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.”