Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thank you, Wired!

Wired magazine has the first story (as far as I've seen) in the mainstream mediacalling into question the veracity of some of the claims made about Houben via facilitated communication.

Thanks! :)


BTW: Wired has been kicking ass with the skeptical reporting lately. Amy Wallace's awesome cover story debunking the nonsense claims that vaccines cause autism was excellent as well.

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...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Feminism, Atheism and Skepticism

Okay, I know I've been rather absent from my blog of late... and I don't expect that to change for at least the next week or so. Apologies. I WILL be back with more to say on this topic...

But I wanted to break my silence briefly to draw your attention to this excellent post by Amanda Marcotte (one of my favorite people in all of the internets) over at Pandagon on the convergence between atheism, feminism and skepticism. She rightly calls the skeptical and atheist community on to the carpet for turning a blind eye to sexism and creating an atmosphere where women are not welcome unless its to sex things up a bit. I see this happen, and I've left local atheist groups (and even created my own skeptics group) in part because of some of the sexism I've seen on display. These communities ought to know better.

I could go on (and I will try to, later), but Amanda says it better than I can. Plus she's a professional blogger which is more than I can say for myself. (Read: "I better stop blogging and get back to work")

Read it at Pandagon.

And as a bonus, here's another superb post from Skeptifem from last week on a similar issue.

Also, if you're not following Greta Christina, who regularly posts on feminism, atheism, sexuality, politics and how the they all interact, you should be.

That's all for now! Back to the grind for me!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Gay Marriage Shouldn't Be Illegal

31 states have now put up ballot initiatives or propositions to explicitly ban same-sex marriage. In all 31 cases, those measures have passed, disallowing rights to some individuals that are granted to others. Maine was perhaps particularly surprising, due to it being solidly democratic and the 3rd least religious state in the country.

If you haven't read it already, check out my post from January of this year entitled "Why Gay Marriage Should Be Legal."

Re-reading it, it might have been better called "Why Gay Marriage Shoult Not be Illegal", as my focus is more on dismantling the various claims made by bigots and fundamentalists...

I'd love to hear any comments on that post, too. Have you heard any other arguments, particularly any that are -- at least on the surface -- not based on religion?

Read it here:
Why Gay Marriage Should be Legal