Sam Harris and fireplaces

Sam Harris has picked an odd topic to blog about: the hazards of wood-burning fireplaces. Everyone knows they're a terribly inefficient source of heat, but people still enjoy lighting them up occasionally because it smells good. Sam wants to convince you that this is a terrible idea and an immediate threat to your health:
I am sorry to say that if you feel this way about a wood fire [a "wholesome pleasure"], 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.
He then hits with this scientificish condemnation:
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.
And he concludes with a stern warning:
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.

Fire.... bad? Or fire.... good?
Sam is being dumb. Not because he's wrong about the statistics, not because he's wrong about smoke inhalation being a bad thing, but because the statistics he cites create a false equivalency. He begins the blog by talking about people in the modern industrialized world who use fireplaces only occasionally (and likely briefly). Then to show that it's dangerous, he cites statistics from people who live in developed nations and/or are raised in homes that use wood-burning stoves or fireplaces as primary heat sources.

Well, that ain't the same thing. Sam hasn't offered any evidence that the occasional short fire  produces significant health consequences. Now granted, that's not the same thing as saying it's smart. It's still really inefficient and is producing at least some level of frivolous pollution. But his stats don't jive with his alarmist message. What's really annoying about the article though is that he's posturing it as though it's a critical-thinking exercise that even many self-proclaimed skeptics are going to fail, but the then sticks the root of his argument in a logical fallacy. I'm not impressed.


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