(Author's Note: After sending an email to a CNN reporter about his story on Rom Houben, the Belgian man who was misdiagnosed as being in a coma for 23 years and who is now able to communicate about his experience via Facilitated Communication, I was contacted by someone from Campbell Brown about a possible appearance on the show to talk about why we should doubt the validity of the communications.It turns out that they did not use me, and instead interviewed neuropsychologist Joseph Giacino, who they also interviewed the week before when the story first broke. After watching the segment, I penned the following, which I have slightly modified for Swift.)
It seems obvious that Rom Houben is not able to communicate. One doesn't even need to test it, although I would bet James Randi's $1,000,000 offer that even the simplest test -- blocking the assistant's view of the keyboard -- would yield proof.
Has anyone thought to ask how Mr. Houben is able to type on a keyboard, especially so fluently, when his eyes are closed or if he is not looking at the keyboard? Or how he is able to move his hands or fingers after 23 years of immobility and muscle atrophy? Do we simply take the word of his assistant, who is heavily invested, that she can feel slight movements in his hand guiding hers?
Dr. Giacino, whom Campbell Brown asked about this, is mistaken that "that there is no way to determine Mr. Houben's contribution to these typewritten sentences relative to the assistant's contribution." In fact, it is quite simple to make that determination. There are a number of tests that can be easily carried out, including a double-blind test in which Mr. Houben and his assistant are each shown both the same and different pictures or objects and then asked what they saw.
It was laudable that Campbell Brown showed a brief comment by Dr. Arthur Caplan questioning the communication. But that was not enough, because there is more than just doubt or skepticism about it. All on has to do is watch the video. What it shows isn't even subtle cueing, as in the Clever Hans case, or an example of the ideomotor effect such as one experiences with a Ouija Board. It's really a no-brainer to see that the assistant is doing the typing. Her eyes are constantly on the keyboard as she moves his hand to the letters; Mr. Houben's eyes are not.
It is not correct to describe a "controversy surrounding" Facilitated Communication (FC), or to suggest that there is "skepticism" about it, as though there were any lingering debate about its validity. The matter was long ago settled: FC doesn't work with anyone. It has never been shown to be reliable; not once in over 25 years. And it is not "often" the facilitator who is responsible for what is written as was mentioned by Brown; it is always the facilitator who is responsible, albeit usually unconsciously.
It is also not correct to state, as CNN did on the screen during the Campbell Brown show, that "Houben's brain is fully functional." How can anyone make that claim? He appears to still be in a persistent vegetative state. If he can "follow commands" or "do simple things"as Dr. Giacino and Houben's doctors claim, then why can't he move a finger to type on his own? Or blink his eyes in response to questions? Why don't they show us that?
I don't know what kind of neuroimaging was done or what it showed, but there is no question that Mr. Houben still has significant brain damage. And no brain imaging method can determine that someone is "conscious," if by "consciousness" we mean the ability to understand and describe what is going on. Only some form of communication can allow that determination to be made. In the case of Mr. Houben, it appears that the communication is a sham.
The tragedy in all of this is that Mr. Houben is being exploited by everyone, including the doctors and media, even while many of them may have good intentions. When one realizes that he is not likely producing his own communications, then the scene of reporters "interviewing" him becomes macabre. Someone is "speaking" for him, and that raises serious ethical concerns.
This emperor truly has no clothes.