Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

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Pneumonia
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Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby Pneumonia » Wed May 15, 2013 6:58 pm

I have a question for some of you extremely knowledgeable LSAT guys, Steve, Noah, Shinners et al.

Has there ever been an instance in which a strengthen/weaken, necessary assumption etc question in LR relies on the ambiguity of the word "significantly" for the correct answer choice?

I've been seeing, or noticing at least, variations of this theme lately. I'm not basing it off of an actual question, but I see this form a lot:

stimulus: penguins are getting sick. there are pollutants in their habitat. therefore the pollutants are causing the sickness in the penguins.

stem: which of the following... would most seriously weaken the argument above?

(a) there are other substances in the area that are harmful to penguins, but not proportionally significant enough to make the penguins significantly ill.

(other choices)

So the choice above is multiply ambiguous to me because it uses 'significantly' twice. My question is, when used in the second instance, does 'significantly' mean the the penguins aren't significantly (meaning seriously or gravely) ill or that they aren't significantly (for the sake of the issue at hand) ill? There are other ambiguities as well; I used the word twice for emphasis.

Obviously better examples could be constructed or referred to, but I'm hoping ya'll will recognize what I'm asking based on your experience with previous students and with the test itself. For the sake of further clarity: what I find myself often asking is- "well ok even if 'x' doesn't significantly affect 'y' that doesn't mean that it doesn't affect it at all..." Usually there's another attractive answer choice, and each time I go through the process of wondering whether the above means that 'x' doesn't affect 'y' in a serious way or whether 'x' doesn't affect 'y' to a degree worth considering for the sake of answering the question.

Sorry for the long post, I'm sure the test makers use this word intentionally, but if any of you (or others) have any thoughts you'd like to share about how to determine what 'significantly' means, either in general or on a question-by-question basis, I'd be very appreciative. Because I know that this post and my question are both less than fully clear, I'll rephrase one more time:

Has there ever been a correct answer that could be justified by saying "Well just because this doesn't have significant effects doesn't mean it doesn't have effects that are relevant to the issue at hand" ?

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LSAT Hacks (Graeme)
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby LSAT Hacks (Graeme) » Wed May 15, 2013 7:50 pm

All I will say is that answer this would be a million times easier with an example question.

The short answer is no, I haven't noticed that. The slightly longer answer is that it's possible it's occurred a few times and I simply hadn't noticed the pattern.

However, from the wording you gave, I don't see an ambiguity in the wording you gave. At least, not due to the dual use of the word significantly. It's clear in both cases. The sentence could be rephrased as follows:

'but not in great enough quantities to make the penguins very/gravely/severely ill"

LSAT questions almost never depend on the specific words used. Instead, they depend on concepts. Large and big are the same thing, effectively. Whereas the same word, as you've shown, can have different meanings.

However, the sentence you listed IS ambiguous. I don't know how ill the penguins have to be to weaken the argument. I'm near 100% confident such a question/answer combination wouldn't appear on the LSAT.

Hope that all makes sense.

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JamMasterJ
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby JamMasterJ » Wed May 15, 2013 7:59 pm

No it refers to two different things. The first one answers whether there are enough pollutants to meet the threshold required to achieve the illness at issue. The second one is referring to the sickness level of the penguins. It would need to be capable of creating a sickness at the level that the penguins are experiencing.

It's not like a "there's a 75% chance that this thing is gonna happen and that thing has a 75% success rate."
It's "there's a certain threshold required to even lead to illness, and another threshold with regard to whether, if the pollutants can make them sick, they can cause them to get sick enough to be the ones that are actually causing the sickness here."

So it's more a question of meeting two thresholds that are independent than two heavily weighted coins that rely on one another.

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Pneumonia
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby Pneumonia » Wed May 15, 2013 8:46 pm

Thank you Graeme an JM3. I agree that an example would've been better in the first place; here is one I saw today, #13 from PT 50 S2:

'D' is correct, but the use of 'significantly' in the language led me to spend and inordinate amount of time analyzing it in comparison with 'B.' My reasoning was that 'significantly more' could mean either:

(1) 'Significantly more,' objectively. Suppose the chemical industries profits were hurt by $100 dollars on $1,000,000 of profit, and the fossil fuel producer's profits were hurt only by $101 (not significantly more numerically, it's less than 0.01%). However the fossil fuel producer's profits are generally only $50. In this case 'significant' means significant in absolute terms, where 'absolute' is some standard outside the question itself.

Or, (2) 'significantly more,' relatively. On this definition the above would difference would be significant because it's the difference between a profit and a loss, even though it is not significant numerically. In this case 'significant' means significant in relative terms, in particular, relative to the issue at hand in the question.

One definition (1) 'D' is incorrect, on (2) it is correct.

I took me too long to choose to apply (2), so my natural inclination is to look for rules about when to apply either relative or objective definitions of 'significantly' and similar words. I couldn't recall any questions that relied on (1) for the correct answer, and that taken with the fact that (1) relies on 'outside' information, led me to decide that I should always apply (2) when I came across the word.

I then realized that there may be LSAT questions that play on the very issue, specifically flaw or weaken questions where the flaw is " 'x' doesn't have significant (implied numerically or absolutely) effects on 'y,' but that doesn't mean it has no relevant effects' " or something like that. If that were so, choosing to always go with (2) would lead me into trouble. This led me to pose a long and unclear jumble of thoughts about the question, which I have now hopefully made a bit more clear. Thanks again for your help.

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LSAT Hacks (Graeme)
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby LSAT Hacks (Graeme) » Wed May 15, 2013 9:08 pm

In this case, significant is a synonym for 'much'. It wouldn't hurt profits much more than chemical profits were hurt.

I wouldn't worry about relative levels of profit. Technically, a loss is just a negative profit. So losing a million dollars is the same as being 1 million dollars less profitable, no matter if the company was running a profit or a loss.

I'm actually not sure the distinction you're drawing here is valid. I checked my OED, and significantly only had two definitions. The one that was relevant was as follows:

1. in a sufficiently great or important way as to be worthy of attention

Here's number 2, which wasn't what you meant:

2 in a way that has a particular meaning: [ as sentence adverb ] : e.g. "significantly, he has refused to give a straight answer to this question."

In other words, the 'relative vs. objective' issue you're raising has nothing to do with different definitions of 'significantly'. It would apply even to words like 'much more'.

p.s. For anyone reading this who uses a mac: you have an oxford english dictionary built into your computer. Press cmd + space, and type the word you're looking for into spotlight. The dictionary result will be near the bottom. This is an invaluable resource for looking up many LSAT words.

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Pneumonia
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby Pneumonia » Wed May 15, 2013 9:22 pm

Thank you Graeme, that answers my question. Next time i'll just use a dictionary. I guess I just appended an incorrect additional definition to the word. It's happened before- until recently I used 'a couple' interchangeably with 'several,' which to me still seems valid if I don't stop to consider it, even though 'a couple' literally means two. Maybe it's something I picked up from my parents, or maybe I just have trouble with quantifiers. Maybe both. Regardless, thanks again for the clarification.

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LSAT Hacks (Graeme)
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Re: Use of "Significantly" in LR and RC Questions?

Postby LSAT Hacks (Graeme) » Wed May 15, 2013 9:25 pm

Not to worry Pneumonia. Stuff like this is what makes the LSAT so difficult, even for native English speakers. It demands an incredible level of precision with the language. I've gotten passively better at grammar and vocabulary just from having to teach and explain it for a few years.

I strongly recommend the Oxford diction if you have a mac, have online access through your school, or can get a physical copy at your used book store. Not only is it useful for the level of precision required by the LSAT, but it will serve you well for life.




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