Sometimes I’ll think of something and then realized that I learned it from an LSAT passage. Are the scientific studies mentioned something I can rely on? – Reddit User
Does the LSAT use real studies and real facts when making its questions?
I see this question a lot and the answer is yes, the LSAT is mostly real. This means you’ll learn a lot of interesting tidbits studying for the LSAT, and it also has some implications for how to use real world knowledge to help you do better on the LSAT, which we’ll explore in this article.
Note that LSAC has made no official statement on the reality of LSAT questions. So I’m basing this conclusion on a few factors:
- It is harder to make things up than to look up facts. Ask any fiction writer. Truth is easier than lies.
- Many LSAT dilemmas are real arguments made in the media. The Economist or any financial newspaper (FT, WSJ) are great sources for some of the economic and scientific debates you see on LR and RC
- LSAC’s work to make sure LSAT questions don’t have bias in them suggests that the questions do have a basis in reality. Otherwise you wouldn’t expect there to be a potential for bias between groups. (LSAC does extensive work to make sure that test items are fair and are not easier for people of certain racial or cultural backgrounds. This excellent talk by Professor Alex Johnson mentions these efforts.)
- LSAT RC sections explicitly acknowledge their sources at the end of each preptest. They cite real life articles and books.
To me this seems pretty persuasive, so let’s discuss what it means.
The LSAT is “mostly true”
You can treat the LSAT the way you’d treat news articles. The basic facts are very likely to be true. The narratives are probably reasonably supported. On most things it will be mostly right. And then very occasionally it is flat wrong factually.
That’s speaking broadly about media. I would rate the LSAT as generally more accurate than a newspaper. And it has the added bonus of correcting bad arguments! Whereas a news article will just present a plausible sounding article and it can seem quite persuasive.
I’ve learned a lot from preparing for and then teaching the LSAT. And almost always when I look things up I find they have a basis in fact, or at least are a common narrative.
Youtube Version: is the LSAT Real
The LSAT is sometimes flat out wrong
I’ve noticed this more on reading comprehension than anywhere else. At heard, on a reading comprehension question your goal is to understand what the author is saying, and then analyze it. To do so, there is no requirement that the text be accurate; indeed in law school you will read many inaccurate texts. For example, lower court decisions overturned by a higher court. Or decisions and dissents. At least one of the two judicial decisions must be wrongly argued since they contradict each other.
I have found LSAT RC generally tries to stick to the truth. But on occasion they’ve written about pure nonsense.
- Dowsing: The first is the dowsing passage from LSAT preptest 81. I won’t spoil the passage, but if you’ve done it you can see my explanation and discussion here. The short version is this: dowsing is unscientific nonsense. You can’t find liquids with a stick. But LSAC took a paper from a pseudoscience journal and summarized it for their passage. And this summary suggests dowsing is real. This….isn’t true, but you have to go with it if you want to answer the questions.
- Philip Emeagwali: LSAT 58 has a passage about the supposed father of parallel computing, Philip Emeagwali, and devotes the entire passage to extolling his laurels. The problem is that Emeagwali is widely considered to be con-artist who fathered nothing. He failed to get a degree from the University of Michigan, and his claims to computing fame have been debunked by a Nigerian newspaper. You can read about it on his Wikipedia. Now, it is true that Emeagwali won a prize, but here’s what really happened: another team had the best parallel computer, and also the best price/performance ratio. But in the competition, you couldn’t win two prizes. So that team won “best computer” and Emeagwali’s second place machine won the “best price/performance” prize since the best team was knocked out. Not quite the achievement LSAC made it out to be.
So don’t believe everything you read on the LSAT. Take it as a good starting point, but check any particular fact before you stake your reputation on it. Though LSAC shouldn’t feel too bad about printing Emeagwali’s story. The man is good at PR, he even convinced Bill Clinton to call him “one of the great minds of the Information Age”!
You can use common sense and outside knowledge on the LSAT….if you’re careful
This is the practical part of this article: you can use common sense on the LSAT. This works precisely because the LSAT is mostly real. If something is true in the real world, it is probably true on the LSAT. So, how can you use outside knowledge carefully?
The law has the concept of “the reasonable person”. In both criminal and civil law, judges will apply a “reasonable person” test to consider what a regular, rational person might have done in a certain situation. This guides everything from contract interpretation to self defense. Generally speaking if a judge believes a reasonable person would have acted as you did, this will be a great help to your case.
You can apply the same standard with common sense and outside knowledge on the LSAT. Can you assume something must be true just because you happen to believe it? Absolutely not, and this is where people fall down using outside knowledge. For instance recently I saw a student get something wrong because they had decided that medical tests were not part of medicine. That was their own assumption and not an assumption everyone would make.
I’m talking about these sort of assumptions:
- Would a reasonable person believe that water makes things wet? –> Yes, you can assume this even if the LSAT doesn’t say it
- Would a reasonable person believe people generally seek to avoid pain –> Yes, you can assume this even if the LSAT doesn’t say it
- Would a reasonable person believe a car is a large expense for most people –> Yes, you can assume this even if the LSAT doesn’t say it
- Would a reasonable person assume weather is a factor in driving safely –> Yes, you can assume this even if the LSAT doesn’t say it
- Would a reasonable person believe that animals try to reproduce –> Yes, you can assume this even if the LSAT doesn’t say it
So this reasonable person standard extends to basic scientific knowledge, and to common facts about the world, such as that weather can be dangerous. You have to take a broad view in making an assumption. For any given belief: would 90% of people you asked on the street agree? Would you feel extremely confident that this is true?
Those are the kinds of beliefs that fall under common sense. And note, Americans, this extends across political lines. You know how the USA is bitterly split into two sides where 50% of people hate the other 50%? Almost nothing under bitter dispute between those two sides counts as common sense on the LSAT, no matter how reasonable your own side seems to you.
Politics doesn’t come up much, but I want to be clear that 90% really means 90%. As an example, almost everyone across the political spectrum would agree “lying is bad”. Whereas the statements “My guy lying was bad” or “what my guy did amounts to lying” would be disputed. Be sufficiently vague and everyone can agree.
I’ll have a future post covering common sense and the LSAT in more detail.
LSAT RC lists its sources. But RC Passages are not excerpts
At the end of the print versions of LSAT preptests, you can find a list of sources and acknowledgements. These tend to be books and articles, generally academic. This means two things:
LSAT RC is based on real materials: And you can expect the real materials are generally accurate, so LSAT RC is generally accurate. There are of course exceptions, see the dowsing and Emeagwali articles discussed above.
LSAC writes its own RC passages: People often think that LSAC includes outside texts on the LSAT; after all others tests do this, such as the SAT. But, this isn’t true. The image above says that LSAC adapted the articles from the sources. Adapted means they wrote them themselves.
As an example, Timothy Miller’s “How to Want what you Have” is a 265 book. You can see it on amazon. None of the four passages are simply an excerpt from this book; instead LSAC adapted some of its themes somewhere.
This feature of RC is mostly a curiousity, but it shows you that LSAT Reading Comprehension is based on real articles. And it is a reasonable inference that LSAT Logical Reasoning also bases itself on real life sources.
To date, I have found no evidence that LSAC bases any logic games on any real life troupes of six circus clowns trying to fit themselves inside a car in a given order, or 7 pastry chefs grouping themselves into pastry presentations across three day conferences.
You can Read More About how LSAC Writes its Questions
Years ago, Steve Schwartz of LSAT Unplugged did an interview with a former LSAT question writer, and it remains one of the best looks into how LSAT questions are made. You can find Steve’s full series here. Note that the question writer last worked on LSAT questions in 1997, so things may have changed. That said, the test has not changed its format in that time. If I’m remembering correctly, the LSAT generally uses philosophy professors; at the very least this particular writer was a philosophy PhD.
LSAT Trivia vs. LSAT Strategy
This article was fun to write and, (hopefully) fun to read. It’s the kind of article that’s easy to get through and makes you feel as though you’re making progress towards your goal. And we all need stuff like that. But, really, learning what I’ve written here doesn’t actually make you much better at the LSAT, other than the common sense section. So, if you enjoyed this writing style, and you’d like some actual LSAT strategy in the same style, you should check out my five part LSATHacks email course. I promise it will help improve your score.
In the meantime I’ll be posting more articles here on the LSATHacks Blog, so be sure to come back and check them out.