Opening Up the Kimono (in the name of science)

I’m always shocked by which columns draw readers. For instance, I wrote one on my mystical clown leadership style last weekend. Based on all the conversations I’d had the previous 10 days about nonprofit leadership, I assumed the response would be overwhelming. I was wrong. It was not even underwhelming. In fact, it barely whelmed at all.

On the other hand, a few I wrote a light-hearted column about my battles with Mr. Lefave, my sixth-grade science teacher. Battles which I lost—although I did win the war as I defined it:  making a good and decent man show he was upset. The example I gave had to do with my assertion that since rust was a slow form of oxidation and combustion was a fast form of oxidation, rust was a slow form of burning. This is logical, based on my premises, but clearly absurd. I stuck to logic, while Lefave had science, experience, common sense, etc. In short, I put my money on verbal legerdemain and gave the poor teacher the rest of the universe. When he didn’t accept my trick, I declared him illogical and crazy. He then sent me to the principal’s office, where I added to my fistful of detentions.

People responded to this piece, in a weird way. They agreed with me! I’m not used to convincing people when I’m demonstrating my trickery. Reading over the couple handfuls of emails and texts, I felt like the street magician who shows how to force a card onto a mark, then finds his audience is treating him as a wizard.

If there were a verb meaning “to believe falsely,” Wittgenstein tells us, it would have no first-person present form. “I believe falsely,” according to that philosopher, is an absurd pronouncement. He’s probably right. Still, people who have been shown the truth cling to bogosity. Let me explain in more detail, where I was wrong, how I slipped poor Mr. Lefave up, and give an illustration that may help further understanding. (Or not.)

“Oxidation” is an umbrella term that can be used in a number of specific and general ways. For a sixth-grade science class, Mr. LeFave quite appropriately used the broadest definition: oxidation is a process requiring oxygen. Therefore, both rusting and combusting are forms of oxidation—using this general layperson’s term. More specifically, though, rusting occurs only on iron when oxygen and moisture are present and produces iron oxide and negligible hear, while combustion requires only a fuel and oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, water and significant heat.  (I realize the words “negligible” and “significant” in the previous sentence smell weaselly—sorry about that.)

To argue rusting is slow burning is to argue only from that very simple definition. To say rusting is slow burning is verbal gymnastics worthy of a 9.9, even from the Romanian judge. To propose a teacher is crazy because he won’t recognize that rust and fire are the same event is intellectually dishonest.

Let me illustrate with a sort of visualization that may help.  If it doesn’t, please forget it immediately.

  • Chicago is 260 miles from St. Louis.
  • Nashville is 260 miles from St. Louis.
  • Chicago and Nashville are the same place
  • In the alternative, Chicago and Nashville are 260 miles apart.

Clearly, this is an absurd argument, and residents of both Chicago and Nashville would be disgusted to hear it. Still, it’s not fundamentally different from my nonsense.

Having set the record straight, demonstrated I was not just a stinker but a goddamned verbally manipulative stinker, I am still pleased at my ability to persuade.

Tomorrow: Why You Should Invest Your Money in My Trip to Sedona



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