GRE Reading Comp Challenge: Weaken the Argument

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GRE Reading Comp Challenge: Weaken the Argument (Pictured: Surgeons in OR)

GRE Reading Comp questions that make you think critically are rarely easy. In fact, some will be very hard. But others will be medium difficulty, like this week's "weaken the argument" question.

Reading Comprehension: Weakening Arguments
Difficulty Level: 3 (Medium)

Question Difficulty
  • Very High50
  • High420
  • Medium
  • Low26080
  • Very Low1100
% of Test Takers Who Answered Correctly

In The Official Guide to the GRE, a not-too-tough Verbal question asks you to weaken an argument about a rise in airline passenger complaints. (See Test 2, §4, 21.) Just 55% of test takers got the question right when it was on a real exam. Here's a question that's very similar, if not a little harder.


In 1999 the Institute of Medicine reported that nearly 100,000 people die each year from medical errors in hospitals in the United States. That annual total may now exceed 400,000, according to a 2013 study. Moreover, the number of error-related deaths per 1,000 patients may have tripled. Wrong-site surgeries, medication errors, and infections due to failures of care remain among the most common mistakes. Clearly, therefore, despite efforts by United States hospitals to prevent those kinds of errors, patient safety declined significantly after 1999.

Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the argument?

  1. Although the rate of healthcare-associated infections rose overall after 1999, some United States hospitals reduced the rate of such infections among their patients, according to the 2013 study.
  2. The number of patients receiving care in United States hospitals rose significantly after 1999.
  3. The 2013 study reported a lower number of wrong-site surgeries per 1,000 patients in United States hospitals compared to the 1999 study.
  4. A 2005 federal law created Patient Safety Organizations to collect and analyze confidential reports of harmful medical errors and other patient safety information from United States hospitals.
  5. Although the number of medical errors increased at almost every major hospital after 1999, for some hospitals the extent of the increase was substantial, whereas for others it was extremely small.

The Explanation

Step 1: Find the conclusion and the premises. Weakening an argument means casting doubt on its conclusion. The conclusion is the claim that the argument attempts to support, and the premises are the claims that are supposed to support it.

Sometimes an indicator word points you to the conclusion. In the Challenge passage, the last sentence uses the word "therefore," a common conclusion indicator.

Clearly, therefore, despite efforts by United States hospitals to prevent those kinds of errors, patient safety declined significantly after 1999.

This sentence has two main parts. The first part—"despite efforts…kinds of errors"—implies that US hospitals have tried to prevent medical errors. Since this claim has no supporting reasons or evidence in the passage, it's not the conclusion.

The second part—"patient safety…after 1999"—is the argument's conclusion. You're supposed to be convinced that patients in US hospitals have become more likely to die from medical errors since 1999. The supporting evidence is the 2013 study, which like the 1999 report is assumed, not argued, to be accurate.

Here's a simple summary of the argument.

  • Premise: A 1999 study estimated that about 100,000 people die each year from medical errors in US hospitals.
  • Premise: A 2013 study quadruples the number and triples the rate of error-related deaths compared to the 1999 study.
  • Conclusion: Patient safety declined significantly after 1999.

Step 2: Choose the answer that casts the most doubt on the conclusion. To weaken an argument, imagine the conclusion is false and then explain how the premises could still be true. This sort of explanation will often be the correct answer to a "weaken" question.

Suppose that patient safety did not decline significantly after 1999. How would you explain the stats in the 2013 study? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. A 2013 study gives higher estimates than a 1999 study, just like the premises say. However, the 2013 study uses dubious data, so its estimates aren't reliable. OR
  2. The 2013 study's data is accurate but it's mostly from hospital records dated 1999 or earlier. OR
  3. Since 1999, US hospitals have improved the tracking and reporting of deaths caused by medical errors.

(1) says that the 2013 study is likely wrong, while (2) implies that the study, though accurate, tells us nothing about patient safety post-1999. None of the answer choices makes either of those objections. Moving on, (3) suggests that better recordkeeping, not worse patient safety, can account for the apparent rise in error-related deaths. Option (D)—"A 2005 federal law…"—would, if true, likely lead to (3). And (D), as it turns out, is the correct answer.

The other options either don't weaken the argument or do so less than (D). For example, (B)—"The number of patients…rose significantly after 1999"—could explain why total error-related deaths rose but not why the number per 1,000 patients did. Option (D) can account for both increases.

When a Reading Comp question asks you to weaken an argument, figure out how the premises, even if true, leave doubts about the conclusion. If the premises point to a trend, like you saw in the Challenge problem, think of alternative explanations for the data. Whatever the premises say, come up with other plausible conclusions. You may well find an answer choice that matches what you have in mind.

Need help strengthening arguments? Check out this post: GRE Reading Comp: Strengthen an Argument.

Photo: "Medical/Surgical Operative Photography" courtesy of Phalinn Ooi.

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