There is a quote from the late Christopher Hitchens, and it’s both too good, and too applicable to the LSAT, not to share. Hitch opines:
…skepticism rather than credulity is the highest principle that the human intellect can use to ennoble our existence.
While I agree wholeheartedly with his intent, for our purposes I’m reminded of a common concern students face. Namely, how do we know what to treat with skepticism, and what to treat with acceptance as we move through the test?
More specifically, there’s an oft-asked question* that arises among test takers regarding how to discern truth from supposition. Similarly, how much “real world” knowledge is allowed, or possibly required, when tackling LSAT Logical Reasoning (and, to a lesser extent, Reading Comprehension). I hear this issue raised frequently enough that I thought I’d take a moment to address it directly.
The short answer to the subject knowledge question is, not much! That’s good news, of course, but woefully insufficient for our purposes here. So let me explain when and where your non-LSAT experiences/knowledge may be useful, where to avoid that information, and how to tell the difference.
To start, I should mention that I’ve covered a similar idea previously: What to Trust and What to Question in LSAT Logical Reasoning. The commentary here will echo a number of those points. That said, I hope I can add enough originality to the previous discussion to make the two feel more complementary than redundant.
Watch for Clues
Most people fail to realize that every passage-based (LR and RC) question on the test contains clues. Sometimes these clues are explicit and sometimes less so. These clues are windows into exactly what information within the passage/stimulus and answer choices can be taken as given, without any need for doubt, debate, or manipulation, and what information should be scrutinized as potentially suspect. Put simply, you have a “safety zone” in every question, where you can trust what the author tell you and use it to evaluate or influence the rest of the question.
Let’s imagine these two questions stems:
- “If the statements above are true, which of the following must also be true?”
- “Which of the following, if true, would be most helpful in establishing the author’s conclusion?”
In each case, it’s explicitly clear which part of the question is given as true. The stimulus in the first (a Must Be True question) and the answer choices in the second (a Strengthen question). It’s also clear which part, by default, you should treat with suspicion. What this means is that the MBT question requires you to use only the stimulus as you consider the validity of each answer choice. The Strengthen question prompts you to accept the truth of the statements in each answer, and weigh the impact each of those facts would have on the questionable reasoning in the stimulus. Bringing in outside considerations or personal knowledge to the stimulus facts in the former, or to the answer choice facts of the latter, is a mistake, likely a costly one.
Determining the Truth
But again, it’s not always so explicit. Consider these two examples:
- “Which of the following can be most logically inferred from the passage?”
- “Each of the following would help justify the argument above EXCEPT:”
Here we no longer have the “if true” indicator. But, you can easily determine truth nonetheless. In the first (another MBT question stem) the stimulus/passage is used to infer an answer choice, meaning the stimulus/passage is the truth on which your answer analysis is based. In the second (another Strengthen question stem, albeit a Strengthen-Except where the four wrong answers each help the argument) the answers are used to positively affect the author’s viewpoint. Because of this, you can take the answer as true and evaluate their impact. In every instance, the same relationship, the same “flow,” between stimulus/passage and answer choices exists!
Visualize the Relationships
At this point, you may be wondering: how do you visualize these relationships? What exactly do I mean by “think inside the box”? Take a look at the image above, where you have “passage” boxes connected by arrows to “answer choices” boxes. What that contrasting pair of relationships represents is the way in which acceptance and skepticism “flow” as you work through various question types.
In the first, top-down relationship, you have a passage or stimulus where the text given, whether factual (MBT, Cannot Be True) or argumentative (Flaw, Method, Parallel, Main Point, etc.), is your sole source to skeptically evaluate the answers. You essentially live within the box that is that initial information. Bring nothing else in!
The second pairing moves in the opposite direction, with the answers given as truths (Weaken, Strengthen, Assumption, Justify, Resolve, etc.) and the stimulus/passage scrutinized. Here, if you add to the answers, you will struggle. Don’t supply anything beyond what you’re told in A through E. It’s imperative that you live within the boxes of given truth, not altering or adding to the information supplied!
You can see just how critical it is to be skeptical, but direct your skepticism towards the appropriate elements within the question.
These considerations also influence how you prephrase. If you want to read more about the prephrase process, check out my post on how to execute an ideal prephrase and a drill to help you refine your technique. I’ll spare you repetition but I do want to emphasize these points:
- If the author presents the stimulus as truth, your prephrase must come directly from it, regardless of how specific you’re able to be.
- If the author tells you the answers are true, your prephrase is often broader.
- The correct answer may be extremely predictable, like a Supporter Assumption. Or it may be quite broad, where all you know is that it will undermine the author’s conclusion, whatever it may say.
The key is that you use the truthful portion to critique the rest.
The takeaway is that the LSAT is a much narrower, much more confined exam than commonly assumed! Revel in the fact that you get a lot of information that requires nothing more than acceptance. It serves as the source for your evaluation of the remaining elements. Success, then, hinges largely on your ability to correctly identify what you can trust, and how to most appropriately use it.
If you have any questions, please comment below!
* A similar question students ask: “How closely will LSAT information conform to the real world?” The answer to this is simple. Test-makers are under no obligation to always make real-life sense. But, they also won’t ignore the rules of reality to the point that situations become unrecognizable. In other words, they respect the governing, common sense principles of the universe. But, the inquiry itself only applies to the portion of the question not given as truth. You should accept what the author tells you to accept no matter what. You should view the rest should through the lens of conventional reality.