Irish “Spontaneous Human Combustion”? Blarney!

September 27, 2011

In a classic instance of faulty logic—what is known as "an argument from ignorance"—an Irish coroner has proclaimed "spontaneous combustion" as the cause of death of a 76-year-old man, Michael Faherty, whose body was found extremely burned at his home in Ballybane, Galway. Although his remains were found lying "with his head closest to an open fireplace," fire officers nevertheless concluded that that blaze was not involved! They did not explain how they had ruled out the obvious source of the ignition (BBC News Online, September 23, 2011).

I was asked by CBS News' online Health Watch to respond to the case, given my years of investigation of so-called "spontaneous human combustion" (or SHC). (Forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I, having investigated thirty historical cases of the alleged phenomenon, published our explanations in an arson-investigation journal, from which our work was cited in a major forensic textbook, and other sources. I have kept up with developments in the field, investigating and reporting on other cases, and on November 5, 2010, I gave a three-hour presentation on the topic as a special instructor at the New York state Academy of Fire Science.)

As I have explained on many occasions, one cannot say ‘we don't know' the explanation for some occurrence and then conclude we therefore do know. Yet most of the paranormal is promoted in just this way (so that a UFO becomes an alien spacecraft, an unexplained noise in an old house a ghost, and a rare remission of a disease a miracle). Saying that the cause of combustion in the Irish case is unknown and therefore "spontaneous" is to be guilty of the ubiquitous logical fallacy. That is especially true in light of the fact that not one instance of SHC has ever been validated by mainstream science, and in fact there is no credible mechanism by which the body can spontaneously combust. One cannot explain one mystery by invoking another.

Not only is SHC a non-explanation—we might as well attribute the case to a ghost playing with matches, or a fire poltergeist, or Satan—but there is a real-world possibility at hand, as well as corroborative evidence suggesting that that explanation is, in fact, most likely correct.

What really happened? In typical "SHC" cases, the victim is impaired by age, infirmity, or drugs, and thus he or she is more likely both to have an accident and to be unable to respond properly to it. The victim is invariably alone; otherwise the cause would probably be known and the fire extinguished, eliminating the case from the annals of alleged SHC. Although each case must be individually investigated, often victims have been found in proximity to a fireplace where a cinder from a crackling fire could easily have been propelled onto their clothes, smoldered, then burst into flames. Once the person succumbs, his clothing may act like a wick, absorbing melted body fat to fuel more fire to effect still more destruction. In this way the body burns at a relatively low temperature but is largely consumed over time while having little effect on nearby objects. (See my Secrets of the Supernatural, 1988, pp. 149-57, 161-71; Real-Life X-Files, 2001, 28-36, 240-44.)

Apparently the coroner of Galway, Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin, is unaware of the scientific literature on the "wick effect." Otherwise he would not reject an obvious explanation and illogically invoke a discredited paranormal one; that is, he would not (in the words of Matthew 23:24) "strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."


#1 john h. (Guest) on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 12:31pm

Dr. Nickell’s apparently odor-free and self-serving OP/ED on his flawless logical analysis of an Irish Physician’s Blarney? 

OR, “Why was the really “hot girlfriend hypothesis” apparently and completely ignored, when it so obviously fits the factoids???!

At first blush, and in all probability, the learned Dr. Nickell is quite correct in his assertions.  Then again???  Or, Why does an established authority hold himself to more rigorous standards, apparently? 

Dr. Nickell cites an apparent “arguement from ignorance,” yet, is he relying on the BBC article as the primary/sole resource for his apparent arguements?  Is he really citing the best evidence available for his assertions; say, instead of direct review of the actual, official investigatory reports themselves or direct interviews, etc. Does Nickell acknowledge that this approach might have problems or insufficiencies?

Does Nickell explicitly acknowlege that his assertion of another’s ignorance might imply to some that he seems to be taking an apparently superior position of not being ignorant? (What ego?  He’s just an objective scientist, right?  There’s no appeal to quasi-exclusive authority or anything like that, right?)

Then again, at least Nickell acknowledges that each case must be investigated individually.  Did he do that in this case—or is that just a hollow assertion to CYA?  And if he didn’t, did he explicity cite the apparent flaws in his own process/research/review, as a good, competent/objective researcher might?

And while, on the surface, Nickell seems well-qualified, is it possible that, again, he’s making a type of “arguement from authority” when he, more or less, asserts that because he’s investigated so many other cases before, that, essentially and obviously, the occurence in question is just another variation on that theme? That wouldn’t possibly be a type of implied arguement from authority, would it?  Then again, speaking of arguement from ignorance, (as in there are more things…Horatio?), does he humbly tells us what he does not or cannot know before he asserts same for others?

Then, he offers his own hypothesis/speculation based on what scientifically reproducable research?

In citing “mainstream science,” is it possible that Dr. Nickell apparently ignores or confirms(?)
Thomas Kuhn’s assertion that “old paradigms die hard” (just as true for “mainstream science and social-scientific revolutions, as say, (some of) “the Irish’s” notions of things?).  But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Nickell’s version of science, right?

Since Nickell apparently asserts that spontaneous combustion is Blarney; is also asserting/implying that mainstream science is blarney-free?  Let’s look at the history of science.  Of course, that can “cut both ways,”—and Galileo doesn’t count, of course.

And, of course, there’s no cultural bias in using the term Blarney—or shall we get into omissions regarding Irish history, too?  Ah, the English, et al.—they never take a position of apparent “superiority,” do they?

Nickell apparently concludes that the coroner seems to be ignorant of his “pet”(?), “wick” theory or whatever they call it?  Apparently, if the physician did not mention it by name; then, one can fairly conclude that it wasn’t considered—and, therefore, it’s fair game? 

Well, using that apparent type of reasoning on the substance of Nickell’s article—what might one conclude?  Exactly how does he know what the coroner considered? And, in his critique, does he rely on primary, secondary, or hear-say evidence?  Does he disclose the potential errors in his own arguements, like a good scientist does?  (Oh, that’s right; he’s unquestionably established as an authority?)

Does Nickell even acknowledge that; however improbable, that there’s a slight possibility for a particular occurence?  What quantum theory? Just variants of black-and-white and all-or-nothing type thinking, perhaps? 

Is he, more or less, saying something like, that’s how science and skepticism work?  Well, then, have you applied the same standards (and disclosure, etc.) to your own apparent methodology/article, Dr. Nickell? 

(What do you mean that writing for certain media necessitates certain concessions?  And, you apparently release yourself from that type of rigorous accountability while apparently using same on others?  Could there be a self-serving double standard, sir?  Never!?)

But what do i know?  Probably very little?  And, that’s probably more accurate than i’d like to acknowledge—but, what the heck, i don’t hold myself out as a professional whatever…  Just wondering “out loud” about what Dr. Nickell wrote?

Here’s a pet hypothesis—and it’s just a notion, an opinion in the arena of that philosophical “boo-hurah-land”: 

The old dude apparently had a really—and i mean really—“hot girlfriend”! (So much for your apparent, shall we call it, “pet” “wick” theory?) and that’s that! 

Speakin’ o’ the Blarney… 

#2 jehman45 on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 1:00pm

Spontaneous, combustable, one type of “wick” hypothesis or another…perhaps, we should file Dr. Nickell’s apparent, “Blarney” Op-Ed analysis next to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal…”?

#3 jehman45 on Tuesday September 27, 2011 at 2:39pm

Then again, in asserting that the Irish Coroner’s conclusion is a type of “Blarney!”—I wonder if, at least, part of the possible issue with Dr. Nickell’s assertions are something more along the lines of an underlying notion of something that smacks of an insensitive, high-handed notion of “cultural superiority, apparently”?

While asserting that myths, legends and certain types of other, cultural belief systems/ explanations, etc., are, essentially, “primitive” or somehow inferior/ignorant—well, maybe that’s some type of fact, albeit a harshly-asserted one, sometimes?  (However and arguably, while such cultures/peoples may appear “inferior” from a certain point of view; maybe, how one make such an assertion is as important that it might be veratious?  Your apparently implied position of superiority can be problematic, at least from the point of view of some students of history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, etc.?) 

Nonetheless, once one suggests, implies or says something like, “oh, goblins, ghosts,UFOs, spontaneous combustion, and &tc;.”—they’re or he’s just another ignorant physician from Ireland type-of-thing is okay?  It’s, as if, a type (either implied and/or explicit) of ridicule is okay/authorized/ utilized in dismissing the “other” or “it” (in a Martin Buber sense), so to speak?

In this instance, while Dr. Nickell may be correct about certain things—and even well-intended?  He apparently holds himself out as a professional?  As such, if he chooses to wield a figurative blade in the name of some type of quest for “truth” or whatever; then, perhaps, he should stay sharp and use his Bully pulpit with more apparent sensitivity/ discretion/precision?

For instance, is Dr. Nickell ignorant of the British Empire’s, et. al.‘s, apparent pattern of using various methods to discount other cultures, including the use of ridicule, belittlement, deridement, minimization—either implicit or explicit?  However inadvertent, justified, or not—it would seem that he’s engaged in a variation of more of the same?  (And accusing me of misunderstanding or a lack of humor or being too serious isn’t an adequate defense for indefensible behavior in a public forum, inadvertent or not.  Besides, I don’t claim to be a professional anything—which, you can quip is obvious enough;) 

Might we say that Dr. Nickell’s article apparently smacks of a type of “ignorance,” (to use one of his seemingly favoured characterizations)? 

And,regardless of my intentions or whether i am informed or misinformed about the scientific method, are there any defenses that make Dr. Nickell less culpable when apparently employing or “thoughtlessly”(?) employing certain rhetorical tactics, like his apparent “Blarney” defence/offence? 

After all, either his apparent slight was intentional or out ignorance, to use one of his apparent, all-or-nothing type arguements?

As someone who holds himself out as a professional in the public domain, Dr. Nickell has engaged in an apparent and unapologetic ad hominem attack on an Irish Physician, it would seem? 

Apparently disparaging comments (either implied or explicit) are at best, questionable, Dr. Nickell?

Beware hubris!  How many other cultures and so-called “disciplines,” and “true faiths/believers” have ultimately been (and legitimately subjected to) ridiculed in the same way that they once, superiorly heaped pejoratives upon others?  “Blarney,” you say?

Maybe you’re right, Dr. Nickell, but, with all due respect, the apparently snug, dismissive moral superior tone runs the risk of hubris and does not become an objective, professional researcher? 

Since you seem to be so knowledgable about apparent logical fallacies, how about looking at some of your own while/before you start writing on others?

Of course, one could ask me the same question? The point is: i am not holding myself out as professional in the public domain making assertions about a medical doctor, Irish “Blarney” or not…

Dr. Nickell, are you saying you’ve the “truth”? Truly, a a good scientist generally wouldn’t fall into such an absolutist type of trap?

Even if you are right, Dr. Nickell, does that justify apparent assertions made in a superior manner or tone? Or might one accurately opine that such an apporach smacks of an apparent “appeal to ignorance”?

Besides, if you are going to agrue for “wicks”—er, a wick theory, why not argue for “hot girlfriends,” too?

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