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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Logical fallacies and the environment: squirrel! (I mean, non-sequitur)

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Non sequitur is latin for “does not follow”, and it applies to every case where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. In general terms, all logical fallacies are a form of non-sequitur.

In common speech, though, a non-sequitur refers to a statement that has very little relevance to what was said before (also known as a red herring). It is common rhetorical device used to distract from the issue – or create humour (as in Bloom County, above a bit of satire on how politicians abound in non-sequiturs).

A non-sequitur often has the following form: A is true (here’s evidence for A). Therefore, C must be true.

Here are a few examples:
Look at their house! They must be loaded! (Maybe they’re heavily in debt)
“You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie, cuz that’ll be the day when I die.” (Apologies to Buddy Holly, but the “cuz” has no business being there)
Did you know taxes are so high you have to wait until July 1rst before making money for yourself? These solar programs just have got to go. (solar=taxes? Uh?)
“I’m so thrilled with my lab results!” “Well, nobody’s perfect.” (What do you reply to that?)
Meat is murder! Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? (A nicely absurd compilation of ad-hominem and non-sequitur)
Here is a scientific proof of the existence of God. (The non-sequitur here is not the mention of God; rather, it is in “scientific proof”, which is an oxymoron. Logic and math produce proofs; experimental science establishes likelihoods.)
Humans have nothing to do with climate change. Climate was warming in the Middle Ages. Before that, there was an ice age. (Natural climate variability and human-induced change are independent; this type of non-sequitur is an implied either-or fallacy)

Here’s another one, from a speech by denier Patrick Moore: [T]here is no definitive scientific proof, through real-world observation, that carbon dioxide is responsible for any of the slight warming of the global climate that has occurred during the past 300 years, since the peak of the Little Ice Age. If there were such a proof through testing and replication it would have been written down for all to see. (Aside from the inappropriate “scientific proof”, the problem with this statement is the request for testing and replication. This sounds good, but has no business in a discussion of global climate, since we don’t have an array of interchangeable planet Earths with which to conduct replicable experiments. That being said, all elements of climate science such as CO2 absorption of infrared radiation have been fully tested and replicated. Note the clever mention of “Little Ice Age”, hinting, without stating so, that natural variability must be the main factor – another non-sequitur, as mentioned above.  Here is the source for Moore’s speech.)

A thorough analysis of a non-sequitur can be a challenge.  For instance, here’s a pair of statements:

People hate traffic jams! There should be more electric cars.
or
There should be more electric cars! People hate traffic jams.

First, note that the order of the statements matter. The second statement is usually interpreted as a response to the first.

In the first instance, it is clear that electric cars is a non-sequitur to traffic jams, which are presented as a problem. This is true, unless one makes the following links: a) People hate traffic jams because they hate breathing polluted air; b) electric cars do not pollute the air, and c) therefore, electric cars are the solution to (the air pollution problem of) traffic jams.

In the second case, the emphasis is on cars; more cars, electric or otherwise, will create more traffic jams. Since traffic jams are bad, there should not be more cars, whether electric or not – so the second statement is relevant in this case. But if the first statement is interpreted to say that there should be a higher proportion of cars that are electric, then the mention of traffic jams is irrelevant – a perfect non-sequitur.

Non-sequiturs often require a bit of mental gymnastics to tease out a possible link between two statements. They can be used for the purpose of distracting from a weak argument (a la Patrick Moore above); but they can also be used to spark imagination – forcing creative thinking to create the links, so to speak. In fact, creative thinking (aka lateral thinking, brainstorming, thinking out of the box) usually produces a number of non-sequiturs, as the imagination is let free. So non-sequiturs may bring a glimpse of a solution to a thorny problem. Often, a creative approach consists of questioning one of the premises of the problem, by asking “what-if” type questions. Non-sequiturs have their place – just not in logic arguments.

One has to be weary: unspoken, hidden links are often what makes non-sequitur statements attractive to the conspiracy-minded individual. The concept that there is a hidden truth that makes the link between the two apparently unrelated statements, and that this truth is revealed only to a chosen few (including you, of course), can be very seductive. It’s just that, as Mr Spock would say, it is highly illogical.

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Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series:the strawman.

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Written by enviropaul

March 7, 2016 at 12:43 pm

One Response

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  1. […] Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: non-sequitur. […]


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