Friday, September 16, 2016

The Plumber and the Pipefitter

or What I Learned In College

People often ask what you studied in college, but no one asks what you learned. I tell people I studied economics, but this is what I learned.
The senior year housing situation was great. My five roommates and I took two adjoining three-room suites in a neo-gothic style dorm in a great location. Turning one of the living rooms into a bedroom meant that we had created a shared 6-room suite where each of us had a single bedroom for 5/6ths of the year and only had to share a large bedroom with a roommate 1/6th of the year. All was right with the world.
But things soured within the first few days of September - scalding hot water started to drip from the ceiling in the living room and hallway. We called dormitory services to complain and a plumber arrived that day. The plumber took one look at the problem and said, "You don't need a plumber. You need a pipe fitter."
"Huh? What's a pipe fitter?"
"A pipe fitter fixes steam pipes. This isn't hot water. It's steam that is condensing to water and dripping from the ceiling. He needs to repair the steam pipe."
So we called back dormitory services and, with scalding hot water still dripping from the ceiling the next day, a pipe fitter arrived. The pipe fitter took one look at the problem and said, "You don't need a pipe fitter. You need a plumber. This isn't steam. This is hot water."
Suddenly the thoughts of a luxurious living in a six-room suite seemed like a far off dream.
Fortunately, the plumber returned and investigated with greater diligence, discovering that a nail was used to hold down a carpet on the floor above us many years ago and punctured a water pipe. The nail had sealed in the pipe, but was finally leaking. We had little disruption to our lives after that while the floor above was ripped apart to reach the pipe, make the repair, and put down the new flooring.

What did I learn?

When evidence first presents itself, it can be misleading. Making causal inferences is tricky business.

1. Dealing with an urgent matter puts pressure on finding the root cause - leaving no place for wishful thinking.
2. An expert may be wrong.
3. An expert may benefit in his own field of expertise from an expert in a completely different field due to the different perspectives and ways of thinking in that field.
4. If experts from different fields talk to each other, and listen, there is a greater likelihood for success.

It turns out that collaboration of experts from different fields has become all the rage. I attended my 40th college reunion a couple of years ago and attended a seminar on developments in neuroscience. This time I learned that neuroscientists had recently begun to make major unexpected strides in their field derived from collaboration with computer scientists and engineers.
So happy to report the plumber and the pipe fitter aren't the only ones talking to each other these days.

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