In my continuing series on logical fallacies that, once completed, will be organized into a somewhat methodical outline and links posted at the top of all relevant posts, I’m going to now address the incredibly common “Non sequitur” fallacy.
What Is the Non Sequitur Fallacy?
The phrase, “non sequitur,” is Latin, and it literally translates as, “It does not follow.” And like most logical fallacies, it really means just that: The non sequitur fallacy is when any rebuttal is given that, well, just has nothing to do with the original claim. In that sense, many logical fallacies could be non sequiturs, such as the Straw Man, but this post is really about the broad, more obvious type rather than sub-types.
Example of a Non Sequitur from Young-Earth Creationism
I’ve been wanting to bring this in for awhile, an example from Kent Hovind, possibly better known as “Dr. Dino,” and definitely better known now as the, “I’m-an-employee-of-God-so-I-don’t-have-to-pay-taxes” guy who’s serving a 10-year prison sentence, with his wife, for tax evasion.
Anyway, in Hovind’s very long video lecture series on young-Earth creationism (YEC), which I have watched over 10 hours of, he makes several examples of this fallacy. One of them is when he is discussing ages of fossils, specifically within the context of how radioactive dating methods work.
Hovind makes a rather interesting claim when he is trying to make the point that radioactive dating methods don’t work, and they don’t work to the point that “even scientists” won’t use them. One of the many examples is that he says fossils are NOT dated by radiocarbon methods.
*Gasp!* But how could this be!? Surely, geologists would use carbon-14 dating methods to determine how old a fossil is, like a dinosaur, right? And if they don’t, then how can we, the common citizen, trust that carbon-14 is a valid method? And if carbon-14 doesn’t work, then why should we trust anything else that those scientists say!?
This is probably what Hovind wants you to think. However, the claim that we don’t date fossils through radiocarbon methods is perfectly true, but a perfect non sequitur. Pointing out that we don’t use the decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14 is like pointing out that a repairman won’t use a hammer to apply paint. It’s completely base and unnecessary.
Why? Because fossils don’t contain carbon. A fossil is formed when minerals replace the organic material that was there. The organic material was what had the carbon in it, but the fossil does not. Hence, we can no more use carbon-14 dating to determine how old a fossil is than a surgeon can use his or her car keys to form a triple bypass.
An Example from a Grant Review
Last March, I received back a review of a grant that I had submitted in order to fund the rest of my grad student career separately from my advisor (save him money, great CV builder). Unfortunately, I did not get funded, but when I got the comments back, most of them were, well, non sequiturs, which frustrated me to no end.
For example, without trying to get into 15 pages of background information, my proposal was to complete my database of craters on Mars. One of the key points in any database is to actually identify the objects. I had stated how I would do that, by outlining (tracing) the rim of every crater, and that each point along the rim would be recorded in decimal degrees (such as, 56.23421345° North, 128.2342134239° East). Fairly straight-forward.
One of the “Intrinsic Merit Weaknesses, Major” that was noted was, “There is no information provided on the projection and coordinate system that will be used.” That’s a non sequitur because it doesn’t matter — if the data is recorded in decimal degrees, then it can be projected into any coordinate system someone wants.
Another example was the following paragraph. I had stated in the proposal that the database, when completed, would be distributed among the general research community for them to use (that’s right, I learned how to share in kindergarden … I also learned that I was mentally retarded because I’m left-handed). I stated twice in the proposal that it would be distributed through the Mars Crater Consortium’s website, PIGWAD (the USGS’s data website), and PDS (NASA’s data website). This was what the reviewers noted: “No detail is provided as to how the resulting database will be distributed, a task that will not be straightforward given that the [researcher] will be using in-house algorithms.”
Okay, so, first-off we can see that the reviewer missed where I stated that information, twice. But we can also see the non sequitur because the algorithms are to do things like fit a circle to the crater rim, or calculate the average elevation. Those are used to create the database, while the database itself is, well, just a database. “In-house,” “commercial,” “GPN,” and other algorithms are irrelevant to how the final database would be released.
The non sequitur is generally fairly easy to spot because it’s one of those things that, when used, will usually make you go, “Huh?” because it doesn’t make sense — it doesn’t follow from the original argument/claim. It’s frequently used in everyday life, just like the ad hominem, though probably the non sequitur is a little harder to spot.