In Which I Learn From a Mistake

In Which I Learn From a Mistake December 18, 2017


A detailed description of a household chore doesn’t usually make for interesting reading, but stick with this one to see if you fall into the same trap that I did. I’d like to share how yours truly doggedly stuck with a hypothesis without pausing to consider if it were wrong.

I do a fair amount of the chores around my house, and our everyday glassware was looking cloudy. I noticed that the dishwasher was leaving a film on them, so I scrubbed the inside of each glass with an abrasive sponge, rinsed them, and put them away. But the problem remained. Now, the top third was clear, while the bottom was still cloudy, which made the problem even more evident.

The cause of this new effect was easy to find. I had scrubbed the inside up and down but then scrubbed the rim laterally by squeezing the rim with the sponge. Each glass has a ribbed texture on the inside, so I figured that by going laterally on the rim, I had gotten into the valleys on the inside that I’d missed with the up-and-down strokes.

That was easy to fix, so I changed my scrubbing approach, but the problem remained. How tough was this film? One day I decided to get serious. No cleaning chore was going to get the better of me, so I tried a more abrasive sponge. I tried cleanser. I tried chemicals that dissolve lime deposits. I looked up the problem on the internet. No progress.

Oddly, when I finally developed the hypothesis that turned out to be correct, it didn’t hit me in a “What an idiot!” kind of way. I tenaciously held on to the idea that I understood the problem and was simply not hitting it aggressively enough. But I gave this new insight a try and, yep, that was the problem.

Glasses have an outside as well, and that’s where the film was. I’d been focused exclusively on scrubbing the inside. What an idiot.

Our blind spots

This wasn’t an error of a wrong solution but misunderstanding the very problem. It’s particularly annoying because I’ve done it before, and I should be quicker to step back to consider alternatives. I should hold my hypotheses more tentatively.

In five minutes we can see flaws in others that we don’t see in ourselves in a lifetime. Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast says that after he concluded vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off the habit of taking it, just in case. Greta Christina admits that she took a long time to accept the evidence that glucosamine was ineffective for her joint pain. Sam Harris introduced the Fireplace Delusion to challenge us to appreciate that recreational wood burning is unjustifiable.

Knowing our own fallibility helps when we try to understand errors in other people.

Worldviews: do you turn away from errors or embrace them?

Admitting that I wasted time on a home chore isn’t that embarrassing. However, it’s much more embarrassing to admit that you’ve wasted decades of your life clinging to a flawed worldview and rationalizing the evidence to support a god that wasn’t there. The ego investment may be so much that admitting the error is impossible. People faced with evidence of such an error often double down and continue with renewed confidence—at least superficially.

We see this with the Dorothy Martin’s Seekers cult, which predicted the end of the world on December 21, 1954. Her true believers expected to be saved by a UFO at midnight the night before. They sold everything and quit jobs and waited for the end. After midnight passed, eagerness for the adventure turned into anxiety. Would they be destroyed with the rest of humanity? And then: had this all been a fraud?

A last-minute message to the founder reported that their earnest faith had saved the world from destruction. Yep, they’d been right all along!

We see this with other predictions of the end from religious groups such as the Millerites in 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1914, Harold Camping in 2011, and John Hagee (the “four blood moons” fiasco) in 2013–15. Some true believers doubtless walked away from their group, but incredibly, many did not. Their faith remained despite enormous evidence that it was misplaced.

How much of the Christian appearance is honest confidence and how much is hollow bravado?

A belief which leaves
no place for doubt
is not a belief;
it is a superstition.
—  José Bergamín

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/14/14.)

Image credit: Ted, flickr, CC


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  • Steven Watson

    Interesting; but no Sam, neither you nor PubMed get to bilk me out of 36 quid.

    • Are you referring to a paywall somewhere?

      • Annerdr

        I suspect that Steven Watson followed the link in Harris’ blog and hit this paywall:

      • Steven Watson

        PubMed wants £36 for the article, which is the only thing Harris references. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and after ten years I would have thought he’d be able to reference more than one paper as well. There are plenty of reputable open sources, so I not going to be supporting the price gouging of academic journal like that one.

        • Annerdr

          I posted some evidence above which supports Harris’ statements.

  • epicurus

    I can understand the disorienting anguish of being, say, 45 or 50 and finding cracks or serious problems with your religion after being comfortably settled your whole life where your whole world – parents, grandparents, children, spouse, friends all fervently believe. The thought of how it could turn your family upside down. The grief it would cause your parents and grandparents, your spouse etc. I could certainly understand how all that could make a person hesitant to examine things too closely that might challenge belief.
    The irony though is that many strains of Christian or Islamic belief expect non believers to go through just this process, while refusing to do it themselves.

    • Annerdr

      I took the easy way out. I haven’t told my mother. She’s 84, post-stroke, and very Christian. I see no reason in making her unhappy.

    • Pofarmer

      I can guarantee you, at around 40, it isn’t much fun. Our marriage still suffers. And my wife goes wacky Catholic from time to time for reasons that seem mysterious to me.

  • eric

    IMO Sam’s ‘fireplace fallacy’ is a straw man; in my experience people use/have wood fires for the heat and maybe the look of a fire; they rarely think about whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. If they do think about it, they think about the smoke being bad for your eyes and requiring you to wash your clothes. I’ve never encountered Sam’s “fallacy” of someone thinking wood fires are healthy because wood is natural.

    • Joe

      I don’t know if it was entirely a straw man, I for one was unaware that smoke from burning wood was as unhealthy as Sam makes it out to be. My quibble with that argument was the seeming lack of sources for some of the bigger claims.

      • Ignorant Amos

        Burning wood may be humanity’s oldest way of generating heat—and in the home it definitely creates a nice ambience. But it has its downside. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, wood smoke “contains toxic carbon monoxide, smog-causing nitrogen oxides, soot, fine particles, and a range of other chemicals and gases that can cause or worsen serious health problems, particularly among children, pregnant women, and people with breathing difficulties.”

        The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) concurs, citing a raft of studies that show how children living in wood-burning households experience “higher rates of lung inflammation, breathing difficulties, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases.” For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that those with congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma should avoid wood smoke if possible. Wood smoke is also bad for the outdoors environment, contributing to smog, acid rain and other problems.

        • Annerdr

          Thanks for doing this. I was just about to and you saved me the time.

        • MR

          Right. Visible smoke isn’t the problem. Communities often ban wood burning because of the general negative effects to air quality. You don’t need a lot of visible smoke to make for measurable toxic conditions.

        • Greg G.

          I had a neighbor who had an outdoor wood burning stove for baking bread. Sometimes she used treated lumber which I advised against but she didn’t listen to me. But I shared some hot peppers with her that my wife grew and she shared some pita she baked with me, so all was good.

        • Pofarmer

          Why the hell would you cook with treated wood? Holy Cow.

        • Greg G.

          It was free.

        • Pofarmer

          Free Arsenic. Yum.

        • Greg G.

          That’s why I advised against it. I noticed it wasn’t in the trash the next time she cooked.

        • Pofarmer


      • eric

        The whole point of a chimney is to funnel smoke away from the people. The same is true for the top holes in things like tipis. I’m not saying stone age through modern age people all knew smoke was terribly unhealthy for humans. That clearly isn’t true, even today. I’m saying Sam’s implication that people equated it’s ‘natural’ label with goodness is wrong. Humans have been developing ways to funnel smoke out of our habitats and away from us since literally the stone age. The idea of the smoke-welcoming ignoramus is a myth. There is no such person. Or if there is, they’re a tiny minority dwelling in post-60s liberal communities and lacking any historical understanding or context. General, majority humanity might not have a doctor’s understanding of wood smoke’s toxicity, but they are nevertheless of the opinion that this is not something they want to breath in their living space. And standard majority humanity has held that opinion for thousands and possibly tens of thousands of years.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Sam Harris’ Fireplace Delusion displays ignorance, arrogance and dishonesty.
    It reminds me of other kinds of quackery and pseudoscience.
    As I read it, Sam’s extremism and narrow-mindedness made me think of a character from futuristic dystopian novel.

    • You concluded that Sam Harris was an irredeemable asshole from just one article?

      • Chuck Johnson

        Just as Sam’s assertions on the Fireplace Delusion are exaggerations, your “irredeemable asshole” question to me is also an exaggeration.

        But yes, I have read other things by Sam Harris that make him look like an extremest.

    • Annerdr

      Chuck, having never read the fireplace delusion blog post, I just did. I don’t understand how you got from that to this opinion.

      This is what I read.

      Could you please point out the ignorance, arrogance and dishonesty?

      • Chuck Johnson

        Rereading it, I see that it is not Harris’ writing but something that he “stumbled upon”. Also, he says that it is not a perfect analogy.
        So this Fireplace Delusion story wasn’t written by Sam but he promotes it as an example of “secular intransigence”.

        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.)

        That is an example.

        It is a paragraph which is designed to deceive.
        It is quite false in intention, and for gullible people, it will successfully deceive.

        The Fireplace Delusion story is full of such deceit.
        I see the Sam Harris presentation of it as an example of Sam’s gullibility, dishonesty and his ignorance of science.
        It helps me to see where Sam’s extremism comes from: He is too politically-minded. He has insufficient respect for the truth.

        Promoters of superstition and pseudoscience are politically motivated.
        Politics puts its highest value on being successfully persuasive.
        Science puts its highest value on discovering the truth and then sharing that truth with others.

        To me, the Fireplace Delusion reads like false advertising or a political smear campaign.

        • Annerdr

          Do you think that wood smoke has no negative effects?

          The science seems pretty clear that wood smoke is a problem.

          Or do you think that wood smoke is not as bad as cigarette smoke?

          The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove smoke is twelve times greater than that from an equal volume of second hand tobacco smoke. (The Health Effects of Wood Smoke, Washington State Department of Ecology)

          Free radicals produced from wood smoke are chemically active for twenty minutes, tobacco smoke free radicals are chemically active for thirty seconds. Wood smoke free radicals may attack our bodies cells up to forty times longer once inhaled. (Lachocki, Pryor, et al, Persistent Free Radicals in Wood smoke, Louisiana State University, Free Radical Biology & Medicine Vol.12, 1992)

          A medical evaluation of Mexican women who regularly cook over open wood fires revealed ravaged lungs and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, more severe than tobacco-related Chronic Obstructed Pulmonary Disease. (Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension and Cor Pulmonale Associated with Chronic Domestic Wood smoke Inhalation, Julio Sandoval, M.D., etal., Chest 1993;103:pp12-20.)

          Chuck, you may not like where the science leads, but I do think it’s important to follow the science even when you are uncomfortable with the evidence.

        • Chuck Johnson

          I did not follow any of your links.
          I know that wood smoke has negative health effects.
          I already suspected the bad health effects back in the 1960s.

          And I can see that the Fireplace Delusion is quite ignorant and dishonest. I get the impression that you are blind to that ignorance and dishonesty.

        • Annerdr

          I am blind to it. If the facts are as he states, then in what way is this dishonest?

        • Chuck Johnson

          The facts are somewhat as he states and somewhat not as he states.
          The facts are carefully chosen to promote a particular conclusion.

          The facts that we watch on television news have these same properties. It is now fashionable to air news stories about men who are sexually abusive to women. In the past, it was fashionable to ignore or cover up such stories. Times change, fashions change.

          Decades ago in the Soviet Union certain types of facts and news stories were fashionable to air on television and on radio.
          We in the “free world” were treated to a different assortment of facts and stories on radio and television.

          A huge amount of information of all types gets broadcast every day.
          That includes information, misinformation and disinformation.

        • Annerdr

          Dismissing the history of journalism and journalism across cultures, what did Sam Harris say that was wrong or even slanted in this particular blog post?

        • adam

          Look a butterfly………….

        • Chuck Johnson

          Proposing that the “Fireplace Delusion” is good science.

        • Venavis

          In my experience with fireplaces and fire pits, people don’t sit in the spot where they are breathing in the smoke. In fact, I wonder if Harris has ever heard of this new-fangled device called a ‘chimney’.

        • Annerdr

          So you didn’t read any of the research I posted?
          Chimneys definitely help by taking some of the wood smoke away, which is why when you burn wood, you affect the air that your neighbors breathe.
          In short, Harris’ point that people are reluctant to accept evidence counter to closely held beliefs is valid.

        • Venavis

          Actually, I did. That’s why I noted that in most of the cases, they are talking about situations without adequate ventilation, such as the example of open fire cooking. They are also talking about long-term exposure, not the occasional fire in the fireplace.

          And compared to the myriad other things people do that affect the air their neighbors breathe, wood smoke is fairly benign, especially as it clears the air comparatively quickly. Afterward, it even has a net benefit on the soil in terms of fertilization. Collecting and burning underbrush in small quantities actually has a benefit on the environment at large, as it prevents greater fires from having the fuel to burn out of control. So, if you look at the larger picture, wood fires are good. Sam Harris is notorious for not looking at the larger pictures, instead choosing to see only the aspects that he can use for his purposes.

          In short, Harris’s point that people are reluctant to accept evidence counter to closely held beliefs is one he desperately needs to apply to himself.

          But yes, I’m aware wood smoke is dangerous. People who regularly enjoy a wood fire in the fireplace are aware that wood smoke is dangerous. I’m fairly confident most of them are aware that fire is also dangerous. Therein lies a lot of Harris’s dishonesty.

        • Annerdr

          “And compared to the myriad other things people do that affect the air their neighbors breathe, wood smoke is fairly benign, especially as it clears the air comparatively quickly.”

          In short, you did not read the links. The science is clear that wood smoke is dangerous to inhale and that chimneys don’t negate that danger, that the particulate matter stays in the air considerably longer than second hand smoke, and that wood smoke is a large contributor of dangerous air pollution in cities. I don’t understand why you dismiss the evidence.

          I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. I’ve read almost nothing by Sam Harris, don’t have any opinions about him, and I generally like wood fires. I don’t understand why you dismiss the evidence., but you do you.

        • Venavis

          For someone who doesn’t have a dog in this hunt, you’re pretty passionate about defending his argument.

          But as I said, I read the links. Clearly, we took away different information from them, because I saw a lot of ‘OMG THIS CAUSES CANCER IN LAB RATS’ and then when you actually examine the conditions, well, everything causes cancer in lab rats when you inject them with enough of it.

          I have read Sam Harris, which is why I’m calling out the misrepresentations, exaggerations, and his delusion that he’s an intellectual that uses logic.

        • Pofarmer

          The post you replied to was so bad it’s not even wrong.

        • Annerdr

          I think we have ample evidence supporting Sam Harris’ post.

        • Pofarmer

          I agree. I don’t agree with everything Harris says but some of the haters boggle my mind. I really enjoyed his interviews on the Joe Rogan podcast.

        • Annerdr

          I really haven’t read much of what he writes, so I don’t know enough to have an opinion about him. I did read this one blog post, and the push back is remarkable.

        • Rheingold

          It says right there in the article, “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.”

        • Venavis

          Yes, they can pass back in. In comparatively small doses, depending on the weather. Laboratory conditions and the real world tend to have some rather glaring differences.

          Burning your dinner can have a similar effect as the one being panicked about here, because smoke is smoke. This is one of those things like the whole ‘reefer madness’ bullshit. The danger is greatly exaggerated to make a point and has little to do with how it actually is done in real life.

        • Bob Jase

          Don’t be ridiculous, if you cut a hole in the roof then rain will come in, chimneys are impractical.

        • Steven Watson

          So equivalent to smoking six cigarettes a year. That was the finding of the largest longditudinal study of the risks of second hand tobacco smoke – it is equivalent to smoking half a cigarette a year if you live in the home of a smoker. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition referenced in the Scientific Amerrican article that’s been linked, is a lobby group, it’s director of ‘research’ is Ellen Brockovich who you don’t have to go very far to find out has a problematic relationship with truth. I’m not dismissing this totally but to quote a famous fictional character ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ This very much looks like crank science.

        • Annerdr

          And the other links?

        • Steven Watson

          What about them?

        • Rudy R

          A political smear against the wood burning lobby? Sam Harris is not out to take your wood burning rights away from you. Lighten up!

        • Chuck Johnson

          No, he’s just out to deceive in order to push his political agenda.
          He’s not especially interested in the burning of wood.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Bob, your stubbornness paid off.
    Some mysteries are harder to solve than others.

  • Pofarmer

    I’m gonna consider this a miracle that you just sort of posted about something that I was going to go off topic about on the shortest thread anyway. Hallelujah!!!!

    The Awestruck effect.

    “Charismatic leaders stir the hearts of their followers and entice
    them with mesmerising messages, and so followers hail their leader,”
    said the study. “But followers, in their admiration of the leader, are
    also likely to become awestruck – overwhelmed with emotion that they are
    too intimidated to express.”

    Such inhibition of expressiveness can deploy mental resources and
    thus impair the cognitive processing capacity of followers – which may
    make them less able to evaluate the actual messages of charismatic leaders, and therefore make them “more likely to endorse such leaders with little scrutiny.”

    Here’s what a neuroscientist that writes for a lot of science blogs had to say about it in Popular Science.

    Neuroscientist Claire Maldarelli says

    “I study social
    psychology, especially the effect that charismatic religious leaders can
    have on their followers. In one of my group’s studies, we brought in
    Christians who believe in the healing powers of the divinity. Using an
    fMRI machine, which highlights active areas of the brain, we saw that
    when they listened to prayers from healers, areas associated with
    reasoning and skepticism were immediately suppressed. Nonbelievers
    didn’t have the same apparent loss of rational thought.

    We all experience versions of that. Many bosses exert this kind of
    charisma, and it likely causes the same brain behavior.

    colleagues and I think this could be a survival mechanism. Spending
    all your time on critical thinking keeps you from getting everything
    else done, so you build trust in other people. You’re allowing others
    to think for you. But the power of charisma doesn’t come from any
    particular skill in the person influencing you. It’s all about the
    faith you put in them. Understanding how this all plays out
    neurologically has completely changed the way I interact with the world.
    But that’s not necessarily a positive thing in every scenario. It’s
    ruined my relationship with doctors. Sometimes I wish I could just
    blindly trust that my physician is prescribing me the right medications.

    But, I’ve come to appreciate that trust needs to be earned–whether
    it’s in a doctor, a news source, or a person of authority. “

    I thought that this was rather fascinating. I wonder if it just mainly applies to trusted authority figures. I’ve “joked” with my wife that her bullshit detector goes totally off when she listens to Catholic “stuff”. Now I find out that that’s actually a thing. Neat. Now, how do you counteract it?

  • Kodie

    I was sure you were going to realize you scrubbed the glass so hard that the fog was caused by microscratches. You can’t get that off.

  • MR

    For me, this is a huge distinction between most of the atheists I’ve encountered and the vast majority of the apologist types that tend to show up here. I don’t think there’s an atheist here who wouldn’t say, “Sure, I could be wrong,” and who would welcome being corrected if they were wrong. I’ve no doubt that all of us would want to definitively know if God existed. How many times do we repeatedly ask for evidence to prove us wrong? But, the apologist will rarely say, “I could be wrong.” The cognitive dissonance kicks in and they’ll avoid even making such a statement at all cost, as if stating as much would bring the house of cards crashing down. To me it speaks of dishonesty to your own self. Just once I’d like to see them explore, “I could be wrong.”

    • Once in a while they do admit the possibility … but that doesn’t last because then they soon become an atheist like us.

      • MR

        Yes, I think that must be true.

      • Pofarmer

        Yep, the fear of death kicks in and then you’re done. The rational faculties just shut down. “Holy, shit, if there’s not god, then I”m gonna DIE!!!!

      • Annerdr

        Hey, just wanted to say I enjoyed this post. It is amazing how much push back there is when people don’t like the message.

    • al kimeea

      It’s why I read the BuyBull. My P&M might have been wrong. Aboot 1200 pages later, nope.

      • MR


        • al kimeea

          Pa & Ma

  • Jim Baerg
    • I’m a big fan of nuclear–either fission or fusion. I would’ve thought that climate change being such a big deal on the liberal side that they would drop (or rethink) their opposition to nuclear power.


      • Michael Neville

        Having spent years making holes in the ocean in nuclear powered submarines, I’m also a fan of nukes.

        • Jim Baerg

          Do you follow this blog by another fellow who spent some time in nuke submarines?

        • Michael Neville

          No, I’ve never heard of him before. But his blog looks interesting.

      • Jim Baerg

        I’m a bit lukewarm on fusion unless & until someone makes a fusion reactor that puts out more electricity than gets put in.
        On fission I’m thinking about how to create an “Index of Anti Nuclear Claims” to parallel the “Index of Creationist Claims”. It would mostly be links to existing rebuttals to such claims, like the link just I gave in my comment above is a rebuttal to claims that nuclear is particularly dangerous.

        • But you don’t want to be saying the equivalent of, “A nuclear bomb would help end the war, but I don’t want to fund it until the development is finished, proving that it can be done.”

          You’re familiar with IETR? Then there’s the National Ignition Facility (fusing frozen hydrogen, one tiny ball at a time). They get the press, but I frequently hear of some new, exciting bit of progress from private or university research. I vote for some serious money to create an Apollo Program for fusion.

      • carbonUnit

        I’ll get more interested in fission when someone comes up with a way to deal with the waste.
        I hope we do finally figure out fusion.

        • Don’t label it “waste”; label it “fuel.” There are some reactor designs that, instead of consuming 1% of the energy (like the original light-water fission reactors) consume almost all of it.

        • Aram

          Look up breeder reactors.

        • adam

          Ah, keep them barefoot and pregnant…….