A Requiem for the Must Be False Question

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We all know the people who write the LSAT have very little chill, dedicating their life’s work to constructing what can sometimes feel like an obnoxiously difficult exam. But did you know they were actual MURDERERS?

OK, don’t take that literally. They’re not murders in any legal sense (as far as we know … ). Technically, they’re not even murders in the figurative sense I’m getting at. But, after pouring over the Logical Reasoning sections of the last few LSATs, like any good gumshoe detective, I realized that the writers of the exam have left one Logical Reasoning question type on life support: the once mighty(-ish) Must Be False question. This question type, a common presence on the LSATs of yore, has all but vanished from recent exams. It may not be truly gone yet, but the EKG it’s currently hooked up to is beeping, and it appears as though flatlining is imminent. There isn’t a body count yet, but there will be soon. While we’re gathered here, let’s pour a preemptive one out for the Must Be False question.

via GIPHY

Over the past six published LSATs, the Must Be False question has only shown up twice. This makes it less common than Crux questions (which have appeared four times over the same period) and Agree questions (which have appeared thrice) — two question types that are almost complete afterthoughts for those studying for the LSAT. The Must Be False question was never the most common question type, but getting one or two on an exam was fairly standard until recently.

Perhaps this is good news to you. Perhaps your heart, made momentarily cold by having to study for this exam, is indifferent to the plight of an insentient question type on the LSAT. Perhaps you wonder, whether there is any utility in being able to make a deduction that contradicts a set of facts. When might this be of practical use as a law student, as an attorney, or anytime else in life? To that we say … well, those are good points.

But Must Be False questions were nonetheless one of my favorite question types on the LSAT*, so excuse me as I spill some digital ink over its demise. Some of my favorite questions were Must Be False questions. May I regal you of stories of a question from the June 2000 exam, about a group of feminist revolutionary salamanders who figured out how to self-fertilize, toppled the presumably oppressive salamander patriarchy, and created female-only quasi-utopia in its stead? That question was basically the first twenty minutes of Wonder Woman, but with salamanders. It was beautiful and inspiring. May I spin a yarn on the question from the September 2007 exam, which made a compelling case for smoking a lot of cigarettes as a means to boost memory? This question showed how, in a way, maybe the people who write this test are murderers, albeit very indirect ones. Or, for the 90s heads, how about a tale of the question from the February 1993 exam, about a group of renegade advertisement agencies that decided to make super offensive advertisements solely so those ads would get covered by viewer-starved news outlets and admonished by pearl-clutching politicians, all so the brands can get a little free air time?

(*Yes, when you teach and blog about the LSAT, you become fully engulfed in this LSAT life, and you consequently develop things like favorite question types. As the mustachioed madman Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself don’t become a monster … for when gaze long into the LSAT, the LSAT also gazes into you.” Needless to say, I did not heed his advice.)

But aside from the sort of wild topics these Must Be False questions often discuss, these questions had enormous pedagogical value for students. In general, when you take your first LSAT, everything seems incredibly murky and impenetrable. The difference between right answers and wrong answers is practically non-existent. However, after you begin to immerse yourself in the LSAT, and learn the proper way to work through these questions, and begin thinking about them in the right way, everything becomes a little less foggy. Eventually, as you master these questions, they become clear as crystal, bathed in the light of hard-won knowledge and experience.

Learning how to do Must Be False questions threw this transformation into stark relief. On no other question could this transformation occur more quickly or dramatically. When students start doing Must Be False questions, they spend a ton of time overthinking the question. It’s very hard — in part because in real life we almost never have to make deductions that contradict a set of facts — to try to figure out what the difference between what must be false and what merely could be false. Eliminating a lot of incorrect answer choices relies on thinking about info in counterintuitive ways.

But there’s a trick to these Must Be False questions that completely obviates the need to overthink these questions. Using this technique you could anticipate the correct answer to nearly every Must Be False question. In order to anticipate the correct answer to a Must Be False question, you just had to find a really strong statement in the stimulus, and then “negate” or “falsify” that statement. Usually, that strong statement was conditional. In that case, all you had to do was look for an answer choice that included the sufficient condition of that conditional statement, but negated its necessary condition.

Take, for example, that cigarette question from the September 2007 exam. In that question, there’s a statement, right at the beginning, that “a regular smoker who has just smoked a cigarette will typically display significantly better short-term memory skills than a nonsmoker.” That, right there, is a conditional statement. We could diagram that as “If a smoker smokes, then short-term memory typically better than nonsmoker’s.” There’s a bunch of other info about whether or not the nonsmoker had a cigarette and how long the effects of a boosted short-term memory would last — but we could ignore all of that. To predict the right answer, we’d just falsify that conditional statement by keeping the sufficient the same and negating the necessary. So we’d just look for an answer choice that said “If a smoker smokes, then short-term memory is NOT typically better than a nonsmoker’s.” And lo and behold, that’s precisely what the correct answer states.

Once students realized this “trick” to Must Be False questions, what was previously a difficult question type would become significantly easier. The journey from confused neophyte to wizened expert is completed in, like, a few moments. And this would bring hope that the same could happen for other parts of the LSAT. The occult mysteries of a necessary assumption could be made similarly understandable. Logic games — those intricate puzzles of constantly moving pieces — could be unlocked. It was all possible after seeing how easily conquerable the Must Be False question was.

Perhaps this trick is ultimately what doomed the Must Be False question. Once enough test takers realized the trick to doing them, these questions were no longer useful in separating the strong test-takers from the pack, and thus less useful in setting the LSAT’s “curve.” The LSAT has flirted with using what we call “Soft Must Be False” questions instead (which ask you to select the answer choice that the stimulus “provides the strongest evidence against” or that can be “most be justifiably rejected” on the basis of the stimulus), but hasn’t quite committed to those questions. On those, you have to do a bit more legwork — you have to make an inference that would be almost certainly true, and then falsify that.

So now, the trick to defeating these Must Be False questions, and the beacon of light it represented to students, isn’t terribly relevant. While learning the trick to the Must Be False question is nice, it’s unlikely to yield m/any points on the real test. Additionally, being able to put this trick into use on the actual LSAT would boost the confidence of test takers, affirming that they know how to handle these questions, and minimizing the chance that they abandon productive strategies or engage in harmful second guessing. It’s not the biggest deal, but test takers will now have to find this boost elsewhere.

But, no matter what that old Must Be False question told you, don’t try to get that boost from cigarettes. Those will kill you.

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