GMAT Essays: Avoid Fallacy Fallacy

June 13, 2012
Eli Meyer

GMAT BlogScene: a busy street. A businessman in a suit and tie stands before a cloth covered table. A fortune teller sits on the other side of the table, peering into a crystal ball.

Fortune teller: “I see danger in your future, you are at grave risk! For $20, I shall peer into this crystal ball and tell you how disaster can be avoided!”

Businessman: “What a load of $&#%! Fortune telling is nonsense, and there is no way you could see my future through the crystal ball. I’m certain I’m in no danger whatsoever!”

Businessman walks across the street without looking and is run over by an ice cream truck.

So, GMAT students, was the fortune teller right? Was she genuinely psychic? Did her crystal ball receive emanations from the spirits predicting the future?

Of course not. Scientific consensus is that psychic powers don’t exist, and even the superstitious must acknowledge plastromancy as the superior form of divination.

But the businessman made a critical mistake: he made what’s known as the“Fallacy Fallacy,” mistaking a flawed argument for a false conclusion. Sure, the crystal-ball reading was a foolish basis for arguments about danger. But as the old saying goes, a stopped clock is right twice a day. Anyone standing on a busy city street is at low-to-moderate risk. Although the fortune teller has no justification for her claim, she happened to be right that the businessman was at risk through accident of location. And the businessman, foolishly assuming himself to be perfectly safe, compounded his risk through his own poor logic.

When you see the Analytical Writing Assessment (which remains on the New GMAT), bear  in mind this example . The argument you are given will invariably be terrible, but you can’t dismiss the conclusion solely on that basis. Moreover, the GMAT essay prompts will generally refer to fictional people and business in made-up locations. That means there are countless unknowns and hypotheticals that make definitive judgment impossible.

To plan your response to the AWA, consider the businessman. His proper response would be, “Your crystal ball isn’t persuasive. If I’m at risk, it’s because of factors you can’t possibly be aware of. And if I do get hit by a car, it won’t be because of your crystal ball. Now, excuse me, I need to wait for a walk sign.”  And so, when analyzing an argument on the GMAT, you should always conclude the same way. Make clear that the author could be right—he could be lucky, a confluence of factors could make his plan work or bring his prediction to fruition. But his evidence will invariably be lacking, and his logic will certainly rely on improbable assumptions. Go on to explain that he must be lucky for his conclusion to be valid, because luck is the only thing he has going for him.


Question of the day:

Our company’s chief financial advisor is outstanding. Of the ten stocks she invested company funds in over the past year, eight have increased in value, two of them by more than three times the market average. Unfortunately, we know that one of our competitors has been attempting to hire our employees away from us, and she is likely to be on that competitors list of targets. To retain her services, we should substantially increase her salary, contingent on her willingness to sign a non-compete agreement.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the reasoning in the statement above?

Let’s analyze this together.  Take this argument apart and post your thoughts here.  Then I’ll jump in and help put it all together…

Eli Meyer Eli Meyer has been a Kaplan teacher since 2003. He has spent the past four years focused almost exclusively on the GMAT, and also has prior experience helping students ranging from middle-schoolers taking the ISEE to professors retaking the GRE for their second PhD. During his Kaplan career, Elis has also written and revised Kaplan course materials and acted as a community liaison on several popular GMAT message boards, all the while helping his students succeed both in and out of the classroom.

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