Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi

Reading Delong reminded me that I had not been to Cosma Shalizi’s Three Toed Sloth lately, so I rectified that error and was reminded again why this is a bad mistake to mix.

Read this post.  It captures quickly and utterly intelligibly what I spend much more time arguing with much less clarity:  you don’t need much math to gain a great deal of insight into our shared world.  What you do need is the habit of using what math you do know as a guide to your thinking.

As Hillel would say at this point:  the rest is commentary….now go and study.

In brief, Shalizi is wondering why there are so few steelworkers these days, compared with a half century ago.  Is it because of foreign competition?  Or is it because the demand for steel in the United States has not kept up gains in productivity per worker?

With nothing more than arithmetic and a little data that can be sucked up from the web in very little time he came up with a pretty persuasive answer:  productivity exceeding demand accounts for most of the loss of the 400,000 or so US steelworking jobs that disappeared over the last fifty years.

It is not, as Shalizi emphasizes, the answer; he performed a back of the envelope calculation and he identified a couple of Rumsfelds* to think about in weighing just how solidly grounded his analysis might be.  But it’s good enough to serve as a working hypothesis, subject to more detailed examination as needed.

For more detail on how this happened, and why Shalizi is very likely right on this, you can turn to a book that I’ve long felt was basically missed by its audience — Richard Preston’s second, called American Steel.  It’s not an analytical work; no math at all.  Rather, it tells the story, in Preston’s familiar deep-inside journalistic style, of a then-young and brash steel company called Nucor as it tried to build the first continuous slab casting steel plant in the world.

In the event, American Steel virtually disappeared in the marketplace, the victim of an earlier wave of publishing dislocation, but it’s worth seeking out.  In the context of Shalizi’s argument it provides an account of the productivity boom as lived.    It still won’t give you the synoptic view of the data Shalizi has said he doesn’t have to hand — but it is both a good read and way to get a qualitative sense of the argument Shalizi makes more abstractly through the numbers.

Put it another way: if you have even a modest willingness to entertain numbers, (more than the Congressional GOP seems to, which is a point to be repeated, I’m sure, lots and lots as we watch that once-respectable organization masticate its own intestines), you have the ability to take tales of the sort that Preston tells and fit them into a larger understanding, some sense of how change in the world happens.

Of all the aims I have for science writing, my own, my students’, anyone’s, it would be to get the pleasure and power of number so deeply intertwined into our culture that nonsenses like yesterday’s GOP budget charade would simply not occur.  I don’t know how to get there, but I care more about that than any number of facts one might lump into a sack called scientific literacy.  But all that’s grist for another day’s post.

*Shorthand for “known unknowns” — a coinage in honor of the only time on record when I feel are former and unmissed Defense Secretary was unfairly ridiculed.

Image:  Soviet airport mural “Steel makers

Explore posts in the same categories: Arithmetic, good public communication of science, numbers, science writing

3 Comments on “Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi”


  1. Cosma is wonderful. And the Rumsfeld — what a useful term. Another BE*-based unit with considerably less utility is the Cheney length.

    * Bush Era (or Error)

  2. human mathematics Says:

    I agree that everyone should always read Shalizi, perhaps all day every day. But this post is not the kind of thing I love about him. It’s just a naive analysis anyone could do, and he admits as much. So like, thanks for sharing, but this is not where he shines as a genius. I would just go read a more thorough study.


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