Monthly Archives: February 2012

Always Learning

It’s fascinating to return to an old book you’ve read, just to see how far you’ve progressed. I make a habit of circling any word I don’t know, so that when I do return to a book, I almost have a snapshot of where I was in my education.

For example, in this page from The Moral Animal by Richard Wright, which I read about 2 years ago, I circled the words “resurgent,” “implicit,” and “emanations.” All three of these words are now, more or less, a part of my normal vocabulary. I find this very motivating.


Sam Harris posted an article on his blog that I feel the need to share. He rightly begins: “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.”

Harris goes on to describe the detrimental effects of burning a fireplace, claiming that doing so is more harmful that smoking cigarettes for everyone around you, and causes so much pollution that “even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).” This claim, at least to me, is extraordinary, and thus requires extraordinary evidence. His claim seems to be supported by at least three published journal articles:

The toxicology of inhaled woodsmoke. “…exposure to woodsmoke, particularly for children, represents a potential health hazard.”

Woodsmoke health effects: a review. “It is now well established, however, that wood-burning stoves and fireplaces as well as wildland and agricultural fires emit significant quantities of known health-damaging pollutants, including several carcinogenic compounds. Two of the principal gaseous pollutants in woodsmoke, CO and NOx, add to the atmospheric levels of these regulated gases emitted by other combustion sources. Health impacts of exposures to these gases and some of the other woodsmoke constituents (e.g., benzene) are well characterized in thousands of publications.”

Respiratory health effects associated with exposure to indoor wood burning in developing countries. “Inhalation of these pollutants may have serious consequences, which are highlighted in this paper, for the respiratory health of the people who have been exposed.”

I find a certain romanticism in the project of hauling a felled tree from a friend’s yard, chopping and stacking it in neat rows, and then building a warm air of sentimentality during the winter. Yet, regardless of the health implications, the point of Harris’ article is to highlight the visceral reaction to a hard-truth of science when it flies in the face of our long-held and sentimental beliefs:

“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.”