The logical reasoning section of the LSAT can seem daunting, like an assault of barbed questions from all directions. One minute you’re trying to nail down a logical flaw, the next you’re trying to strengthen a causal argument.
To make sense of this barrage, it is critical to realize that all logical reasoning questions fall into roughly a dozen categories, each one of which has its own tactics, tips and pitfalls.
Learning how to handle a dozen or so question types is not easy, which is why you should develop a methodical, months-long study plan. Using online resources, books, courses or tutoring, you can approach question types individually before taking on practice sections that mix them together.
Among those question types, paradox questions tend to be relatively difficult but uncommon. They are one of the few examples of logical reasoning questions in which the prompt does not provide or depend upon a conclusion.
Most questions on the LSAT ask you to find, strengthen, weaken, justify, locate a flaw in or draw a parallel to the conclusion in an argument. In contrast, paradox questions are not full arguments — they simply provide a series of premises, or claims.
What Is a Paradox?
The word “paradox” derives from ancient Greek roots for “contrary to” and “opinion.” A paradox is a claim that seems self-contradictory, or that seems to contrast with common belief, but may turn out to be true. It is like a series of clues in an unresolved mystery that runs counter to expectations.
Paradoxes come up often in science, but it’s more helpful to think of paradoxes in everyday life. I had my glasses on, then I just got up for a second, and now I can’t find my glasses. I put my clothes in the wash, and now one of my socks is missing. Life is full of such baffling mysteries.
In each of these cases, there are two claims in apparent tension. Sometimes those claims are explicit: I had my glasses on, and now I can’t find them. Other times they are unstated: My sock went into the dryer with all my other clothes, but it did not come out of the dryer with all my other clothes.
To resolve a paradox, it is critical to isolate those claims. I like to think of a paradox as a “pair of docks.” The claims in a paradox are like two docks that seem far apart. You need a new claim to connect those docks across the water.
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How to Handle Paradox Questions on the LSAT
Paradox question on the LSAT present you with seemingly incompatible claims and ask you to find the answer choice that explains them. The question itself often contains a verb like “resolve,” “address” or “explain” along with a noun like “paradox,” “discrepancy” or “contradiction.”
The key here is that the claims in tension only seem irreconcilable. There may be plenty of potential explanations. Those explanations might require complex deductions or they might be painfully obvious. My glasses were on my head. My other sock got caught in the towel.
The trick is that all the claims presented in the question must be addressed by the answer choice. It cannot contradict one, like “You didn’t put your socks in the wash.” It cannot just apply generally, like “Socks often go missing in the wash.” It cannot just add evidence, like “The sock is not still in the dryer.” It must squarely show that all the claims are compatible, assuming they are true.
An Example of a Paradox Question
Imagine a question prompt that says something like: “The Olympics is a popular event that attracts millions of spectators. The population of people who wish to attend the Olympics has grown continuously over time. But in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, only 10,000 fans attended the event.”
What is the paradox here? On the one hand, the Olympics attracts millions of spectators. On the other hand, the 2021 Olympics attracted far fewer spectators.
The other claims in the prompt rule out a few possible explanations, like a decline in interest.
One could imagine a few potential answers to this paradox, like a rise in ticket prices or the difficulty of traveling to Tokyo. In this case, Tokyo had to limit the number of spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This explanation is compatible with all the claims: the popularity of the Olympics, the rising interest levels and the low number of fans in Tokyo.
When the LSAT asks you to resolve a paradox, put on your detective cap, pick out the seemingly incompatible claims and take on each answer choice one at a time. Rule out any that are not fully compatible with all the claims presented. Choose the answer that best explains how the claims could all be true together, without requiring any leaps of faith. Often, the answer will be hiding in plain sight, like the glasses on top of your head.
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