Many GMAT preppers run into problems on Critical Reasoning questions because they settle for too broad of an understanding of the conclusion. Here are a few examples that show why we need to assess GMAT arguments on their own terms in order to get points on Critical Reasoning.
Consider the following stimulus:
“Several people have died while canoeing during high water on a nearby river in recent years. The local police have proposed a ban on canoeing when the river reaches flood stage. Opponents of the ban argue that the government should ban an activity only if it harms people other than those who willfully participate in an activity, and therefore conclude that the proposed ban on high-water canoeing is unwarranted.”
Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the opponent’s conclusion?
In this stimulus, the opponents argue against implementing a high-water ban on the grounds that canoeing in these conditions only harms the people who choose to participate in the activity. We want to weaken this conclusion. On the surface, an answer choice like this might be tempting
E) Statistics provided by the U.S. National Park Service show that fewer people drown on rivers with high water canoeing bans than on rivers without such bans.
This seems to indicate that it is safer to enact such a ban, so (E) might seem to be a good weakener. However, the argument is not just “we shouldn’t have a ban.” The argument is that we shouldn’t have a ban because dangerous canoeing doesn’t hurt anyone but dangerous canoeists. To truly weaken this argument, we need to attack it on its own terms; we need an answer choice that says canoeing on high waters has the potential to hurt other people as well. Consider this answer choice:
C) Several police officers have been seriously injured while trying to rescue canoeists who were stranded on the river while attempting to canoe in high water.
If this is true, canoeing on high water is not a “victimless crime.” Other innocent people can get hurt, so the opponent’s argument falls apart. In these situations, we need to attack the reasoning behind the conclusion, not just the conclusion.
Let’s look at another example:
“Thousands who suffer heart attacks each year die before reaching a hospital or clinic where they can benefit from the drugs that dissolve clots found in coronary arteries. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new blood clot dissolving agent, which a spokesman claimed could save the lives of many people who would otherwise join this group of heart attack victims.”
Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument?
Many students say that the conclusion here is that “the new drug saves lives.” This is good, but whose lives? Notably, the statement says that the drug will save those “who would otherwise join this group of heart attack victims”—in other words, the people who die en route to hospital. To weaken this argument, we can’t just say the drug has bad side effects or is too expensive. We need to attack the argument on its own terms. Will it help the people who die before they get to the hospital? Consider the correct answer:
A)The new agent must be administered by a team of doctors in a hospital or clinic setting.
If this were true, our new drug would do nothing for the people who would “otherwise join this group of heart attack victims.” So to need to weaken a proposal or plan, we don’t just show why it is a bad idea, but rather, we need to show that it fails to achieve the desired goal. (If we were strengthening, we need to show that it would achieve the desired goal (and not some other goal).)
These examples show that the GMAT wants us to bolster or undermine arguments on their own terms. To do that, we need to understand the stated goals of a plan and the reasoning used to support a conclusion.