In many ways, critical reasoning questions best exemplify what the GMAT is all about. The exam is primarily an exercise in applying logic to various different situations. In the quant section, you must either find the correct answer or determine whether you have sufficient information to make a decision. On the verbal section, you must find the answer choice that logically completes the information given in the question stem. Even on the AWA and the IR, logic is again paramount to knowing how to proceed and getting a good score.

Narrowing down the verbal section, sentence correction questions are increasingly about the logical meaning of the sentence. Reading comprehension is about logic, but is essentially an amalgamation of 3-5 critical reasoning questions about the same passage, with the added difficulty of falling asleep while reading the passage. Critical reasoning is really the standard bearer of logic on the verbal section. If you understand critical reasoning, you can apply that logic to different question types with success.

However, sometimes you come across critical reasoning questions that seem at odds with themselves. Put another way, the internal logic of the question seems faulty, so how can you apply logic to a problem when the problem doesn’t even make sense?  As Abraham Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Similarly, how can a question that doesn’t seem to make sense stand (up to reason)?

As with many questions on the GMAT, if it seems like you don’t have enough information or something is missing, you’re overlooking something. Sometimes a key piece of information is hidden in the text, and sometimes a key piece of information is missing within the correct answer choice. As such, be sure to think of the answer choices as a resource, a recurring theme on this test. Let’s look at one such example of critical reasoning:

In the early 20th century, ivory poaching led to the near extinction of the black rhino and the African elephant. As a result, numerous African nations supported a complete ban on all ivory sales. This ban has been in effect since 1989. The governments of South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia have recently put up for auction thousands of tons of confiscated ivory horns and tusks, in spite of the continued moratorium. However, the three governments have the full support of the same conservationists who helped impose the 1989 international ban on ivory sales.

Which of the following, if true, contributes most to an explanation of why conservationists support South Africa’s, Botswana’s and Namibia’s auction of ivory?

(A)   The international demand for ivory has decreased significantly since 1989.

(B)   Most wild black rhinos and African elephants live outside of South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia.

(C)  Once the tons of confiscated ivory are auctioned, the market will be flooded with ivory, making poaching economically impractical.

(D)   If it were not for the auction, the confiscated ivory would never be used, and would have to remain in government warehouses.

(E)  Due to major conservation efforts, black rhino and African elephant populations have slowly but steadily increased in the last few years.

Looking only at the passage as presented, the governments of many African nations spearheaded a ban on all ivory sales. However, three of them are now breaking that ban, and they have the full support of the conservationists. Something seems amiss! Surely the governments can’t be serious about arbitrarily breaking a 25-year accord? (They are serious, and don’t call me Shirley)

This type of question is what’s known as Explain the Paradox, a subcategory of Method of Reasoning questions. Something in the conclusion seems diametrically opposed to the evidence presented, and yet it is correct. Generally, some new piece of information in one of the answer choices will reconcile the seemingly opposing viewpoints. Let’s go through the choices and see which solves our dilemma.

Answer choice A indicates that the international demand for ivory has dropped significantly. If this were true, would it help explain why these governments have full support in selling excess ivory (like overstock.com)? Not really. If anything, the demand going down should dissuade anyone from trying to increase the supply of ivory as the price will drop dramatically. There’s no upside to selling ivory in this scenario.

Answer choice B indicates that most of the affected animals live outside of these three countries (although they may be expatriates). Regardless of where the animals are located, the ivory can always be shipped to South Africa or Botswana, so their initial location will not factor into the decision in any way. B is incorrect.

C indicates that flooding the market with ivory will dissuade future poaching, which is a logical and credible line of reasoning that would help reconcile both points made in the original statement. Poachers will not stop their practice just because it’s illegal if there is enough money to be made. If ivory can be freely and cheaply purchased elsewhere, then there is no need to risk legal ramifications by plying a trade that has been banned. C is a perfect solution to our paradox. For competition’s sake, we can look at D and E, although on the actual GMAT you should stop whenever you find the correct answer.

Answer choice D discusses what would happen to the ivory were it not used, inferring that there may be some cost or security concern involved in not selling the ivory. This is out of scope of the question, as selling ivory because upkeep costs are inconvenient would violate the entire purpose of the ivory moratorium. There may be some financial upside in selling the ivory, but it would not explain why the governments would have international support.

Answer choice E is somewhat tempting as it indicates that the rhinos and elephants may no longer be in danger of extinction. Logically, the animals need to be protected when they’re endangered, but when they’re running rampant then the conservation becomes unnecessary. However, had the number of animals climbed dramatically, a more logical reaction would be the removal of the moratorium, not the clandestine sale of some confiscated ivory. Answer choice E does not reconcile the paradox.

The answer that reconciles the two sides of the paradox will always be the correct answer on a question that asks you to explain an action. The correct answer here finds the logic in Homer’s classic misguided explanation about selling his elephant to a man who clearly appeared to be an ivory dealer (Sweety, a guy who’s got lots of ivory is less likely to hurt Stampy than a guy whose ivory supplies are low). If you can remove the upside for the poacher, then your plan will succeed. Similarly if you can remove the upside of the GMAT testmaker trying to trap you, then you too will succeed.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.