Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Man thought to be in coma for 23 years was conscious the whole time!!!! Except, probably not...

If you're like me, you've heard everyone in your office talk in hushed, shocked tones of Rom Houben, the Belgian man thought to be in a coma for 23 years. Now, by using a special keyboard, Houben has miraculously spoken, and it turns out he was conscious the whole time, and he recounts the terrifying reality of being trapped in his body without the ability to speak or move. As Hoben himself sadi through his keyboard, "I screamed, but there was nothing to hear."

Or that's how the media is reporting it.

Unfortunately, that's not the whole story. This "special keyboard" works like this (via the Guardian):

What's so strange about that?

In order to use the keyboard, his hands must be supported and moved by an someone else. This is known as "facilitated communication". FC began as a method to allow people with severe autism and other neurological conditions to communicate. But unfortunately, facilitated communication has been not only debunked, but debunked soundly and repeatedly.

What's almost certainly at play here are the ideomotor effect and the observer-expectancy effect. These are the same principles upon which Ouija boards work: The facilitator (the one holding supporting the hand) will unintentionally be directing the hand where they expect it to go, spelling out words and sentences. The most famous example of the observer-expectancy effect is that of Clever Hans., the horse who could supposedly perform arithmetic.

Let me be perfectly clear: I don't believe that anyone is intentionally trying to fool anyone here. Much as in the Terry Schiavo case, there are loving family members who are looking for any reason they can find to believe their son is still "alive" in spite of the evidence to the contrary. The other side of this story is that a brain scan revealed abnormal activity. I don't know enough about the neurology end of this to say anything intelligent, and there aren't a lot of details in the public sphere about what those results are.

Perhaps Houben really is conscious. There's a simple way to prove it: Perform a test where some input available to Rom but not his facilitator, such as through earphones, and see if his responses still make sense. I'll gladly change my tune, then. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason to accept that he is communicating in the the way described. And certainly not to uncritically attribute quotes directly to him in the Guardian, a usually top-form newspaper that ought to know better.
UPDATE: Tracy at Skepchick just posted about this as well.

And here's another credulous story, complete with video, at the BBC, another news organization that should know better. It's got more "direct quotes" from Houben. Gah!!! And despite the video showing facilitated communication, not one of the news articles I've seen mention that this "special keyboard" requires a facilitator. Grrrrr...

No comments: