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IELTS READING – The Truth about the Environment S29AT3

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The Truth about the Environment

For many environmentalists, the world seems to be getting worse. They have developed a hit-list of our main fears: that natural resources are running out; that the population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat; that species are becoming extinct in vast numbers, and that the planet’s air and water are becoming ever more polluted.

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But a quick look at the facts shows a different picture. First, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so, since the book The Limits to Growth’ was published in 1972 by a group of scientists. Second, more food is now produced per head of the world’s population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species are .indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient – associated with the early phases of industrialisation and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it. One form of pollution – the release of greenhouse gases that causes global warming – does appear to be a phenomenon that is going to extend well into our future, but its total impact is unlikely to pose a devastating problem. A bigger problem may well turn out to be an inappropriate response to it.

Yet opinion polls suggest that many people nurture the belief that environmental standards are declining and four factors seem to cause this disjunction between perception and reality.

One is the lopsidedness built into scientific research. Scientific funding goes mainly to areas with many problems. That may be wise policy, but it will also create an impression that many more potential problems exist than is the case.

Secondly, environmental groups need to be noticed by the mass media. They also need to keep the money rolling in. Understandably, perhaps,they sometimes overstate their arguments. In 1997, for example, the World Wide Fund for Nature issued a press release entitled: ‘Two thirds of the world’s forests lost forever’. The truth turns out to be nearer 20%.

Though these groups are run overwhelmingly by selfless folk, they nevertheless share many of the characteristics of other lobby groups. That would matter less if people applied the same degree of scepticism to environmental lobbying as they do to lobby groups In other fields. A trade organisation arguing for, say, weaker pollution controls is instantly seen as self-interested. Yet a green organisation opposing such a weakening is seen as altruistic, even if an impartial view of the controls in question might suggest they are doing more harm than good.

A third source of confusion is the attitude of the media. People are clearly more curious about bad news than good. Newspapers and broadcasters are there to provide what the public wants. That, however, can lead to significant distortions of perception. An example was America’s encounter with El Nino in 1997 and 1998. This climatic phenomenon was accused of wrecking tourism, causing allergies, melting the ski-slopes and causing 22 deaths. However, according to an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the damage it did was estimated at US$4 billion but the benefits amounted to some US$19 billion. These came from higher winter temperatures (which saved an estimated 850 lives, reduced heating costs and diminished spring floods caused by meltwaters).

The fourth factor is poor individual perception. People worry that the endless rise in the amount of stuff everyone throws away will cause the world to run out of places to dispose of waste. Yet, even if America’s trash output continues to rise as it has done in the past, and even if the American population doubles by 2100, all the rubbish America produces through the entire 21st century will still take up only one-12.000th of the area of the entire United States.

So what of global warming? As we know, carbon dioxide emissions are causing the planet to warm. The best estimates are that the temperatures will rise by 2-3°C in this century, causing considerable problems, at a total cost of US$5,000 billion.

Despite the intuition that something drastic needs to be done about such a costly problem, economic analyses clearly show it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures. A model by one of the main authors of the United Nations Climate Change Panel shows how an expected temperature increase of 2.1 degrees in 2100 would only be diminished to an increase of 1.9 degrees. Or to put ft another way, the temperature increase that the planet would have experienced in 2094 would be postponed to 2100.

So this does not prevent global warming, but merely buys the world six years. Yet the cost of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, for the United States alone, will be higher than the cost of solving the world’s single, most pressing health problem: providing universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Such measures would avoid 2 million deaths every year, and prevent half a billion people from becoming seriously ill.

It is crucial that we look at the facts if we want to make the best possible decisions for the future. It may be costly to be overly optimistic – but more costly still to be too pessimistic.

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IELTS READING – Nature or Nurture? S29AT2

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Nature or Nurture?

A A few years ago, in one of the most fascinating and disturbing experiments in behavioural psychology, Stanley Milgram of Yale University tested 40 subjects from all walks of life for their willingness to obey instructions given by a ‘leader’ in a situation in which the subjects might feel a personal distaste for the actions they were called upon to perform. Specifically,Milgram told each volunteer ‘teacher-subject’ that the experiment was in the noble cause of education, and was designed to test whether or not punishing pupils for their mistakes would have a positive effect on the pupils’ ability to learn.

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B Milgram’s experimental set-up involved placing the teacher-subject before a panel of thirty switches with labels ranging from ’15 volts of electricity (slight shock)’ to ‘450 volts (danger – severe shock)’ in steps of 15 volts each. The teacher-subject was told that whenever the pupil gave the wrong answer to a question, a shock was to be administered, beginning at the lowest level and increasing in severity with each successive wrong answer. The supposed ‘pupil’ was in reality an actor hired by Milgram to simulate receiving the shocks by emitting a spectrum of groans, screams and writhings together with an assortment of statements and expletives denouncing both the experiment and the experimenter. Milgram told the teacher-subject to ignore the reactions of the pupil, andto administer whatever level of shock was called for as per the rule governing the experimental situation of the moment.

C As the experiment unfolded, the pupil would deliberately give the wrong answers to questions posed by the teacher, thereby bringing on various electrical punishments, even up to the danger level of 300 volts and beyond. Many of the teacher-subjects balked at administering the higher levels of punishment, and turned to Milgram with questioning locks and/or complaints about continuing the experiment. In these situations, Milgram calmly explained that the teacher-subject was to ignore the pupil’s cries for mercy and carry on with the experiment. If the subject was still reluctant to proceed, Milgram said that it was important for the sake of the experiment that the procedure be followed through to the end. His final argument was, ‘You have no other choice. You must go on.’ What Milgram was trying to discover was the number of teacher-subjects who would be willing to administer the highest levels of shock, even in the face of strong persona! and moral revulsion against the rules and conditions of the experiment.

D Prior to carrying out the experiment, Milgram explained his idea to a group of 39 psychiatrists and asked them to predict the average percentage of people in an ordinary population who would be willing to administer the highest shock level of 450 volts. The overwhelming consensus was that virtually all the teacher-subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The psychiatrists felt that ‘most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts’ and they further anticipated that only four per cent would go up to 300 volts. Furthermore, they thought that only a lunatic fringe of about one in 1.000 would give the highest shock of 450 volts.

E What were the actual results? Well, over 60 per cent of the teacher-subjects continued to obey Milgram up to the 450-volt limit! In repetitions of the experiment in other countries, the percentage of obedient teacher-subjects was even higher, reaching 85 per cent in one country How can we possibly account for this vast discrepancy between what calm, rational, knowledgeable people predict in the comfort of their study and what pressured, flustered, but cooperative teachers’ actually do in the laboratory of real life?

F One’s first inclination might be to argue that there must be some sort of built-in animal aggression instinct that was activated by the experiment, and that Milgram’s teacher- subjects were just following a genetic need to discharge this pent-up primal urge onto the pupil by administering the electrical shock. A modern hard-core sociobiologist might even go so far as to claim that this aggressive instinct evolved as an advantageous trait, having been of survival value to our ancestors in their struggle against the hardships of life on the plains and in the caves, ultimately finding its way into our genetic make-up as a remnant of our ancient animal ways.

G An alternative to this notion ot genetic programming is to see the teacher-subjects’ actions as a result of the social environment under which the experiment was carried out. As Milgram himself pointed out. Most subjects in the experiment see their behaviour in a larger context that is benevolent and useful to society – the pursuit of scientific truth. The psychological laboratory has a strong claim to legitimacy and evokes trust and confidence in those who perform there. An action such as shocking a victim, which in isolation appears evil, acquires a completely different meaning when placed in this setting’.

H Thus, in this explanation the subject merges his unique personality and personal and moral code with that of larger institutional structures, surrendering individual properties like loyalty, self-sacrifice and discipline to the service of malevolent systems of authority.

I Here we have two radically different explanations for why so many teacher-subjects were willing to forgo their sense of personal responsibility for the sake of an institutional authority figure. The problem for biologists, psychologists and anthropologists is to sort out which of these two polar explanations is more plausible. This, in essence, is the problem of modem sociobiology – to discover the degree to which hard-wired genetic programming dictates, or at least strongly biases, the interaction of animals and humans with their environment, that is, their behaviour. Put another way sociobiology is concerned with elucidating the biological basis of all behaviour.

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IELTS READING – Johnson’s Dictionary S29AT1

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Johnson’s Dictionary

For the century before Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1775. there had been concern about the state of the English language.There was no standard way of speaking or writing and no agreement as to the best way of bringing some order to the chaos’ of English spelling. Dr Johnson provided the solution.

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There had, of course, been dictionaries in the past, the first of these being a little book of some 120 pages, compiled by a certain Robert Cawdray, published in 1604 under the title A Table Alphabetical! ‘of hard usual English wordes’. Like the various dictionaries that came after it during the seventeenth century, Cawdray’s tended to concentrate on ‘scholarly’ words; one function of the dictionary was to enable its student to convey an impression of fine learning.

Beyond the practical need to make order out of chaos, the rise of dictionaries is associated with the rise of the English middle class, who were anxious to define and circumscribe the various worlds to conquer – lexical as well as social and commercial. It is highly appropriate that Dr Samuel Johnson, the very model of an eighteenth-century literary man, as famous in his own time as in ours, should have published his dictionary at the very beginning of the heyday of the middle class.

Johnson was a poet and critic who raised common sense to the heights of genius. His approach to the problems that had worried writers throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was intensely practical. Up until his time, the task of producing a dictionary on such a large scale had seemed impossible without the establishment of an academy to make decisions about right and wrong usage Johnson decided he did not need an academy to settle arguments about language; he would write a dictionary himself; and he would do it single-handed. Johnson signed the contract for the Dictionary with the bookseller Robert Dosley at a breakfast held at the Golden Anchor Inn near Holbom Bar on 18 June 1764. He was to be paid £ 1.575 in instalments, and from this he took money to rent 17 Gough Square, in which he set up his ‘dictionary workshop’.

James Boswell, his biographer described the garret where Johnson worked as ‘fitted up like a counting house’ with a long desk running down the middle at which the copying clerks would work standing up. Johnson himself was stationed on a rickety chair at an ‘old crazy deal table’ surrounded by a chaos of borrowed books. He was also helped by six assistants, two of whom died whilst the Dictionary was still in preparation.

The work was immense; filling about eighty large notebooks (and without a library to hand). Johnson wrote the definitions of over 40,000 words, and illustrated their many meanings with some I 14.000 quotations drawn from English writing on every subject, from the Elizabethans to his own time. He did not expect to achieve complete originality. Working to a deadline, he had to draw on the best of all previous dictionaries, and to make his work one of heroic synthesis. In fact it was very much more. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson treated English very practically, as a living language, with many different shades of meaning. He adopted his definitions on the principle of English common law – according to precedent. After its publication, his Dictionary was not seriously rivalled for over a century.

After many vicissitudes the Dictionary was finally published on 15 April 1775. It was instantly recognised as a landmark throughout Europe. This very noble work.’ wrote the leading Italian lexicographer;‘will be a perpetual monument of Fame to the Author, an Honour to his own Country in particular, and a general Benefit to the republic of Letters throughout Europe.’ The fact that Johnson had taken on the Academies of Europe and matched them (everyone knew that forty French academics had taken forty years to produce the first French national dictionary) was cause for much English celebration.

Johnson had worked for nine years.‘with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow’. For all its faults and eccentricities his two-volume work is a masterpiece and a landmark, in his own words, ‘setting the orthography, displaying the analogy, regulating the structures, and ascertaining the significations of English words’. It is the corner-stone of Standard English, an achievement which, in James Boswell’s words,‘conferred stability on the language of his country’.

The Dictionary, together with his other writing, made Johnson famous and so well esteemed that his friends were able to prevail upon King George III to offer him a pension. From then on, he was to become the Johnson of folklore.

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IELTS READING – Play is a serious business S26AT3

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Play is a serious business

Does play help develop bigger, better brains?

Bryant Furlow investigates

A Playing is a serious business. Children engrossed in a make-believe world, fox cubs play-fighting or kittens teasing a ball of string aren’t just having fun. Play may look like a carefree and exuberant way to pass the time before the hard work of adulthood comes along, but there’s much more to it than that. For a start, play can even cost animals their lives. Eighty per cent of deaths among juvenile fur seals occur because playing pups fail to spot predators approaching. It is also extremely expensive in terms of energy.

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Playful young animals use around two or three per cent of their energy cavorting, and in children that figure can be closer to fifteen per cent. ‘Even two or three per cent is huge,’ says John Byers of Idaho University. ‘You just don’t find animals wasting energy like that,’ he adds. There must be a reason.

B But if play is not simply a developmental hiccup, as biologists once thought, why did it evolve? The latest idea suggests that play has evolved to build big brains. In other words, playing makes you intelligent. Playfulness, it seems, is common only among mammals, although a few of the larger-brained birds also indulge. Animals at play often use unique signs – tail- wagging in dogs, for example – to indicate that activity superficially resembling adult behaviour is not really in earnest. A popular explanation of play has been that it helps juveniles develop the skills they will need to hunt, mate and socialise as adults. Another has been that it allows young animals to get in shape for adult life by improving their respiratory endurance. Both these ideas have been questioned in recent years.

C Take the exercise theory. If play evolved to build muscle or as a kind of endurance training, then you would expect to see permanent benefits. But Byers points out that the benefits of increased exercise disappear rapidly after training stops, so any improvement in endurance resulting from juvenile play would be lost by adulthood. ‘If the function of play was to get into shape,’ says Byers, ‘the optimum time for playing would depend on when it was most advantageous for the young of a particular species to do so. But it doesn’t work like that.’ Across species, play tends to peak about halfway through the suckling stage and then decline.

D Then there’s the skills-training hypothesis. At first glance, playing animals do appear to be practising the complex manoeuvres they will need in adulthood. But a closer inspection reveals this interpretation as too simplistic. In one study, behavioural ecologist Tim Caro, from the University of California, looked at the predatory play of kittens and their predatory behaviour when they reached adulthood. He found that the way the cats played had no significant effect on their hunting prowess in later life.

E Earlier this year, Sergio Pellis of Lethbridge University, Canada, reported that there is a strong positive link between brain size and playfulness among mammals in general. Comparing measurements for fifteen orders of mammal, he and his team found larger brains (for a given body size) are linked to greater playfulness. The converse was also found to be true. Robert Barton of Durham University believes that, because large brains are more sensitive to developmental stimuli than smaller brains, they require more play to help mould them for adulthood. ‘I concluded it’s to do with learning, and with the importance of environmental data to the brain during development,’ he says.

F According to Byers, the timing of the playful stage in young animals provides an important clue to what’s going on. If you plot the amount of time a juvenile devotes to play each day over the course of its development, you discover a pattern typically associated with a ‘sensitive period’ – a brief development window during which the brain can actually be modified in ways that are not possible earlier or later in life. Think of the relative ease with which young children – but not infants or adults – absorb language. Other researchers have found that play in cats, rats and mice is at its most intense just as this ‘window of opportunity’ reaches its peak.

G ‘People have not paid enough attention to the amount of the brain activated by play,’ says Marc Bekoff from Colorado University. Bekoff studied coyote pups at play and found that the kind of behaviour involved was markedly more variable and unpredictable than that of adults. Such behaviour activates many different parts of the brain, he reasons. likens it to a behavioural kaleidoscope, with animals at play jumping rapidly between activities. ‘They use behaviour from a lot of different contexts – predation, aggression, reproduction,’ he says. ‘Their developing brain is getting all sorts of stimulation.’

H Not only is more of the brain involved in play than was suspected, but it also seems to activate higher cognitive processes. ‘There’s enormous cognitive involvement in play,’ says Bekoff. He points out that play often involves complex assessments of playmates, ideas of reciprocity and the use of specialised signals and rules. He believes that play creates a brain that has greater behavioural flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life. The idea is backed up by the work of Stephen Siviy of Gettysburg College. studied how bouts of play affected the brain’s levels of a particular chemical associated with the stimulation and growth of nerve cells. He was surprised by the extent of the activation. ‘Play just lights everything up,’ he says. By allowing link-ups between brain areas that might not normally communicate with each other, play may enhance creativity. 

I What might further experimentation suggest about the way children are raised in many societies today? We already know that rat pups denied the chance to play grow smaller brain components and fail to develop the ability to apply social rules when they interact with their peers. With schooling beginning earlier and becoming increasingly exam-orientated, play is likely to get even less of a look-in. Who knows what the result of that will be?

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