SSAT Middle Level Reading : Determining Authorial Purpose in Argumentative Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Middle Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Authorial Purpose In Natural Science Passages

The world described by physics is a surprisingly strange world, somewhat distant from our regular experience. Many high school students likely suspect this fact, given the difficulty that they often experience when taking physics courses. However, they are rarely instructed in the explicit difference between the world expressed by their equations and the world that they experience. Many of the concepts used in physics are related to the figures, facts, and equations that are learned in mathematics. The world is recast into a form that looks more like a geometry problem than the world as experienced in day-to-day life. All of this at first seems strange to the budding young physics student. However, after performing a number of experiments, he or she soon sees that these mathematical formulas seem to “work.” That is, these equations really do predict the outcomes of experiments in the real world, not merely in mathematical equations on paper.

Still, it is interesting to notice some examples of how much is overlooked in these kinds of mathematical models. Most obviously, there are few (if any) objects in reality that perfectly match the form and shape of a pure geometric figure. Few physical triangles are exact triangles in the manner of the shapes used in geometric problems. Likewise, motion becomes merely something to be expressed in an equation that has time as a variable. Finally, all of the physical descriptions of light waves tell us about everything except for what it is like to experience color. This last reason is perhaps the most interesting reason of all. No matter how many equations and shapes are used to describe color, none of these will have anything to do with the experience of color itself. To speak of a “rectangular surface” or an “icosahedron-like body” does not tell us anything about colors. Rectangles and icosahedrons can be any color. That is, color does not enter into their definitions at all—a red rectangle is just as much a rectangle as is a green one.

What is the author’s purpose in the second paragraph? 

Possible Answers:

To provide examples of the things that physics overlooks

To contrast the world of physics to the world of colors

To contradict the naive positions stated in the first paragraph

To contrast the physical sciences with the world of poetry and the arts

To show how physics ultimately does not explain reality

Correct answer:

To provide examples of the things that physics overlooks

Explanation:

The tone of the opening sentence of the second paragraph should indicate to you the author's general attitude in this paragraph. Clearly, the author does not wish to overturn everything that has been stated. The first paragraph admits that physics does indeed "work"—even though it is strangely based on mathematical models. In this second paragraph, the author intends to show how physics does in fact overlook certain details about the world. This is not meant to call into question the whole of physics. The author never indicates that this is the intention of the second paragraph. It is merely concerned with providing several examples that show the things that are overlooked by physics' mathematical models.

Example Question #1 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Argumentative Science Passages

Adapted from “Introduced Species That Have Become Pests” in Our Vanishing Wild Life, Its Extermination and Protection by William Temple Hornaday (1913)

The man who successfully transplants or "introduces" into a new habitat any persistent species of living thing assumes a very grave responsibility. Every introduced species is doubtful gravel until panned out. The enormous losses that have been inflicted upon the world through the perpetuation of follies with wild vertebrates and insects would, if added together, be enough to purchase a principality. The most aggravating feature of these follies in transplantation is that never yet have they been made severely punishable. We are just as careless and easygoing on this point as we were about the government of the Yellowstone Park in the days when Howell and other poachers destroyed our first national bison herd, and when caught red-handed—as Howell was, skinning seven Park bison cows—could not be punished for it, because there was no penalty prescribed by any law. Today, there is a way in which any revengeful person could inflict enormous damage on the entire South, at no cost to himself, involve those states in enormous losses and the expenditure of vast sums of money, yet go absolutely unpunished!

The gypsy moth is a case in point. This winged calamity was imported at Maiden, Massachusetts, near Boston, by a French entomologist, Mr. Leopold Trouvelot, in 1868 or 69. History records the fact that the man of science did not purposely set free the pest. He was endeavoring with live specimens to find a moth that would produce a cocoon of commercial value to America, and a sudden gust of wind blew out of his study, through an open window, his living and breeding specimens of the gypsy moth. The moth itself is not bad to look at, but its larvae is a great, overgrown brute with an appetite like a hog. Immediately Mr. Trouvelot sought to recover his specimens, and when he failed to find them all, like a man of real honor, he notified the State authorities of the accident. Every effort was made to recover all the specimens, but enough escaped to produce progeny that soon became a scourge to the trees of Massachusetts. The method of the big, nasty-looking mottled-brown caterpillar was very simple. It devoured the entire foliage of every tree that grew in its sphere of influence.

The gypsy moth spread with alarming rapidity and persistence. In course of time, the state authorities of Massachusetts were forced to begin a relentless war upon it, by poisonous sprays and by fire. It was awful! Up to this date (1912) the New England states and the United States Government service have expended in fighting this pest about $7,680,000!

The spread of this pest has been retarded, but the gypsy moth never will be wholly stamped out. Today it exists in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and it is due to reach New York at an early date. It is steadily spreading in three directions from Boston, its original point of departure, and when it strikes the State of New York, we, too, will begin to pay dearly for the Trouvelot experiment.

The main reason the author mentions Howell’s story is __________.

Possible Answers:

to attack Howell’s actions as reprehensible

to argue for putting a fence up around Yellowstone National Park to keep out poachers

to suggest that the loss of bison is a more important problem than those caused by the gypsy moth

to provide an account that shows how bad it is that environmental offenders cannot be legally punished

to lament the loss of the United States’ first national bison herd

Correct answer:

to provide an account that shows how bad it is that environmental offenders cannot be legally punished

Explanation:

This question may initially seem tricky because Howell’s story accomplishes many of the answer choices’ statements: the author does attack Howell’s actions as reprehensible, and he does lament the loss of the United States’ first national bison herd. However, this are consequences of the story, not reasons why the author brought it up in the first place. The only answer choice that explains why the author mentions the story is “to provide an account that shows how bad it is that environmental offenders cannot be legally punished,” so this is the correct answer.

Example Question #11 : Argumentative Science Passages

Adapted from "The Greatest Sea-Wave Ever Known" by R. A. Proctor in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

Far on beyond the shores of New Zealand the great wave coursed, reaching at length the coast of Australia. At dawn of August 14th Moreton Bay was visited by five well-marked waves. At Newcastle, on the Hunter River, the sea rose and fell several times in a remarkable manner, the oscillatory motion commencing at half-past six in the morning. But the most significant evidence of the extent to which the sea-wave traveled in this direction was afforded at Port Fairy, Belfast, South Victoria. Here the oscillation of the water was distinctly perceived at midday on August 14th; and yet, to reach this point, the sea-wave must not only have traveled on a circuitous course nearly equal in length to half the circumference of the earth, but must have passed through Bass's Straits, between Australia and Van Diemen's Land, and so have lost a considerable portion of its force and dimensions. When we remember that had not the effects of the earth-shock on the water been limited by the shores of South America, a wave of disturbance equal in extent to that which traveled westward would have swept toward the east, we see that the force of the shock was sufficient to have disturbed the waters of an ocean covering the whole surface of the earth. For the sea-waves which reached Yokohama in one direction and Port Fairy in another had each traversed a distance nearly equal to half the earth's circumference; so that if the surface of the earth were all sea, waves setting out in opposite directions from the center of disturbance would have met each other at the antipodes of their starting-point.

It is impossible to contemplate the effects which followed the great earthquake—the passage of a sea-wave of enormous volume over fully one third of the earth's surface, and the force with which, on the farthermost limits of its range, the wave rolled in upon shores more than ten thousand miles from its starting-place—without feeling that those geologists are right who deny that the subterranean forces of the earth are diminishing in intensity. It may be difficult, perhaps, to look on the effects which are ascribed to ancient earth-throes without imagining for a while that the power of modern earthquakes is altogether less. But when we consider fairly the share which time had in those ancient processes of change, when we see that while mountain ranges were being upheaved or valleys depressed to their present position, species after species, and type after type appeared on the earth, and lived out the long lives which belong to species and to types, we are recalled to the remembrance of the great work which the earth's subterranean forces are still engaged upon. Even now continents are being slowly depressed or upheaved; even now mountain ranges are being raised to a new level, tablelands are in process of formation, and great valleys are being gradually scooped out. It may need an occasional outburst, such as the earthquake of August, 1868, to remind us that great forces are at work beneath the earth's surface. But, in reality, the signs of change have long been noted. Old shorelines shift their place, old soundings vary; the sea advances in one place and retires in another; on every side Nature's plastic hand is at work modeling and remodeling the earth, in order that it may always be a fit abode for those who are to dwell upon it.

What is the author’s purpose in describing the effects of Bass's Straits on the sea wave?

Possible Answers:

To undermine the impact of island chains on sea-waves

To dismiss the notion that the forces within the Earth are as powerful as they have been throughout history

To highlight the intensity of the sea-wave

To prove the amplifying influence of island chains on sea-waves

To show the extensive distance which the sea-wave traveled

Correct answer:

To highlight the intensity of the sea-wave

Explanation:

You know that the answer choice “To dismiss the notion that the forces within the Earth are as powerful as they have been throughout history“ must be incorrect because the opposite claim to this statement is the overall thesis of the passage. You might be tempted to answer that the author’s purpose is to “show the extensive distance which the sea-wave traveled,” as this is the primary emphasis of the first paragraph. However, the point the author is making is that although Bass's Straits would have reduced the intensity of the sea-wave, they did not do so sufficiently to prevent its impact being felt over vast distances. It is the “intensity” that is being highlighted, not the “extensive distance.”

Example Question #12 : Argumentative Science Passages

Adapted from "The Greatest Sea-Wave Ever Known" by R. A. Proctor in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

Far on beyond the shores of New Zealand the great wave coursed, reaching at length the coast of Australia. At dawn of August 14th Moreton Bay was visited by five well-marked waves. At Newcastle, on the Hunter River, the sea rose and fell several times in a remarkable manner, the oscillatory motion commencing at half-past six in the morning. But the most significant evidence of the extent to which the sea-wave traveled in this direction was afforded at Port Fairy, Belfast, South Victoria. Here the oscillation of the water was distinctly perceived at midday on August 14th; and yet, to reach this point, the sea-wave must not only have traveled on a circuitous course nearly equal in length to half the circumference of the earth, but must have passed through Bass's Straits, between Australia and Van Diemen's Land, and so have lost a considerable portion of its force and dimensions. When we remember that had not the effects of the earth-shock on the water been limited by the shores of South America, a wave of disturbance equal in extent to that which traveled westward would have swept toward the east, we see that the force of the shock was sufficient to have disturbed the waters of an ocean covering the whole surface of the earth. For the sea-waves which reached Yokohama in one direction and Port Fairy in another had each traversed a distance nearly equal to half the earth's circumference; so that if the surface of the earth were all sea, waves setting out in opposite directions from the center of disturbance would have met each other at the antipodes of their starting-point.

It is impossible to contemplate the effects which followed the great earthquake—the passage of a sea-wave of enormous volume over fully one third of the earth's surface, and the force with which, on the farthermost limits of its range, the wave rolled in upon shores more than ten thousand miles from its starting-place—without feeling that those geologists are right who deny that the subterranean forces of the earth are diminishing in intensity. It may be difficult, perhaps, to look on the effects which are ascribed to ancient earth-throes without imagining for a while that the power of modern earthquakes is altogether less. But when we consider fairly the share which time had in those ancient processes of change, when we see that while mountain ranges were being upheaved or valleys depressed to their present position, species after species, and type after type appeared on the earth, and lived out the long lives which belong to species and to types, we are recalled to the remembrance of the great work which the earth's subterranean forces are still engaged upon. Even now continents are being slowly depressed or upheaved; even now mountain ranges are being raised to a new level, tablelands are in process of formation, and great valleys are being gradually scooped out. It may need an occasional outburst, such as the earthquake of August, 1868, to remind us that great forces are at work beneath the earth's surface. But, in reality, the signs of change have long been noted. Old shorelines shift their place, old soundings vary; the sea advances in one place and retires in another; on every side Nature's plastic hand is at work modeling and remodeling the earth, in order that it may always be a fit abode for those who are to dwell upon it.

How does the purpose of the first paragraph primarily relate to the purpose of the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The first paragraph suggests a conclusion that the second paragraph disproves.

The first paragraph examines an argument that the second paragraph proves.

The first paragraph demonstrates a trend that counters the conclusions of the second paragraph.

The first paragraph highlights an example that proves the argument of the second paragraph.

The first paragraph tells a story that undermines the conclusions of the second paragraph.

Correct answer:

The first paragraph highlights an example that proves the argument of the second paragraph.

Explanation:

In the first paragraph the author is primarily demonstrating and highlighting the extent and intensity of the sea-wave. This is then used as evidence to prove the argument of the second paragraph which is that if the intensity of the sea-wave is properly understood, we cannot reasonably state that the forces within the Earth’s interior are declining in impact and forcefulness.

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