News reports of a recent death by fire in Tulsa, OK read, “Sheriff: Oklahoma Man Died of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” and “Sheriff Rules Out Homicide, But Not Spontaneous Combustion After Autopsy.”
It’s actually not difficult to rule out spontaneous human combustion (SHC) – you can rule it out because SHC does not exist. The notion of SHC is that some process occurs in the body that causes it to heat to the point of spontaneous ignition, without an external ignition source. There simply is no known process by which this could occur.
This is not a trivial objection. While it is, of course, impossible to completely rule out the unknown, the laws of physics can make something so improbable that we can comfortably treat it as if it were impossible. At the very least the burden of proof should be extremely high – not so high that if the phenomenon were genuine we could not demonstrate it, but high enough to rule out other, even unlikely, causes.
The lack of a possible mechanism has inspired some SHC proponents to hypothesize new elementary particles as an explanation. Larry Arnold, in his book, Ablaze, posits the existence of the pyroton to explain the energy source that leads to SHC. He is not a theoretical physicist and is therefore probably not aware that you can’t just make up new particles and insert them into the standard model just to explain your alleged phenomenon. This is a rather extreme example of special pleading.
It is also curious that there are no pre or partial SHC phenomena. No one has heated up to near combustion. We also don’t see alleged cases of SHC in animals – why isn’t there spontaneous pig combustion?
Plausibility aside – what does the empirical evidence say? Are there any compelling cases of SHC, as Sheriff Lockhart seems to believe, saying:
“I think there’s only about 200 cases worldwide, and I’m not saying this happened. I’m just saying that we haven’t ruled it out.”
The hallmark of the SHC claim is that ignition occurs without an external source. It is curious, then, that one fairly consistent feature of alleged SHC cases is the presence of an external ignition source. The typical profile of a victim is an elderly or infirmed individual, or someone taking sedating medication or a heavy alcohol drinker, who lives alone and is also a smoker. Being overweight also is a common feature.
MORE . . .
- Spontaneous Combustion Suspected in Oklahoma Death (livescience.com)
- Another Alleged Spontaneous Human Combustion Case (theness.com)
- Spontaneous human photo-bombing (idoubtit.wordpress.com)
- Oklahoma Sheriff surprised by fire victim, considers spontaneous human combustion (doubtfulnews.com)
- Spontaneous combustion looked at in death (science.nbcnews.com)
- Sheriff not ruling out spontaneous human combustion (wtvr.com)
- Spontaneous combustion looked at as cause of Oklahoma death (science.nbcnews.com)
- Man May Have Died From Spontaneous Human Combustion (foxcharlotte.com)
- Audio: Sheriff Says Spontaneous Human Combustion Kills Man (5newsonline.com)
- Oklahoma sheriff: ‘Spontaneous human combustion’ killed 65-year-old man (rawstory.com)