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Getting Through Brutally Difficult Reading Comp Passages About Science


If you’ve done any LSAT from the last five or so years, you’ve certainly realized that the Reading Comprehension section can be brutally difficult. The LSAT as a whole has gotten slightly more difficult in the last few years, but the Logical Reasoning Section has not become quite as fearsome as Reading Comprehension. And three types of passages almost always give their readers the most trouble: passages about science, the law, and the arts. Unfortunately for us all, basically every LSAT has at least one passage on science, at least one passage about the law, and at least one passage about the arts.

If you’ve been recently tearing out your hair as you attempt to read through dozens of these seemingly impenetrable passages, you’ve read enough lately, so I’ll just cut straight to the point: in a three-part series, we’re going to discuss what makes these passages so difficult, and what we can do to make them a little less formidable. We’ll begin this series today by focusing on passages about science.

We who set our gazes on law school are typically not the most science-adept people. If we were, perhaps we would have chosen a career in the medical field, with its broken business model and fast-approaching reckoning with AI, rather than … um … the field we chose. Instead, we dutifully took the science GEs everyone told us were the easiest and learned the bare minimum about astronomy or physiology or whatever-it-was-it’s-so-hard-to-remember-now-maybe-it-had-to-do-with-rocks? And then that was about it for our less-than-illustrious science education. Any advances in science we would, like Arthur C. Clarke, chalk up to magic.

OK, maybe I should use “I” statements rather than project my aspersions onto you. I don’t really understand science. Like at all. But in my extensive experience working with people preparing to tackle the LSAT, I recognize that most test takers aren’t terribly science-fluent either. So with our plainly deficient scientific knowledge, it can seem a little cruel that we will certainly get a passage about science on the LSAT. It can feel especially cruel when the topics of these passages can run the gamut from dormant pathogens to entropy in the multiverse to plate tectonics to how brain scans work. So what can we do to make our reading of these passages a little more comprehensible?

Three rhetorical devices can help us understand these seemingly incomprehnsible science passages. These three devices are frequently employed in scientific passages, and can help you understand the subject matter and the point the author wants to drive home. These rhetorical devices are truly a venerable triumvirate. They are our lodestars helping us navigate the dark night these passages present … OK, I’m waxing rhapsodic now. It’s not very appropriate for the neutral, fact-based science passages. So let’s get to those three devices.

The first device you should always look out for in these passages are questions posed by the author, especially those posed early in the passage. These passages frequently inundate you with a dense morass of unfamiliar concepts and theories, but there’s almost always only one important point at hand. Whenever the author of the passage poses a question, you can cut through all the excess info thrown at you, and get straight to the point of the passage — which is simply answering that question. Just track the answers that the passage provides to uncover the main idea the passage. Sometimes you only get one answer, and the author agrees that it is, indeed, the answer. That’s great — the main point of the passage is simply that answer. Other times there will more than one answer. In that case, the main point is either the one answer the author agrees with, or a summary of each answer, if the author has no stated or implied preference. So figuring out the questions posed and answers provided can help you at the very least understand the subject matter and main point of the passage, which is certainly a useful starting point.

The second device to look out for are analogies. You may not know a ton about science, and the embittered souls who compile these passages know this and will usually exploit it for their nefarious ends. Occasionally, however, they’ll throw you a bone in the form of an analogy. An analogy will take some scientific concept — which, remember, you probably don’t know anything about — and relate it to something you already understand. Recent passages have analogized entropy to the arrangement of furniture in a living room, the subduction in plate tectonics to an oar bending into water, and the improbability of life in our universe to the improbable survival of an action movie hero. Hold onto these analogies — use them to help you understand what they’re even talking about in the passage. By relating the arcane subject matter to something we can all picture, these analogies clarify either the central subject matter or some supporting piece of evidence. If you don’t even understand how the analogy relates to the subject matter, take a moment. Re-read that paragraph, and don’t proceed without getting a better understanding of the passage. These analogies are carefully placed — if we don’t understand the analogy, we’re going to have a very hard time understanding anything that follows.

(Note: There’s a common misconception about analogies in RC — many people think that you’ll definitely get questions about analogies. Although many questions ask you to find an answer choice that is analogous to something mentioned in the passage, the questions almost never ask about analogies made by the passage. Instead, use these analogies to help you make sense the subject matter and supporting evidence in the passage).

Finally, we should always try to simply these passages to the underlying cause and effect being described. These science passages will cover all manner of topics, but at their heart, they almost always attempt to prove that some cause and effect relationship exists. Almost every recent published science passage has argued that some cause and effect relationship exists. The last four have claimed, respectively, that changes in sea water temp or salinity might cause cholera to reproduce in humans; that fish farming may cause as much harm to the environment as line or net fishing; that random fluctuations can cause a high entropy system to become, briefly, a low entropy system; and that the lateral movements of plates of the Earth’s crust against each other cause earthquakes. All cause and effect. If you can simplify the the passage to a short description of the cause and effect relationship, you’ll know enough about the passage. And because most details in the passage will merely support that central cause and effect relationship, you’ll even be able to answer questions about those picayune details.

The recent November 2018 passage about entropy and the Big Bang — my pick for the most difficult recent RC passage — illustrates how these three rhetorical devices can help us answer all the questions. We begin the passage with a veritable onslaught of murky terms — “infinitesimally” “entropy,” “thermodynamics,” “multiverse,” “cosmic bubble” — designed to scare us off. But then, a question is implicitly posed: How did the Big Bang occur, and our universe begin, in an improbably low entropy state? An analogy is then used to clarify why low entropy states are unlikely — if you were to randomly reconfigure items in your living room, the room would probably get more disordered (i.e., entropic) over time; the universe works, by analogy, in similar ways. Finally, we get the answer, which is expressed to us as cause and effect: random fluctuations of energy on a subatomic scale can cause a momentarily low entropy universe from which the Big Bang could have banged. Now, I don’t really understand what “random fluctuations of energy on a subatomic scale” means, but by focusing on the question and analogy I understood the subject matter, and by simplifying the answer to a cause and effect relationship, I understood the main point well enough. With just this information, I answered all the questions correctly, despite being resolutely not a Science Guy (or even a Big Bang viewer).

So focus on these three rhetorical devices to simplify these unfamiliar and frequently over-complicated science passages. If they work for me — a genuine science dum dum — they can surely work for you.

Stay tuned next week for a post on how to handle passages about the law, and later for a post on how to handle passages about the arts.