March 11, 2016 at 2:38 pm #1588LSAT DanParticipant
I’ve had students from time to time eliminate correct answers on the basis that they felt that answer choice was “too strong.” What it means to be a strong answer choice could be the subject of a whole other post, but it could pertain to the degree of certainty (saying that something is true, as opposed to likely to be true, as opposed to possibly true), or a quantifier (saying that something applies to “all” of a group vs. “most” of a group vs. “some” of a group), or a few other possibilities. But let’s not digress into writing that whole other post just yet. It’s not the point I want to make here.
It’s very important to recognize that while on some question types, other things being equal, stronger answer choices are indeed not as good as weaker ones, on other question types, stronger answer choices are better than weaker ones. So how do you know which is which?
It comes down to this: If the passage is supposed to justify the answer choice, then other things being equal, stronger answer choices aren’t as good. Examples of these question types would be “Most Strongly Supported” inference questions and “Principle” questions where the principle is presented in the passage, and the application is given as the answer choice. The rationale is simple: It’s easier to support a weaker statement than a stronger one. For instance, if I hypothesize that drinking Coke Zero (my drug of choice) causes nearsightedness, and I study a random sample of 1,000 people, 70% of the ones who drink Coke Zero are nearsighted, and only 30% of the ones who don’t are nearsighted, that would be consistent with my theory. But it wouldn’t “strongly support” the claim that Coke Zero causes nearsightedness. If I weaken the statement, though, we could probably work it into something that we could say is reasonable. Maybe the claim that “Coke Zero may tend to contribute to nearsightedness.” That’s getting a lot better. You see answer choices like this all the time on the “Most Strongly Supported” questions, where weak answer choices are correct. Here are a couple of examples, with the weakness of the answer choice emphasized. Note the contrast with the stronger sounding wrong answers:
“Producing salicylic acid is at least part of the mechanism by which…” (Correct)
“Tobacco plants that have become diseased…can be cured…” (Incorrect)
“It is possible to test an uninfected tobacco plant…” (Incorrect)
“Salicylic acid is not produced in strains of tobacco plants…” (Incorrect)
(Preptest 14, Section 4, Question 5)
“Stuart’s work was not entirely free from West’s influence.” (Correct)
“It is more likely that Stuart influenced West…” (Incorrect)
“Stuart’s contemporaries were not influenced…” (Incorrect)
(Preptest 52, Section 3, Question 18)
Of course, there’s a lot more going on than what I’m emphasizing here – the content of the answer choice, obviously, is the most important thing. And there are inference questions where very strong answer choices are correct. Just bear in mind that a strong answer choice on an inference questions requires more of the passage – the passage must be strong enough to fully support it. I’m referring more to a “tiebreaker” situation, where you can’t separate the two best answers. Or just beware of the very strong answer choices on these question types – don’t eliminate them, but let it be a red flag.
In contrast, consider question types like:
- Sufficient Assumption
- Principle Questions where the application is in the passage and the principle is the answer choice
In these questions, it’s just the opposite. Because the answer choice isn’t derived from the passage; it’s affecting the passage. Stronger answer choices are better. The stronger a statement, the most likely it is to guarantee that the conclusion of the passage is true. The more likely it is to effectively strengthen or weaken the passage. The more likely it is to justify the application of the principle. What students (mistakenly) do on these questions is they try to pick answer choices that “sound like they’re true.” In other words, they’re sort of generally consistent with the passage. How can you tell not to do this? It’s actually very easy, if you know what to look for. Because these question types all have something in common:
The question stem tells you to go ahead an ASSUME that each answer choice is true. You’re not trying to figure out whether or not the answer choice to a Strengthen or Weaken question is true; you’re trying to figure out which one, IF IT IS TRUE, affects the passage in the appropriate way. What do those question types have in common? Look at the common question stems:
“Which one of the following IF TRUE most undermines the reasoning above?”
“Which one of the following IF ASSUMED allows the conclusion above to be properly drawn?”
“Which of of the following principles, IF VALID, most justifies the application presented above?”
Here’s the most important takeaway from this post: If a question stem includes that “If true/If valid/if assumed” phrase, then there’s NO SUCH THING as an answer choice that’s “too strong.”
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