Collapse of Preconceptions

Ever since the immediate aftermath of the 35W bridge collapse, a parade of lefty pundits lined up to blame the disaster on lack of state aid to local govenrments, closed libraries, and the war in Iraq for all I remember.

The response – let’s wait until actual engineers investigate this thing.

Well, they’re still investigating.  But according to federal transportation officials, Bthere’s a working theory, and that theory is that Nick Coleman suffered a stroke has, has, so far, nothing to do with money:

The top federal transportation official said that investigators have a “working theory” of why the 35W bridge collapsed in August: a poorly designed metal component called a gusset plate and excessive weight on the bridge that day.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters’ comments Thursday mirrored statements she made in August, a week after the collapse, and like her previous comments immediately led to controversy. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the collapse, has said a formal finding will not be available for at least a year.

Everyone knows this.  But knowing that the investigators have narrowed things down to a short list of theories does help…

…in dealing with this kind of thing:

Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Peters told a gathering Thursday in Washington, D.C., that he attended that “a finding of fault was not going to be lack of inspection or lack of maintenance” by state officials.

“I think it taints the findings,” he said.

No, Senator Murphy.  It taints the spin you and your party want to bring to the upcoming election.

It is all politics to the likes of Murphy.

But a spokesman for Peters said Murphy’s account of her comments was inaccurate.

“What she said is, look, I’m not going to prejudge what the NTSB is going to find, but the working theory that they are operating on, and this has been in the news for about two months now, is that there was a combination of a gusset plate and too much weight placed on a certain part of the bridge,” spokesman Brian Turmail said.

“Certainly, the NTSB would want to look into whether lack of maintenance was a factor in the collapse of the bridge,” he said. But Turmail added that “the working theory at the NTSB is that it is not a lack of inspections, but a design flaw and weight.”

Doesn’t seem all that controversial, does it?

Unless you’re someone for whom the bridge collapse was nothing but political red meat in the first place:

Later Thursday, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, confirmed Murphy’s account. “Murphy was sitting behind me and I turned to him and said, ‘What is this?'” Erhardt said. “To hear that it wasn’t maintenance or inspection, I thought, ‘What the hell?’ I remembered early reports about the gussets and I thought, what is that but lack of maintenance?”

I have to sit still for a minute.

I need to breathe slowly.





Rep. Erhardt:  If the gusset plates were (as the “working theory” postulates) poorly designed – meaning “not designed to be capable of relieving the stress on the joints that they needed to under the circumstances” – then their maintenance would (under my understanding of the theory) be irrelevant.

If you design a gusset plate (and its attendant bolts and welds, and its interaction with the rest of the structure) to transfer fifty tons of weight from girder A to arch B, and there’s really eighty tons being transferred, it wouldn’t matter if the plate were brand new out of the box; there’d be a problem.

A design problem.

Not a maintenance problem.

The Strib piece – by Patricia Lopez – notes the real importance of this theory. Oh, and it has nothing to do with the bridge falling over:

A design flaw would give administration critics less of an opening to hold current officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation or Gov. Tim Pawlenty responsible.

And – oh, yeah, just like all of us people who care about science and stuff have been saying all along – it’s not over yet:

“It’s true, yeah, we are looking at the design issues and the gusset plates and the weight of the construction materials and equipment on the bridge,” NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. “We’re also looking at the maintenance and repair history. We’re looking at the de-icing fluids — any role they may have played. We basically haven’t ruled anything out yet.”

But you can smell the fear, can’t you?

It’s interesting; for all the yapping the left does about the (caricaturish, cartoon-y parts of the) right’s flailing about with non-issues like evolution and creationism, it’s amazing the contempt the (caricaturish, cartoon-y parts of the) left has for science.

17 thoughts on “Collapse of Preconceptions

  1. So if it’s a design flaw….let’s see, bridge built in 1967. I guess that makes it LBJ and HHH’s fault. If they weren’t so concerned about the war on Vietnam that we all know was really about Big Rice, then the bridge would have been built correctly.

  2. Mitch, it’s not that the left has contempt for science, it’s that the left has no clue as to how science is actually done and how to interpret it. There’s something about trying to design a complex system and falling flat on your face a few times that tends to make one more humble about human understanding of extremely complex systems and thus more conservative about making big changes.

    There are a few rules, though that everyone should take to heart about science:

    1) Never bet against anything in science above 10 or 12 to 1. (Ernest Rutherford). In other words, scepticism always until thoroughly validated with irrefutable proof. And even then you need to be ready to change; scientists are not infallible, and the more complicated the system, the more fallible they are.

    2) Scientists understand the mechanisms but the macroscopic effects are rarely well understood any better than a layman can predict. For example, Enrico Fermi was taking bets that the troposphere would ignite when the first atomic bomb was detonated, which frightened many of the Manhattan Project scientists.

    I feel for the engineers of the 60s, though. Without computers to check their calculations there was a lot more room for oversights and design flaws. We still have those kind of things, just fewer of them since many faults are more easily checked these days. Now we tend to make new mistakes rather than repeating the mistakes of the past (unless you’re really clever or really stupid and manage to work around the checks).

  3. Nerdbert, not sure if this is an urban myth or not, but one story I’ve heard that in the past (say mid 1800’s to mid 1900’s), since the science of engineering wasn’t as precise, bridges were overbuilt just to be safe. Hence we still have many 100 year old railroad bridges in use and various stone viaducts and whatnot (although many have been re-inforced). The railroad bridge that caused the worst of the 1888 Johnstown flood is still in daily use.

    As knowledge improved, construction was done more precise, not overdone. So now there is less room for error.

  4. Of course, this obfuscates and purposefully minimizes the reality that we’ve been utterly irresponsible children regarding payinig our way in upkeep of infrastructure. Our greed, selfishness, decadence, and churlishness have allowed us to both not record the unfunded maintenance, and of course to not fund it. The consequence, 188 BILLION per year in poorly maintained (at best) decrepit, obsolescent, and in some cases FAILING infrastructure.

    The misnomer, misrepresentation, spin, that there’s plenty of cash to pay for this, we just have to go find it, is of course ENTIRELY refuted by the fact that we don’t put the Iraq War, Social Security commitments, or a host of other incurred or soon to be incurred, liabilities on our books. If the government is so flush with money, after 28 years of principally fiscally conservative rule, then the question is, what the hell have you been doing for 28 years? If it is NOT, if we’ve in fact belt tightened, maybe not as much as the kooks who want virtually NO government (outide national defense “gotta have them guns” and maybe monitoring interestate/international commerce) – but if the rest of the sane world has in fact been successful in curtailing spending – and the surplusses of the 90’s indicate they probably were, then there ISN’T all this cash sitting around.

    The upshot, is that whether the 35W bridge collapsed purely due to a lack of maintenance, weight, or a combination of both, which of course is entirely likely, the fact is that the 35W bridge was in very poor shape, it had cracks so significant that they considered emergency patches, and that says even CONSIDERING putting the kind of weight on it that there was, was a bad idea. Pretending that the problem doesn’t exist, or that it’s not going to get worse, simply because it may have been (in this case) contributed to by weight, that doesn’t refute or change the fact that we’re being irresponsible citizens and parents/grandparents by handing our proginy a country/infrastructure in far worse shape than the one we were handed, and we’re doing so simply because we’re unwilling to demand that those who benefit from this system, pay in equal measure to their benefits.

  5. Hey Nerd, no insult meant to you personally, but I find it rather funny to hear the right say that the left has no concept of science, considering it is the right that states the scientific method is fundamentally flawed as it’s justification for ignoring; Darwin/Evolution, Global Climate Change, and calling aethiests intellectually stunted for not having accepted the ‘facts’ of God.

  6. You’re doing it again!

    Of course, this obfuscates and purposefully minimizes…

    No, it does not! Because our history of dealing with infrastructure is not the subject of this piece at all. It has nothing to do with it. I’m writing about the 101st-Airborne-At-Normandy-scale jump to conclusions the local chattering classes made before the last girder had fallen on August 1. There was no intention to deal with the entire issue of how we fund and pursue building and maintaining infrastructure.


    I could try to address every tangent related to my every post, every time – but then I actually WOULD be a long-winded gasbag, now, wouldn’t I?

  7. the right that states the scientific method is fundamentally flawed as it’s justification for ignoring; Darwin/Evolution, Global Climate Change, and calling aethiests intellectually stunted for not having accepted the ‘facts’ of God.

    actually, PB, I specifically addressed each of those as “non-issues” in terms of running a nation.

    And “the right” is of as many minds about Darwin, Climate Change et al as any other issue, and it’s reekingly disingenuous of you to pretend otherwise.

  8. I’ve heard the same thing, Chuck. Especially in reference to the 20’s and 30’s era bridges that carry so much traffic around here – the Central and Ford and Franklin bridges. Overbuilt, and damn proud of it.

  9. I used to admire Mitch’s attempts to reply to the Peeve’s diatribes. But, now I’m beginning to question HIS sanity.

    Responses to Peev commentary = ????

  10. it is the right that states the scientific method is fundamentally flawed as it’s justification for ignoring; Darwin/Evolution, Global Climate Change, and calling aethiests intellectually stunted for not having accepted the ‘facts’ of God.

    So the Right is ignoring “calling aethiests intellectually stunted for not having accepted the ‘facts’ of God”?

  11. How about the scientific facts that mining is safe. Oil drilling is safe. Nuclear power is safe.

    The left and it’s pagen earth worshipping ignore the above science.

  12. You take the good, you sculpt your bod,
    You take ’em both, and there you have,
    The ‘Facts of God,” The ‘Facts of God,’

    When the world never seems
    to be livin’ up to your dreams
    And suddenly you’re finding out
    the ‘Facts of God’ are all about you, you.

  13. Seems like somewhere else there was a long discussion on the Phelps cult and someone posted some insulting note towards Christians and their stupidity about how Jesus never existed and how that was a proven fact. The conversation then deteriorated towards a back and forth about Jesus. Is something like this the basis for Peevs last slur against the right?

    “Darwin/Evolution, Global Climate Change, and calling aethiests intellectually stunted for not having accepted the ‘facts’ of God.”

    Need to clarify the Darwin/Evolution thing. Are you talking about the miniscule number of people who claim the earth was created last Tuesday or are you talking about the people who do not believe man evolved from ape? Myself, I was taught that man and ape were parallel evolutions from a possible common ancestor. So does that make me a science skeptic or a believer?
    Global Climate Change. Well, what do you mean? Just that the climate changes? It always has and I expect it always will. Or do you mean human caused climate change. Science has yet to prove it does. Which way do YOU fall on this?

  14. Peev, the problem is that the left worships science rather than understand and practice it. In that sense they’re as bad as the far right fringers who also worship their dogma rather than their religion. Neither one serves their cause well.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with acknowledging that our feeble understanding of the universe allows us to make some predictions. And yet understanding that the entirety of understanding all of this is fragile and rather wondrous.

    Physics is fraught with deists. The universe is too weird to believe it was random. I remember in my quantum electrodynamics class discovering that the universe was composed almost entirely of matter rather than equal quantities of matter and antimatter (think how violent the universe would be in that case!) because of a slight asymmetry in muon decay. Why was it that way, when in all other measures symmetry was one of the dominant paradigms? There are many more examples.

  15. Nerdbert-
    The universe we know, in which we are born, live, and die is indeed weird.
    The philosopher Michael Oakshotte once wrote that the one thing that everyone can agree on about the past is that it doesn’t exist. If you take that idea to heart, the whole evolution vs. creationism argument is ludicrous. We are talking about a story, not ‘reality’. There is no fossil evidence of evolution or creationism. There are only rocks we look at and make up some narrative about them that may or may not be useful to advance a particular narrative.
    When we look at a star with with a telescope the spatial measure of the star is smaller than the wavelength of visible light. We don’t see other suns like our own, we see an interference pattern of a point source of light. Anything we infer from this interference pattern resides only in our imagination.

  16. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » If Plans Were Horses, Then Nick Coleman Could Ride To Water

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