“Some People Say” in “Find the Conclusion” Questions

I have previously noted the value of spotting the “some people say” formula [hereafter, “SPS”] in an LSAT Logical Reasoning stimulus here and here. In this post, I document how frequently and consistently the SPS formula appears in just one type of question.

There are 27 “Main Point” questions in 10 Actual, Official LSAT Preptests, Volume V [hereafter, “Volume V”], and 14 of them have an SPS.

Note: I consider stimuli with a blank line at the end and a question stem that reads, “Which one of the following most logically concludes the argument” to be “inference-like” questions, not “Main Point” questions. None of these questions in Volume V include an SPS.

Here is the breakdown:

  • PT 62, Section 4, Q1. The SPS is, “One suggestion is that….” Answer C states, “The suggestion that… is mistaken.”
  • PT 62, Section 4, Q12. The SPS is followed by, “Such criticism, however, is never sincere.” Answer D states, “A politician criticizing… is being insincere.”
  • PT 63, Section 1, Q8. This is a double-decker SPS. “Your article was unjustified in criticizing environmentalists for claiming….” Answer E says the evidence “does not warrant the article’s criticism of the environmentalists’ claim.”
  • PT 63, Section 3, Q10: The SPS is followed by, “However, this accusation rests on a fuzzy distinction.” Answer A is “the claim… rests on a fuzzy distinction.”
  • PT 65, Section 1, Q9: Answer C is “the claim… is likely to be incorrect.”
  • PT 65, Section 4, Q14: The SPS is global warming “would cause more frequent and intense tropical storms.” Answer E is “Global warming probably will not produce more frequent and intense tropical storms.”
  • PT 66, Section 4, Q5: The SPS is “A famous artist once claimed that all great art imitates nature.” Answer B is “Either the artist’s claim is incorrect, or most great music is not art.”
  • PT 66, Section 4, Q9: The SPS is followed by, “Surely he is mistaken.” Answer A is “Terrence Gurney is mistaken when he suggests…”
  • PT 66, Section 4, Q26: The SPS takes up two long  sentences, and is followed by “This general line of argument may be reasonable, but… humans did not evolve from chimpanzees.” Answer B is “The assumption that something like human language must exist in some species from which humans evolved has no clearcut linguistic implications for chimpanzees.”
  • PT 68, Section 3, Q8: The SPS is followed by “However, there is little evidence to support this belief.” Answer B says, “There is as yet little reason to accept….”
  • PT 68, Section 3, Q11: The SPS is, “Many people assume that personal conflicts are inevitable.” Answer D is “Personal conflicts are not inevitable.”
  • PT 69, Section 4, Q1: The SPS is followed by a clause that says, “but they need to reassess that view.” Answer E is “Scientists need to reconsider the  belief that….”
  • PT 70, Section 4, Q16: The SPS is “Some heartburn-medication advertisements imply that unrelieved heartburn is likely to cause  esophageal cancer.” This is followed by “This is simply false.” Answer C is “Unrelieved heartburn is not likely to cause esophageal cancer.”
  • PT 71, Section 1, Q7: The SPS is followed by “Gillette’s argument is not persuasive, however, because  he fails to consider…” Answer E is “Gillette’s argument is unconvincing because it ignores…”

While I have yet to research this pattern in older tests, the most recent tests demonstrate that the SPS pattern is well worth recognizing. SPS appeared in just over half the “Main Point” questions in Volume V and was a reliable indicator of the correct answer in every case.

Exploiting Antitheses

I have previously identified the “some people say” principle in an LSAT logical reasoning stimulus, and have engaged in some discussion of this phenomenon at 7Sage.com.  After some further thought and research, I have decided to revise and extend my earlier remarks.

The “some people say” formulation occurs anytime an LSAT logical reasoning stimulus refers to the words, thoughts, or beliefs of persons other than the author of the stimulus. This usually takes the form of indirect discourse (i.e., “critics insist” or “paleontologists hypothesize”) but it can be more subtle. The functional test that I apply is, “Can I put somebody else’s claim in quotes?” If so, we can label it a “some people say” claim.

In my original post, I argued that every “some people say” claim is the negation of the conclusion. That goes too far. There are a handful of cases where “some people say” something that directly supports the conclusion. I think of this as “expert testimony.” There are other cases where “some people say” what they will do in the future (campaign promises, for example). Logicians distinguish “promises” from “logical statements” (for good reason). There are some other cases where “some people say” things that are not simply the negation of the conclusion–but not many.

Instead of insisting that every “some people say” statement is the negation of the conclusion, it is more accurate and helpful to say that most “some people say” statements have this characteristic. I use the term “antithesis” for such statements, and define it as follows:

An antithesis is a claim which an LSAT logical reasoning stimulus rejects.

There are significant advantages to identifying an antithesis. The first is that it makes complex stimuli simpler. “Some people say” statements can be involved, and arguments involving them can get complicated. If you extract the antithesis, what remains is often short and simple.

The second advantage is in identifying the conclusion. While this is second nature for some students, it is very hard work for others. Since an antithesis is (by definition) a claim which the stimulus rejects, it is easy to look for a part of the stimulus that says so. If there is such a statement, that is usually the conclusion.

The third advantage is in understanding the argument as a whole. If you see a “some people say” statement and suspect that it is an antithesis, you know where the argument is going before you read it. There are only so many ways to deny a  claim, and a person who is thoroughly familiar with basic argument types can anticipate them.

Thus, for example, if the antithesis is a conditional statement (“A->B”), then the simplest argument to refute it is a counterexample (“A and ~B”). If the antithesis is an affirmation (“A”), the simplest refutation is a modus tollens (“A→B, ~B, ∴ ~A”). If the antithesis is a denial (“~B”), the simplest refutation is a modus ponens (“A→B, A, ∴ B”). While these aren’t the only ways to reject such claims, they are the most common–and a person who is actively looking for such argument patterns will be able to find them faster if they really are present.

The bottom line is this: identifying an antithesis can cut a complicated stimulus in half, expose its conclusion, and reveal the argument structure quickly and accurately. While not every “some people say” statement is an antithesis, the large majority are.

How to Find the Conclusion

The first thing I teach new LSAT students to do is “find the conclusion.” That’s because every logical reasoning question on the LSAT is about a logical argument, and every logical argument combines premises into a conclusion.  The conclusion of an LSAT stimulus is what the whole paragraph is about.

Every word, clause, and sentence in a stimulus relates to the conclusion in some way. Typical sentences may introduce the topic to be discussed, provide evidence supporting the conclusion, acknowledge weak points, or describe competing views, but they all contribute to the argument in some way. Once you locate the conclusion, the rest of the paragraph generally falls into place.

So–how does one find this conclusion? More specifically, how does someone who is brand new to the LSAT and completely unfamiliar with logic find the conclusion? This post provides a toolbox of “find the conclusion” tips and techniques.

  1. The “why” test. This is the least useful technique for beginners, but the most useful technique for advanced students. The conclusion is the statement in the stimulus that requires explanation. That makes sense, because every other word in the stimulus provides the explanation that is required.
  2. Conclusion Keywords. The easiest technique is to look for keywords like “therefore,” “thus,” “hence,” “so,” “it follow that,” “and so we see,” “clearly,” and so forth. Most LSAT prep materials provide a comprehensive list of typical conclusion keywords. Be careful about relying too heavily on these keywords, however, especially in a “main point” question where your only job is to find the conclusion. There can be more than one conclusion in an argument, and “main point” questions are notorious for packing them in!
  3. Eliminate the Evidence. Evidence is generally easier to spot than the conclusion. There are evidence keywords (“because,” “for,” “for example,” “since,” etc.) that always introduce a reason for something. (Remember: the conclusion is what makes you ask “why,” so the evidence provides the reasons.) Even without an evidence keyword, you can usually tell evidence because it seems non-controversial. Nobody asks “why” two plus two equals four. It just does. If something is presented as a given, it’s evidence. Once you exclude all the evidence in a stimulus, it’s much easier to pick the conclusion out of what is left.
  4. The position principle. The average writer either starts a paragraph with the point he or she is trying to make, or ends with it. The first and last sentences are emphatic, and most writers want to emphasize the point they are trying to make. Unless someone is trying to bury the conclusion (which LSAT writers often do!), it will typically come first or last.
  5. Sentence type. Kaplan Publishing notes that almost all LSAT conclusions fall into the following six categories: predictions, comparisons, recommendations, judgments, affirmations, or if/then statements. Affirmations (“the sky is blue”), comparisons (“Bob is taller than Sue”) and if/then statements (“If it rains, I get wet”) appear frequently in logical arguments, but the other three categories are rare. If you see a prediction, recommendation, or judgment in a stimulus, it is likely to be the conclusion.
  6. The “some people say” principle. I have written elsewhere about the fact that other people’s statements in an LSAT stimulus almost always point at the conclusion. The conclusion, in almost every case, denies what “some people say.” The conclusion may be as short as “But they are wrong” or as complex as “Romantics who claim that people are not born evil but may be made evil by the imperfect institutions that they form cannot be right.”

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!