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Watch out for comparative statements … it’s better than the alternative

I’m taller than the average Olympic gymnast. Does that make me tall? Likewise I’m shorter than the average NBA center. Does that make me short? The answer to both questions, of course, is no. “Taller” and “shorter” are comparative statements. They say something about my height compared to certain others, but only by comparison. “Tall” and “short” are absolute statements.

Comparative statements do not prove absolute statements. Absolute statements do not prove comparative statements. The LSAT tests the distinction between them quite often, in a few ways.

Sometimes the jump between comparative and absolute statements shows up as a flaw in an argument, say in a Flaw question. For example:

“A recent study of marathon runners found that those who smoked one pack of cigarettes a day had considerably faster times than did those who smoked two or more packs a day. So if you want to finish a marathon with a fast time, all you need to do is cut your smoking down to one pack a day.”

This argument has lots of problems. But one of them is that it jumps from a comparative premise (one pack a day is better than two) to an absolute conclusion (one pack a day gets you a good time). The correct answer might read something like “mistakes a merely relative property for one that is absolute.”

It isn’t terribly hard to spot the absurdity of that argument, but I bet most would think of the flaw in terms of one pack a day still not being good for you or in terms of there being other things you need to do to train for a marathon. There’s also some correlation versus causation going on. An answer like the example above might seem pointlessly abstract. But it matches one of the flaws, and that’s all that matters.

Other times, they’ll try to trick you in the answers with the difference between comparative and absolute statements. Let’s take another argument, and say you’re asked to weaken it:

“People who wake up early in the morning drink more coffee, on average, than do people who wake up later. Therefore, a good way to train yourself to wake up earlier is to drink coffee.”

The flaw in this argument is correlation to causation. The correct answer would probably attack that issue. But notice that the conclusion never said that drinking coffee is the best or only way to learn to wake up earlier, only that it’s a good way. So imagine an answer choice like this:

“The best way to wake up early is to get to sleep early in a dark room and to limit use of electronic devices before bed.”

That answer is wrong, full stop. It doesn’t weaken the argument. We’re debating whether coffee is a good way to wake up early, an absolute property. Whether it’s the best, a relative property, is irrelevant. Even if there’s a better way, that doesn’t challenge the argument that drinking coffee works.

So in your LSAT travels, keep an eye out for relative and absolute statements. Keep in mind that one doesn’t prove the other and you’ll avoid a number of traps the LSAT sets for you.