💡 How can you tell when a statement is causal on the LSAT?

Distinguishing causal from non-causal claims is an often overlooked skill.

By Kevin Lin Jan 12, 2022

Welcome to The Weekly Flaw, an LSAT newsletter full of unjustified presumptions, biconditional rules, subtle author attitude, and other LSAT advice.

(Was this newsletter forwarded to you? Sign up here.)

Cars with flames painted on the hood might get more speeding tickets. Are the flames making the car go fast?

Barbara Kingsolver

What Makes a Claim Causal?

correlation image
xkcd

You can't conclude cause from correlation - that's LSAT 101. But how do you know when a statement is causal? Distinguishing causal claims from non-causal ones is a basic skill that students often overlook. Sure, when the statement says "correlated" or "associated", that's easy to identify as merely a correlation, and not cause. And when a statement says "caused" or "results in", that's obviously causal. But as you know, the LSAT can make things much more tricky. Read on for a short quiz testing your ability to distinguish causal from non-causal claims.

Causal Claim Quiz

Below you'll see six example statements. Label each one as asserting a causal relationship or not. There's no mushy "maybe" answer - each statement is either causal or it isn't. In addition, articulate why you're identifying each statement as causal or non-causal.

1. On every high school basketball team, the tallest players tend to be the best.

2. Giving children everything they ask for tends to produce adults who are unable to cope with life's challenges. 

3. All of the people who ate the day-old sushi suffered from food poisoning the next day.

4. The baby cried immediately after I accidentally dropped her.

5. Jumping into freezing water decreases one's ability to perform well on the LSAT.

6. Most people experience decreased mental functioning when they're in freezing water.

Answers

1. On every high school basketball team, the tallest players tend to be the best.

Not causal.

Although the tallest players tend to be the best, that doesn't mean that their height is helping to make them the best. In real life, that may obviously be what is in fact happening - height is giving the players an advantage. But we're here to examine the language of the statement, not what's true in real life. The phrase "tends to be", standing alone, doesn't introduce cause. For example, "Presidential candidates tend to be male." Is this saying that being a presidential candidate tends to make one a male? Or that being male tends to make one a presidential candidate? Clearly not. "Tends to" is simply a statement about the likelihood of having a particular quality, without saying anything about the cause or reason for that quality. So the tallest players tend to be the best, but we have no idea what is causing them to be the best.

It's important to note that even if you change "tends to" to something stronger, like "are the best", that's still not a causal claim. The tallest players are the best is merely saying that the tallest players happen to be the best...we still don't know whether the tallness is helping them be the best.

2. Giving children everything they ask for tends to produce adults who are unable to cope with life's challenges.

Causal.

This example is different from the first one because we have causal language - "produce". So this is indeed a causal claim.

3. All of the people who ate the day-old sushi suffered from food poisoning the next day.

Not causal.

The people who ate the sushi suffered from food poisoning, but that's not the same as saying that the sushi is the cause of their food poisoning. Maybe they also ate day-old tuna salad? Month-old raw chicken? This sentence can be tricky since the situation it describes makes you think that the sushi had something to do with the food poisoning, but the actual words don't say anything about cause.

4. The baby cried immediately after I accidentally dropped her.

Not causal.

This example is similar to the previous one in that the situation described makes you want to read cause into it. But the fact she started crying right after I dropped her doesn't mean that she's crying because I dropped her. Maybe right after I dropped her she started to feel hungry and it's the hunger that's making her squeal. Or maybe it's just a coincidence?

5. Jumping into freezing water decreases one's ability to perform well on the LSAT.

Causal.

The verb here is "decreases", which is causal. The water is making one's LSAT performance worse. Other similar verbs also should be read as causal - "increases", "promotes", "encourages", and "inhibits" are common ways the LSAT introduces cause.

6. Most people experience decreased mental functioning when they are in freezing water.

Not causal.

Notice the difference between this example and the previous one? Here, we're told that people experience "decreased mental functioning" when they're in the freezing water. But that doesn't mean that the freezing water is doing the decreasing - "decreased" is not the verb here. Now it's difficult for me to think about what else could be causing the decreased mental functioning besides the freezing water - but that doesn't change the meaning of the sentence.

Compare a structurally similar claim: "Most children experience increased happiness when it's December 25." Does that mean the day itself - December 25 - is making the children happier? Or could it be that they happen to get gifts on that day, and it's the gifts that make them happier? If they didn't get gifts on December 25, then perhaps December 25 would no longer be a day on which they experience increased happiness. Similarly, maybe there's something else that happens when people are in freezing water that is causing their decreased mental functioning, but it's not the freezing water itself. 

What's the takeaway?

With the exception of implicit causal claims, which is a topic I'll write about another week, to read something as a causal claim, the statement needs to assert that one thing played a role in producing another thing. This often involves use of a causal verb, such as "causes", "produces", "inhibits", "promotes", "encourages", "increases", and so on. But this isn't the only way to make a causal claim. For example, "is because of", "is a result of", "is due to", all assert cause even though the verb "is" does not by itself introduce cause.

In addition, Be careful about statements that merely say that one thing happened after another thing, or that one thing tends to have a certain quality - without causal language, these statements don't assert cause.

Ultimately, to get better at recognizing causal language, take note while you study of the kinds of sentences that have tricked you. And, explain why the language tricked you. What did the statements actually mean and why did you read it differently? Then, come up with parallel statements of your own (like I did with the presidential candidates or December 25 examples) that can help remind you of the proper meaning.

Future LSAT Reading Comp Passages

This section of the post collects interesting online articles that you might see edited down to an actual LSAT RC passage in the distant future. Read these recommendations every week and I can guarantee that your RC score will improve or you'll learn something interesting about the world, or both.

Thanks for reading,

Kevin

P.S. I encourage you to forward this to anyone you think would benefit from LSAT advice.

Subscribe to The Weekly Flaw: Luminate LSAT's Newsletter

A collection of LSAT advice, readings, and drills straight to your inbox from Kevin Lin, a 180-scoring expert instructor.