Inference questions require you to take information presented indirectly in the passage and infer the direct information. For instance, suppose an author writes that building a new courthouse is “a waste of taxpayer money.” Does the author support the building the new courthouse? Probably not. But note that you are not directly told this information; you had to infer it from the author’s criticism of the courthouse building plans.
On the LSAT, you’ll see inference questions like the following:
- The passage suggests that the author would agree with which of the following?
- Which of the following can be inferred from the passage?
- It can be inferred that the author would most likely agree with which of the following statements?
What is qualifies as a good inference in reading comprehension?
Inferences are statements that are implied by the passage but not actually said. Sometimes the inferences are logically drawn (like they often are in the logical reasoning sections). But reading comprehension sections frequently require us to make inferences that are not logically drawn. Instead we have to look at what is implied by the language of the author. Consider the following short passage as an example:
Much has been written about The Liar, a logical paradox that reads "This very statement is false." However, philosophers have paid much less attention to The Truth Teller sentence, which reads "This very statement is true." Yet The Truth Teller is just as paradoxical as The Liar. The lack of attention paid to the paradox is especially surprising considering that no good resolution has been proposed for The Truth Teller. Perhaps The Liar is just an easier paradox to resolve. The more likely scenario, however, is that The Truth Teller is not as well understood as its counterpart.
An inference that we can make from this passage is that philosophers have proposed resolutions for The Liar paradox. This may feel like a stretch to some readers as this inference is not logically implied. But the passage does strongly hint at our inference. Consider the following two sentences again:
The lack of attention paid to the paradox is especially surprising considering that no good resolution has been proposed for The Truth Teller. Perhaps The Liar is just an easier paradox to resolve.
These sentences only make sense if philosophers have proposed resolutions for The Liar paradox. Even though the sentences do not logically require our inference, we can still make the inference by making the reasonable assumption that the author of our passage is not writing nonsense.
This brings us to the key to reading comprehension inferences: be charitable to the author. Assume the bare minimum required to make the authors argument reasonable. If you have two ways to interpret a portion of a passage, choose the one that is more charitable to the author (the one that makes sense of the passage).
The Concession Trick
An easy way for the LSAT to trick test takers in reading comprehension is to use concessions made by the author of a passage. A concession is a portion of the passage in which the author acknowledges a point from an opposing argument, often before making another, apparently more important, point. The LSAT sometimes uses concessions as the key to understanding the answer to an inference question. Consider the following short passage:
Traditionally, a person is said to know a proposition if and only if that proposition is a “justified, true belief.” However, some challenges to that definition of knowledge have arisen recently, leading many philosophers to abandon the traditional understanding for one of many new conceptions of knowledge. Certainly, it is true that the traditional definition of knowledge cannot by itself withstand the recent challenges, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice to abandon that definition entirely when we could simply augment it. The reaction of philosophers to abandon the traditional definition entirely is thus unwarranted.
Believe it or not, we can infer from this passage that the author would agree with the following claim:
The recent challenges to the traditional definition of knowledge have shown that the definition is flawed.
But how? This seems to go against the author’s point. How could we possibly conclude that the author would agree with that claim? We can infer this because of the concession in the passage:
Certainly, it is true that the traditional definition of knowledge cannot by itself withstand the recent challenges,
The author flat out tells us in the concession that the definition is flawed.
So take note of concessions in reading comprehension passages. Some of the most difficult inferences questions ever given on the test can be overcome if you know this trick.