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Misleading: Bad Communication–Not Structure–in GMAT Critical Reasoning

It would be great if we had a one-size-fits all rule for GMAT Critical Reasoning questions…

I could just give you a set of Critical Reasoning tips and you’d be ready to go. Of course there are some general rules that hold true for GMAT Critical Reasoning questions: identify fact, conclusion, and assumption; eliminate bad answers rather than looking for good answers, etc.–READ MORE HERE.

Unfortunately that’s not going to work for Critical Reasoning questions as they get more difficult. The ways that the GMAT tries to mess with you simply get more tricky as time goes on.

This is a long dissection of one of those types of questions in GMAT Critical Reasoning: the “misleading” question.

WTF is Misleading? (At least on the GMAT…)

That is a reasonable question to ask, and there isn’t necessarily a great answer that doesn’t state the obvious: “leading someone astray” or “showing someone the wrong path,” etc., etc. In other words they just use the word to define itself. Thanks.

Of course when the GMAT uses the term “misleading” it means something specific. That’s not to say that it’s entirely different from the woolly definition given above, but it means something quite precise structurally.

In essence, when the GMAT refers to something as misleading, that assumes that the structure of the argument presented doesn’t actually match the content.

Structure vs. Content

Just a little review on the eternal debate of Structure vs. Content. Then we’ll get into how these terms apply to GMAT Critical Reasoning questions.

Structure is how something is phrased, the signposts used to lead someone along an argument. It’s like the bones of the argument. It’s like the grammar of a sentence.

Content, on the other hand, is the contents of the argument. It’s like the meat of the argument. It’s like what the sentence is trying to say.

How do these two things coexist? Well, consider a sentence where the structure is rampantly incorrect: “sentence rampantly consider well the a incorrect is where structure.” If you’ve been paying attention, you might be able to figure out what that means, but it’s one hell of a lot harder to do so.

In short, we can usually figure out what someone means if they’re speaking words that more or less make sense and aren’t too garbled, but dubious structure can make things awkward during a long car ride…

This isn’t about people who aren’t speaking a language that they don’t share. The reason that that doesn’t make sense seems fairly obvious. Rather, it’s about the fact that structural flaws can actually change the meaning of a sentence.

What purpose does Structure serve?

If we don’t have an appropriate structure to the way that something is written. That is, if we aren’t signposted in an appropriate way to expect twists, turns, and changes, then we often simply don’t realize that we’re about ready to drive off a cliff.

This is the reason that Hollywood loves the Hero’s Journey: inciting incident, world changes forever, story flips around and leaves the hero in the trash compactor, Obi-Wan dies, etc. This shit has been shoved down our throats so much that these days we almost don’t know how to make sense of a film without it. Joseph Campbell’s ghost really ought to be getting royalties for this.

Furthermore, different structures could potentially transport the same content yet have wildly different outcomes.

To wit: “How did the window get broken, Billy?” “Because we were playing baseball and the ball flew through it. I’m really sorry and I’ll pay for it out of my allowance.” vs. “Why did you break the window, Billy?” “Because I hate you, Mom.”

It’s also the reason anyone who says “you should do X” instead of “it would be better if you did… X” is a condescending prick and you have my permission to punch him in his smarmy fucking face.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s see how this might apply to GMAT Critical Reasoning questions.

The False Dichotomy

A “dichotomy,” just in case you were wondering, is a situation where you have two mutually exclusive events, A and B. Note that they must be mutually exclusive. In other words, if one event happens, the other cannot happen. 

GMAT Critical Reasoning mutually exclusive

That said, a true Dichotomy is surprisingly difficult to find sometimes. In GMAT Critical Reasoning questions, a situation that implies true mutual exclusivity would, in principle, be quite clearly identified.

Let’s look at a common example:

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. 

Now there are a few things that I could take issue with here. I mean what happens if I have two cakes (presuming that “it” could refer to either one)? What happens if “having a cake” could mean a delicious cake minus one delicious slice that has recently found its way into my belly?

Anyway, not to confuse the issue, but the point is that we need to find a situation that is as cut-and-dried as possible. Let’s not let sheer perverseness mess this up, shall we?

A person cannot be alive and dead at the same time.

GMAT Critical Reasoning shadows

Oops… Let’s try another one.

A person cannot be alive and not have a pulse.

GMAT critical reasoning no pulse

Shit! Counterexamples for everything! We’ll talk about that another time.

Well, I think you get the point anyway: if A implies not-B and B implies not-A, then you can’t fucking have A and B at the same time. Yes? Glad we got that sorted.

So What’s a “False” Dichotomy?

This is where things begin to get interesting for us–and even more interesting for GMAT Critical Reasoning questions. When the structure tees us up for a dichotomy–a situation where we see A or B, but not both–then provides us something that actually totally reasonably could be A and B or neither, then we have a problem.

Look at that graph! There’s stuff there that’s not A or B. 

Remember, A or B doesn’t necessarily preclude both A and B or neither. We need to be specifically told that it does, or the dichotomy is misleading.

Why might someone do this? 

Well, that really depends on the person. Someone might be an idiot, but more likely, someone is willfully attempting to mislead. If you find this in GMAT Critical Reasoning questions, you can guarantee that it’s willful.

Here are a few legitimate false dichotomies. See if you can see why.

If you don’t support the war, you don’t support the troops.

Smoking a pack a day doesn’t hurt your lungs any more than the air pollution in a major city does.

Either the chicken or the egg came first.

You’re either with us or against us. 

The point in each of these cases, of course, is that there exist middle grounds.

It’s possible to support the troops while thinking the war is stupid.

It’s possible to live in a major city and still smoke a pack a day, compounding the effect.

It was a dinosaur, fool.

It’s possible that you think I’m either with you or I’m against you, but in truth, I couldn’t give a shit about your stupid argument–I’m out of the calculation, yo.

Now a close relative of the False Dichotomy would be this…

Things That Seem Like Dichotomies But Aren’t

Sometimes the statements are phrased in ways that simply don’t make sense. They’re teed up to look like separate groups, but they might actually be part of the same group.

In essence, what this means is that the structure of the sentence inclines us to think that the example is two things that are mutually exclusive or in completely different groups, while one might actually be a subset of the other.

The tricky bit here is that when we try to get all skeptical and shit, we try to draw more distinctions rather than fewer!

However, it’s important to recognize that we might well have a situation where the two groups not only cross over, but one group is completely subsumed by the other.

This is a variation on the normal A and B scenario, because we don’t get the situation where something is, for example, A but not B when all the As are in B. This pops up more often than you might expect in GMAT Critical Reasoning questions.

This might be easier with a little diagram…

gmat critical reasoning questions A inside B

Hopefully that clears things up.

“Misleading” GMAT Critical Reasoning Questions: an Example

Ed: Keeping all other factors the same, children with at least one parent who is a medical doctor are more likely to become medical doctors than those children whose parents are not medical doctors.

Earl: However, 80% of all medical doctors do not have a parent who is a medical doctor.

Which of the following responses to Earl’s reply is the most accurate?

a) It suggests that Ed’s statement must be an exaggeration.

b) If proven, it would render Ed’s statement inaccurate.

c) It is consistent with Ed’s statement.

d) It provides a further reason to accept Ed’s claim.

e) It mistakenly suggests that a necessary condition for a condition that is merely sufficient.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that if we take everything at face value, I don’t really see any inconsistency in the statements. Can that be?

We would assume that if Earl is choosing to reply to Ed, then there must be some sort of flaw or contradiction in the information. After all, why would he make the effort to make the statement in the first place?

Let’s look at the answers:

A) It suggests that Ed’s statement must be an exaggeration.

What exaggeration? This mentions nothing about the likelihood and is therefore Out of Scope. Ignore.

B) If proven, it would render Ed’s statement inaccurate.

Same: nothing about the likelihood. Out of Scope. Ignore.

D) It provides a further reason to accept Ed’s claim.

Meh, not sure about this. It doesn’t seem to be helping at all. If anything, it’s neutral. Too much assumption here. Ignore.

E) It mistakenly suggests a necessary condition for a condition that is merely sufficient.

Number one, I don’t really understand what this means. Which is the necessary condition–having parents who are medical doctors? This argument doesn’t seem to be about necessity versus sufficiency, but rather one about probability versus possibility. I’d tread carefully here.

C) It is consistent with Ed’s statement.

Well, here we go. What we’re seeing is that despite the fact that the argument is presented in such a way that Earl seems to be rebutting Ed’s claim, it doesn’t mean that he is actually doing so. 

In fact, if we think about this in diagram form, which is often helpful, we see this:

gmat critical reasoning questions MD parents

Notice that the entire group is all the medical doctors, which is 100%. Then we see that among that 100%, 20% have parents who were also medical doctors while 80% did not have a parent who was a medical doctor.

Despite the layout of the argument, we see that there actually exists no inconsistency.

MISLEADING.

Misleading GMAT Critical Reasoning questions… Another Example

This example is somewhat similar to the previous. It presents us with a situation where we make a statement about one group, but we then make a statement about a broader group. The question, of course, is how realistically or reasonably the small group fits into the larger group.

Let’s have a look:

Mount Oread hospital is studying how often certain patients die of a rare form of blood disorder. Seventy-five percent of all patients who had environmental exposure to low levels of environmental radiation died of this blood disorder. Eighty-five percent of patients with the disorder, however, were not exposed to environmental radiation.

Which of the following would provide the most reasonable explanation for the above statistics?

a) Environmental and non-environmental causes of this liver disease are mutually exclusive.

b) There exists only one cause of this blood disorder.

c) Environmental radiation has little to do with incidence of this blood disorder.

d) Only a relatively small fraction of the patient group studied was actually exposed to environmental radiation.

e) Most people do not suffer from exposure to environmental radiation.

Again, particularly because of the use of the world “however,” it seems that we have some kind of distinction between the people who have the disorder and the people who were exposed to environmental radiation.

This gives us a false sense that the groups are somehow not related. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: do we know for sure that those groups aren’t related? Could there be crossover? Could the smaller group be entirely subsumed by the larger group?

The decision we need to make in order to answer the question, though, is whether we actually have any crossover at all between the two groups. We need, then, to clarify how exclusive the two groups really are–if they are at all.

Let’s take a look at the answers.

a) Environmental and non-environmental causes of this liver disease are mutually exclusive.

This isn’t actually relevant to the question itself. The exclusivity of environmental and non-environmental isn’t the point. Out of scope.

b) There exists only one cause of this blood disorder.

Number one, this is ridiculously specific. It is incredibly unlikely that an absolute statement such as this would be the correct answer. Following from that, you’d have to be able to tell me right off the bat what the “one cause” we’re talking about here is. Too much assumption.

c) Environmental radiation has little to do with incidence of this blood disorder.

Well, now. We don’t actually know that, do we? It’s entirely possible that there is a huge correlation between the two things but that only a small fraction of the group was exposed. Put a pin in that thought–it might come in handy later. Too much assumption.

e)  Most people do not suffer from exposure to environmental radiation.

This isn’t the correct answer, of course, but how do we classify it? Is it too much assumption or is it out of scope? While there is certainly an assumption involved–after all, we don’t really know anything about “most people,” and that group certainly isn’t limited to the people in the hospital group. Rather, I suggest that the key reference point here is that the argument discusses those in the hospital group and not the public at large. Therefore, it’s out of scope

d) Only a relatively small fraction of the patient group studied was actually exposed to environmental radiation.

Oh, this looks interesting. Now what if that 15% who were actually exposed to the environmental radiation were actually a subset of the larger group, like this?

gmat critical reasoning questions environmental radiation

See what they did there? Hopefully by now you do.

Conclusion

Remember that the structure of GMAT Critical Reasoning questions doesn’t necessarily just have to do with the argument structure. Sometimes it has to do with the way that the sentences themselves are structured.

Just because you see indication words such as “however,” “but,” “still,” etc. doesn’t mean that we can trust what those words actually imply. Think of them like road signs–and those road signs might actively be sending you down the wrong road. 

It is GMAT Verbal, after all. If they weren’t trying to confuse you, there wouldn’t be any point to the question!

Still wondering how to improve your performance on GMAT Critical Reasoning questions?

Talk to Rowan today.

PS Remember that Official GMAT Verbal questions are the only ones you can trust. Want hard ones? Find them here.

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About the author

Rowan Hand Head Coach Rowan Hand has been a GMAT tutor and content developer for more than 10 years. Rowan has coached hundreds of clients in private and group classes. Former clients have gone on to Harvard, LBS, INSEAD, Wharton, and other excellent business schools.