well, one, we know it because of its positioning. It’s a conclusion sentence and the rules of rhetoric tell us that conclusion sentences and conclusion paragraphs are very important. But in addition to that we’ve also got a couple of rhetorical flourishes that the author uses. The second rhetorical device he uses in this conclusion sentence is a comparison. He’s saying that legalization promotes experimentation, if not even harder drug. So the second point of emphasis is that comparison. And then there’s an emphasis word: ‘“even,” which takes it to a higher level.

When you can pick out these rhetorical cues and devices you see exactly what the author is telling you and what is more important than other things. This conclusion sentence has not only one but three rhetorical devices, which tells us it’s an absolutely critical sentence.

Now let’s looks at the relationship of ideas within this second paragraph. We have:

    “it’s been legal since 1976”

    “sold in ‘coffee shops’”

    “more people have tried it”

    “it promotes experimentation and perhaps the usage of harder drugs”

Together this tells us he’s taking a pretty tough line against the legalization of marijuana. But here’s what’s even more critical to the relationship of ideas and how this comes together. Remember how we said that the thesis paragraph really lays out the relationship of the entire essay? Well let’s see how that works here. Let’s go back to the thesis paragraph. Remember the two ideas we had there:

“many arguments in favor of legalization”

“arguments ignore damage to society and user”

Now what is this second paragraph dealing with? What’s the whole paragraph about? Well, the whole paragraph is about the damage to society. He’s talking about the whole country and about all of these studies. So here you can see that, just like the author said, there’s a lot of arguments for legalization; however, people discount the damage to society and the individual.

Now remember that big mass of information we saw in the middle of the second paragraph in regard to all those studies? What possible relevance could that have to anything? Well, if we understand the relationship of ideas we see perfectly what the relevance is. The relevance is it’s a sociological study, so of course you’re dealing with the damage to society. This is why it’s relevant.

So even though it’s not a key idea, and you don’t have to keep these facts and figures in your head, you can see how everything is related to everything else. Everything makes sense. And now look at how little you have to remember.

Look at these key sentences and see how we’ve reduced two big paragraphs to only a few key phrases:

    “legal since 1976”

    “sold in ‘coffee shops’”

    “more people have tried it”

    “promotes experimentation and perhaps harder drugs”

This is a good introduction on how you successfully combine grammar, rhetoric, and the relationship of ideas to understand the true meaning of an essay. In our next post we’re going to analyze the third paragraph of this passage to really see how it’s all put together.