Issue and Argument Analysis
Here’s a little help for the General GRE Issue and Argument Analysis tasks. This should also help you with similar SAT questions, or any test question where you are asked to argue an issue or analyze an argument.
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One way to do such an essay is to use the IRAC (Issue; Rule; Analysis;Counteranalysis/Conclusion) model, often used to answer bar exam questions.
Here’s a prompt from The Official Guide to the GRE Revised General Test (2nd Edition), p. 16:
As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of people to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
Issue: What is/are the issue(s)? State them explicitly at the beginning: “The issue presented here is: Does technology that can ‘think’ for us diminish our ability to think?” [This is a response to
Rule: State the “rule” you will use, which can simply be your position (in which case the acronym might be IPAC). A statement of a “rule” might be “The ability to think may best be defined as the ability to perceive and analyze arguments and data, and to plan responses and actions based on analyses of those arguments and data. In other words, I define ‘ability to think’ as the ability to think critically, not the rote memorization of data (the names of all 44 U.S. presidents, listed in order) or algorithms for processing data (e.g. trigonometric function values).”
A statement of a position would be something like “I do not believe information technology diminishes our ability to think.” Perhaps the best approach would be to state “My definition of the ability to think leads me to conclude that information technology does not interfere with our ability to think, but rather enhances it.”
Analysis: State your examples; your specific reasons why you believe your analysis is correct.
For example, we can elaborate on the “rule” stated above:
I believe that information technology allows us to have facts available instantaneously, through Google, which allows us search the vast repository of information that is the World Wide Web, and to make mathematical calculations instantaneously and accurately with inexpensive electronic calculators. Word processors can instantly spell-check our writing and even make suggestions regarding style and grammar. These calculation and spell-check abilities exist even on our cell phones. These allow us to quickly focus on more important topics – the substance of the messages we send to others, rather than the spelling of the words, or the applicability of our mathematical formulas and models to reality, instead of the accuracy of our multiplication. Camera systems on our cars show us rear views with outlines to allow us to park and steer without hitting objects behind us, saving untold time, negative emotions and money, and allowing us to focus on more positive pursuits.
Address the possible objections people might have – the “other side” of your argument. Arguments often have more than two sides, so there may be more than just one “other side.” Take a few minutes to address the strongest arguments against your position. For example, returning to our technology example.
While some fear that instant access to information will cause our mental abilities (e.g. the ability to do math without a calculator, to spell correctly without a spell-checker, and to remember historical facts) to atrophy and make us lazy and dependent slaves to technology controlled by a few technological overlords, I believe the automation of calculation and storage of trivial details is best left to machines suited for that purpose. Even history is better recorded on electronic and mechanical storage devices, which are not subject to the vagaries of human memory, than left to oral tradition.
Certainly, mechanical algorithms, by definition, are best left to machines. However, not having to be able to perform long division with a pencil and paper does not relieve us of the task of knowing when to perform long division, the appropriate mathematical formula to use to solve a given problem – i.e., how to “Set up the problem.” Similarly, freedom from the task of memorizing historical facts, or of remembering how to spell the word “relieve” correctly, does not relieve us of the responsibility to learn the broad lessons of history in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, or the ability use words correctly in clear coherent writing.
We have all seen “spell-check errors” in word-processed documents, where a similarly-spelled word is inadvertently substituted for another – e.g., “relive” for “relieve.” Smartphone “autocorrect” errors are a source of everyday annoyance and humor. The existence of computers and graphing calculators have not made the latest generations into brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, since having computing machines does not mean they know how to use them. People still believe old political lies and vote for charismatic candidates who work against the people’s best interests. These situations all illustrate that some people will be wise critical thinkers, whereas others will not, regardless of technology.
Conclusion: Sum up the point of your argument in one paragraph.
While technology can relieve us of some of our mental burdens, it cannot relieve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves, as we see every day. Therefore, even with technological advances, we still have to remain mentally “sharp,” and our critical thinking faculties will not deteriorate any more than people already allow, regardless of technology.
From The Official Guide to the GRE Revised General Test (2nd Edition), p. 16:
In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating, and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River following through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department dedicates little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river’s water and the river’s smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is, therefore, sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year’s budget to riverside recreational facilities.
Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted.
We can also use the IRAC model here. There are multiple issues to analyze here, so we can break it up, either by issue-by-issue, or simply by grouping all the issues together, and by analyzing them together. I will choose the latter method. Here’s a sample response, using IRAC.
This argument assumes the following : (1) that the survey results are representative of the opinions of Mason City residents; (2); that the water’s poor quality and smell keeps Mason City’s people from using the Mason River for water sports; (3) that Mason City residents will actually use the Mason River for water sports if it is cleaned up; (4) that the state cleanup will actually happen, and improve the water quality and smell by next year; (5) that riverside recreational facilities are necessary for water sports in the Mason River; and (6) that greater expenditures are necessary to maintain such facilities.
Survey results are only as good as the questions asked in them, the people who asked them, and the people who answered them. Therefore, we don’t know if we can rely on the survey results without asking further questions, as I will discuss below.
Correlation is not causation. We don’t know that the poor water quality and smell, or the lack of city expenditure on riverside recreational facilities, causes people not to play water sports in the Mason River, for the reasons I will state below.
The fact that something is planned or announced does not guarantee it will happen, and both projects and natural processes can take longer than we would like. Therefore, it makes no sense to plan next year’s municipal expenditures based on a cleanup that may or may not have the river in better shape by next year, a fact on which I will elaborate.
We don’t know if the survey regarding water sports is accurate, since we do not know how, or to whom, the questions were asked. People often overstate the number and scope of activities in which they engage, in order to make themselves look more active and interesting to survey interviewers. We also don’t know how the survey was conducted- for example, a survey done by telephone on landlines will eliminate people who don’t own landline phones, or a survey done through the Internet may be answered inaccurately by someone who thinks it would be fun to pull a prank on the interviewer, who can’t tell if the answers were meant to be serious or not. We need to see if the people’s reported recreational preferences comport with reality – i.e., are the beaches, rivers, lakes, ponds, and pools that do not suffer from the same water quality problems used by the people of Mason City and nearby towns to a greater extent than people use the Mason River? If not, city funds may be better spent on facilities actually used by the public (e.g., athletic fields, schools, public libraries) general maintenance (e.g., roads, sewers), or public services (e.g., the fire department, police).
Even assuming that watersports are popular in Mason City, water pollution may not be the reason the river is not a popular site for such sports: there may be another body of water more suited to boating; local swimmers may prefer swimming pools to natural bodies of water; the fishing may be poor in the Mason River for reasons unrelated to water quality and smell. Therefore, a cleanup of the Mason River may do nothing to increase water sports activity along the riverfront. As stated above need to know if Mason City residents currently use other, less-polluted bodies of water, or swimming pools, for water sports at this time. If not, there is no point in spending more money on riverfront facilities that will not be used.
For the sake of argument, if we assume that watersports in the Mason River are unpopular because of the poor water quality, there is no reason to assume that current expenditures, if any, on riverside recreational facilities are inadequate. People often use natural bodies of water for boating, fishing, and swimming with very few improvements other than a basic marina, park, and parking lot, which may require very little funding.
Finally, even assuming, arguendo, that all water sports in the Mason River would be popular if the water quality and smell were improved, and current riverside recreational facility funding is not adequate to handle the increased demand, there is no guarantee that the state government will actually clean up the river, or that the cleanup will significantly reduce the problems by next year. Projects announced by governments (or private actors) can be cancelled because of last-minute budget cuts, natural disasters, or other events. The natural or human processes involved in river cleanup may take longer than a year to have any effect, no matter how effective they eventually are. Therefore, increased municipal expenditures on riverside recreational facilities could very well be premature and wasteful, using money that would best be spent elsewhere.
[Given the nature of this sort of question, there is really no need for a counteranalysis: we are being asked to make a counterargument to the argument given to us in the prompt. Therefore, a conclusion is all we need to finish this question. For example:]
The proposal to increase expenditures on riverside recreational facilities in Mason City is well-intentioned, but seriously flawed. One study and an optimistic state announcement of the cleanup of the Mason River should not be the basis for a decision to increase next year’s spending on riverside recreational facilities until we know the cleanup will happen, how long it will take, and if such facilities will be used more often after the cleanup.
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