My Zunivers

02 January 2009

Reading a book about American industry, I came across an interesting section about steel. The book had very good descriptions of various iron and steel processes. But I found a couple of errors. The book said that steel mills no longer static cast. Ever. My dad has spent 20 yeas doing just that, so somebody should tell him his job isn't real. Also, the book said that mini-mills make only low grade steel. The company my dad works for isn't mini, but they do scrap metal and additives cooked in electric arc furnaces just like mini-mills. And they don't make junk. People buy re-bar and i-beams and even auto frame steel from other places. The company my dad works for makes surgical steels, airplane compressor blade steel, steel or high temperature bearings, and that sort of thing.

These two mistakes are actually related. Specialty steel of some stocks is still static cast. The amount of static cast specialty steel around is quite small. On the other hand, the big steelmakers who do lower grade steel for beams and car chassis (some of which is still pretty high grade, mind you, and always a high enough grade for its purpose) would never cut a profit without continuous casting. Where does a person writing a book on industry go to learn about steel? Big companies. But if you go to ISG or Nucor, they probably won't even mention the small specialty companies or the specialty processes. Those companies are profitably involved in specialty work, but it is not their primary output. To hear about department or different companies who use different processes successfully or even out of necessity, you would need to think of it on your own and ask specifically, or happen to come upon an overworked PR department that passes you to an engineer with knowledge outside his box, or something like that.

The lesson here is that experts and generalists both matter. I know what I know about steel only because I know someone with firsthand experience doing it every day. I know a lot more than I did yesterday about industry overall only because I found a book by someone who knows a little about a lot.

Reading books, as well as the internet or newspapers, is interesting and usually quite informative, but the small details can get lost. If the author of the book I was reading was an expert on steel, rather than generally knowledgeable in industry, he wouldn't have made the mistakes he made about steel. On the other hand, if his interest were focused only on steel, he would not have been able to write such a sweeping overview about water works, mining, utilities, transportation infrastructure, and the like.

Of course, the answer to the inevitable question about who to believe is much stickier. It can even get downright scary. I am no longer a young earth creationist because I stopped getting my science from pastors and lawyers without a real hobby and started getting it from scientists who make such things their work. But I also fume when I hear stories about doctors-- experts and often very good overall-- who then downright completely and rather obviously are screwed up on subjects like thyroid treatment, invasive coronary artery care, and childbirth procedures.

My experience has been that not every expert is right, but that most knee-jerk anti-experts would have trouble passing a Turing test. So I will not ignore the expert and I will not discount them without a very good reason. One of the best reasons I often find is that the person actually is not an expert, just someone hiding behind a web of complex babble and long lists of citations and footnotes, but that's a rant for another day.

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