Soap Man!

Its a bird…

No, Its a plane…

No…its…

Soap man!

This is why we investigate and do not debunk.  Debunking implies that we already know the answer, and we are simply setting out to prove what we already know (although in some circumstances, once the investigation has been completed, debunking is often times warranted).  I would argue that an individual focused solely on debunking (other than in the circumstance outlined in the above statement) has his/her proverbial blinders on.  This increases the chance of that person not considering (or even ignoring) relevant data.  Not a very good example/application of skepticism.  Investigation, on the other hand, implies that we have an open mind and we are will to accept all information regarding a particular case and after considering all available data coming to a logical conclusion, exactly what skepticism should be!

Take “Soap man” for example.

I remember the first time that I heard about Soap man.  I immediately thought to myself:

“Simply a hoax to attract tourists!” 

I should point out that I came to this conclusion without any real investigation into the story surrounding Soap Man.  Content in my “debunking” of the Soap man story, I moved on.  However several months later I again heard about the Soap man story.  I even began to hear about the Soap man story from several different science websites/podcasts that I regularly get my science news from.  At this point, I admitted to myself that I had not sufficiently looked into this story (in fact I had not looked into it at all!), so I took it upon myself to investigate the Soap man story.

For those of you unfamiliar with Soap man, an introduction is in order! 

Soap man, lived in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s.  Not much seems to be known about this actual life, but it is known that he was buried in a local cemetery around 1800.  His body was later “discovered” in 1875 when a work crew where excavating the forgotten cemetery to make way for a new the rail way/train depot.  Soap man’s remains were found to be in a rather “interesting” state of preservation.  More specifically, it appeared that large parts of his body had turned to soap! 

And as strange as it might sound…that is exactly what happened! 

Making soap is a simple chemical reaction.  Essentially fatty acids are mixed with an alkaline substance (typically lye) which release glycerol and fatty acids.  This process is call saponification.  The fatty acids are then treated further to make what we know as commercial soap. 

The saponification of corpses (often referred to as grave wax) is simply a naturally occurring version of the above process.  In the case of Soap man, water seeped into his casket and brought alkaline soil in with it.  This turned Soap man’s fat into soap through the process of saponification.        

So what have we learned from all of this?!

Do not be so quick to debunk a seemingly questionable story/claim.  Although the story/claim may, initially seem to be rather questionable, that does not mean that it does not warrant investigation.  Skepticism is not about simply debunking each and every claim that you encounter.  Unresearched debunking is no different than blind faith.  Both ignore relevant information in order to maintain a prior held belief.  Skepticism is about the process of inquiry and then making an informed/logical conclusion after consideration of all available information.  My experience of the Soap man story is a perfect example of how unresearched debunking can lead you to a false conclusion!   

This has been the skeptical samurai

Working to serve…

Through the process of inquiry…

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