The non sequitur and dealing with tough questions
May 17, 2006
In February I posted about presenting under fire and gave links to some good resources for handling difficult speaking situations. I'd like to add another resource to that list: In the Line of Fire, by Jerry Weissman, is a good book if you are interested in beefing up your skills for answering the tough questions.
The non sequitur
Non sequitur is Latin for "it does not follow." By definition, a non sequitur appears to be a disconnected or random comment, or a random change in subject. Inexperienced presenters, flustered by the heat of the moment and being on the spot, may inadvertently state conclusions that do not follow from the premise or they may make rambling statements that do not follow logically from the question being asked. This can make one appear as if they are avoiding the question (even if that was not their intent). Politicians -- on the left and the right -- are infamous for deliberately using the non sequitur to dodge questions or to give the mere appearance of answering the question. For example, if the question is "Is XYZ constitutional?" and the answer is "Well, polls show that most people favor XYZ. In a recent study, in fact, 87% of respondents support XYZ." Is this not a non sequitur?
non se·qui·tur n.
(1) A reply that has no relevance to what preceded it. (2) (logic) a conclusion that does not follow from the premises.
-- Websters online
Earlier this month, MSNBC reported on a May 4th exchange between US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a private US citizen, CIA veteran Ray McGovern, which took place during a Q&A session after the Defense Secretary's speech. (You can see the four-minute piece by MSBC here; Jon Stewart's take on it here.)
McGovern asked Secretary Rumsfeld "why he had lied"* before the war about the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, a link that McGoven stated was refuted by the CIA and the 9/11 Commission. After saying that "I have not lied," Rumsfeld then goes down a path that appears to have more to do with the pre-war consensus regarding the existence of WMD; he did not address the al-Qaeda/Iraq question. When Rumsfeld brings up the WMD issue, McGovern then accused Rumsfeld of specifically stating before the war that he "knew where they [WMD] were." Rumsfeld denied he said that. McGovern then quotes back Rumsfeld's own words from March 2003 (seen in the screen shot from MSNBC below).
*(McGovern's phrasing of the question, by the way, is at least in part fallacious since his question contains a presumption -- that Rumsfeld lied -- which has not been established. This is a bit like the old example of a complex question: "Do you still beat your wife?" Later McGovern asks "Was it a lie?" rather than "Why did you lie?").
Rumsfeld slips to a couple of non sequiturs when McGovern claims again that Rumsfeld clearly stated before the war that there was "bullet-proof evidence" of ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq. "Was that a lie?" McGovern asked. But instead of giving evidence of the al-Qaeda tie, the Secretary said that it was a fact that "Zarqawi was in Baghdad before 9/11..." McGovern claims that this is evidence of nothing. Rumsfeld truly slips though when he refers to the fact that the troops were prepared with protective chemical suits, etc. as evidence that most believed there to be WMD in Iraq. Rumsfeld essentially changes the subject and claims: "It's easy for you to make a charge, but why do you think that the men and women in uniform every day, when they came out of Kuwait and went into Iraq, put on chemical weapon protective suits? Because they liked the style?"
The Secretary's answer got a laugh from the audience, but did it answer the question? The question remember was about al-Qaeda ties to Iraq, not the existence of WMD. Yet, even if the question had been on WMD, the troops being issued protective suits is also a non sequitur and is evidence only that the top leadership believed there to be WMD, not proof that the Secretary did not "lie" or mislead (which was the original question). In response, "That's what we call a non sequitur" said McGovern. "It doesn't matter what the troops believe; it matters what you believe." (Transcripts of the exchange.)
My aim is not to get in a political debate here, but only to show via a high-profile example what can happen when we answer questions under fire. You or I may never be in this hot of a situation as Donald Rumsfeld. But what do you think? How could the US Defense Secretary have handled the situation better (or did he do as well as he could have)? What the Secretary does do well here, of course, is to keep his cool. Always good advice. His vague, meandering replies in this case, however, leave many wondering if he is being purposely evasive or whether he really has no answer to the question (s) other than to give non sequiturs. Good advice for the rest of us -- everyday business people, researchers, etc. -- is to know our story deeply and anticipate questions (especially the tough ones) so that we can at least minimize the chances of being caught off guard.
Links related to the use of logic and argument
Here are several links to good, short articles on the basics of logical argument, logical fallacies, and so on. Very useful for the writer and speaker alike to review the basics of argument and how to spot fallacies, etc.
• On "Spotting the fallacious argument" by lawyer Paul Mark Sandler
• Logical Fallacies from virtuescience.com
• On using logic in composition. (English 101, yes, but a good refresher.)
• Logic & Fallacies (from infidels.org)
• Logical Fallacies in Writing
• FAQ on Constructing a Logical Argument
• Hundreds of links from issues of logic, critical thinking, rhetoric, statistics, persuasion, etc.
• How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things
• Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate
• The Fallacy files (searchable and excellent)
• Argumentative writing (Purdue's on-line writing lab)
• Critical Thinking Mini-Lessons
• Teaching Critical Thinking (great pdf document by Tim van Gelder)
• Persuasion Analysis
• Spotting fake photos (OK, not on argument or logic, but in the age of "Photoshop for the masses" everyone needs to be on their toes.
• Glossary of Mathematical Mistakes
• Entire website on changing minds and persuasion
• Assertiveness and self-confidence and a whole plethora of great articles for those interested in personal and organizational development
• Finally, Monty Python video clip: the argument clinic (classic stuff).