The Value of the LSAT

As someone who has yet to attend law school, I am not qualified to comment on the LSAT’s relevance to law school success. Nevertheless, I appreciated the way it made me think when I was studying for it. I can see what the creators of the test are trying to test, and why they’re trying to test it. They seem to do a good job. Studying for the test will help you to think more clearly. That was my experience, at least.

In particular, studying for the Logical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension sections helped me to read more carefully (Logic Games were fun, but I don’t think they have quite as much practical application). When you answer the questions in these sections, you are required to understand exactly what is said and what is not said in the relevant passages. This is no easy task, as you discover when you take the test. I often found that I made unwarranted assumptions about the scenarios described in problems. As a result, I made mistakes. Not only that, but I made mistakes with confidence.

In order to stop making these mistakes, I had to train myself to recognize the implicit inferences I was making. Some of these inferences were good, and they allowed me to solve problems more quickly. Others, however, were invalid inferences that led me straight to a wrong answer.

Take the following question from the June 2007 LSAT, for example:

Proponents of the electric car maintain that when the technical problems associated with its battery design are solved, such cars will be widely used and, because they are emission-free, will result in an abatement of the environmental degradation caused by auto emissions. But unless we dam more rivers, the electricity to charge these batteries will come from nuclear or coal-fired power plants. Each of these three power sources produces considerable environmental damage. Thus, the electric car _______.

Which one of the following most logically completes the argument?

(A) will have worse environmental consequences than its proponents may believe

(B) will probably remain less popular than other types of cars

(C) requires that purely technical problems be solved before it can succeed

(D) will increase the total level of emissions rather than reduce it

(E) will not produce a net reduction in environmental degradation 

As with many LSAT questions, multiple answer choices appear to be plausible. But you only get to choose one.

Let’s look at what is said in the stimulus of the question:

“Proponents of the electric car maintain that when the technical problems associated with its battery design are solved, such cars will be widely used and, because they are emission-free, will result in an abatement of the environmental degradation caused by auto emissions.”

People who support the use of electric cars hold a couple of things to be true, according to this sentence. First, they take for granted that the cars will be widely used when technical problems with the design of their batteries are solved. Second, they claim that, because electric cars are emission-free, their adoption will reduce environmental degradation caused by auto emissions.

“But unless we dam more rivers, the electricity to charge these batteries will come from nuclear or coal-fired power plants. Each of these three power sources produces considerable environmental damage.”

This is the substance of the argument, from which the conclusion is supposed to follow. There are three sources of power by which electric cars can be powered. Each of them produces environmental damage.

Next, let’s consider each answer choice, starting with the answers I regard to be the weakest:

(B) Thus, the electric car will probably remain less popular than other types of cars

This answer doesn’t work because the main part of the argument doesn’t even address whether the cars will ever be popular. It seems obvious that the argument is fundamentally about environmental damage.

(C) Thus, the electric car requires that purely technical problems be solved before it can succeed

This one fails for the same reason that answer (B) does. It just isn’t relevant to the main part of the argument. We are told early in the stimulus that proponents of electric cars regard technical problems with batteries for electric cars as one thing preventing the cars from being widely used, but there is no further comment on technical problems.

The remaining answers all address what seems to be the main topic of the argument: environmental damage. For that reason, they are better than answers (B) and (C).

(D) Thus, the electric car will increase the total level of emissions rather than reduce it

At first glance, this might appear to be a plausible answer, but it’s actually a non sequitur. The argument states that the source of power for the electric car batteries will cause environmental damage, but he does not say what kind of environmental damage. This answer choice specifies a specific sort of environmental damage: emissions. Moreover, even if the argument said that the power sources for the batteries would result in increased emissions, it still doesn’t follow that this increase would be greater than the decrease in emissions caused by the wide-spread adoption of emission-free cars.

(E) Thus, the electric car will not produce a net reduction in environmental degradation

This is the best answer so far, but it suffers from the second problem I mentioned above with regard to answer (D). The fact that the sources of power for electric car batteries cause environmental degradation does not imply that the environmental degradation caused thereby will exceed the positive environmental effects caused by wide-spread adoption of emission-free cars. We do not have sufficient information to make a claim about net effects.

Finally, we have the correct answer:

(A) Thus, the electric car will have worse environmental consequences than its proponents may believe

This answer does not make any claim about the net effects of the adoption of electric cars. What it does instead is compare the expectations of electric car proponents with reality. The stimulus notes that proponents of electric cars believe that electric cars will result in a reduction of environmental damage caused by auto emissions. This belief is not disputed by the argument. But there are some other factors which might mitigate the benefits of electric cars that its proponents may not have considered, namely, the fact that the power has to come from some other source, which will cause its own sort of environmental degradation. Thus, (A) is the only answer choice that is both on topic and true, given what is claimed in the stimulus.

After doing hundreds of problems like this, I think my brain has gotten a lot better at making the right inferences instead of the wrong ones. For that reason, I’m glad I had to take the LSAT. This is probably little comfort to people who are currently studying for it, but it’s encouraging to me.

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