Now that the December 2016 test has been released, we can take a preliminary look at the Reading Comprehension passages and see how they stacked up compared to other tests, and see what new twists (if any) they threw at us this time around.
Immediately after the test, when the twittersphere lit up with all the usual comments and complaints and exclamations about what students around the world encountered, all the talk was about the Logic Games section (“The third game took so long!” “What the heck was with that fourth game, and would someone please kill me now?”) and a few specific Logical Reasoning questions (“Iguanas on a raft?” “What’s up with teenagers and their driving accidents?”).It seemed that most folks were unfazed by the Reading Comprehension section, either feeling that it was on the easy-to-middling difficulty range or else not finding it worth mentioning. There was no one passage that caused a tremendous outcry (Eileen Gray, anyone?), although a few folks did say that the passage on fMRI brain scans was, at least at first, a little daunting. All in all, though, this was a softball section for most folks (counterbalancing an apparently horrific games section). So, what did we see in the RC section, and was there anything new or interesting about it?
First off is a fairly standard Humanities passage on John Rawls’ theory of justice. In it we learn that Rawls put forth a theory that differed from the dominant one of the time, that of utilitarianism. That theory held that whatever maximized overall fulfillment and satisfaction was just, and our author conceded that that old theory has some appeal at first blush. On further investigation, however, our author finds some odd consequences when it is applied in the real world, and we learn that Rawls was also troubled by those consequences. Rawls, we are told, proposed instead a theory based on “a fair procedure” – anything that results from a fair procedure, even if it values the rights of an individual over those of a group, is just. Our author has good things to say about this approach, calling Rawls “ingenious” and “clever”, which will give us plenty of author viewpoint and overall tone to think about when we move to the questions. Rawls goes on further to explain what exactly is needed for a fair procedure, and invokes the concept of the “veil of ignorance”, suggesting that a person who knows nothing about his own circumstances and tasked with deciding what is fair for everyone will come up with a division of “primary goods” (wealth, liberties, opportunities, etc.) that gives everyone essentially equal shares (because that person will not want to risk getting less than their own fair share). At the end of the passage, our author, who has up until now appeared very pleased and impressed with what Rawls has to offer, changes his tone a bit and tells us that he finds the “veil of ignorance” approach to be unfortunate because it is inherently redistributionist. Ultimately, then, the tone is one of admiration tinged with some reservations. Six questions follow, none of which are particularly challenging.
Our next passage is an Economics passage looking at the reasons for the duration of the Great Migration of African American laborers from the Southern United States to the industrial cities of the North between 1915 and 1960. While at first glance it might appear to be what we sometimes call a “Diversity” passage, it’s interesting in that it lacks the classic elements of passages usually fitting that label. There are no critics who have overlooked someone’s contributions, no alternate explanations for something that historians have gotten wrong in the past, no finding of value in the contributions of an overlooked group and no criticism of a previously overrepresented group. In short, this really isn’t a Diversity passage at all, but just another “Wildcard” (economics, history, literature, art, etc.) passage that happens to focus on an underrepresented group as its subject matter. This is the third released test in a row with no immediately-identifiable Diversity passage on it, after many years of them being included regularly and predictably (if not completely consistently). Is the Diversity passage a thing of the past? Only time will tell, but for now it appears that, for better or for worse, LSAC is more interested in general Humanities issues than in political correctness. This passage delves into certain economic factors supporting the initiation of the Great Migration (a sufficiently large enough wage gap between North and South, a shortage of available immigrant labor in the North, and a surplus of African American labor in the South due to a boll weevil infestation in cotton crops) and its continuation even after the wage gap closed. The latter is accounted for by a variety of factors that lowered the cost and difficulty of migrating over time, including helpful information being sent in letters or shared in person by earlier migrants, sharing northbound transportation costs with those same earlier migrants who come south to visit and then return north, and earlier migrants paving the way to make transitioning to life in the north easier for those coming in later waves. Seven questions follow, none especially difficult, although at least one very attractive wrong answer.
The third passage combines Comparative Reading with a Law passage, discussing two views on insider trading. Author A makes an argument in favor of insider trading reminiscent of Michael Douglas’ famous claim from the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.” He suggests that insider trading (defined in the passage for us as making stock transactions, or helping others to do so, based on special knowledge acquired in one’s privileged position within a company) actually helps the market by alerting potential investors to upcoming changes in value to a stock. The author goes on to note that nobody seems to have a problem with what he calls “insider nontrading,” which is what happens when an insider chooses to hold his position (rather than buy or sell) because he has some inside knowledge that the stock may soon increase in value. His implication is that since that is not a problem, insider trading also should not be.
Author B takes a very different position, more aligned with traditional views on the subject, citing transparency as a basic principle of the stock market. The author’s position is that the stock market works best when everyone has the same access to information, and opportunity to analyze it, as everyone else. While some potential investors will more skillfully analyze that available information and thereby make better decisions, nobody has any special access, and thus the market is kept fair. In contrast to Author A’s view that insider trading would help the market, Author B believes that it could very well destroy the market by eroding investor confidence, and that in turn would end up denying companies access to the investor capital they need to grow and be successful. Six questions all of low-to-average difficulty, continuing a fairly user-friendly RC section.
Finally, the dreaded Science passage! In it we learn that fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is the use of MRI brain scans to study mental activity rather than purely physiological structures, and our author starts right off the bat expressing doubt about the value and reliability of the theories behind such use. We are told in the very first line that there are basic conceptual problems with fMRI, and the author’s overall doubt about the theory permeates the entire passage. The author enlists the aid of a psychologist, William Uttal, to cast doubt on the validity of the assumptions underlying the theory of fMRI, and he also tells us that certain common beliefs (that the amygdala is the seat of emotion and the prefrontal cortex is the seat of reason), essential to the fMRI theory, are incorrect. He goes on to explain that the MRI images commonly interpreted in a way that supports the theory can be explained in a fundamentally different way, invalidating the theory, and he concludes by implying that the supposed support for the theory of fMRI is actually based on circular reasoning – the images support the theory because the theory supports the images. Eight questions make this passage the most valuable of the section, such that test takers who typically struggle to complete all four passages would be wise to choose this one over one of the earlier six-question passages. None of the questions are especially difficult, except perhaps the final Parallel Reasoning question with each answer choice presenting a different and creative alternate topic.
Questions or comments? Feel like we have undersold the difficulty of any of these passages, or see anything novel that we neglected to mention? Share your thoughts with us by commenting below, and/or join the discussion in our LSAT Discussion Forum found here:
Photo “Reading” courtesy of Ben Ward