Dealing with Uncertain Certainties


Popeye the Sailor Man, © Bud Sagendorf 1957, King Features

Popeye the Sailor Man, © Bud Sagendorf 1957, King Features

On of WC’s favorite professors, Dom LaRusso, tried to hammer the tools for critical thinking into WC’s head. It was LaRusso’s thesis, tracing back to Cicero, that a good citizen had to be able to think critically and explain his positions on issues persuasively.

To illustrate the importance of critical thinking, LaRusso pointed to Popeye. Popeye, for youngsters who haven’t seen the cartoon, ate spinach to give him extra strength. The extra strength came from all the iron in spinach. But, LaRusso told us, all that extra iron was a myth, the result of an error by a German chemist named Erich von Wolff, who had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870. Spinach contained 3.5 milligrams of iron per hundred grams of spinach, not 35 milligrams. And so eating spinach for iron, not to mention iron as Popeye’s source of strength, was a myth. All the result of no one questioning how a leafy green could have such an improbable amount of spinach.1

Alas, while LaRusso’s point on critical thinking was important, it turns out the story of the misplaced decimal point is itself a myth. von Wolf didn’t misplace a decimal point; he just did bad lab work. And Popeye never relied upon the iron in spinach; in 1932 Popeye gave us an iron-free explanation: “Spinach is full of vitamin ‘A,’ an’ tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty.” The myth-busting was itself a myth. You can still find the story of von Wolff’s error in textbooks.

Sometimes the myths of history are nested, like those cheap Russian dolls. You expose one myth and find another inside.

But LaRusso’s point, and the point WC wants you to take away from this brief post, is that you can never cease to examine critically the assumptions you make about the world around you. Whether it’s the “certainties” of Newtonian mechanics – Einstein proved him wrong, after all – or the inane pronouncements of an Alaska Republican legislator – who seem to be right only at odd, random intervals.

WC was once sent home from high school one day for wearing a t-shirt that said, “Question Authority”. Which kind of proved his point. Examine claims and assumptions critically. Because Cicero – and Dom LaRusso – were right. It’s your duty as a citizen, and a member of society. Never be afraid to call it out when the Emperor isn’t wearing clothes.

 

 


  1.  Ironically, spinach contains iron absorption-inhibiting substances, including high levels of oxalate, which can bind to the iron to form ferrous oxalate and render much of the iron in spinach unusable by the body. In addition to preventing absorption and use, high levels of oxalates remove iron from the body. Further popping Popeye’s bubble. 
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