SAT 2016

CHAPTER 6

THE SAT ESSAY: ANALYZING ARGUMENTS

Sample Essay

Analysis of Pinker’s “Mind Over Mass Media”

In his essay, “Mind Over Mass Media,” Steven Pinker examines the “moral panics” about the supposed moral and cognitive declines caused by new forms of media. His essay provides a measure of balance to our sometimes hysterical discussions of social media and instantaneous digital information. His thesis, that “such panics often fail reality checks,” is supported with historical examples, logical analysis, illustrative images, and touches of humor. He provides scientific context for his claims and effectively analyzes the misconceptions that cultural critics have about the relationship between modern media and the human brain. Although his argument could have been bolstered with more specific scientific support, his essay as a whole effectively argues for a reprieve from the hysteria about intellectual and moral decline allegedly caused by Twitter and Facebook.

Pinker addresses common misconceptions with historical evidence: “When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.” Here, Pinker is suggesting that sociological and psychological evidence refutes claims of social decline.

Pinker effectively uses indirect proof or “reductio ad absurdum” in his third paragraph: “If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing.” Unfortunately, Pinker does not provide substantial evidence to bolster these claims. He fails to address the common counterclaim that much of the “science” published on the Internet is flimsy, and the “cultural criticism” lazy.

Pinker then grounds his argument with reference to evidence from psychological research. To Pinker, the claim that “information can change the brain” is facile (“it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas”) and misleading (“the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience”). Rather, Pinker suggests, “the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves … Music doesn’t make you better at math; conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical; brain-training games don’t make you smarter.” Unfortunately, Pinker here seems to mistake assertion for argumentation. He is directly contradicting the claims of thousands of music and Latin teachers, as well as dozens of Lumosity commercials. But he is only gainsaying. Here again, we might expect some data to support his points.

Next, Pinker attempts to refute cultural critics by drawing an analogy between their reasoning and the faulty reasoning of “primitive peoples” who believe that “eating fierce animals will make them fierce.” He likens this to the thinking of modern observers who believe that “reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.” But of course just because one line of reasoning parallels another does not mean that both are equally incorrect. Here again, Pinker’s argument would benefit from information about the actual cognitive effects of reading Twitter feeds.

Next, Pinker provides a concession to his opponents: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder.” But here again, even in conceding a point, Pinker doesn’t quite offer the information a reader might want: How significant is this distraction or addiction, and does it have any harmful long-term effects? We don’t get this information, but we do get some welcome practical advice: “Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work …” We get even more substantial advice in the next paragraph: to cultivate “intellectual depth” we must avail ourselves of “special institutions, which we call universities” and engage in “analysis, criticism, and debate.” But why, a reader might wonder, should we moderate our use of electronic media if it doesn’t have any real harmful effects, and indeed, as he says in his conclusion, these media “are the only things that will keep us smart?”

Finally, Pinker ends with a broader perspective and a note of hope: “the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search, and retrieve our collective intellectual output … Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.” Perhaps Pinker is right, but his argument would be stronger with more substantial quantitative evidence and more direct refutation of our real concerns about how the Internet might be changing our brains.

Scoring

Reading—8 (both readers gave it a score of 4 out of 4)

This response demonstrates extremely thorough comprehension of Pinker’s essay through skillful use of summary, paraphrase, and direct quotations. The author summarizes Pinker’s central thesis and modes of persuasion (His thesis, that “such panics often fail reality checks,” is supported with historical examples, logical analysis, illustrative images, and touches of humor) and shows a clear understanding of Pinker’s supporting ideas and overall tone (He provides historical and scientific context for his claims and effectively analyzes the misconceptions that cultural critics have about the relationship between modern media and the human brain. … Pinker ends with a broader perspective and a note of hope). Each quotation is accompanied by insightful commentary that demonstrates that this author thoroughly understands Pinker’s central and secondary ideas, and even recognizes when Pinker seems occasionally to fall short of his own purpose.

Analysis—8 (both readers gave it a score of 4 out of 4)

This response provides a thoughtful and critical analysis of Pinker’s essay and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task. The author has identified Pinker’s primary modes of expression (historical exampleslogical analysis, illustrative images, and touches of humor) and has even provided a detailed examination of Pinker’s preferred logical method, reductio ad absurdum, with a discussion of several examples. Perhaps even more impressively, the author indicates where Pinker’s evidence falls short, providing critical analysis and suggesting alternatives (Unfortunately, Pinker does not provide substantial evidence to bolster these claims. He fails to address the common counterclaim that much of the “science” published on the Internet is flimsy, and the “cultural criticism” lazy. … Pinker here seems to mistake assertion for argumentation. … Here again, Pinker’s argument would benefit from information about the actual cognitive effects of reading Twitter feeds). Overall, the author’s analysis of Pinker’s essays demonstrates a thorough understanding not only of the rhetorical task that Pinker has set for himself, but also the means by which it is best accomplished.

Writing—8 (both readers gave it a score of 4 out of 4)

This response shows a masterful use of language and sentence structure to establish a clear and insightful central claim (Although his argument could have been bolstered with more specific scientific support, his essay as a whole effectively argues for a reprieve from the hysteria about intellectual and moral decline allegedly caused by Twitter and Facebook). The response maintains a consistent focus on this central claim and supports it with a well-developed and cohesive analysis of Pinker’s essay. The author demonstrates effective verb choice (effectively analyzes the misconceptions. … He likens this to the thinking of modern observers) and a strong grasp of relevant analytical terms such as reduction ad absurdumfacilesociological and psychological evidencecounterclaimassertionargumentation, and gainsaying. The response is well developed, progressing from general claim to specific analysis to considered evaluation. Largely free from grammatical error, this response demonstrates strong command of language and proficiency in writing.