The general GRE exam requires us to “analyze an argument” but I find the demands of this “test” to be highly mysterious to downright deceptive. In particular we are asked to do (or not do) the following:
You are not being asked to discuss whether the statements in the argument are true or accurate; instead, you are being asked whether conclusions and inferences are validly drawn from the statements. You are not being asked to agree or disagree with the position stated; instead, you are being asked to comment on the thinking that underlies the position stated. You are not being asked to express your own views on the subject being discussed (as you were in the Issue task); instead, you are being asked to evaluate the logical soundness of an argument of another writer and, in doing so, to demonstrate the critical thinking, perceptive reading, and analytical writing skills that university faculty consider important for success in graduate school. (An Introduction to the GRE Analytical Writing Section of the GRE General Test 14)
Also note that there is a “scoring guide” that requires that our essay “demonstrates sufficient control of language to express ideas with reasonable clarity” (29).
It says, “You are not being asked to discuss whether the statements in the argument are true or accurate” but it also says, “you are being asked to evaluate the logical soundness of an argument of another writer.” The word “sound” (for someone interested in good reasoning/logic) denotes that an argument has a valid structure and true premises. If we can’t assess the truth of the premises, then we can’t assess the soundness of the argument.
It says, “You are being asked whether conclusions and inferences are validly drawn from the statements” but almost no argument actually has an invalid structure–and there is no way that they expect anyone taking the test to know what “valid structure” is (in the context of logic). Why is that? Because
the Argument task is meant to assess analytical writing and informal reasoning skills that you have developed throughout your education, [and] it has been designed so as not to require any specific course of study or to advantage students with a particular type of training. Many college textbooks on rhetoric and composition have sections on informal logic and critical thinking that might prove helpful, but even these might be more detailed and technical than the task requires. You will not be expected to know methods of analysis or technical terms. (15)
Formal and informal logical training are clearly said to be unnecessary and such training would give us “technical terms” (such as “valid” and “sound”), which no one reading the “introduction” will be expected to understand.1 We aren’t supposed to prove that the argument structure is valid, so what exactly are we supposed to do? It’s mysterious what is being said here.
It says, “You are being asked to comment on the thinking that underlies the position stated” but the thinking that underlies a conclusion can be perfectly “sound” and reasonable if the we know that the premises are true and the structure is valid. Therefore, it’s mysterious what is being demanded of us.
What exactly can it mean to assess reasoning without assessing what anyone who knows anything about good reasoning call “soundness” or “validity?” It must mean that we are asked to assess the “justification” used for the argument. (i.e. Does the author give us good reason to accept any of the premises?) However, “justification” is itself based on premises. When I say that I know I have a hand because I can see it, that implies the premise, “If I can see my hand, then I know I have it.” I think my argument is “sound” because the premises are true and the structure is valid. I see no other option. If my reasoning is correct, the GRE clearly requires that we do analyze the truth of various claims.
The GRE contradicts itself. It says not to analyze the truth of the statements of an argument, but there is pretty much no other way to analyze an argument. The GRE’s grading criteria is contradictory and unclear—despite the fact that it requires us to be clear.
What about the example used of a sample topic? Perhaps that can give us insight into what is expected of us:
Hospital statistics regarding people who go to the emergency room after roller skating accidents indicate the need for more protective equipment. Within this group of people, 75 percent of those who had accidents in streets or parking lots were not wearing any protective clothing (helmets, knee pads, etc.) or any light-reflecting material (clip-on lights, glow-in-the-dark wrist pads, etc.). Clearly, these statistics indicate that by investing in high-quality protective gear and reflective equipment, roller skaters will greatly reduce their risk of being severely injured in an accident. (17)
The argument above is an example of an informal fallacy. (In particular, the post hoc and cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies) The author is arguing that roller skating accidents are leading to injury, most people who had an injury weren’t using protective equipment, and concludes that more protective equipment would reduce the risk of injury. The author is assuming that “if most people get injuries from rollerskating who don’t wear protective equipment, then more protective equipment will prevent injury.”
The conclusion is plausible (after all, protective equipment is made to protect people), but this premise isn’t. Why? Because the fact something happens more to one group of people than another doesn’t prove that it happens because they are in the group. The fact that some roller skaters get an injury without wearing protective equipment doesn’t prove that they got the injury because they weren’t wearing the equipment. Perhaps 75% of roller skaters don’t wear protective equipment and the same percent of people get injuries who are wearing protective equipment as those who don’t.
What was wrong with the argument? It has a false unstated assumption. The premise that states, “if most people get injuries from rollerskating who don’t wear protective equipment, then more protective equipment will prevent injury” is false. Again, the GRE seems to be deceptive and incoherent to insist that we “are not being asked to discuss whether the statements in the argument are true or accurate.” That’s exactly what needs to be done here.
Finally, the introduction recommends that we “think of as many alternative explanations and counterexamples as you can” (16) and a counterexample “is an example, real or hypothetical, that refutes or disproves a statement in the argument” (15). We were told not to “ discuss whether the statements in the argument are true or accurate” but now we are advised to do exactly that. The GRE’s introduction contradicts itself once again—we are advised to disprove statements but not to discuss whether the statements are true or accurate.
I conclude that the GRE’s guidelines and demands are deceptive, incoherent, and unclear. I wouldn’t trust anyone to grade an essay with contradictory grading critera, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to know how to receive a high score for this section considering how unclear (and downright self-contradictory) the demands are.
1 I also have reason to doubt that the graders understand such “technical terminology.” Go here for more information.