A plumbing parable


My kitchen sink has a problem. Something has broken inside the Moen faucet, so that the handle is loose and only marginally effective. I'm thinking I should run down to the hardware store and get a new faucet assembly, and get under the sink with a pipe wrench. It shouldn't be too difficult.

Right away, I run into an obstacle. I get down to the basement to fetch my wrench, and there's one of the local ministers sitting on the toolbox. "Have you tried the incredible power of prayer yet, son?" he asked. I said no, of course not. I'm trying to fix a broken faucet. And then he gave me one of those pitying looks and tried to convince me that not only could Jesus fix my faucet, he would give me wine on tap. So I told him to get his fat ass off my toolbox and out of my house, and he stomped off.

By the time I got upstairs, the phone was ringing. It was Phil Johnson. "You're assuming that wrench is the only way to fix that faucet, aren't you? You've completely closed your mind to the possibility of alternative methodologies."

"Pipe wrenches have always worked well for me, and it kinda makes sense that if you want to fix a faucet, you use a plumbing tool," I said. "If you've got a better way, I'd be happy to hear it."

"Oh, no, I'm not going to endorse a particular tool, that might divide the community. I just want you to admit that you have an a priori commitment to wrenches and faucets that precludes even considering immaterial methods."

I hung up on the senile old fart.

Next stop, the hardware store. The local school board is standing in front of the door, trying to block my entry. When I asked why they were interfering with me, one said, "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?" I had no idea that Jesus died for plumbing, but I didn't care, either. I went on in.

There were more members of the community haranguing the clerk. I just wanted to buy a new faucet and get home, but these other people were insisting he had to tell me all about alternative theories of plumbing, and recommend that I find other useful home repair ideas at the local church. He refused. So, instead, a group of protesters chanted a story about how maybe ghosts or aliens could fix my pipes while I made my purchase.

I came home to more interruptions. A whole cottage industry had sprung up on the internet, decrying godless plumbing paradigms, and my computer was beeping at all the incoming mail. The arguments were mind-boggling. There were people complaining that I couldn't install the faucet, because I hadn't seen the metal it was made from being smelted. There were others telling me there was a far superior brand I ought to put in, but they couldn't tell me the name, and I really didn't need to know it anyway in order to throw the one I'd just bought in the garbage.

I'm looking at the sink, the tools, my new faucet, and I'm thinking this all looks straightforward. Are these people idiots, or what?

The phone rings again. It's Michael Behe. A nice guy. Friendly. He actually talks to me about plumbing, unlike the parade of bozos so far, who haven't had a clue.

"Think about it, Paul. Inside that faucet, there is a whole series of valves and bushings and joints, all designed to regulate and restrict the flow of water under pressure. Water under pressure. When you remove the old faucet, there will be nothing to restrict the flow of water. There will be water surging out of that pipe, and you will not be able to install your new faucet. Here, let me send you a Farside cartoon by Gary Larson that illustrates your dilemma."

"Umm, Mike, I'm going to turn off the water at the main valve first."


There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line.

"Paul, have you ever thought about how that water main got there? It has to cope with water under even higher pressure than what's coming out of any one faucet. That main valve is a miracle of complexity and precision…"

Click. Geez. That guy knows just enough plumbing to give the whole field a bad name.

I still haven't fixed the faucet.

But I have figured out that those other guys are all right on the money—there is an alternative to pipe wrenches and plumbing. I'll just blog about it, and hope that some faith-based payola will come my way. It won't fix the faucet, but that'll keep me in Evian and champaign, which beats Morris city tap water any day.

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LQTM. Great analogy - why did you go into Bio instead of Creative Writing?

Rmnds m f stry my grndmthr tld m bt grndp.

n th krn, gvrmnt gnts tld hm t stp pryng nd gt t f th chrch.

H ddn't mv vry fst.

S thy sht hm.

By Goldstein (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Gotta love the people too stupid for pattern recognition.

Great analogy. ^.^

.... And THIS is your problem ... you are a radical Home Repairist. Our nation is founded on the principle of hiring people to fix things that break in your home. This is why it says "Novus Ordo Seclorum" on the dollar bill (which translates roughly into "Hire a New Contractor")

By insisting that everyone else believe in Home Repairism, you are damaging society itself.

I suppose, though I doubt you will ever admit it, you sometimes change the oil in your car by itself...

I've been having trouble with my showerhead the last few days. Want to take a crack at it? I promise no religious crazies will bother you.

By CJColucci (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Oil changes are impossible, and irreducibly complex. You need the oil to run the engine, so you can't possibly remove the oil before replacing it.

I think you're supposed to drive until the oil is thick and gunky and horrible, and then buy a new car. At least, that's what the dealers tell me.

Now, if you were actually debating, I guess this would be a straw-man. But since it's all in good fun, I can see your point.

Anyway, what about the part where Kent Hovind tries to tell you the faucet doesn't actually spray water...but fire???

Not just Milosevic. Someone also desecrated the graves of two members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Steve Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant).

People laugh, but why take chances? No more ethnic cleansing, no more Sweet Home Alabama.

There is only one true pipe. K-grade copper. All other types of pipe are heretical, and the users of these inferior pipes will take unto themselves a leak.

NOTE: If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PUMPS + BUCKETS??

BTW, Happy 50th - I'm jealous.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

PZ- You say it's your Birthday?
It's my Birthday, too Yeah!

Happy Birthday Prof. Myers! I'm 54 today, I trust you are much younger than me.

What I can't figure out, Prof Myers, is why you respect religion so much that you expend your energy to show them your errors. When I was much younger, like you I tried to do the same. Now that I am old and wise I have discovered the advantages of professing whatever religious garbage gives me any temporary advantage in turning a buck. Hell, it worked for Francis Drake!
Why do you think religion deserves any more respect than that?

Greg Laden, you spread terrible heresies. Jesus at the last supper filled his cup with water using a facet. His pipes were the simple pipes of a carpenter. Wood pipes are the one, true way!

By Drachasor (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Wine on tap?

I might of just became a believer...

By Nathan Perrier (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

A pipe wrench? For a Moen faucet? You're just making this up, aren't you?

By Ken Muldrew (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Hallelujah, wine on tap! Sounds good to me, plus, it *is* your birthday. Maybe I'll call Jesus & Sons and see if faith-based plumbing will be less expensive than digging out my sewer pipe.

Golly, and here I thought all the controversy in plumbing was limited to copper vs. Pex...

But if pex plumbing is derived from copper plumbing, how come there's still copper plumbing? Huh? Didn't think of that, did you?

Clearly pex is just a mythical fabrication of radical polyethyleneists.

By Millimeter Wave (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

When people try to tell me that science is just another belief system and as baseless as religion (meaning, almost invariably because I'm in America, Christianity) I say to them, "How about this. Let us both try to get to LA. You pray to your god to get there, and I'll take a plane and we can see who'll arrive first."

I also note that when sick or injured, religious people go to the hospital first and then pray -- but afterwards attribute success of the treatment to their god, which I've always found fascinating.

Hmm... 50th birthday and "plumbing" problems... you have my sympathies. ;)

Seriously, thanks for the repost, and Happy BD, PZ!

By CrispyShot (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink


Maybe I'm a Mormon. Maybe it says different in the book of Mormon. In fact, I'll go look it up ...

... oh wait, I forgot, it doesn't exist... Maybe the Readers Digest Home Repair Manual will say something about this...

We had been struck by similar faucet problems just two days ago. It just started dripping, and then leaking, just before we went to work.

I guess we had forgotten to pray to keep watch over our plumbing, and these are the wages of our godlessness.

Or, stuff breaks, or something.

Copper tubing!

True fundamentalist plumbing is made of lead!

Where do you think the word plumber comes from?
The latin word for lead, plumbum, gives us the roots for plumbing, plumber and the periodic symbol for lead, Pb.

There is the minor possibility of brain damage from lead pipes, but a true plumbing fundamentalist wouldn't mind.

There is the minor possibility of brain damage from lead pipes, but a true plumbing fundamentalist wouldn't mind.
Indeed, Flex, it seems to be a badge of some sort.

By Maxine Schmidt (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Well, the true believers will pray for your plumbing to be repaired anyway, tsk, tsk. You can thank them after you've fixed it.



PZ, do not fix the faucet! It is God's will that this faucet should be so.

If we only obey God's will, if we meekly pray and have faith and accept what He metes out to us, we shall in time be welcomed by Mario and Luigi into a glorious drip-free Heaven.

Verily, those who meddle in unholy faucetry shall be cast into a pit of Goombas.



there is an irony of sorts in having an entire profession --- plumbing --- named after one of its first, and possibly greatest, mistakes. let's see, if we applied that sort of principle to the clergy, we'd have to call them...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Rats! No cartoon, just a lot of BS.

By TomDunlap (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Is it mere coincidence that the shape of your pipes closely resembles a form of pasta?

By Traffic Demon (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

As a supply house ex employee I know what your problem is and the good news is you will not need the pipe wrench. It is a common problem in moen faucets and we use to give the part away. That of course was Keidel supply in Cincinnati are there any supply houses in Morris.

there is an irony of sorts in having an entire profession --- plumbing --- named after one of its first, and possibly greatest, mistakes.

I'm not sure that the use of lead pipe was technically a mistake, in the sense of being an incorrect choice. Was there a viable alternative to lead pipe at the time? (Around here, we still had lead solder used to join copper pipes until very recently.)

By Theo Bromine (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

So it's true, then-- Plumbdamentalism causes drain damage.

By Melissa G (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

I agree - how, exactly, was Roman use of lead for water-supply a mistake?

Elemental lead is pretty benign, if I recall my very-little-training-in toxicology correctly - it's the ionic stuff that's nasty. So, smelted, solid reasonably-pure lead probably doesn't contribute much of a hazard to a population's health, especially in comparison to the massive benefit of a water supply NOT from a well next to the cess-pit.

The Laden is right: copper or death. Reminds of me of my days as a plumbers mate when we got a call out to a house full of satanists whose central heating boiler had blown. It was in a cupboard off their - er - chapel. My boss pronounced the boiler, then said to the cold satanist in residence: 'why can't Satan fix this fucker for yer then? It to do with fire an all.'

PZ, ask WWJD? And the answer is lose the washers through the holes in his palms.

By Peter McGrath (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Hazard-wise, the lead water pipes were nothing compared to the custom of making wine taste better by heating it in a lead pot.

BTW, PZ, it's champagne, not champaign... unless you buy the U.S. version, which is sparkling wine. :-)

ctlly, n n dsngd th plmbng.

t s jst thr.

Scnc prvs ths.

By Banned Again b… (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Oh, I get it!

Residential plumbing systems are like biological systems, because they evolved through natural selection. That is why the most highly evolved societies do not have residences without plumbing; they failed to reproduce and they died out. Each of the individual parts of a plumbing system had a function in a prior version of the residence; so, for example, a pipe would duplicate itself, and the duplicate pipe would mutate into a faucet or a trap, and after hundreds or thousands of generations a bidet or a lawn sprinkler evolved.

I think you're supposed to drive until the oil is thick and gunky and horrible, and then buy a new car. At least, that's what the dealers tell me.

That's what Grampap tried till Daddy held an intervention and towed the car to the shop. Grampap kicked and screamed cause he had his eye on a new Galaxie 500 on the lot.

Grampap kicked the bucket two years later, and as soon as he was tits up then Daddy got himself a new Galaxie 500.

Watch yer kids, PZ.

Actually, no one designed the plumbing. It is just there.

Thus explaining why older men start needing to piss in Morse Code. :-)

(Sorry to whoever's analogy I just swiped, if they're reading!)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

"Moen. Buy it for looks, buy it for life." Yeah, right.

And a Christian Science practitioner would deny that there was a leak in the first place.

-- CV

By CortxVortx (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

I've actually seen wine on tap. Let's hear it for monasteries in wine country. Even got a photo, but no scanner so you'll have to come over to see it :)

Peter: I like this new name, I'll keep it.

I'm pretty sure I used to live above those guys .... was it in Boston by any chance?

--- The Laden

Behe writes:

This is a Farside cartoon by Gary Larson showing a troop of jungle explorers, and the lead explorer has been strung up and skewered, and this fellow turns to him and says, that's why I never walk in front. Words to live by. Let me tell you. [laughter]. Now everyone in this room looks at this cartoon and you immediately realize that this trap was designed. It was not an accident. The humor of the cartoon depends on you recognizing the design.

No, Michael, it doesn't. But you've stumbled onto something when you say "the design" rather than "design". We recognize designs, or aspects of design, not "design". The slide from "it's a design" to "it was designed" (if that is meant to imply that an intellgent agent was necessary) is blatant, intellectually dishonest, question begging.

By truth machine (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

TheBrummel: Lead pipes, though undesirable, aren't a major hazard. After all, they were common in this country (USA) until fairly recently, and I'd bet that there are plenty of older houses that still have them. However, wealthy Romans also used lead cooking vessels, where heat and acidic foods contributed to dissolving the metal. IIRC,they used lead as bottle stoppers for wine (I think) and lead salts as a sweetener in wine. Not good.


Julius Caesar's engineer, Vitruvius, who also served his successor Caesar Augustus, reported, "Water is much more wholesome from earthenware pipes than from lead pipes. For it seems to be made injurious by lead, because white lead paint is produced from it; and this is said to be harmful to the human body. .... Therefore it seems that water should not be brought in lead pipes if we desire to have it wholesome." (Chapter 6, paragraphs 10 and 11, of Book VIII by Vitruvius)

TheBrummel: Lead pipes, though undesirable, aren't a major hazard. After all, they were common in this country (USA) until fairly recently, and I'd bet that there are plenty of older houses that still have them.

How, exactly, does ubiquity imply harmlessness? Blood lead levels that were once the norm are now known to cause detectable impairments in cognitive function - should we conclude that the toxicity of lead has somehow changed in the intervening decades?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

truth machine quotes:
Behe writes:
... The humor of the cartoon depends on you recognizing the design.

Actually it doesn't. The cartoon would be just about as funny if the leader had fallen over a cliff, or was being consumed by a crocodile, or was knee-deep in elephant dung.
Talk about needing a clue...

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Bob: Why does the fact that they were used (lead pipes) make them not a hazard?

You are probably partly right, but sorry, that logic bothered me. Acidic water sitting over night in lead pipes can give you a nice dose of brain-numbing. Also, lead pipes sitting in acidic ground (ground with humic acid for instance) can get you problematic tomatoes in the kitchen garden.

There are still quite a few lead pipes underground in the east. Most cities have abatement programs and most lead has been removed from homes, but I'm sure there are exceptions.

Actually it doesn't.

Yeah, that's what I said. (Falling over a cliff was the first thing that came to my mind, too.)

By truth machine (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink

Wooden pipes predate lead pipes, and there have always been iron pipes.

All three have their drawbacks. Lead pipes are the easiest to install and repair, and do not require replacment, but they cause brain damage in children. So obviously that's the way to go .....

Several decades ago at a Led Zeppelin concert with friends, one of my friends lost it. Carlos removed his shirt, yelled something uninteligeble and went running off. After the concert while looking for him we were accosted by God Squad. Are you looking for/ have found God?
My other friend, Steve replied, "I'll find God later, we're looking for a friend of mine right now."
Carlos showed up at his brother's a couple of hours later, looking none the worse for wear.

By Ken Mareld (not verified) on 10 Mar 2007 #permalink

Grndp rgd wth thsts n Rss.

Thy sht hm.

By Banned by Kans… (not verified) on 10 Mar 2007 #permalink

My other friend, Steve replied, "I'll find God later, we're looking for a friend of mine right now."

A better reply is to inquire if or when God has been missing.
This is from John Turturo character in Tom DiCillo movie "Box of Moon Light" (1996)

By Kevembuangga (not verified) on 10 Mar 2007 #permalink

I'm not sure that the use of lead pipe was technically a mistake, in the sense of being an incorrect choice. Was there a viable alternative to lead pipe at the time? (Around here, we still had lead solder used to join copper pipes until very recently.)

Wooden pipes rot, ceramics are too fragile, iron rusts, copper and bronze were too expensive, and they didn't know how to make stainless steel or aluminum. Lead was the only economically viable piping material they had, and the public health benefits of clean drinking water outweighed the drawbacks of having brain-damaged aristocrats. Probably.

It's my understanding that even slightly hard water quickly leaves a coating of scale inside lead pipes and reduces leaching to a very low level.

I remember reading somewhere that the Romans had a habit of boiling wine down in lead-lined pots to produce a syrup which was used as a condiment/ingredient in a lot of their cooking. The lead salts sweetened the wine.

This seems to be a much more obvious way to ingest a lot of lead rather than by drinking water which has gone through lead pipes.

By grumpy realist (not verified) on 12 Mar 2007 #permalink