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Question
QuickView
Choices
Curve Question
Difficulty
Psg/Game/S
Difficulty
Explanation
PT92 S1 Q10
+LR
Strengthen +Streng
A
6%
153
B
18%
153
C
5%
159
D
10%
155
E
61%
164
146
156
165
+Harder 147.037 +SubsectionMedium

This is a Strengthen question.

The difficulty of this question mostly comes from the attractiveness of the wrong answers and a complication to an otherwise simple argument form. Stripping the wrong answers away and simplifying the conclusion reveal a common recurring pattern. The stimulus contains a correlation premise followed by a causal conclusion. The correct answer choice precludes an alternate hypothesis. But like I said, the actual argument is more complex and the presence of four very attractive wrong answers also works to obscure the pattern.

The stimulus starts with a dentist reporting data from five studies. The data reveals that in Europe, the proportion of children with bad teeth is lower than in the United States. It also tells us that in Europe, water is not fluoridated, whereas in the United States, water is fluoridated. As you can see, this is the classic setup where a phenomenon is presented that correlates with another phenomenon. And we’re invited to infer a causal relationship. Naturally, we want to explain why children in Europe have fewer teeth problems. The stimulus conveniently tells us that in Europe, water is not fluoridated, whereas in the United States, water is.

A simpler version of this argument could have gone like this: Therefore, fluoridated water causes teeth problems for children. This would be the classic A (fluoridated water) is correlated with B (teeth issues), therefore A causes B.

The actual argument is a bit more sophisticated and relies implicitly on the contrapositive argument form. The assumption is that if fluoridated water prevented teeth issues, then the data would have shown healthier teeth in countries with fluoridated water. The data showed just the opposite. So therefore, the actual conclusion states that fluoridated water doesn’t prevent teeth issues.

The reason why the reasoning is vulnerable is the same reason why, in general, arguments of this form fail. Bad causal assumptions. “If fluoridated water prevented teeth issues, then the data would have shown healthier teeth in countries with fluoridated water” would be true only if all other causal factors have been controlled for. Clearly, that didn’t happen. The data did not come from anything resembling an ideal experiment. Rather, it came from observational studies. That means whatever differences between Europe and the United States that may be causally relevant to the health of children's teeth are acting on the outcomes.

Think about this in terms of Weaken. If we wanted to expose the vulnerability of the reasoning, we’d simply point out any causal influence that wasn’t controlled for that could have affected dental health. For example, we could have stipulated that in the United States, children eat a lot more candy, which rots teeth. If that's true, then we found an explanation of the difference in dental health between Europe and the United States that doesn’t suggest that fluoridated water is ineffective. Rather, it may well be that fluoridated water actually protects teeth but that preventative causal impact is being overwhelmed by the decaying causal impact of sugars. Kids in the United States have teeth issues in spite of fluoridated water.

If stipulating this to be true weakens the argument, then precluding it strengthens the argument. This is what Correct Answer Choice (E) does. It tells us that the diets of children in the United States are not generally worse for teeth than those of children in Europe. This generally precludes the entire class of food-related explanations of the difference in dental health of which my sugar explanation was just one specific example. By precluding the entire class of explanations, (E) does not prove the hypothesis to be true. But (E) does strengthen the argument by making the hypothesis just a bit more probable.

Interestingly, had the argument been simpler, that is, had the conclusion simply said that fluoridated water causes teeth problems for children, (E) would still work. In fact, it’d be even more obvious that (E) fit the cookie-cutter mold of precluding an alternative explanation.

A note about strategy under timed conditions. I tend to remind you that given the nature of strengthening and weakening questions that deal in a phenomenon hypothesis, it is difficult to anticipate what the correct answer choice will say. That is true in this question as well, which is why, in general, the best strategy is to use POE even though you’d be exposed to the mischief of the wrong answers.

Answer Choice (B) says nearly all dentists in the United States use dental treatments involving the application of fluoride directly to tooth surfaces. (B) can be eliminated simply by recognizing that the causal direction of fluoride pushes in the opposite direction. The conclusion says that fluoride doesn’t benefit dental health yet (B) implies, by appeal to relevant authority, that fluoride does benefit dental health. Clearly, this does not strengthen the argument. But it also doesn't weaken the argument either if you look closer at the details. Even if it's true that fluoride, when directly applied by dentists to tooth surfaces, is effective for treating dental problems, it still may be true that fluoride in water has no effect on protecting teeth.

Answer Choice (D) says that, on average, children in Europe receive more frequent dental checkups than children in the United States. Rather than precluding an explanation of the differences in dental health, (D) seems to be introducing one. If children in Europe differ from children in the United States in that European children receive more frequent preventative care, then that explains why they have better teeth. This is just like when we contemplated diet as the alternative explanation. If children in Europe had a healthier diet for their teeth or had more frequent preventative care for their teeth, the fact that they have healthier teeth may have nothing to do with the presence or absence of fluoride in their water. This would weaken the argument.

Answer Choice (A) says that toothpaste containing fluoride is widely available in both the United States and Europe. (A) is attractive because in form it looks like it's holding some potential causal factor equal and therefore precluding that factor from accounting for the observed difference in dental health. The problem, however, is in order for (A) to be preclusive, it needs some questionable assumptions.

First, notice that we are being baited to assume that wide availability implies equal usage in children. That is a very specific and arbitrary assumption. Wide availability of fluoride toothpaste in and of itself doesn't bear on the issue. What we actually care about is whether children in Europe and the United States use that widely available fluoride toothpaste to a comparable degree. (A) is silent about that phenomenon.

Second, even if we fixed this first problem, (A) still has another subtler problem. Imagine if the answer said that the use of fluoride toothpaste is comparable for children in the United States and Europe. That would seem to preclude the possibility that European children use more fluoride toothpaste than their American counterparts, and it's this extra usage that accounts for their healthier teeth. Yet this reasoning requires fluoride to be good for teeth when in toothpaste, yet useless for teeth when in water. That's an unwarranted assumption. It's not impossible, but it hardly seems reasonable to assume without evidence.

Answer Choice (C) says dental hygiene is typically taught in elementary school in both Europe and the United States. (C) is attractive in the same way that (A) is attractive. In form it looks like it's holding some potential causal factor equal and therefore precluding that factor from accounting for the observed difference in dental health. In this case, the potential causal factor is whether dental hygiene is taught in school. And (C) precludes the phenomenon where dental hygiene is only taught in elementary school in Europe and not the United States. The problem is that we don't care much about precluding this phenomenon. Because even if dental hygiene is typically taught only in elementary schools in Europe and not the United States, a lot of other causal assumptions need to be supplied in order for the observed difference in dental health to be explained. First, we need to assume that children enact dental hygiene behaviors that they learn in school because otherwise the mere instruction would have no causal impact on their dental health. Second, we also need to assume that just because American children don't learn dental hygiene at school, they don't learn it at all. That seems highly unlikely, since if they're not learning it in school, then parents would have extra incentive to teach dental hygiene at home.

Notice how Correct Answer Choice (E) doesn't suffer from the need to fill in these causal gaps with questionable assumptions. If the diets of children in the United States were generally worse for dental health, then that explains the observed difference in dental health.