The Plumber Problem

The farm house from the movie Interstellar

“The Plumber Problem” is a phrase I coined to describe the experience of watching a movie that touches on some subject area that you know way more about than the average person, and then some inaccuracy in what’s depicted distracts you and takes you out of the movie. (This can occur in any work of fiction, of course: movies, TV, books, etc.)

Here’s an example. A plumber is watching a movie with a scene where something having to do with pipes is integral to the plot. But it’s all wrong, and the plumber’s mind rebels. No one else in the audience is bothered. They’re all still wrapped up in the narrative. But the plumber has a problem.

I’m not sure how long ago I came up with this phrase. The earliest recorded occurrence I can find is from 2021, in episode #153 of Reconcilable Differences (at 47:02) where I explain it to my cohost, Merlin, so it obviously predates that.

The Plumber Problem is loosely related to the “Gell-Mann amnesia effect” which is “the phenomenon of experts believing news articles written on topics outside of their fields of expertise, yet acknowledging that articles written in the same publication within their fields of expertise are error-ridden and full of misunderstanding.”

Anyway, I was thinking about this today thanks to some people on Mastodon sending me examples of The Plumber Problem. Here are a few (lightly edited):

Simon Orrell: My first exposure to “The Plumber Problem” was sitting in a theatre with my dad in 1973 watching “Emperor of the North” and my dad leans over to whisper, “They didn’t make culvert pipe like that back in the ’30s. It was plate, not corrugated.”

Tim Allen: In Speed 2, a plot point involves a laden oil tanker about to collide explosively. My wife, native to a major oil port city, couldn’t follow the plot because she could tell the tanker was empty just by looking at it, so she didn’t understand why everyone was saying it would explode.

Dan Morgan: Interstellar’s farming scenes were just SO BAD. I’m not going to detail them here, but this retired farmer and agronomist found it hard to watch. I’m sure the physics were fine though. 😂

Someone also mentioned that “The Plumber Problem” is not an easy phrase to look up online, so here’s hoping this post remedies that situation.

Here’s one more bonus post that I enjoyed:

magic: In Star Wars, Luke turns off his targeting computer to use the Force for his attack run on the Death Star. I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.