Critical Reasoning

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Critical Reasoning General Strategy: Life through Simplification

Critical Reasoning is all about keeping you brain switched on and predicting what the right answer should do. Ideally, by the time you go to the answer choices, you should already have a vague idea of what the right answer choice should do – which makes it a lot easier to recognize the trap answer choices for what they are.

The problem is that many Critical Reasoning arguments use complex language and obscure topics to mask the author’s reasoning. Yet, that is exactly the key to solving a critical reasoning question correctly – you have to get into the author’s head and see what he had in mind for this argument, and what the answer choice should do, in general terms. Only then, go to the answer choices and find one that says THAT – in different words.
This article exemplifies one of the techniques that can help you do just that – take the argument and simplify it. Use examples, images, stories, anything to move away from the dry language of the argument and make it your own. In my case, I usually end up telling the argument in the form of a story or a film scene.

The argument

Take the following example, a Critical Reasoning argument from the OG 12th edition:

The earliest Mayan pottery found at Colha, in Belize, is about 3,000 years old. Recently, however, 4,500-year-old stone agricultural implements were unearthed at Colha. These implements resemble Mayan stone implements of a much later period, also found at Colha. Moreover, the implements’ designs are strikingly different from the designs of stone implements produced by other cultures known to have inhabited the area in prehistoric times. Therefore, there were surely Mayan settlements in Colha 4,500 years ago.

Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the argument?

The answers appear later in this article. Before we rush to those, we need to understand the argument’s reasoning.

Visualize the argument

To make sense of the argument and process it, imagine that argument is played out as a conversation  between two people. For example, the following scene:
What I read:
The earliest Mayan pottery found at Colha, in Belize, is about 3,000 years old. Recently, however, 4,500-year-old stone agricultural implements were unearthed at Colha.

What I Imagine:
The camera pans right over a river delta tableau, the brownish red water of the Nile twinkling in the hot midday sun (Belize is technically in central America, but don’t bother me with the details here – this is MY film). It pauses on a dig site atop a hill, swarming with local workers clad in white, flowing robes. Overseeing the work in the main pit is – surprise – Indiana Jones (!!!) with his battered fedora and whip.
One of the workers cries out and rushes over to Indie with an ancient looking stone axe in his hands. Indie takes a brief look and hands it over to a bespectacled and bearded professor type standing nearby, who exclaims “Why, this axe is 4500 years old! We’ve only ever found 3,000 year old ceramic bowls around here!
Next, we read: These implements resemble Mayan stone implements of a much later period, also found at Colha. Moreover, the implements’ designs are strikingly different from the designs of stone implements produced by other cultures known to have inhabited the area in prehistoric times. Therefore, there were surely Mayan settlements in Colha 4,500 years ago.
The professor goes on in wonder: This axe looks like a Mayan axe. This must be the earliest proof of the existence of the Maya in this region!”
Indie asks “How do you know it’s a Mayan axe, professor?”
Professor: Why, look at the lines! The cutting! No other culture around here cuts stone in that way! Who else could it be BUT the Maya?
Finally: Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens the argument?
Indie chuckles: Professor, let’s not jump to conclusions. We haven’t found any evidence that the Maya were here earlier than 3,000 years ago, so this can’t be a Mayan Axe – it’s too old. There must be another explanation.

Now, think – what alternative explanation could the Indie provide that would show how the axe looks like a Maya axe, yet is NOT a Maya axe? The professor’s explanation sounds reasonable – how could he be wrong?

What if….the Maya copied their design from the older culture, instead of the other way around? That would explain how the Axe looks like a Maya axe, but is actually not created by the Maya. The Maya are the copiers, not the originals!

Now, with this in mind, go to the answer choices (go ahead and tell us what the answer is in the comments!):

(A) Ceramic ware is not known to have been used by the Mayan people to make agricultural implements.
(B) Carbon-dating of corn pollen in Colha indicates that agriculture began there around 4,500 years ago.
(C) Archaeological evidence indicates that some of the oldest stone implements found at Colha were used to cut away vegetation after controlled burning of trees to open areas of swampland for cultivation.
(D) Successor cultures at a given site often adopt the style of agricultural implements used by earlier inhabitants of the same site.
(E) Many religious and social institutions of the Mayan people who inhabited Colha 3,000 years ago relied on a highly developed system of agricultural symbols.

The solution to the question is below, to give you a chance to work it out yourself. Meanwhile, the main takeaway:

Many students find that at some point some intangible “penny” drops, and they can see behind the reasoning of CR questions that looked incomprehensible before. Bringing the arguments to life using everyday examples, films, etc, is one way to help yourself reach that stage. Good luck!

Solution to question:
A is an attempt to drag you into choosing an answer that merely uses familiar words from the argument, but doesn’t actually do anything: the argument does not claim that the stone implements were used to make ceramics, so A does nothing to weaken the argument.
B says nothing about whether the Maya were there 4500 years ago, and is thus irrelevant, and the same goes for the long answer choices C and E.

The correct answer is D, which says approximately what we had in mind: If D is true, then it is likely that the Maya (a successor culture) adopted the style of an earlier inhabitant, so D provides the alternative explanation of how a 4,500 year old stone implement that looks like a Maya tool does not necessarily mean that the Maya actually created it, and thus weakens the conclusion that the Maya were there 4,500 years ago.

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