Wrong question

Mitt Romney doesn’t know what the null set is, or what a non sequitur is. Fortunately for him, neither do the reporters covering the campaign.

ABC’s Rick Klein to Romney

But seriously, governor, is the nation ready for a president who uses the term “null set?”

1. The question is whether the nation is ready for a president who misuses the term “null set,” twice:

Well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that &#8212 or a null set &#8212 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.


Well, I answered the question by saying it’s a non sequitur. It’s a non &#8212 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.

So Romney thinks the null set has something to do with a non sequitur and that either one has something to do with an unreasonable hypothetical? (At least Romney should know what a non sequitur is, since he uses them so much himself; when he thinks, or pretends, that he’s making an argument, the purported conclusion almost never follows from the asserted premises.)

Is Romney trying out for the Kevin Kline role in A Fish Called Wanda: the guy who uses big words he doesn’t understand and misquotes absurdly from famous authors? (As the Jamie Lee Curtis character might say, “A hypothetical question, even one based on an absurd hypothesis, isn’t a non sequitur. Neither has any connection with the null set. These are mistakes, Mitt. I looked them up.” )

2. Really and truly, the null set isn’t some esoteric concept known only to a tiny wonkish minority, like intertextuality or signalling equilibria or the conservation of orbital symmetry. Anyone who’s taken a class in formal logic that didn’t stop in 1900 knows the null set. So does anyone who’s had an even slightly rigorous college-level math course. So does anyone who has encountered Boolean algebra in a computer-science course. So, for that matter, does anyone my age who remembers the third grade; the “New Math” included an elementary version of set theory.

And anyone who remembered any of those things would know not just that Romney tried to appear sophisticated, but that he fell flat on his face in doing so. Yet Klein and his colleagues seem content to make fun of Romney for using a fancy phrase, without noting that he did so incorrectly. Obviously, they don’t know what the null set is, and can’t be bothered to ask anyone who does or to look it up in Wikipedia. Or maybe they regard the proposition that Romney made an error as a matter of opinion not fit for inclusion in a purely objective account of his remarks.

Footnote The “null” or “empty” set (written { } or ΓΈ ) is the set with no members. In particular, if two sets are non-overlapping (disjoint) their intersection is the null set. If two predicates are mutually inconsistent, then their extensions are non-overlapping. Therefore any oxymoron has as its extension the null set.

For example, if dishonesty is a necessary condition of becoming a Republican Presidential candidate, then the set of honest Republican Presidential candidates will be the null set. In other words, the set will be as empty as Mitt Romney’s head.

Second footnote And, as Scott Lemieux points out, if we ignore Romney’s fake erudition and look instead at the substance of his remarks, he doesn’t come off any better.

Update Two readers independently suggest that “null set” was intended to be euphemistic for “_ull s__t.” I’m still trying to figure out a barnyard epithet that rhymes with non sequitur. “Non sequitur, Sherlock”?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com