LSAT Question Analysis #1

As previously noted, one regular feature of this blog will be the “question of the week.” I intend to choose from among reader suggestions one question from the LSAT (or GMAT, or GRE, or SAT, or ACT) and to do a full analysis of the strategies needed to answer that question correctly. I will address why the right answer is right, why the wrong answers are wrong (where applicable), what mistakes students must be careful to avoid, and so forth.

I will pull all of these problems from the current-edition Official Guides for their respective tests. For the LSAT, that means I’m using The Next 10 Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests (covering PrepTests 29-38) and to 10 New Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests (covering PrepTests 52-61), both by the Law School Admission Council. I strongly recommend that you get a copy of each.

Since I have no suggested questions to cover this week, I dug into 10 New Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests and settled on PrepTest 58, Section 1, Question 15 (page 228). Please go ahead and take a look at that question now. I’ll see you in a minute and a half, give or take.

This is an inference question of what appears to be moderate difficulty. Inference questions ask the test-taker to determine which propositions must logically follow from given sets of premises. These LSAT questions tend to include aspects of formal logic, and this question is no exception. That said, no great formal logic expertise is required for this particular question, which is mostly a test of careful reading and the student’s ability to avoid speculation and assumption.

The given premises in this case say that most genetic research is exclusively government-funded and that the remainder is funded corporately. Going further, the statement that one of these funding sources is “necessary” establishes that genetic research never occurs without either of these funding sources. Finally, the first premise, stating that most (“almost all”) genetic research advances lead to ethical dilemmas, is not strictly necessary to the correct answer of this question. It is not required for the correct inference to use all of the given premises.

Turning to the answer choices:

Answer A is tempting here, because the question does establish that government funds most genetic research. However, this fact does not prove that most of the advances arise out of this research. One could plausibly speculate that this majority of the research produces the majority of the advances, but one certainly cannot deduce it logically – for all we know, something about government, rather than corporate, investment might fatally inhibit advances.

Answer B is mostly a trap for careless readers. Read carefully, its claim is not that most of the research gives rise to ethical dilemmas. Instead, this answer claims that most genetic research results in advances – a particular subset of advances, to be sure, but advances nevertheless. Nothing in the premises remotely addresses how often genetic research of any sort results in advances. If only B claimed that most government-funded research that resulted in advances led to ethical dilemmas… But it doesn’t. This answer is perhaps a word or two from being correct, but “one word from correct” is still incorrect. Careful reading is a critical skill for ambitious LSAT-takers.

Answer C is the equally-wrong flip-side of answer A. Just as the prevalence of government funding in genetic research does not prove that government-funded genetic research produces most of the advances, the existence of corporate funding in genetic research does not prove the existence of advances from corporate-funded genetic research. Again, “plausible speculation” does not equal “right answer” on LSAT inference questions.

Answer D is correct. If, as we are told, government or corporate funding is necessary to genetic research, then in fact nothing at all can arise from genetic research without government or corporate funding. Without even turning to the premise about advances and ethical dilemmas, it follows immediately that ethical dilemmas, like everything else, cannot arise from genetic research without government or corporate funding.

Answer E is the worst of the wrong answers here. It compounds the problems of A (not knowing whether government-funded genetic research generates advances and in turn ethical dilemmas) with the problem of prognostication about the future. Beware of assuming solely from the current state of affairs that the future will have similar characteristics.

In summary, this question called on us to synthesize the last two of three given statements (or the last three of four, depending how you count), to understand the meaning and implications of necessity in the last premise, to avoid misreading the answer choices, and to dodge the temptation to make plausible but unprovable speculations. Taking these steps should lead inexorably to D, the correct answer.

Please post discussion and followup questions about this analysis in the comments.

Also, if you like this feature and want to see a particular question analyzed in the future, remember to suggest your question in the comments!

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