The “Some People Say” Principle

I teach my students to “find the conclusion” as their top priority in answering any LSAT logical reasoning question. That means sifting through the “evidence” in a stimulus to find the main point of the paragraph. In doing so, they often run across sentences that are neither evidence nor the conclusion.  One recurring pattern is a sentence near the start of the stimulus that presents some other person’s position on the topic at hand. I call these the “some people say” statements. Here is an example:

It is now a common complaint that the electronic media have corroded the intellectual skills required and fostered by the literary media. But several centuries ago the complaint was that certain intellectual skills, such as the powerful memory and extemporaneous eloquence that were intrinsic to oral culture, were being destroyed by the spread of literacy. So, what awaits us is probably a mere alteration of the human mind rather than its devolution. [June 2007 PrepTest, Section II, Question 11, emphasis supplied.]

The “common complaint” in this stimulus is not the author’s own view, so it isn’t the conclusion.  It’s more like the opposite. After reviewing many LSAT questions, I have found that the actual conclusion of the paragraph usually rejects or revises what “some people say.” In fact, the fastest way  to find the conclusion may to underline what “some people say” and then negate it.

Let’s test this with all the “some people say” questions on the only publicly available LSAT test (June 2007), beginning with Section II, Question 11 which I quoted above.

Some people say: “electronic media have corroded the intellectual skills required and fostered by the literary media.”

Negation: electronic media have not corroded these intellectual skills.

Conclusion: “what awaits us is probably a mere alteration of the human mind rather than its devolution.”

Section II, Question 16 is a “point of disagreement” question. Taylor, the first speaker, quotes “researchers at a local university.”

Researchers at a university say: “61 percent of information is communicated through nonverbal signals.”

Negation: It is not true that 61 percent of information is communicated through nonverbal signals.

Conclusion: “This claim, like all such mathematically precise claims, is suspect.”

Section II, Question 17 quotes “several computer experts,” but their words are used to support the main argument. This is “evidence,” not what I call “some people say” statements.

Section II, Question 20:

Muñoz says: “the Southwest Hopeville Neighbors Association overwhelmingly opposes the new water system, citing this as evidence of citywide opposition.”

Negation: The SHNA does not overwhelmingly oppose the new system.

Conclusion: “One should not assume that so few votes represent the view of the majority of Hopeville’s residents.”

Section II, Question 21:

My friends say: “I will one day have an accident because I drive my sports car recklessly.”

Negation: I will not have an accident because I drive my sports car recklessly.

Conclusion: “trading my sports car in for a minivan would lower my risk of having an accident.”

Note: this is the only example in this PrepTest where the conclusion is not logically identical to the negation of what “some people say.”

Section III, Question 5:

An early entomologist says: “ants were bringing food to their neighbors.”

Negation: ants were not bringing food to their neighbors.

Conclusion: “the early entomologist was wrong.”

Section III, Question 9:

Recent claims: “the Tasmanian tiger is not extinct.”

Negation: the Tasmanian tiger is extinct.

Conclusion: “recent claims that the Tasmanian tiger is not extinct are false.”

Repeated conclusion: “the Tasmanian tiger no longer exists.”

Section III, Question 19 begins with “Many candidates say that if elected they will reduce governmental intrusion into voters’ lives.” This is a promise of future action, not a statement that can be negated. As a result, this is not an example of the “some people say” rule.

Section III, Question 24:

Romantics claim: “people are not born evil but may be made evil by the imperfect institutions that they form.”

Negation: people are born evil or people are not made evil by the imperfect institutions that they form.

Conclusion: “Romantics who claim that people are not born evil but may be made evil by the imperfect institutions that they form cannot be right.”

Section III, Question 25:

Some anthropologists claim: “the human species could not have survived prehistoric times if the species had not evolved the ability to cope with diverse natural environments.”

Negation: the human species could have survived prehistoric times if the species had not evolved the ability to cope with diverse natural environments.

Conclusion: “the anthropologists’ claim is false.”

The bottom line: the vast majority of “some people say” statements point right towards the conclusion.  You need to exercise a little caution with this–the “some people say” phenomenon is not some rule of logic that is always necessarily true. Think of it as a principle, not a rule. But if finding the conclusion is still hard for you, the “some people say” principle may help you find it faster!

The “Roll the Dice” Flaw

“Find the flaw” LSAT questions are both common and difficult. There are a lot of fallacies, and some of them are quite subtle.  The answer choices use “LSAT jargon” to describe each fallacy, not textbook Latin. That means you have to know the fallacy and the special LSAT terminology for it to answer the question with speed and confidence.

I recently ran across a “find the flaw” question that totally stumped me. I guessed one answer (with no confidence) on a timed test, then came back to blind review and picked another answer–still without any certainty. Both my choices turned out to be wrong, so I looked up the answer and promised to write a blog post about it. (I recommend this same procedure to students who want a 99th percentile score–you haven’t really mastered a question until you either know you got it right  or you write an essay about why you got it wrong.)

The question I had trouble with was PrepTest 65, Secton 4, #26. I won’t violate copyright by printing it here, so here’s a new problem with the same features. (If you own “10 Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests Volume V” you can find the actual question on page 143.

Nikola Tesla Magnet School accepts only the brightest students in our metropolitan region, so it boasts the best science club in the entire Tri-State Area. The best science club is most likely to win the annual robotics competition, so the Nikola Tesla Magnet School will almost certainly bring home the trophy this year.

I read this stimulus and immediately zeroed in on the difference between the best individual students and the best overall team. That’s such a common fallacy that it has a Latin name (“modo hoc“), although it’s not clear whether it applies in this case. But I never got that far because that wasn’t one of my answer choices. Here’s what was offered on the LSAT:

(A) presumes, without presenting relevant evidence, that an entity can be distinguished as the best only on the basis of competition.

(B) predicts the success of an entity on the basis of features that are not relevant to the quality of that entity.

(C) predicts the outcome of a competition merely on the basis of a comparison between the parties in that competition.

(D) presumes, without providing warrant, that if an entity is the best among its competitors, then each individual part of that entity must also be the best.

(E) concludes that because an event is the most likely of a set of possible events, that event is more likely to occur than not.

I was trying so hard to find a composition fallacy (that’s modo hoc for you Latin lovers) that I really wanted D to be correct, but it just wouldn’t work. I wound up picking C, then switched to A. B never appealed to me, and I never really understood what E was all about.

That was a mistake.

E is all about rolling dice. If I roll a pair of dice, seven is the most likely outcome. There are six out of thirty-six chances that I will roll a seven, making it more likely than any other roll (there’s a 1/36 chance of rolling two or twelve, a 2/36 chance of rolling three or eleven, etc., etc.). But just because seven is the single most likely roll, it’s not more likely to occur than not. I only roll a seven one out of six times. I’d have to roll it every other time (plus some) for it to be “more likely to occur than not.”

Most likely, but not more likely than not

That was my error. A science club may be “more likely” to win than any other club in the city, but that doesn’t mean it will “probably” win.

I’ve searched the Internet for the Latin name of this fallacy, and haven’t found it yet. You Latin buffs may refer to it as “alea jacta est.” The rest of us can just call it the “roll of the dice fallacy.”