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Dealing with Super Abstract Answer Choices on the LSAT

  • by Ross Rinehart
  • Jul 31, 2019
  • LSAT

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I suppose this should come with a spoiler warning, but it’ll soon be very clear why such a warning is unnecessary. Anyway, here’s a non-exhaustive list of correct answers on recent Logical Reasoning questions:

“two different states of affairs could each causally contribute to the same effect even though neither causally contributes to the other.”

“showing that something that would be impossible if a particular thesis were correct is actually true”

“inferring that one specific response to a problem is necessary without considering another equally supported response”

“It is a statement for which no evidence is provided and that is part of the evidence offered for the argument’s only conclusion”

“treats the failure to satisfy a condition that brings about a particular outcome as if satisfying that condition is the only way to realize the outcome”

“fails to address the substantive point of the criticism that it is responding to”

Taken on their own, these sentences are essentially meaningless. They’re haphazardly constructed word salads, the main ingredients of which are unclear referents, doublebacking syntax, and poorly drawn distinctions. Above all else, these answer choices are abstract to the point of meaninglessness. Malarkey, in our non-scientific opinion.

Of course, read outside of the context of the question they’re attached to, any answer choice should be harder to understand. But, trust me, these answer choices aren’t much easier to understand when read as part of an entire question. These answer choice were from questions about, respectively, medical self-help books, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, unprofessional workplace behavior, the probability of life in other solar systems, the possibility of self-forgiveness, and automobiles equipped with communication devices — not that you’d have any idea by reading these answer choices. In fact, I’d argue that understanding these answer choices after reading the question is in some ways even harder, since you have to survive the shock of realizing these answer choices make no explicit reference to the subject matter of the question.

So, this raises the question, what gives? An important realization that everyone studying for the LSAT must make, early on, is that the subject matter of a Logical Reasoning question isn’t terribly important. What matters instead are the underlying logical concepts these questions test. We have to train ourselves to look past the garnishes these questions use, to get to the actual meat of these questions. And as the above answer choices illustrate sometimes you really have to look past the subject matter, since the correct answer won’t even reference it. This is especially true on Flaw, Role, and Describe questions; it has become even more true on recent LSATs, where the answer choices have gotten really abstract.

Let’s talk about some strategies to deal with this pesky trend of abstraction. How can we reliably parse these answer choices, so that we understand what they’re saying and confirm that they are correct (or verify that they’re incorrect)?

Well, do you remember playing Mad Libs as a kid? Or did those not survive the new Millennium? Did that reference make me sound even more like the pile of dust that my ripened old age already makes me feel? OK, if you didn’t play them as a kid, maybe remember them showing up in a famous scene from Friends? I’m told that you young people can’t get enough of that show on Netflix.

Anyway, the gist of Mad Libs: There would be a basic template for an amusing short story, except they’d remove key nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Before you’d read the story, you’d provide your own nouns, adjectives and verbs, which you would then fill into the blank-spaces of the template. You’d then read the story, with your own words filled in, to a group of friends (or, if you were perhaps a shy budding LSAT blogger, alone in your room), and non-sequitur-based hilarity would ensue.

I don’t think Mad Libs creators Leonard Stern and Roger Price anticipated that their party game would provide a strategy to tackle LSAT questions. But that’s exactly what they did.

When you see an answer choice get hopelessly abstract — as all the above answer choices do — start playing Mad Libs. But instead of making up your own referents, use the stimulus to fill in the blanks. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s take the first answer choice, from a Flaw question on the November 2018 exam. That answer choice said that the argument is flawed because it overlooks the fact that “two different states of affairs could each causally contribute to the same effect even though neither causally contributes to the other.” Just by reading that, it’s tough to determine what those “two different states of affairs” are or what “same effect” is.

So let’s remove those from the answer choice, so the answer choice now reads: “________ and ________ could each causally contribute to ________ even though neither causally contribute to the other.” If we really wanted to make this easier to understand (which I think is always a good idea), let’s simplify some of the language — “causally contributes to” is just a long-winded way of saying “causes,” so let’s rephrase this to: “________ and ________ could each cause ________ even though neither causes the other.”

In the first blank, we’ll put one “state of affairs” from the stimulus that apparently causes some effect, in the second blank we’ll put the second “state of affairs” from the stimulus that also apparently causes some effect, and in the third blank, we’ll put the effect. Here’s what the stimulus said:

Researcher: In an experiment, 500 families were given a medical self-help book, and 500 similar families were not. Over the next year, the average number of visits to doctors dropped by 20 percent for the families who had been given the book but remained unchanged for the other families. Since improved family health leads to fewer visits to doctors, the experiment indicates that having a medical self-help book in the home improves family health.

Reading this, I think we can determine the two states of affairs the answer choice is talking about are being given a medical self-help book and improving family health. And the effect the answer choice refers to is fewer visits to the doctor. Apparently, being given a medical self-help book and improving family health might lead to fewer doctors visits, according to this researcher. So, as the researcher concludes, having a medical self-help book causes your family health to improve.

We can now fill in the blanks of that answer choice, so it reads that the argument overlooks that “Being given a medical self-help book and improved family health could each cause fewer visits to the doctor even though neither causes the other.”

Now this strategy didn’t result in the same giggle-fits that a good Mad Libs would, but at least it makes that answer choice way easier to understand. It makes sense — you might go to the doctor less often because you have a medical-self help book, and you might go to the doctor less because your family is healthier, but that doesn’t mean your family is in better health because of the medical self-help book.

Not only can we understand this answer choice, we can hopefully now clearly understand how it describes a flaw in the argument. In the researcher’s argument, we only had evidence that the families who were given the self-help book were going to the doctors less. We don’t know that they’re actually in better health. If they’re using the self-help book for, I don’t know, medically complex procedures like suturing knife wounds or performing makeshift, DIY appendectomies, they could actually be in worse health, walking around with infected wounds and misdiagnosed maladies. So the previously abstract answer choice makes sense — just because both the self-help book and improved health could result in fewer doctor visits, that doesn’t mean the self-help book is making the family healthier.

This same strategy can be used to eliminate incorrect answers as well. The second-most popular answer choice on that question says the argument is flawed because it overlooks that “a state of affairs could causally contribute to two or more different effects.”

What could the “two or more different effects” be in the researcher’s argument? Well, in this argument, having access to medical self-help books leads to more than one effect. Self-help books, according to the researcher, lead to fewer visits to the doctor and improved family health. Once we realize that, however, we should recognize that this is not something the researcher “overlooks” in the argument. That’s the whole point of the researcher’s argument! For the researcher, access to the self-help books are improving the families’ health, which leads to fewer doctors visits. Once we finish filling in the blanks, this answer choice presents something that the researcher just categorically does not overlook, so it can’t describe a flaw in the reasoning.

Other times, an answer choice will be wrong because it makes a reference to some abstract concept that the stimulus never mentions. If you can’t find something from the stimulus to fill in the blank in an answer choice, go ahead and eliminate that answer choice.

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Whenever you see answer choices get confusingly abstract on Flaw, Role, or Describe questions, go to this Mad Libs strategy with the same enthusiasm of Pheobe Buffet in that Friends clip. At first, things will be slow-going and it’ll seem a little difficult. But like anything else on the LSAT, it gets easier and faster with practice. Watch, we can start practicing now, with our own Mad Libs

After practicing this approach from this         (Adjective)        blog post, I started         (Verb ending in “ing”)        previously difficult Logical Reasoning questions, eventually resulting in me earning a        (Desired LSAT score)        on the      (Date of the LSAT you plan to take)        LSAT.

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