This week on Virtual Skeptics, I covered spontaneous human combustion (SHC) in the news. The big story was about a 65-year old Oklahoma man, Danny Vanzandt, who lived alone, whose charred remains were all that was left of him in a home that was generally undamaged. The spokesperson in the articles, Sherrif Lockhart, said “Vanzandt’s body was burned in a way that was inconsistent with the fire being started by accident, such as by dropping a lit cigarette.”
The Sheriff said the investigation is still ongoing, but that he is not ruling it out spontaneous combustion as the cause of the fire [via Oklahoma Man Dies In Fire, Spontaneous Combustion Not Ruled Out – NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK].
And, that story smoldered for a day before it spread out of control across the media.
A bunch of people sent me the link to the Oklahoma story two days later. (I’m pretty damn fast on Doubtful News so you may want to follow the RSS or Twitter feed for ALL the stories). As soon as I read the story, I recalled it was very similar to two cases last year in Ireland. The news reported that there were two deaths where the respective coroners ruled were likely caused by SHC. In one case, an inquest overturned the original conclusion because SHC has never been established to ACTUALLY occur. But that fact is missed by the average person. They get their information via the media who enjoys making their headlines as sensational as possible.
Look at how the media portrayed this event. The association with SHC was what made this event particularly newsworthy. The headlines all include the words “spontaneous human combustion” and that is what people will key in on.
This story from Digital Journal stated: Some scientists believe that spontaneous combustion does exist, although it is considered a rare phenomenon. [Sheriff says spontaneous combustion may be behind man’s death]
What scientists would that be? None. Some have demonstrated the wick effect whereby clothing, furniture or rugs act as wicks where the fire burns hot but slow in a local area, fed by body fat. Only the extremities remain since fire does not efficiently move sideways and there is less fat in those places. Gruesome, but true. The horrible remains DO have an explanation.
It is assumed that SHC means “fire burns from inside the person”. That’s the common usage. Just catching on fire from an external source is not all that mysterious. Many of the news reports did note that the odd explanation being considered was related to the man possibly spontaneously bursting into flames.
In this Live Science piece, I noticed confusing use of the idea of SHC with general combustion of the human body. [Spontaneous Combustion Suspected in Oklahoma Death | Spontaneous Human Combustion SHC | LiveScience]
Lockhart was certainly surprised at the situation. He did not notice an external cause and no accelerant used that would explain the burn. But that does not mean there wasn’t one.
“Even more mysteriously, “there was no damage to the furniture,” said the sheriff. There was no damage anywhere else in the house or any signs of struggle, reports affiliates KFSM. “I started researching and talking to other fire investigators and we started looking at spontaneous human combustion,” Lockhart said he never believed it until today. “If you look at it, I mean everything in here, if you read about spontaneous human combustion, that’s what we have” [via Spontaneous human combustion | WTVR.com – Richmond News & Weather from WTVR Television CBS 6].
Where do you think Lockhart looked? In science journals? Maybe ones about fire science? I don’t have access to those but I’m fairly certain that there are no publications that conclude SHC has been documented. What we have instead, in spades, is much popular writing and mystery mongering on the topic. In addition, we see the media propagate the idea that these tales have in some official capacity been associated with SHC. They have not.
So, this news story just added to the spread of this meme of SHC. As I mention on Virtual Skeptics, there are other explanations that fit very well without having to invent an unknown, counter-biologic mechanism to kill these poor people. It was certainly very specific and unfortunate circumstances that led to their shocking demise.
The recording of the show is below. Brian talks about drones and why you can’t use them to hunt people, Bob discusses the Russian meteor and the conspiracies that blew up with it, Eve is REALLY mad at me for introducing her to this story about a guy who has set a new high bar in woo. My part begins at about :43 minutes in. Tim brings us round to TAM. (YAY!) It looks like we’ll all be there! (It’s a full house, “Three Susans and Two Massimos”!) Enjoy.