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Thought provoking blog post by sam harris:

The Fireplace Delusion

fireplace delusion

It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead. Certain of us have made careers out of bemoaning the failure of religious people to adopt this same attitude.

However, I recently stumbled upon an example of secular intransigence that may give readers a sense of how religious people feel when their beliefs are criticized. It’s not a perfect analogy, as you will see, but the rigorous research I’ve conducted at dinner parties suggests that it is worth thinking about. We can call the phenomenon “the fireplace delusion.”

On a cold night, most people consider a well-tended fire to be one of the more wholesome pleasures that humanity has produced. A fire, burning safely within the confines of a fireplace or a woodstove, is a visible and tangible source of comfort to us. We love everything about it: the warmth, the beauty of its flames, and—unless one is allergic to smoke—the smell that it imparts to the surrounding air.

I am sorry to say that if you feel this way about a wood fire, you are not only wrong but dangerously misguided. I mean to seriously convince you of this—so you can consider it in part a public service announcement—but please keep in mind that I am drawing an analogy. I want you to be sensitive to how you feel, and to notice the resistance you begin to muster as you consider what I have to say.

Because wood is among the most natural substances on earth, and its use as a fuel is universal, most people imagine that burning wood must be a perfectly benign thing to do. Breathing winter air scented by wood smoke seems utterly unlike puffing on a cigarette or inhaling the exhaust from a passing truck. But this is an illusion.

Here is what we know from a scientific point of view: There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.

Once they have exited your chimney, the toxic gases (e.g. benzene) and particles that make up smoke freely pass back into your home and into the homes of others. (Research shows that nearly 70 percent of chimney smoke reenters nearby buildings.) Children who live in homes with active fireplaces or woodstoves, or in areas where wood burning is common, suffer a higher incidence of asthma, cough, bronchitis, nocturnal awakening, and compromised lung function. Among adults, wood burning is associated with more-frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness, along with increased mortality from heart attacks. The inhalation of wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, alters pulmonary immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to colds, flus, and other respiratory infections. All these effects are borne disproportionately by children and the elderly.

The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children. Burning wood is also completely unnecessary, because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes. If you are burning wood in the United States, Europe, Australia, or any other developed nation, you are most likely doing so recreationally—and the persistence of this habit is a major source of air pollution in cities throughout the world. In fact, wood smoke often contributes more harmful particulates to urban air than any other source.

In the developing world, the burning of solid fuel in the home is a genuine scourge, second only to poor sanitation as an environmental health risk. In 2000, the World Health Organization estimated that it caused nearly 2 million premature deaths each year—considerably more than were caused by traffic accidents.

I suspect that many of you have already begun to marshal counterarguments of a sort that will be familiar to anyone who has debated the validity and usefulness of religion. Here is one: Human beings have warmed themselves around fires for tens of thousands of years, and this practice was instrumental in our survival as a species. Without fire there would be no material culture. Nothing is more natural to us than burning wood to stay warm.

True enough. But many other things are just as natural—such as dying at the ripe old age of thirty. Dying in childbirth is eminently natural, as is premature death from scores of diseases that are now preventable. Getting eaten by a lion or a bear is also your birthright—or would be, but for the protective artifice of civilization—and becoming a meal for a larger carnivore would connect you to the deep history of our species as surely as the pleasures of the hearth ever could. For nearly two centuries the divide between what is natural—and all the needless misery that entails—and what is good has been growing. Breathing the fumes issuing from your neighbor’s chimney, or from your own, now falls on the wrong side of that divide.

The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe. Even if you reject every intrusion of the “nanny state,” you should agree that the recreational burning of wood is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you are creating pollution that you cannot dispose. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing. Your neighbors should not have to pay the cost of this archaic behavior of yours. And there is no way they can transfer this cost to you in a way that would preserve their interests. Therefore, even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).

I have discovered that when I make this case, even to highly intelligent and health-conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of clenched fists: They do not want to believe any of it. Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful—and has always been so—is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege.

And yet, the reality of our situation is scientifically unambiguous: If you care about your family’s health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room. It is time to break the spell and burn gas—or burn nothing at all.

Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.

Recommended Reading:

Naeher et al. (2007). Woodsmoke Health Effects: A Review. Inhalation Toxicology, 19, 67-106.

it's a little reminder of what it must feel like to be a religious person confronted with science

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I read this earlier, wasn't that impressed. =(

I understand Sam's point, it's very clear. I thought he could have found a better example. However he wants to describe it, without fire for warmth and defense we may not have been able to survive in harsher climates.

He thinks his friends refuse to acknowledge what he is saying? Must have some interesting acquaintances. I agree with him totally, smoke is not good for the body. In fact, I don't have any friends that would refuse to acknowledge the harm from said smoke.

I must have smarter friends.

Seems like he worked hard to get to his point, and his point is not even very good. He is trying to compare the real with the unreal. A religious person confronted with a fireplace, and the knowledge that the smoke can harm him, is involved a very real and existent problem. He can change.

Anyway, I disagree with his drama. Religion is not smoke in a literal way, though is a convenient smokescreen for stupidity. 

Regardless, this final line makes no sense to me: "Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion."

I don't see why anyone would disbelieve his statement of fact, and I don't see it as a decent simile regarding religion.

Or maybe it's because I'm tired, it's early, and I'm cranky. =)

I also don't have any friends that don't know that burning wood (coal, or whatever else, too) is bad for you. I don't know who Sam Harris hangs out with :-)) I obvioiusly have smarter friends than Sam :-))

I wasn't very impressed by this essay either. I don't think it's a good analogy for the denial of the religious when confronted with reality. A better analogy, I think, would be that of atheists who believe in "energy" (as some kind of entity who stays together after your die, or as some sort of healing force), or in reincarnation. What we are up against when we confront religious people is not akin to people who are misinformed about fireplaces, or eating too much animal fat, or not eating your veggies. It's more like confronting people who are in denial about death and about the fact that we will all one day, not exist.

We know smoke is bad for you, some like it and do it. If only theists would understand the "bad for you" part. =)

Thanks for posting this Bill, I read it and wanted to post it myself.  I did enjoy reading it.  For me it does exemplify how we hold certain beliefs irregardless to the facts.  We'll make up excuses, we rationalize, we delude ourselves in order not to switch gears and acknowledge that we can be wrong.  Creationism vs evolution is a perfect example of how some refuse to face facts no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.  

I love fireplaces and now live without one.  I know the smoke and the ash is harmful, but my attraction to the warm hearth of a home is ingrained in me from childhood....  I love the smell of wood smoke...  How many of us know that the juicy cheeseburger we want is not a healthy choice, but eat it anyway?  Why would a rational person do that to themselves?  hummmm....  We're all filled to the brim with not living up to what we know we should, and sometimes simply not believing what's clearly evident because we create our own reasons to go on believing what we want to believe.

I posted a GREAT video that offers some explanation of why we think we are right... 

How do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?

I think I get Harris' point: the persistence of a practice known to be dangerous and obsolete is of the same nature as the tenacity of religious beliefs in the absence of any evidence.

But I don't think it is so. You can actually show a fireplace aficionado the real and present dangers of his practice, with facts, data, experiments, demonstrations. You can't do that with a believer. A believer believes in a mystery, in invisible and intangible forces and agents. How do you demonstrate their absence?

Exactly my thought. =)

Funny though that the religous are always searching for real evidence, just watch the science channel here in the US!  The search for Noah's arc is a constant re-run - haha  

On the Nat Geo Channel: 

Mystery of the Murdered Saints

For the first time, the Catholic Church will allow scientific experts to openly test the veracity of the remains of reported saints.

I "know" the facts about how dangerous and obsolete my fireplace is, but I use it anyway. The facts don't change my behavior. The same kind of arguments could be made about eating meat, drinking coffee, or alcohol. I reject the logic of your arguments because I don't want to give up the perceived comfort these things give to me. 

I would agree that facts and reason would be more likely to change my behavior than that of a religious believer, but the point is that it is not guaranteed to change them, just because I call myself a rational thinker.

Harris' compares how tenaciously we all can cling to these little irrationalities, and then use that to illustrate how hard it is to change someone's behavior when their irrationality is so much greater. My main complaint with the article is that the point is so obvious to all of us that it is almost not worth stating. But then again, it just might help someone on the fence. I hope so, anyway.

Well, I do have myself convinced that when they say that two servings a day of wine is good for the body, I take it to mean two bottles. I read once that the longest lived drank 5 to 6 glasses a day, good enough for me. =)

I get the fireplace drift and I'm sure we all have something we indulge in that may not be the best thing for our health. But religion doesn't seem to be the same. Religion has killed, is still killing. Still warping the minds of our friends with delusion supported by fierce tales. 

Religion can be immediate when it takes action. Not like a fifty year affair with a cigar. Plus real things give real comfort. Warmth, happiness, etc. Religion gives fake comfort.

Well, Neal, you're just redefining what a "serving" is :-))

We all end up doing things that are not that good for us. It's all a matter of degree, too. If you feel like using your fireplace, you keep proper ventilation, and you don't overdo it, then it's fine. I don't think you're denying any logic. In an extremely cold night, it may be better to light a fire than not to light a fire, health-wise. The same with eating animal fat, sweets, or with drinking alcohol and coffee. The dose makes the poison.

I say that facts will eventually win over beliefs. Facts are incompressible, they pile up and don't go away. Beliefs twist and flex, they thin out and shred away. When it became established that the Earth was round, most religions had to stretch themselves and include the fact at one point or other. When it was discovered that cigarettes were not good for you, there happened a drastic change in consumption. It's not guaranteed that all smokers will be convinced, but the trend doesn't lie.

It's easier to convert a meat eater to vegetarianism than to rid him of superstition.


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