I don’t think Elon Musk reads Pharyngula

But he did suddenly announce that he was going to fix Flint, Michigan’s water problem right after I suggested it here. It is kind of an obvious ploy for a glory hound, and it seems other people suggested it at the same time I did.

Of course, he also declared that the problem was mostly solved already, so that he’s leaping into a problem he thinks is already fixed, just to get some of the credit — especially since he’s only announced this on Twitter and hasn’t bothered to contact anyone in Flint.

“Most houses in Flint have safe water, but they’ve lost faith in govt test results,” he said in another tweet. “Some houses are still outliers. Will organize a weekend in Flint to add filters to those houses with issues & hopefully fix perception of those that are actually good.”

Candice Mushatt, Flint’s public information officer, said in an email that neither Musk nor anyone representing him had contacted the city. Flint is replacing pipes and covering the costs involved with that process, she said.

The article also points out that shareholders are getting a little peevish about his grandstanding.


  1. Rob Bos says

    I’m not sure there’s anything Musk could do. Everything he does will be interpreted in an unfavourable light by some people.

    The mini-sub thing, for instance. He didn’t _have_ to do anything. Instead he dedicated some resources to it, let some engineers brainstorm some ideas, and build out their idea. It didn’t end up getting used, thankfully, because less desperate measures were able to be used. If the rain hadn’t let up, if circumstances had been different, we might be singing a different tune. They didn’t get desperate enough to try the mini-sub. That’s a good thing. I’m glad it didn’t get used because that would have meant that the Thai were totally out of other options. I think Musk’s heart was still in the right place.

    I mean, Musk has his problems. He’s a person just like the rest of us. But there’s a lot of bullshit floating around.

    I was reading the other day that this S&R kind of thing might be a useful technology offshoot for SpaceX, too. If they do end up being responsible for significant numbers of people off-planet, developing expertise in ersatz “Apollo 13” kind of hackery to deal with the unexpected using limited resources might be a good thing to have. In his shoes, I might want to work on having a team that can think on their feet and use nothing but items that would be available on a hypothetical BFR for weird and urgent situations. Sort of a search & rescue skunkworks. So there may be other benefits.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    one thing Musk has behind him is that he sometimes *sparks* an idea into fruition, EG hyperloop. Elon says he was tabletalking with someone about high speed rail improvements and left a sketchy napkin behind, which has since blossomed into a well funded project at several independent sites. As well as his bizarre “boring” idea, Chicago is diving into it full bore (so to speak). He may not be solid gold, he does glimmer with sparks. Tesla and SpaceX are noteworthy.
    His interest in cleaning ALL of Flint, highlighting the outliers, may well be quite productive to supplying clean water to Flint and expanding over all of Michigan into all the States and then globally. *sigh* [fingers crossed]

  3. whywhywhy says

    First rule of being a glory hound is to announce how you will solve ‘X’ for ‘Y’ without even contacting ‘Y’.

    In other words Musk learned nothing from his submarine idea and now onto Flint. He is again ignoring the first step which is to contact the folks you are looking to help before announcing what the problem is and how you will solve it. The focus should be on the people being helped.

  4. throwawaygradstudent says

    It wouldn’t even be hard to materially help Flint. Just give them money. I’m sure the city wouldn’t complain and would put it to good use. Better use than somebody who hasn’t been at all involved. And then Musk can take credit for what the money was spent on. Maybe they’d even be willing to rename a street after him.

  5. KG says

    But there’s a lot of bullshit floating around. – Rob Bos@1

    True. So why did you feel the need to add to it?

  6. Tethys says

    I think that deserves a “gold hammer” award. Step one in problem solving, identify the problem. Clearly he has not bothered with the most basic step. If he had, he would be aware that the only thing that Flint needs to fix the problem is to tear up and replace the supply lines to about 1/3 of the homes, and any lead based plumbing within those home. Several million dollars would cover it.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 slithey tove
    EG hyperloop. Elon says he was tabletalking with someone about high speed rail improvements and left a sketchy napkin behind, ….
    It may be that Musk did this and spurred on some research but there I don’t believe that there was anything novel or innovative about the concept. His name could have been a catalyst.

    I must admit though, I would not have expected it to help create a major research and development program in China.

  8. DanDare says

    I find his focus on trust of governance an interesting one. Its one that deserves focus and deliberation. Who is it that should be trusted? Do people lump them all together as “the government” or do the note the different groups? Can you improve trust without improvinng trustworthiness?

  9. blf says

    DanDare@8, On the more specific point about not having confidence in governmental(loosely speaking) water testing, he is correct. After the Flint crisis broke, the Grauniad ran a series on the common and frequent inadequacies of water-testing (especially for lead) in the States. From memory, a disturbingly high number of locales — pointedly including Chicago — did basically fraudulent tests, well outside the EPA’s then-guidelines (which were, as I recall, later clarified / strengthened (no idea what hair furur’s dalekocracy (i.e., Pruitt) has since done to those guidelines)).

    As I recall, the EPA guidelines(? rules?) were to draw samples first thing in the morning, so as to maximise the amount of lead (as the water has been standing in the pipes all night, giving it more time to leach  dissolve). Samples were to be drawn from a randomly(?)-chosen sites, covering the entire supply area. However, Chicago, e.g., only drew samples from water district employee’s homes after running the water for five minutes or so — flushing out the dissolved lead, not at all random, and unlikely to have provided full service-area coverage.

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ 9 blf
    IIRC the regional EPA knew about the problems in Flint and ignored them as well. He is quite correct that there is good reason not to trust State or City water testing and one’s faith in the EPA was shaken as well.

  11. drken says

    It’s probably not a good idea to idolize billionaires, but Elon Musk should be our worst problem. That he sees himself as some sort of private Red Cross Army of Engineers ready to lend a hand in various disasters, is definitely a sign of an extraordinary ego, but as long as he’s not interfering with rescuers I can live with it. We keep asking why no billionaires have become Batman, well he’s probably as close as we’re going to get in real life. He’s got a the huge ego and the fancy gadgets for any occasion, all he needs is a jewel thief girlfriend and he might as well start wearing the suit (I’m assuming he already has a butler). Seriously though, at some point he might even be able to actually help, which will make him even more insufferable, but as far as rich guy hobbies go, it beats making the Israeli/Palestinian situation worse (Adelson) and destroying the planet for fun and profit (Kochs), so I can afford to be entertained by his antics.

  12. DanDare says

    @10 so if the system is so untrustworthy then there is no point trying to make the people on the ground more trusting.
    It seems the task to be tackled is to make the government actores do their job in an open and competent manner or bypass them in some way that is effective long term.

  13. says

    Hmm. You know, I think I will pull a Musk and take a crack at this one. We train thousands of gold fish to swim through the pipes, carrying unproven nanotech, which will eat the lead, and replace them with identical pipes made of unabtanium – problem solved! Or, does it have to be more complicated and absurd than that to be a Musk level idea?

  14. blf says

    does it have to be more complicated and absurd than that to be a Musk level idea?

    I could easily be mistaken, but I don’t recall any Muskmallow dribblings actively involving gooey icky biological / living “wetware”, other than as terrified screaming victims (e.g., shoved in a claustrophobic tube dragged through a submerged tunnel, or into a capsule launched through an oversized pneumatic tube). Things that are not made of plastic and electronics appear to not worth consideration, such as simply asking Flint or the Thais how he could help / what they need.

  15. mrquotidian says

    @ 2 slithey tove
    EG hyperloop. Elon says he was tabletalking with someone about high speed rail improvements and left a sketchy napkin behind, which has since blossomed into a well funded project at several independent sites.
    Why in the world would you believe this man’s self-proclaimed mythology? The idea and practice of vacuum-tube travel is more than a century old, and there were existing research projects into full-scale vacuum transit years before Musk put out his proposal.

    For context, he released this idea to the public directly disrupt the ongoing, publicly funded (now under-construction) high-speed rail project in California. His proposal was not some genius’s altruistic gift to humanity. It was a cynical self-promotional stunt that purposefully muddied the political waters about the expense of the new train project. He claimed that his non-existent technology was faster and cheaper than existing proven tech, despite having no proof other than back of the envelope calculations that relied on insane presuppositions, like that you could run the hyperloop directly above highway five.

    Meanwhile, the high-speed rail project languishes under constant assault from conservative, property-rights ideologues, but it is slowly being built, while hyperloop has never moved a single passenger anywhere.. We have the technology right now to drastically improve transit across the country, but it is a question of political will, not technology. This is the true fight: private ownership vs. public good. Musk is a libertarian ideologue who hates public works projects (see his comments about public transit) and thinks that the future of transit is still user-owned, low-capacity vehicles traveling in tubes underground. Coincidentally, he happens to own a company that sells low-capacity vehicles.

    I’ll give Musk this much: he is an incredible salesman. His ability to keep his name in the public consciousness with provocative tweets and other nonsense (i.e. flamethrowers) is amazing. His car company would not be half of what it is now without his prowess on the PR front. And despite his regressive economic politics, his backing of renewable energy technology might have single-handedly created more public support for it than anyone else. That said, I wish he would shut the fuck up about things he knows nothing about, like the safety of public water systems. It’s the same impulse that gave us Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Trump: the notion that politics is easy and all you need is the charismatic will of an outside genius to fix everything.

  16. says


    I wouldn’t discount the value of an “outside creative genius”. The real problem is that the three people you name are a) not a genius, by any stretch, b) a guy that played Conan a lot better than he plays politics, and c) a twisted reincarnation of PT Barnum. Even if I believed for one flipping minute that Trump was somehow a genius, being a genius at lying, and cheating, isn’t what we need. Musk… seems to be what I have commented a lot of times I could never be, because a) I am not completely delusional about my abilities, and b) I actually try to be honest to myself, not just others, about what is flipping plausible. It may have resulted in my not failing 500 times, just to make that one single glorious leap, which made me rich, which so, so, so, many of these self claimed geniuses do, but… I have a whole freaking drawer full of stupid ideas, which I once in a while sort through, shake my head, and think, “How was I so dumb as to think that would actually work?”

    An actual genius, who was also honest, and actually gave a damn about surrounding themselves with the best advice possible… that could change the world. Instead we get people that “think” they are geniuses, surround themselves with the people that tell them how smart they are, and they get things done purely out of a combination of persistence, and obsessive certainty on the part of everyone actually “building” the things they come up with that they can make it work, no matter how absurd it may be. The difference between Musk and Trump in the equation is one of them values people that actually know what the F they are doing, despite having their lips glued to their heroes ass, the other one just wants his ass kissed 24/7.

  17. rydan says

    I mean this is the same guy that kept tweeting about developing a sub to save those kids yet didn’t show up until they were almost all rescued. This is more of a bigger pattern of behavior where he turns tragedy into a story about himself without actually doing anything about that tragedy.

  18. mrquotidian says


    I don’t think any of those people are geniuses, including Musk. What I meant (and what you described in detail) is that these people are all showmen who sell a genius narrative to the public. We know that there’s simply no such thing as a flawless genius, but most people seem to want to believe otherwise. I personally don’t want a ‘genius’ in control of anything, because it creates terrible problems when they’re gone, or when they turn out to have been wrong. We shouldn’t trust people just because they’re super-self-confident. I’d much prefer robust, self-correcting systems that foster the most judicious outcomes. Just systems, not ubermen, are what we need. Ordinary people who act ethically are much preferable to so-called ‘geniuses.’