You’ve done it again just a couple of days ago, with your favorite professor garnering yet another prize for his promotion of the attractive notion known as “facilitated communication” – “FC” – the transparently pseudoscientific farce whereby autistic children seem to be in communication with the world outside their unfortunately limited comprehension. I’m sure that Douglas Biklen and his staff are receiving enthusiastic kudos following the announcement that the UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize – US$40,000 – has been awarded him by the Kuwaiti Government, “for the positive impact of his work on people with intellectual disabilities.”
This United Nations prize was awarded to Mr. Biklen because of his advocacy of FC, which has been very thoroughly debunked as wishful thinking, bad science, and nonsense via a 1993 TV special on PBS “Frontline” as well as through my personal investigation and experience with the University of Wisconsin-Madison project using this manipulative deception, the year before in 1992. My readers may wish to visit here to read this incredible news story. James T. Todd, Ph.D., at Eastern Michigan University, notified me of this latest promotion of nonsense, expressing his dismay, and I wrote to him:
Dr. Todd: I agree with your alarm at the Biklen award, but you must remember the investment that Syracuse University has in FC, via Biklen. I'm sure that they know it's a farce, but it brings in millions annually from desperate parents and charities... My forthcoming book, "A Magician in the Laboratory" will deal strongly with stupid awards, and particularly with FC and Biklen. Stay tuned...!
Dr. Todd responded quickly, and has given his permission for SWIFT readers to have his thoughts on the matter. Please read, and I’ll insert my comments along the way:
You may recall that I invited you to speak at Eastern Michigan University in 2005, and that you issued a direct challenge at the time to the Oakland County Chapter of the Autism Society over its sponsorship of a Facilitated Communication training workshop. In late 2007, two of the attendees of that workshop, Julian and Tali Wendrow, were falsely accused of rape through FC, arrested, and jailed. Even though the Wendrows joined the chorus that strongly criticized me for questioning FC (and for inviting you to speak on campus), I gladly served as an expert witness and consultant for the defense on their behalf. It eventually became clear to the media and community that the Wendrows were being railroaded, and that FC is a dangerous farce. Be prepared. There are more facilitated abuse accusation cases going on right now, and more attempts to push (or sneak) FC and its close relative, Rapid Prompting, into the schools. FC is coming back.
I was unaware of this false accusation of the Wendrows, and when I asked, I was informed by Dr. Todd:
The Wendrows are suing, and already got a $1.85 million settlement from the police. The police admit no wrongdoing. Cases against others, including the school district, are ongoing. The mother, father, and girl's brother were accused of years of abuse – and the case went on despite there being no physical evidence, extensive testimony about the scientific vacuousness of FC, bizarre and telling inconsistencies in the FC transcripts pointing to the facilitator as author (e.g., the girl couldn't seem to spell her brother's name, but could spell the facilitator's; the religious metaphors were Christian while the family is Jewish), and two in-court tests of FC on two different days in which not single correct answer was produced. The dad spent 80 days in jail, and the 13-year-old brother was subjected to a 1 hour, 40 minute interrogation in which he was lied to and led to believe the police had video of him participating in the rape of his own sister. Their situation was a covered last year in a six-day front page story in the Detroit Free Press and this past January on ABC's 20/20 show.
Now, this sort of evidence abounds on the FC scene, and surely Biklen and Syracuse University are well aware of it, yet they continue to promote and benefit from the farce. I’m fairly certain that those libelous accusations of the Wendrows arose from the FC procedure, which means that the “facilitator” originated them, not the hapless children who were being manipulated. Dr. Todd continues…
I am aware of the millions of dollars directed to FC by the Nancy Lurie Marks Foundation (NLM), the many hundreds of thousands from the John Hussman Foundation, and the lesser amounts from other sources. By its own account NLM is the chief supporter of FC at Syracuse, and seems to have been the force behind getting the MIT Media Lab to host Douglas Biklen's annual FC "Summer Institute" last July. The communication experts and scientists at the Media Lab ought to be the first to reject FC. You have spoken there. But some of its people are apparently true believers in FC, and some are significantly beholden to NLM for financial support for their projects. They may not feel comfortable speaking out. As far as my research can determine, the only person at MIT to publicly question the FC meeting was a columnist for the student newspaper.
The MIT endorsement of FC is very discouraging to me. I just cannot understand how such a facility can give approval of this dangerous and useless procedure. The JREF has stood ready to design and conduct comprehensive tests of FC, and still does, but apparently the money interests have been more successful, having spoken louder than rationality…
As for Syracuse, it is disappointing to think that Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who has a Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford, so strongly supports FC because of the money. An ethical university administrator would reject such funding. I have read Cantor's passionate statements in favor of FC, arguing that anecdote must supersede science in its evaluation. It sounds as though she actually believes her ridiculous contentions.
I am indeed looking forward to your book. I also hope to be able to bring you to Eastern to speak, but may not be able to. Finances are much tighter now than they were in 2005. In any case, thank you again for your response and for your unwavering support for science in autism treatment.
In a footnote, Dr. Todd adds:
“Rapid Prompting” is supposedly a new communication training method for nonverbal people with autism. It too has been feted at MIT. A close examination reveals that it is a version of the training method described by William Pinchbeck in his 1805 book "The Expositor," except applied to people. The functional result of Rapid Prompting training is a kind of FC in which the aide surreptitiously cues successive letter selections by the subject, usually by subtly moving a letter board in the air to indicate each letter. Sometimes the movements of the board are not so subtle, with the aide simply moving it about underneath the subject's stationary finger. Like the FC people, the Rapid Prompting people strongly object to direct scientific evaluation of their method.
The 1805 book “The Expositor” – by William Pinchbeck – was the first book published in America on the art of conjuring, and it dealt – more than a century ago! – with this sort of farce, analyzing the “Clever Hans” and “Learned Pig” delusions – though not, of course, “Lady Wonder” [1924-1957] an “educated and telepathic horse” that quite fooled Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine in 1928 because he, like Douglas Biklen, was insufficiently educated in his subject.
Thank you, Professor Todd. All of us affiliated with the James Randi Educational Foundation are grateful for your comments, I assure you.
The wording used in the media release to describe the United Nations Award is rather overly-colorful, I think. Mr. Biklen is described as “the distinguished United States professor,” though the definitive exposure of his FC discovery seems to have been conveniently ignored. UNESCO states that
…over the past 40 years, [his] work has inspired researchers and given hope to many families of persons with disabilities from around the world.
Very true, though that has been false hope obtained by purposeful manual manipulation of the hands of the helpless autistic children who in most cases have their eyes closed or are looking away, distracted by the promise of treats that will be given them if they will just sit still long enough to be so victimized. These families have eagerly embraced the possibility that their kids are secretly aware of the real world, and can participate in it. It is, alas, a futile hope…
I repeat, we need to grow up…