Written by Ilana Goldberg, Ph.D, Master GMAT Verbal Instructor.
The short passages presented in Critical Reasoning questions use a unique style: they are like vignettes, miniature scenes with a minimal cast, usually of no more than two “actors.” These actors are sometimes mentioned in the question stem as holding an opinion or a position, and so we find ourselves looking back at the argument in search of the “investors‘ prediction,” “the official‘s argument,” “the position of the cable-television spokesperson,” or “the consultant‘s recommendation,” etc.
Since these positions, arguments or conclusions are clearly attributed to one of the actors (or speakers, in the case of questions in the dialog format), we have no trouble identifying them.
However, many Critical Reasoning passages (which, just to make things confusing, are also called “arguments”) are written in a more abstract style, without ascribing a position to a full-blooded “character.” In this case, we need to be able to identify the position belonging to the ‘anonymous author’ of the passage/argument. This is a more delicate task, because we don’t have a concrete person mentioned in the text with whom we can associate the position in question. What we need to do is divine – with only the language and internal logic of the argument to guide us – which element in the argument expresses the author’s viewpoint.
Here’s a relatively simple example, from O.G. 12 # 69, where we can see that the author’s opinion/position/argument, is embedded in the passage, but is distinct from the views of named “actors”:
Scientists have modified feed corn genetically, increasing its resistance to insect pests. Farmers who tried out the genetically modified corn last season applied less insecticide to their corn fields and still got yields comparable to those they would have gotten with ordinary corn. Ordinary corn seed, however, costs less, and what these farmers saved on insecticide rarely exceeded their extra costs for seed. Therefore, for most feed-corn farmers, switching to genetically modified seed would be unlikely to increase profits.
The passage tells us about “scientists” and two types of “farmers” – the group of farmers who tried out the GM corn and “most feed-corn farmers.” However, the “argument” belongs to none of these actors – but rather to the anonymous author, as can be clearly seen in the final sentence, introduced by “Therefore.” The conclusion of the argument containing the recommendation that feed-corn farmers avoid switching to GM corn belongs to the “author.” This may come as a relief to those of you who have been worried about who on earth is the “author” of the argument? The author of the argument is simply the anonymous viewpoint expressed in the conclusion. The author of the argument is – to borrow a concept from TV – “the voice-over” – the viewpoint that is not attached to any of the dramatis personae in the passage.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s first look at a few types of questions that require us to identify “the author of the argument”:
- Argument Flaw question: The argument is flawed primarily because the author….
- Conclusion Strengthening question: Which of the following, if true, would most strongly support the position above?
- Conclusion Weakening question: Which of the following, if true, would most seriously weaken the argument above?
- Assumption questions: Which of the following is an assumption on which the argument depends?
- Evaluation questions: Which of the following would it be most useful to establish in evaluation the argument?
We can learn a few things from comparing the above questions. The author of the argument is also equated in the language of the question stem with “the argument,” “the position,” or “the argument’s position,” These phrases all refer to the same part of the Critical Reasoning passage – the conclusion.
So far so good. We now know that the conclusion = the argument or the viewpoint of author. But what about questions that ask us for the “position favored by the argument?” What do we do when an argument contains two conclusions or two viewpoints? What about boldface questions that describe more than one viewpoint or opposing viewpoints? We will address these questions in a follow up post.