Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Facilitated Communication Scam

So I read this article on CNN, about Rom Houben, a man who was supposedly misdiagnosed as being in a vegatative state for 23 years, but has been discovered to be conscious, and able to communicate. 

Rom Houben was 23 at the time of the near-fatal car crash in 1983 that left him paralyzed. Doctors presumed he was in a vegetative state following the accident and they believed he could feel and hear nothing.
Neurologist Dr.Steven Laureys of the University of Liege, in Belgium carried out a brain scan using state-of-the art scanning system and discovered that Houben's brain was fully functional.

Sounds like a horrible misdiagnosis, and such a shame for a man to spend 23 years unable to tell anyone that he is actually conscious.  It is horrible, but for a much different reason that is uncovered as we dig further:

In an interview with the UK's ITV news Monday, Rom communicated by typing on a special keyboard attached to his wheelchair, and aided by his carer.
But taking a look at the video, the carer seems to be doing more than just aiding him.  This is known as facilitated communication, and has been shown in most cases to be either a complete scam, or at the very least that the facilitator is unknowingly influencing the supposed communicator.

In some cases, for patients with cerebral palsy, for example, FC is effective in allowing a person with a physical handicap to communicate. However, in many others it has been shown to be the facilitator actually communicating.  One thing about the video suggests to me it's very unlikely that this is real communication from Rom:  sentences are being typed at very high speeds.  Regardless of how functional his brain actually is, his body is still only partially functional.  It's very unlikely he could signal her to type that quickly.  I can't believe that the reporter is actually falling for this without the slightest hint of skepticism. 

If this communication is part of the evidence used to determine this man's consciousness**, than it needs to be properly tested.  James Randi has done test before, and its not complicated:

I went there and I told her, 'If you satisfy me that facilitated communication actually does work, then we'll talk about the possibility of telepathy.' 'You know, there's no need for that Mr Randi, it works, we know that it works.' I made up before I went a bunch of cards with random words on them: 'basket', 'car', 'ball', 'cup', and then with the facilitator sitting there and with the child sitting there, I reached in and took one at random, turned it over; if it said on it, 'car', and I would say to the child, 'The word is car, c-a-r, car' and show the child the card. I would say, 'Now I want you with Florence's help, would you type out the word 'car'. And Florence would take the hand and 'c-a-r' would come out on the tape. We did this eight or ten times. And I would say, 'Now we're going to continue the experiment with one change only. I want Florence to leave the room for a count of 15, and then come back into the room.' So she'd leave the room, and while she was out of the room, I would select a card at random, say to the child, 'The word is 'basket', b-a-s-k-e-t, basket.' Florence would come back into the room, and guess what the child typed? 'Boy', 'man', 'woman', 'brother', 'sister', and when I said, 'No, I'm sorry, all of those are wrong. The facilitator looked down at the keyboard with a determined look on her face and using the child's hand, typed out a message which read approximately, 'I don't like this man from Florida Florence, he's trying to take you away from me. You are my only connection with the world. Florence, please send him away; he's a very bad man.' Now I don't think that Florence thinks that she is doing the typing. I honestly think that Florence believes that the child is doing the typing.

Note that I'm not necessarily suggesting the facilitator is knowingly trying to deceive anyone.  As Randi suggested, in many cases the facilitator is honestly surprised to find out that they are influencing the responses.  It's similar to the ideomotor, or Oujia board, effect, where very tiny movements you don't realize you're making, along with some reason to believe the movements are coming from somewhere else (whether it be a ghost or a partially paralyzed man), can cause you to believe that an object is moving, and you have no influence over that movement. 

Whether this is trickery or an honest attempt to help a paralyzed man, it's a horrible tragedy for a family to be given false hope of the ability to communicate with their loved one, when it's most likely not really him their communicating with.  I would imagine that eventually this FC claim will be tested, and the family's disappointment is going to be very tragic indeed.

If it turns out that this is, in fact, charlatanism, than it is a most disgusting and vile act.  Praying on people's despair and hope of being reunited, in a sense, with a loved one is a gross power play, no different from cold readers like John Edward (a.k.a. The Biggest Douche in the Universe) taking advantage of those mourning their deceased family and friends.  I sincerely hope that isn't the case here.  But more importantly, I sincerely hope the family will be able to emotionally handle learning that this communication is not real, because the evidence suggests it is not.

**The article says that the doctor used "state-of-the-art scanning equipment" to determine that his brain is functional, but consciousness is generally assessed by using standardized behavior tests, such as the JFK Coma Recovery Scale (CRS-R), which tests various abilities such as responding to visual and auditory stimuli, arousal, and ability to communicate.  The article mentions the CRS-R, but is not clear on whether it was used in this case.  The brain scans were only mentioned, and not described in enough detail to consider the validity of the doctor's methods.

1 comment:

  1. I award you one internet for the South Park reference.

    I agree with you that it would be tragic for the family to find out that its not really him, but a lot of people wouldnt want to know. They would rather ignore any contradictory evidence or claims, and assume its actually him. Im not one of those people, but they are out there.