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Ways in which the creators of the LSAT use Delphic words, the befuddlement it creates, and strategies for combating the resulting answer choices that seem intentionally labyrinthine

  • by M Hope Echales
  • Jul 22, 2009
  • Advice on Logical Reasoning, Advice on Reading Comprehension, LSAT

colin_burritos

After my previous post, commenter Joseph asked about “answer choices that have loaded language and it’s difficult to determine what exactly (they) mean.” These are ones where you understand what is being asked of you, and you know what the answer should look like, but then you can’t quite work out just what the hell the answer choices are saying because they look like they were written by some bearded professor who is just trying to sound pretentious. These do happen quite a bit in LR questions that ask you to describe some aspect of the argument, such as its general reasoning, locating its flaw, or identifying the purpose of a certain phrase or sentence. The difficulty often arises from the fact that you’re describing some pretty complicated stuff in pretty general terms.

For example, here is a question where the LSAT asks you to describe the flaw of the argument. (And by “LSAT” I mean me).

Whenever Johannes eats a burrito, he has diarrhea. Johannes is currently on the toilet with terrible diarrhea, so he must have had a burrito.

Fifteen points if you already see the flaw. Looking at our argument, we see that whenever Johannes eats a burrito, he has diarrhea. Perhaps he’s missing the necessary enzyme for digesting lard, or maybe this is due to a bad case of IBS, or maybe it’s just because he’s angered the Mexican bowel movement fairy. At the end of the day, we really don’t know why it’s happening. But we know with absolute certainty that his eating a burrito guarantees a day on the toilet. There is no way out of it.

Fast forward to Johannes in the restroom. Did he eat a burrito? Well, maybe. We know that a burrito would have sent him there, but could it have been anything else? Perhaps he ate at Naan ‘n’ Curry, or shotgunned a gallon of prune juice, or contracted the Swine Flu. The answer is that any of those things could have been the culprit, too. While a burrito would have been enough to guarantee the emptying of his bowels, it’s not the only option.

So after understanding all that, an answer choice like the following would get you understandably aroused:

(D) The argument is flawed because it fails to assume that there are other things that could have caused Johannes’ diarrhea.

Easy peasy Japanesey. But that’s not always the answer choice. Sometimes you see this:

(D) The reasoning is fallacious because the argument assumes that a condition that is sufficient for a certain phenomenon to occur implies that this condition must in fact be required for that phenomenon to be brought about.

Which looks scary, I know. But daddy’s here, and he’s going to make the bad man go away. A convoluted answer choice can move an LR problem from the easy to the hard end of the spectrum faster than Johannes can reach for the Tapatio. With questions like these, the trick is to really take you time to understand exactly what each answer choice is saying. Don’t just skip it because it’s convoluted. Like Matt mentioned in his analysis of a June 2009 LR question, four of the answer choices will be totally, completely, and fundamentally wrong; you never have to pick the “best” one, because there will always be one that is perfect and four that are terrible. So you want to know why answer choices are wrong before you throw them away. Take your time, and work it out line by line. Go back and look at that monster answer choice before continuing.

Figured out what it’s saying? Here is a translation from LSATese to English, piece by piece.

The reasoning is fallacious because the argument…
It’s a crappy (no pun intended) argument because it…

…assumes that a condition being sufficient for a certain phenomenon to occur…
…thinks that just because a burrito (the condition) is all Johannes needs to guarantee diarrhea (the phenomenon)…

…implies that this condition must in fact be required for that phenomenon to be brought about.
…means that a burrito (condition) MUST be the culprit whenever Johannes is having diarrhea (phenomenon).

Which is exactly what is wrong with the argument.

“It’s a crappy argument because it thinks that just because a burrito is all Johannes needs to guarantee diarrhea means that a burrito must be the culprit whenever Johannes is having diarrhea.”

…is the same thing as the convoluted answer choice.

So take your time. After you realize why it’s a bad argument, you’ve done half the work, and you don’t want to throw away all the time you invested so far by rushing the answer choices. On each answer choice, figure out exactly what it’s saying to the point that either you’re totally confident that it’s right, and you’re taking it, or you’re totally confident that it’s totally wrong, and you’re skipping it.

As for me, I’m going to go celebrate with some Chipotle ‘n’ Charmin.

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