Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Creativity, Rigidity and the LSATs

No one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor, because sore throats will recover without medical intervention. In recent years several cases of epiglottitis have occurred. Epiglottitis is a condition that begins with a sore throat and deteriorates rapidly in such a way that the throat becomes quite swollen, thus restricting breathing. Sometimes the only way to save a patient’s life in these circumstances is to insert a plastic tube into the throat below the blockage so that the patient can breathe. It is highly advisable in such cases that sufferers seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur, that is, before the condition deteriorates.

Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?

(A) The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance.
(B) The author assumes that similar effects must have similar causes.
(C) The author uses a medical term, “epiglottitis,” and does not clarify its meaning.
(D) The author makes two claims that contradict each other.
(E) The author bases her conclusion at the end of the passage on inadequate evidence.

Above is a sample question for the Logical Reasoning section of the LSAT. Now unlike the vast majority of human beings, I like standardized tests. No really, I actually enjoy them. I mean I'll be the first to admit that there's a great deal of tediousness associated with standardized tests. And the gap between a standardized test's ability to realistically assess a person's intelligence and the importance of said test's score in determining an individual's future is far too wide. Everyone knows at least one person who scored horribly on their SATs in spite of their obvious intelligence, and I'd guess that you might know one or two people who scored extremely well even though they're less intelligent than a common squirrel.

But none of that has abated my love for a good, regimented standardized test. There's just something very... finite about them. Every question is familiar, because they have to follow a pattern. Similarly, every answer is familiar, because they follow patterns too. On the LSAT, you know that you're going to get five sections of 35 minutes each. Each section will have between 24 and 28 questions, and you're guaranteed a break after the fourth section of no less than 10 but no more than 15 minutes. Let's take a look at the question above for a minute (don't panic, I swear I'm not going to make you take any practice tests or anything, I'm just trying to prove my point). The question, "Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?" tells you a few things immediately. The phrase "statement of the flaw" indicates that this question falls into the category of Fallacy Questions, one of the 11 different categories of questions in the logical reasoning section of the test. Fallacy questions directly ask you to spot a flaw in an argument-i.e. to identify a "fallacy," or particular type of invalid logical reasoning. Now I've only been studying for the LSATs for a few weeks, but I know that with a fallacy question, the correct answer will do more than just describe the argument; it must describe an error in reasoning.

With just a little experience and prior knowledge, I've transformed my perception of this question. Unless you've been studying for the LSAT, or have taken it before, your initial reaction to this question was one of confusion, boredom, or if you actually tried to answer it, concentration. However, since I've seen a lot of fallacy questions before, and know a bit about how LSAT writers formulate questions, my reaction was a bit different. I first read the passage, taking careful note of absolute statements, definitions and qualifiers (e.g. "No one who has a sore throat...", "epiglottitis is..." and "It is highly advisable..."). Then I read the prompt, immediately realized it was a fallacy question, and started crossing out answers. Now I won't go through them one by one, but its fairly clear to me that A, B, C and E are all incorrect. They're clever tricks, meant to divert you away from the right answers, but since I know most of the playbook that the question writers use, I can spot these tricks easily. For example, answer A (The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance) defines an actual logical fallacy, the generalization fallacy. However, a correct definition does not make a right answer, and its clear upon reading the passage that the author does not clearly draw "a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance" of anything.

Odds are, if you tried answering this question yourself, you got it right. It's one of the easier practice questions I've come across, designed as a simple check against those who don't read carefully. It's clear the claims that "no one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor" and "it is highly advisable that sufferers [of epiglottitis, a condition that begins with sore throat,] seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur" are contradictory, and therefore D is the correct response. However, the odds are also good that if this is your first time looking at a sample LSAT question, you spent a good deal of time figuring out exactly what the question was asking, weeding out the wrong answers and mentally sorting through the importance of various phrases and factors in the question. Most people can, with sufficient time and a proficient grasp of English, reason their way through any of the questions on the LSAT. With sufficient time is the key phrase here, because when you take the test, time is anything but sufficient. You have 35 minutes to answer about 25 questions, which leaves with you with just over a minute per question. This is why experience and prior knowledge are so important with standardized tests. You have to know the types of questions you're going to see, the types of answers you're going to see, and be able to figure out why the right answer is right and the wrong ones are wrong. The key to doing really well on tests like the LSAT or the SAT isn't intelligence, it's practice. With enough experience and practice, complicated questions about logical fallacies begin to look more like a simple game than a part of some incomprehensible standardized test. The rules are rigid, they're set, all you have to do is play as well as you can. The best test takers will tell you that they don't have to concentrate very hard when taking a test, because at that point its mostly instinct.

I bring up standardized testing not just because I'm in the middle of preparing to take the June administration of the LSAT, but because it ties in perfectly to the book I read this week, "You Are Not A Gadget- A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a member of geek royalty- he's known as the father of virtual reality technology and has worked with figures like Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine and John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But with "I Am Not A Gadget," Lanier separates himself from his former colleagues. The open internet, he argues, is not nearly as open as we perceive it to be. Some of the most influential decisions in technological history have been made with little foresight as to how they could influence and limit the actions of the future, especially when it comes to the realm of creativity. Lanier, who has a strong background in classical music, uses the invention of MIDI to demonstrate his point:

One day in the early 1980s, a music synthesizer designer named Dave Smith casually made up a way to represent musical notes. It was called MIDI. His approach conceived of music from a keyboard player‟s point of view. MIDI was made of digital patterns that represented keyboard events like “key-down” and “key-up.”
That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone player can produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin. But there was no reason for MIDI to be concerned with the whole of musical expression, since Dave only wanted to connect some synthesizers together so that he could have a larger palette of sounds while playing a single keyboard.
In spite of its limitations, MIDI became the standard scheme to represent music in software. Music programs and synthesizers were designed to work with it, and it quickly proved impractical to change or dispose of all that software and hardware. MIDI became entrenched, and despite Herculean efforts to reform it on many occasions by a multi-decade-long parade of powerful international commercial, academic, and professional organizations, it remains so.
You've heard MIDI technology before, even if you aren't aware of it. Every song created on a computer utilizes it, the infamous auto-tune is built around it, and programs like iOS' Garage Band are utterly dependent on it. That means all of this music, all of this creative potential, must be funneled through the filters of MIDI. This is exactly what Lanier is warning against, and why his book is not just a book, but a manifesto.

One of the book's underlying themes has to do with this disconnect between the potential of the human mind and the technologies we interact with on a daily basis. When you sit down at a computer, you probably don't think about how your keyboard is limiting you to typing one letter at a time, or how your mouse restricts your ability to manipulate variables on screen to a single horizontal plane. These basic technologies, which we take for granted, have an enormous impact on our ability to create and innovate. Lanier isn't necessarily advocating that we abandon these restricting technologies immediately, he's simply asking us to pause periodically and consider the forest for the trees. In particular, he is criticizing "the promotion of the latest techno-political-cultural orthodoxy," in which the Singularity is considered inevitable and "Web 2.0" technologies are categorically heaped with praise (and rarely with criticism).

Facebook is yet another example that Lanier presents of an innovation that we rarely question, but which causes a form of "digital reductionism" that serves to disenfranchise our personalities. On Facebook, you are presented with standard prompts to fill out: relationship status, birthday, residence, profile picture. Your entire personal identity devolves into simple, personality-free entries in a database. Now compared with the other ways in which we represent our identities online, Facebook has been called an improvement. Unlike a webpage, where every bit of HTML is customizable (although HTML is also not without its limitations), Facebook is standardized. When you click through to somebody's Facebook profile, you don't have to read the banner at the top of the page that was formerly adorned with the silhouette of Mark Zuckerberg. You know that there will be a picture in the upper left corner which that person has chosen to represent themselves, you know that you can find their recent activity on their wall right in the center of the page, and if you want to know if they're in a relationship or not its as simple as clicking on the link titled "info" under their name. Before you even go to that person's Facebook page, you know exactly what to expect. Sure there may be minor variations here and there, some people choose to display less pictures and remove the wall, while others seem to have fully devoted their lives to Farmville. But all of these behaviors, pictures, and boxes of text which we use to represent who we are as people are standardized and taken for granted. Gone is the seemingly limitless potential of the individual webpage, which take serious commitment, creativity and know-how to make. In its place is the Facebook page. Stale, standardized, and predictable, Facebook is about as good at representing individual personality as a standardized test is at representing intelligence. Sure it makes things easier to sort through, but go look at your own Facebook page and tell me if it accurately represents who you are as a person. Just as the infamous "no child left behind" act forced millions of teachers to abandon their passion for inspiring young minds in favor of "teaching to the test," Facebook asks us to disregard our inner creative influence in favor of making ourselves easier to search for.

Now this isn't to say that you should go delete your Facebook and Twitter account, throw away your mouse and keyboard and completely revert back to man's natural state. But there are a lot of valuable warnings in Lanier's book, especially for technology enthusiasts like myself. I've read a lot of books about social media and technology this semester, and I have to admit that "You Are Not A Gadget" is my absolute favorite. That's because unlike the authors of Cluetrain, Clay Shirky, and Kos, Jaron Lanier refuses to accept the tools of social interaction as simple tools. Instead, he forces you to question the evolution of speech, its contexts, and its limitations. Instead of unabashedly praising new innovations, he wonders how they will limit us in the future, as well as how they can be improved. Instead of accepting the common belief that the abilities of the human brain are approaching those of a computer, he challenges computers to better adapt to the abilities of the human brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got an LSAT prep class to go to. Hey, just because I can see the forest for the trees doesn't mean I don't like to go hiking through the woods every now and then.

1 comment:

  1. As an instrumentalist, I play music the composers have challenged me to "conquer" in my musical work. Stravinsky's bassoon opening to "The Rite of Spring" is often thought of as "not in normal range" but for compositional reasons - to sound strained. Yet now bassoonists learn to play the opening with lyrical beauty - because we have adapted to the EXPECTATIONS of audience, more than INTENTIONS of the composer. He's dead. The audience isn't.