As my day job, I’m a university lecturer in psychology (ssshhhh — don’t tell them!). One of the great pleasures of this role is running an elective class called Psychology, Science, & Pseudoscience, which I have offered for the last five years or so. This year, as a class assignment, I am encouraging the group to gather examples of pseudoscientific stories they find in the mainstream news media. Now as regular readers will know, this ain’t going to the most difficult assignment these guys will encounter during their education. So to provide some degree of challenge, I want them to critique each piece and to point out why it constitutes an example of pseudoscience. All the analyses will be posted on a special class blog called The PseudoNews Project. By way of leading by example, I’ve posted the first entry myself. And for your benefit, I reproduce it here…
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Story: “Galway Pensioner Dies From Spontaneous Combusion”
Summary: A public inquiry into the death of a 76-year-old man in Galway, Ireland, late last year concluded that he was a victim of a phenomenon known as “spontaneous human combustion“. The West Galway coroner, Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin, declared that there was “no other adequate explanation for the death“. He further stated that it was the first time in his 25 years as a coroner that he had returned such a verdict.
Garda (Police Officer) Gerard O’Callaghan of the local CSI unit told the inquest that the seat of the fire in the man’s house was found to be confined to the area around his badly burned body, and that there was no forensic evidence to suggest the presence of accelerants such as gasoline or paraffin oil.
The local assistant chief fire officer, Gerry O’Malley, said that, although the man’s body was found near an open fire in the sitting room fireplace, it was concluded that this had not been the cause of the blaze.
Dr MacLoughlin went on: “I’d say that the death was thoroughly investigated by the most experienced fire experts in the country, and I’m of the view that it fits in with spontaneous combustion, for which there is no scientific explanation.”
It has been widely reported that this constitutes Ireland’s first ever recorded case of spontaneous human combustion.
Why is this PseudoNews? Spontaneous human combustion is widely regarded to be highly implausible, and cases reported throughout the world are almost certainly explicable in terms of natural causes. The Galway case has a number of features that appear to be very common across reports of SHC seen elsewhere.
For example, as with virtually all cases of SHC, the deceased man was found near an open fireplace or naked flame. While not conclusive, the very notion that alleged cases of SHC require the presence of fire in the proximity of the death, strongly implicates actual fire in the precipitation of the event. While the deceased man was found lying in the middle of the room, several feet from the fireplace, there is nothing to preclude the possibility that he (or his clothing) caught fire at the fireplace, after which he fell or walked back to the middle of the room where he met his untimely death. There is no reason to necessarily expect burns or other physical traces on the floor or furniture between the man’s body and the fireplace.
Secondly, very many cases of SHC involve older adults. A gruesome factor here is that older adults often have brittle bones (due to osteoperosis) and a lower density of body fat, both of which have the macabre effect of making the human body far more flammable than in younger people. This might help account for why such fires burn very quickly once started, and then burn themselves out leaving minimal damage to other parts of the room.
A final point to note is that the coroner’s court is a court of inquest, and does not operate the same standards of proof as more common courts of law (e.g., those that hear criminal or civil cases). It certainly does not operate the same standards of proof as, say, a scientific laboratory. While it makes a finding, this finding cannot be viewed as being based on definitive evidence; it remains more of an interpretation of events (offered by one person), rather than a definitive factual conclusion.
What features of pseudoscience are on show? Firstly, the coroner’s finding lacks parsimony. The coroner himself notes that SHC is something for which there is no scientific evidence. Therefore, he was faced with a choice of at least two possible findings. Either: (a) the beliefs and theories of the various witnesses were erroneous (i.e., fallible); or (b) a supernatural event occurred. The latter explanation — the one the coroner chose — lacked parsimony because it relied on the premise that supernatural events can occur, which is itself undemonstrated. The former option is far more parsimonious because it does not rely on such an extravagant (i.e., undemonstrated) premise. Instead it relies on the premise that humans are fallible, a premise we know to be true.
Secondly, the decision-making rests on an “argument from ignorance“. The coroner doesn’t choose the SHC finding because of any positive evidence in favour of such a conclusion; instead, he chooses the finding because he finds no evidence in favour of alternative conclusions. As such, there is no evidence, one way or the other, regarding SHC. This is not a rational basis on which to form a conclusion in favour of SHC. The absence of evidence against a proposition does not elevate its likelihood of being true. A good example is that of Bertrand Russell‘s “celestial teapot” (see here). Instead, an absence of evidence simply means that the given proposition is unproven. In other words, the correct conclusion from the evidence presented here was that any allegation of SHC in this case is simply unsubstantiated (and no more likely than a teapot floating in space).
Finally, the quotes attributed to the coroner suggest that he took particular account of the experience and ranks of the various professionals who gave evidence (he refers to them as “the most experienced fire experts in the country“). However, this is essentially irrelevant. For example, it does not alter the fact that there is no evidence in favour of SHC. This called an “argument from authority“, and is akin to prioritizing anecdotal perspectives over demonstrable evidence.
The moral of the story: The world has not changed. This was a standard case of alleged SHC. While the Galway case might never be properly explained, “unexplained” does not mean “inexplicable”.