I bring up these bits of elementary logic here because of the answer Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave to a question posed by Wolf Blitzer during the Republican candidates' debate last month.
The question was: "Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?"
Romney's answer was, "Well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that -- or a null set -- that is that if you're saying let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point. We made the decision to get in."
Not satisfied, Blitzer reposes the question, to which Romney replied, "Well, I answered the question by saying it's a non sequitur. It's a non -- null set kind of question, because you can go back and say, 'If we knew then what we know now,' by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn't be having this discussion. So it's a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical."
Romney was either being pretentious by using terms he didn't understand in order to impress his audience or he was being intentionally obfuscatory because he didn't want to answer the question. Either way, his response, despite his being a first-tier candidate, does not portend a candidacy distinguished by candor or eloquence.
But the deeper problem with his answer was that it was clearly wrong. Saddam Hussein did allow U.N. inspectors into Iraq, they did not find any WMDs, and they were ordered out by President Bush while they were still looking. Bush's unwillingness to give the inspectors a few extra months of time (presumably Romney would have agreed) contrasts starkly with his willingness to give the war effort years and years of extra time.
Romney's gaffe brings to mind former President Ford's ill-informed remark during his debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976 that Poland was a free country not dominated by the Soviet Union.
In any case, more focus on the content of the candidates' words and a primary voting method more suitable to races with many candidates might improve our presidential electoral process.
Sticky rice and mango taste great. That's a real non sequitur.
John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, has written such bestsellers as "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.