Critical Reasoning: A Monster or a Cookie?

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It’s almost October, that time of the semester when everybody at NALSAR has one submission deadline after another, and would really prefer solving some critical reasoning questions rather than write research papers and seminar papers and such like. In the midst of all these deadlines, we’ve been receiving a lot of panicky doubts and angst-filled emails on how to tackle Critical Reasoning at the CLAT. (Let me be a liiittle honest – CR was always that part of the CLAT paper I cringed at and put off until the very end, when I absolutely had to solve it. And as a matter of advice, this is a foolish thing to do. Never leave CR for last. You WILL panic, and you will most certainly lose your logical sensibilities and mark random answer options.)

However, if you approach CR the right way, you might actually enjoy reading those strange passages and identifying the logical fallacies, assumptions, inferences and conclusions.

So, what is CR really trying to test? Why have a section on CR at all?

Critical Reasoning tries to test your ability to be aware of the logical flow of an argument and spot the flaws in reasoning, if any. The questions are, at the most fundamental level, designed to test your understanding of the logic followed. So, how do you understand this logic and spot the flaws that you are required to, or draw the correct inferences? The passages or statements are often convoluted and tedious and difficult to understand, let alone trying to figure out some abstract logical argumentation there, right? Well, don’t let this bog you down, because the complex passages are merely a facade to cover up a simple underlying logical argument.

How do you break this down? First, begin by reading the passage or statements given. Read it slowly and carefully once, making a mental note of the premises, and the conclusion drawn from those premises. Filter out unnecessary jargon and understand what the argument is. Read it again, this time, checking if there were any lapses in your understanding. Then, check if the conclusion necessarily flows from the premises. If it does not, there is a logical flaw! Check for underlying presumptions in the argument. Consider the example below:

In order to combat Bombay’s rampant problem of homelessness, the municipality announced a ban on sleeping on pavements, under flyovers, in parks and gardens, etc. Their justification was that this ban would either force the homeless to move out of Bombay or find other alternative places to sleep.

Which of the following, if true, goes to show that the municipality’s ban will be successful?

a) Several homeless persons sleep outside the public library at night.

b)The percentage of homeless people has been declining in the past four years.

c) Nagpur and Nashik have even more stringent measures to tackle the homeless population.

d) Prior to the ban coming into effect, occupancy of the city’s homeless shelters was less than 40%. After the imposition of the ban, this has risen to 90%. 

Let’s simplify what the passage says. There is a problem of homelessness. To tackle this, the municipality bans sleeping in some public spaces. Their reasons for the ban are i) It would force the homeless to move out, or, ii) It would force them to find alternate places to sleep.

What does the question require you to do? It needs you to identify a scenario which shows that the ban was successful. Option (a) states that homeless people sleep outside the library. Is this an indicator of the success of the ban? No, as it dos not indicate the improvement seen after the imposition of the ban. Option (b) shows a decline in homeless persons, but does not tell us how this has been affected by the ban. We do not know if the ban was imposed four years ago. Option (c) refers to Nashik and Nagpur – entirely irrelevant to the ban imposed in Bombay. Option (d) notes a rise in occupancy of homeless shelters after the imposition of the ban. This shows that the ban has caused homeless persons to occupy the shelters, thereby reducing the number of people sleeping in public places. This option is hence, the correct answer.

Another question that has plagued a lot of you is whether one must apply ‘general knowledge’ while solving CR questions, especially strengthening and weakening arguments. I would assume that by ‘general knowledge’, you mean the information that you know as a matter of common sense.

With respect to critical reasoning generally, and strengthening and weakening arguments, there is no single rule regarding application of this knowledge.

What you need to look out for is most often a logical flaw or inconsistency. The best approach would be to look at the answer options and see which fits best. At times, applying general knowledge will lead you to picking out the right logical flaw, and at times, the flaw might not be directly consonant with your general knowledge. The key is to pick out the correct logical flaw, or the kind of logic followed, in either scenario.

See for example, this question:

 In many pre-schools, children tend to commonly get colds before their resistance develops and the colds become much less frequent. It is clear that a child requires several colds before white blood cell concentrations rise high enough to effectively deal with colds.
Which of the following, if true, most seriously weakens this theory?

a) Children commonly spread viruses and bacteria in a small closed environment.

b) The use of Vitamin C increases resistance to the common cold and decreases its frequency.

c) Parents stock up on cold medicine after a child gets sick that alleviate the symptoms of a cold.

d) There are many strains of the cold virus and children develop resistance to individual strains.

e) White blood cells fight infection and their production levels are stimulated by high infection levels. 

What is the argument trying to convey? It says that children commonly get many colds before they become resistant. The deduction then drawn is that it takes several colds for immunity to develop sufficiently. What would most weaken this deduction? You need to show either that several colds are unnecessary, or that there is a different cause for immunity, other than having to go through several colds.

Option (a) tells you that closed environments cause colds – unrelated to the main argument. Option (b) talks about Vitamin C – unrelated. Option (c) talks about parents stocking up on medicine, which alleviates symptoms. This could undermine the argument, however, it merely alleviates symptoms, not the disease itself. (So, you still have the cold, but perhaps not a runny nose or a headache). Option (d) suggests an alternative explanation for the apparent improvement in a child’s ability to fight colds: the child simply becomes immune to individual viruses per se, but not all colds in general. This definitely weakens the argument. Option (e) actually strengthens the argument.

So, the key to getting better at CR is to practice and identify the logical flow in the argument, and then discern what the assumption is, what the conclusions are, whether there is a break in the logical flow, and what could undermine or strengthen that flow. You will have to read the question and break it into parts, and then solve accordingly. There is no single formula to arriving at the right answer. It takes patience, careful consideration of the argument before you, and appropriate application of logic. While this might all sound like an insurmountable difficulty, some practice will push you along and boost your confidence too! (That’s always a wonderful feeling, right?)

So go pick up a test, and get cracking! (If you want us to send you tests – here you go.)

Raji

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