The Fireplace Revisited: What We Have Learned About the Limits of Science
In 2012, scientific moralist Sam Harris authored a piece titled "The Fireplace Delusion." He argued that science has clearly demonstrated the carcinogenic qualities of wood smoke and as a result, "The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. ... Therefore, even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas)."
The broader point from Harris was that in the case of both fireplaces and religious faith, nostalgia and irrationality drive us toward dangerous, outdated notions. Science has spoken, and the hearth and the church are both too risky to endure.
I remember reading Harris's wood smoke rant and being immediately fascinated by the argument. I even wrote my own response in 2016. My conclusion then and now is that the analogy is actually very telling. Both fireplaces and faith have a value that cannot be easily calculated by scientific measurement. To quote C.S. Lewis, a fan of both fireplace and faith, "Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?"
Today I return to this topic because we have now seen a larger-scale experiment in the limits of science in public life. In a pandemic and post-pandemic era, concern for the risk of firewood smoke actually seems petty and small, but it reminds me of something we have learned from our duel with Covid.
Science can assess risk, but it cannot calculate value.
This is not a statement intended to demean science. I love science. I spent four or five years of my life studying science. I am writing a dissertation about science. My current dissertation advisor wishes I would spend more time in Acts and less time in science textbooks. I love science.
However, one of the best things you can do for something or someone you love is never to overburden them with unrealistic expectations. It will crush them and disappoint you.
What then is a reasonable expectation for my beloved science?
Science thrives in the world of statistical evaluation. A chemist can list with accuracy the quantity of benzene and other toxic chemicals in wood smoke (the math is actually startling). A CDC expert can tell you the relative risks of public life during a pandemic. In both cases, we would be foolish to dismiss science as rubbish. We call these people experts for a reason.
Seriously people - please listen to scientists when they talk about science. The loss of confidence in scientific conclusions and the rise of pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories truly troubles me.
But what science cannot do is ascertain the intrinsic value of the behavior that produces the risk in question. There are no standard units of happiness, nor any way to convert units of human flourishing into units of peril. A scientific study can assess the danger of wood smoke, but not the value of aroma to the soul. We are told (by scientists no less) that smell is a sense most closely tied to memory. Memory is who I am, the catalog of all my experiences. The scent of woodsmoke is actually giving me a better knowledge of myself, allowing me to relive my life above the dancing flames of the campfire. Or maybe that is a bit too poetic for you.
In my personal life, my wife's breast cancer diagnosis in 2020 led to the same borderlands of science and knowledge. After completing aggressive chemo-therapy in the Fall, our oncologist asked my wife to consider a clinical trial. The new drug treatment would amount to enduring yet another half-year of chemo and all its related side effects, a miserable Hell my wife had only just completed. The doctor pulled up a website and was able to show us in simple terms the 5-year survival rates for a person with my wife's diagnosis. The clinical trial would possibly add 2% to that number.
What the doctor could not tell us is whether or not six months of misery was worth a 2% improvement in the survival rate. What is the value of six months well-lived with our children compared to a 2% difference in risk? There is simply no medical or scientific answer to that question.
When this challenge mixes with public policy, the matter gets even murkier. In the summer of 2020, Nevada, like many states, issued Covid restrictions in the name of public health, a decision I applaud. However, Nevada offered different criteria for its famous casinos than it did for places of worship. Churches sued the state claiming discrimination. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case at that time, though with considerable and vocal dissent.
I suspect what was really being debated in that scenario was not science. The scientific risk of public gambling versus public worship can be reasonably well determined. In some areas such as singing, the place of worship might pose a greater risk, whereas, in other scenarios like eating and drinking near others, the casino could be as bad or worse. But the real issue was not about the scientific assessment of risk. The question was of value.
In a state whose revenue depends so much on casino activity, it was easy for the state government to conclude that the value of keeping casinos open at 50% capacity outweighed the apparent risk. Churches do not provide any obvious financial incentive to the state, so it was difficult for the state to see anything but the risk in keeping them open in the same way. A house of gambling generates money, whereas a house of prayer generates only faith.
I do not write this to make a case for or against Covid-era policies. I think we were all unprepared and as a whole, we mostly did the best we could to survive. Some policies were better than others, but that is the way it always is.
Instead, I write this to remind us that this will not be the last time in our lives we have to assess risk in terms of value. In truth, we do this every day of our lives. As Frodo Baggins was warned, “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Being human is a fatal condition, and living lives of any sort includes taking risks of every sort. Discerning the value of life and the peril of risk is the task of being human, but it is not one we can accomplish by science alone.
To quote Matthew Crawford's beautiful conclusion,
“Following the science” to minimise certain risks while ignoring others absolves us of exercising our own judgment, anchored in some sense of what makes life worthwhile. It also relieves us of the existential challenge of throwing ourselves into an uncertain world with hope and confidence. A society incapable of affirming life and accepting death will be populated by the walking dead, adherents of a cult of the demi-life who clamour for ever more guidance from experts.
In the daily assessment of risk, science is our friend and ally. It can provide statistical analysis of viral counts, motor vehicle crashes, cancer survival rates, and yes even the quantity of carcinogens in wood smoke.
What science can never tell us is the value of one moment of joy, one measure of faith, one cup full of beauty. These divinely gifted values defy our scientific lens and instead require the whole human person to assess.
As creatures in God's image, we have tools for measurement that science knows not.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.