PhACT - Meeting April 15
Our next meeting is April 15th at 2pm with speaker Chip Denman
covering spiritualism. Feel free to come an hour early to the exec
meeting where we will vote on officers for the new year.
I looked at the proofs for Greg Lester's first editing of Phactum,
which should be out this week. a new look - good coverage of
the global warming controversy from last meeting. Also, in this issue
of Phact note that we can use volunteers to help promote our new
While you are looking at your calendar - hold out May 20th - for
a story of a brush with a con man inspiring a conversion to skepticism.
And June 17th will be our annual Phact Phamily Phun picnic in the
same Upper Dublin Park as last year. -we hope to have more good food,
music, object tossings and alien visits.
The following is an overview of the coming meeting:
"If the Spirit is Willing: a Brief History of Spiritualism"
The mid-1800s through the 1920s was the heyday for
Spiritualism. Many respectable and influential persons held
that Spiritualism was a scientific religion with definitive
proof of the here-after. Although it may seem quaint
and even comical today, the history of the Spiritualist
movement sheds a lot of light on sincere believers and
outrageous fakers, including magicians, scientists,
philosophers, artists, politicians, and just plain citizens on
both sides. Chip Denman will give a brief history of some of
the most notable seance mediums and those who
Chip Denman is a statistician at the University of Maryland
where he teaches "Science/Pseudoscience" for the University
Honors Program, and past-president of the DC area skeptics group.
Note: All our meetings will be the 3rd Saturday of each month:
2:00 pm at the Bensalem Public Library.
I made a try at a new free bulletin board service for Phact at:
Here's a understatement for you, "perhaps some extra skepticism could
have been useful in Uganda".
Eric Krieg eric@...
PS: I close with email from Martin Czigler by permission:
From: Czigler Martin <cziglerm@...>
The April issue of Central PA magazine (the schedule guide for public
TV/radio station WITF) has an article on Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)
and Larry Arnold, a resident in this area, author of "Ablaze! The Mysterious
Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion". Below is a letter I've submitted to
the editor of Central PA magazine. Below that is a note I wrote about a
lecture by Arnold that I attended in October of 1998.
Although I mostly enjoy Central PA, I was disappointed in the poorly
researched tabloid-style article on Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).
A little digging (e.g. a review of Mr. Arnold's book at
www.csicop.org/si/9611/shc.html) would have revealed a strong correlation
between SHC and obesity, smoking, alcohol or drug use, and carelessness with
fire. Mr. Arnold's own research has shown that the vast majority of cases
occur in winter, when coincidentally people tend to be indoors, bundled up,
by a roaring fire. The outrageous theories dramatized by SHC proponents
fail to explain these facts, and these extraordinary claims defy physics and
chemistry as understood today.
In the Mary Reeser case, she was last seen wearing a flammable nightdress
and housecoat, and she was smoking while seated in an overstuffed armchair.
She was a "plump" woman, had taken two Seconal that day and planned to take
two more in the evening. John Bentley, who died in 1966, not the early
1970s, was well known for dropping hot ashes from his pipe onto his clothes,
which were dotted with burn spots.
SHC believers often mention the high temperatures used to cremate bodies.
Experiments have demonstrated that bodies can be burnt to a cinder at low,
smoldering temperatures, where cloth or upholstery acts as a candlewick for
melting fat. Crematoria use much higher temperatures in order to quickly
reduce bodies to ash.
If Central PA continues to cover the paranormal, I hope a better-balanced
presentation that would include a skeptical viewpoint. We readers deserve
I attended a lecture on Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) on Tuesday, Oct.
28, 1998 at Lebanon Valley College here in Lancaster County. The speaker
was Larry Arnold, founder? of ParaScience International in Harrisburg. His
Web site is http://www.voicenet.com/~psinet, but there doesn't seem to be
any content there. He is author of Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of
Spontaneous Human Combustion, which appears to be self-published, as well as
a two volumes of videos with the same name. The lecture was sponsored by
the Student Committee at LVC, and was attended primarily by students.
He showed many slides of photographs of the gory results of many historical
cases of (alleged) SHC, as well as videos with interviews with fire
officials, etc. Many of the cases discussed are historical, and are
discussed by Joe Nickell in his chapter on SHC in _Secrets of the
Supernatural_ (e.g., Bentley, Mary Reeser, several others). Others are
more recent, such as a George Mott in 1986. I was able to read a paragraph
of Nickell's book on the Bentley case to the audience, pointing out details
left unmentioned by Arnold. Arnold had some response but I hope my
"contribution" helped a little.
There were also some stories of people who have "survived" SHC, such as Jack
Angel whose right arm burned off without him being aware of it. A Mr. Jones
began to "smoke" in bed, and his wife helped to put out the smoke. Later
that same day, Mr. Jones claimed to have also begun to "smoke" in his car,
but it stopped shortly afterward on its own. An Elizabeth Norris claims her
arms began to smoke. A Kay Fletcher, who appeared on Unsolved Mysteries in
1996, claims she felt a warmth on her back and there was smoke and the smell
of burning flesh for one and half minutes. There's another case from India
in 1970, with someone who is claimed to be 114 years old, accompanied by a
"perfume-like smell". A Mel Thomson rushed to the bathroom to find her
underwear smoldering and a 3-inch burn mark on her bottom. I'm not familiar
with any of these cases, but they don't appear to be consistent (some feel
heat, others don't).
Arnold used many of the the same arguments that Nickell has discussed, such
as the claimed high heat required to burn flesh and bone in crematoria.
There were claims of a lack of heat damage to the surrounding apartment.
Amazingly, for one case he stated there was no heat damage to the ceiling
while the photograph on the screen clearly showed large dark smoke damage
stains on the wall. He also mentioned the alleged "shrunken skulls". And
he claimed that often there was a sweet smell at the site, not a greasy
burnt smell. (This slightly contradicts Elizabeth Norris case above, who
did smell something burning.)
There were summaries statistics of SHC cases, seeming to indicate a
correlation with the phases of the moon, and also with solar/magnetic
anomalies. His statistics also indicated to me that there are clearly more
cases in the winter and on weekends, although he uses these statistics to
say that not all cases are in the winter or on weekends as claimed by
"experts". He also states that not all cases happen to obese people (citing
the case of a baby, but with no details), or to people who are alone. He
did not mention the correlation that Joe Nickel had found between the amount
of damage to the body and the amount of external fuel available.
There were claims of "fire-leynes" in Britain, i.e. that SHC cases fall on
various straight lines drawn on a map. Arnold mentions that if four cases
fall on a straight line, it's statistically significant. But he didn't
mention that if you have many dozen random points on a map, there's a high
probability that several sets of 4 points will line up, which is what his
map looked like.
Arnold left the causes of SHC as a mystery, but mentioned the possibility of
UFOs (which he claimed are for real) and unknown energies.
Arnold left an impression of a glib entertainer, assuring the students at
the beginning that they would enjoy his presentation and the gory photos.
He used the argument that we don't know everything, and that the authorities
are often wrong (examples included Plato and Einstein), and heaped scorn on
the experts who deny SHC (including Nickell). He is also involved with the
Fortean society somehow, and at the end of his show he stated that there are
all kinds of mysterious things, if we only open our minds to them. He'll be
appearing on the Howard Stern show next Wednesday (I think).