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GMAT Tips: Flaw Questions on Critical Reasoning

Today’s GMAT tip comes from test prep firm ManhattanGMAT. In this article, they provide helpful information on how to approach Critical Reasoning questions involving flaw identification.  Read on to see what they have to say!

We’ve talked about various types of Assumption Family questions in the past (find the assumption, strengthen, weaken, and evaluate the conclusion), but we haven’t yet tackled a Flaw question. This is the least frequently tested of the 5 Assumption Family question types, so you can ignore this type if you aren’t looking for an extra-high score. If you do want an 85th+ percentile verbal score, though, then you have to make sure you know how to tackle Flaw questions.

If you haven’t yet, read this article before we try our GMATPrep problem. Then set your timer for 2 minutes and go!

* “Reviewer: The book Art’s Decline argues that European painters today lack skills that were common among European painters of preceding centuries. In this the book must be right, since its analysis of 100 paintings, 50 old and 50 contemporary, demonstrates convincingly that none of the contemporary paintings are executed as skillfully as the older paintings.

“Which of the following points to the most serious logical flaw in the reviewer’s argument?

“(A) The paintings chosen by the book’s author for analysis could be those that most support the book’s thesis.

“(B) There could be criteria other than the technical skill of the artist by which to evaluate a painting.

“(C) The title of the book could cause readers to accept the book’s thesis even before they read the analysis of the paintings that supports it.

“(D) The particular methods currently used by European painters could require less artistic skill than do methods used by painters in other parts of the world.

“(E) A reader who was not familiar with the language of art criticism might not be convinced by the book’s analysis of the 100 paintings.”

Okay, now that you’ve got an answer, let’s use our 4-step CR process.

Step 1: Identify the Question

First, we read the question stem:

“Which of the following points to the most serious logical flaw in the reviewer’s argument?”

The key identifying language is typical in this example. The language “most serious logical flaw” indicates that we have a Flaw question. The question stem itself does not provide any information about what that conclusion is; we’ll have to find it in the argument. This is an Assumption Family question, so we may be able to brainstorm some assumptions while we read the argument. If so, that will help us with our task: to find an answer that points out a flaw in the reasoning of the argument.

Step 2: Deconstruct the Argument

First, the argument was written by the “reviewer” and I was asked to find a flaw in the reviewer’s argument. I need to keep that in mind.

The first sentence tells me the book’s conclusion: European painters today aren’t as good as European painters of the past. The reviewer then agrees with this premise because, according to the reviewer, a certain piece of evidence “demonstrates (this) convincingly.” The reviewer’s argument, then, is contained in the second sentence – and that’s what I need to attack.

Your notes might look something like this (though there are lots of ways to write notes!):

R: AD says EP today worse than EP before

R: book is right bc 100 pntg anal shows this

[assumptions: the 100 paintings are fully representative of both eras; the author didn’t selectively choose 50 great old paintings and 50 mediocre contemporary paintings, etc.]

Note that I used abbreviations; you can use any you want as long as they make sense to you. Also note that I added some assumptions that I brainstormed; I may not actually write these down on the real thing, but I wrote them down for you.

Is the argument implying or assuming anything else? I’m brainstorming a scenario: the paintings that still survive from 200 or 300 years ago are only the absolute best paintings from those eras – so it’s literally impossible to pick “bad” examples for the 50 “old paintings” set, because the bad paintings no longer exist. That would skew the argument, so the author is assuming that this has NOT happened.

Step 3: State the Goal

Our goal is to find an answer choice that points out a flaw in the reasoning of the argument. We can think of this flaw as a bad assumption: the author is assuming a certain thing to be true, but the author might be wrong. The wording of the correct answer, then, will tell us the “opposite” of the assumption. For example, if I say that Marielle must be a great basketball player because she’s six feet tall, I’m assuming that all you need to be a great basketball player is height. The flaw might be worded in this way: It’s not necessarily the case that someone will be a great basketball player simply because she’s tall. Alternatively, the flaw might be: someone can be tall and still not be a great basketball player.

The most common trap on this type of question is one involving an irrelevant distinction or comparison. For example, an incorrect answer choice might discuss alternate plans or paths when we were asked to comment on a particular plan given in the argument. Alternatively, an incorrect choice might discuss a detail or distinction that does not actually affect the conclusion.

Step 4: Work from Wrong to Right

“(A) The paintings chosen by the book’s author for analysis could be those that most support the book’s thesis.”

This is similar to one of the assumptions I brainstormed: the reviewer assumes that the chosen paintings are fully representative and that the book’s author didn’t have a skewed group of paintings for some reason. If the book’s author specifically chose paintings that most support a predetermined thesis, then that would be a major flaw in the reviewer’s argument that the evidence of the 100 paintings validates the book author’s thesis. This one looks pretty good so far but let’s check the other answers.

“(B) There could be criteria other than the technical skill of the artist by which to evaluate a painting.”

I agree, there are certainly other ways by which to evaluate a painting! This doesn’t address the particular argument at hand, though: finding a flaw in an argument that is specifically about the technical skill of European painters today and in the past. This is one of those “irrelevant distinction or comparison” answer choices: we don’t want to talk about other criteria because the argument itself focuses on technical skill. Eliminate B.

“(C) The title of the book could cause readers to accept the book’s thesis even before they read the analysis of the paintings that supports it.”

Once again, I agree that this is a potential danger. We were asked to find a flaw in the researcher’s reasoning, however, and this answer discusses a flaw in the readers’ reasoning. Eliminate C.

“(D) The particular methods currently used by European painters could require less artistic skill than do methods used by painters in other parts of the world.”

This is yet another “irrelevant distinction” trap! The argument is very specific in comparing contemporary European painters with European painters of the past. Painters in other parts of the world are not a part of this argument. Eliminate D.

“(E) A reader who was not familiar with the language of art criticism might not be convinced by the book’s analysis of the 100 paintings.”

This sounds familiar – it sounds a bit like answer C. This would be a problem with the reader’s reasoning, but we were asked to find a flaw in the researcher’s reasoning, and the researcher doesn’t address what the readers might think or do. Eliminate E.

The correct answer is A.

Key Takeaways for Solving Flaw CR Problems:

(1) Know how to recognize this type. The question stem will typically use some variation of the word flaw, though it can occasionally contain alternate wording, such as “vulnerable to criticism.” Note: Weaken questions can also use the word “flaw” in the question stem. Weaken questions will also use some variation on the language “if true.” Flaw questions will not use “if true” language.

(2) Know what to do with Flaw questions. The argument will contain premises and a conclusion, and may also contain counter-premises. Such arguments always have assumptions, and we should note any that we might brainstorm. Our goal is to find an answer that points out that a particular assumption might not be true or valid.

(3) Watch out for traps! The answer choices often contain “irrelevant distinction or comparison” traps, trying to draw us away from the scope of the argument. We saw examples of this in all 4 wrong answers on this problem. B and D tried to change the details on us so that we were no longer talking about the primary issues or situation discussed in the argument. C and E answered the wrong question: we don’t care what the readers think. We care about the reviewer’s reasoning.

* GMATPrep questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

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