The Fireplace Delusion by Sam Harris

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.”


Occupy Wall Street: Fallacies and Misconceptions

Occupy Wall Street October 1st

You’d have to be living in a cave if you still haven’t heard of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. After numerous conversations with friends about the protests, I’ve decided to write this article. I’ll cover the origin of the protests, what the protesters stand for and want (as hard as that is to discern), the logic of their claims, and considerations for whether or not you should join their movement.

I’ll do my best to present the logic in clear terms. Remember, I’m a skeptical empiricist, and that should come out in my writing and analysis. Don’t confuse skepticism for a bias. After the logic is laid bare, I would implore you to use your full capacity for reason to come to your own, well-informed conclusion. At that point, it’s up to you to decide whether to accept or reject reason.


I think Russell Brand is my new celebrity hero.

I think Russell Brand is my new celebrity hero.

Definitely watch this full interview. The ideas Brand talks about are strikingly similar to what I’ve been thinking or reading lately. It’s exceedingly rare to find a celebrity that can talk like this.

Via twitter


Entrepreneurship Risk

From Summation by Auren Hoffman:

Entrepreneurs tend to be street-smarter than strategy consultants. Entrepreneurs are more practical, more focused on the bottom line, and more attuned to real-world contingencies.

A typical strategy consultant job interview might go something like this:

“I toss a coin. Heads you win $10,000. Tails you lose $6,000. Do you play this game? Why?”

And a typical strategy consultant answer would go something like this:

50% chance I win, 50% chance I lose. So my decision calculation goes something like:

Winnings: (0.5) * $10,000 = $5,000

Loses: (0.5) * $6,000 = $3,000

My net value of this game is $2,000

Therefore, even if I am very risk averse, I’ll still play this game, because I can afford to lose $6K when the payoff is so much higher.

A typical entrepreneur would look at this game totally differently and would ask a series of questions:

1. How do I know the coin is fair? Maybe tails is much more likely to come up. Can I test the coin by flipping it 500 times to see if it is consistent? Do I really want to waste my time performing and recording 500 coin tosses?

2. How do taxes affect my wins and losses? Is Uncle Sam going to take a huge chunk of my winnings but not recognize my losses? Can I only apply my losses to gambling gains? How are state and city taxes affected?

3. Do I have to pay in cash if I lose and do I get cash if I win? If that is the case, are we going to show up at the location with all the money? Will I be secure? Can I pay by credit card to get frequent flyer miles?

4. How can I be sure I will collect from you? Are we going to hold the money in a third-party escrow? How much will that cost?

Auren Hoffman, Summation

It’s interesting to note that Nassim Taleb gives a similar example of the coin toss scenario when discussing the thought processes of The Nerd and the street-smart common-sensical Epistemocrat.

Here, however, Auren Hoffman is describing the typical entrepreneur. I’m sure Taleb (and most entrepreneurs) would agree that, despite the typical risk associated with entrepreneurship, creating your own business and liberating your finances—that is, putting your wealth in your own hands—changes the nature of the question so that you have ultimate control over the amount of risk that you choose to take on. Otherwise, your entire stream of income would be dependent on the decisions of the establishment that hired you.

Picture entrepreneurship like a pyramid, a large base and a fine point on the top; the large base represents multiple opportunities for streams of income. A typical job, however, would look like an inverted pyramid, in which you only have one source of income—the point of the pyramid. If that one source fails, the entire pyramid would collapse on you.


Arguments in Evaluative Language—Essentially Contestable

Is it cruel to kill cattle in slaughterhouses where live cattle can smell the blood of the dead? Or to spank children in order to teach them how to behave? The point is not that we couldn’t argue our way to one position or the other on these questions; it’s only to say that when we disagree, it won’t always be because one of us just doesn’t understand the value that’s at stake. It’s because applying value terms to new cases requires judgment and discretion. Indeed, it’s often part of our understanding of these terms that their applications are meant to be argued about. They are, to use another piece of philosopher’s jargon, essentially contestable. For many concepts, as W.B. Gallie wrote in introducing the term, “proper use inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper use on the part of users.” Evaluative language, I’ve been insisting, aims to shape not just our acts but our thoughts and our feelings. When we describe past acts with words like “courageous” and “cowardly,” “cruel” and “kind,” we are shaping what people think and feel about what was done—and shaping our understanding of our moral language as well. Because that language is open-textured and essentially contestable, even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about.

From Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, page 59

In this quote, Appiah illustrates the essential bottom-up structure of language. Taleb touches on this when he gives the example of Esperanto.


Facebook & Video Games: An Introduction to the Narrative Fallacy

“I am a god. Level ten all alone!”

My brother’s face glowed blue from the television as he completed another level in the Call of Duty minigame. The fact that most people sleep at 3 a.m. didn’t phase his concentration as he simultaneously killed zombies and trashed talked his friends. His confidence rose as he continued to level up.

Social video games have exploded in recent years, and scientists have been trying to understand how they affect our brains. A review of the literature seems to reveal that the pattern recognition and resource management required to play most games will exercise a gamer’s cognitive functioning. In teenagers, active participation in social networks helps in the formation of a unique identity.

Does this justify playing video games? The short answer is no, for two primary reasons: the narrative fallacy and the nerd effect.