A few months back, a long term coma patient named Rom Houben hit the news when it was revealed that he was in a “locked-in” state, ie fully conscious but unable to communicate this in any meaningful way. The breakthrough was made when he began speaking through “facilitated communication”, a technique where an intermediary would hold his hand and amplify his slight muscle movements enough to type his thoughts on a keyboard.
‘I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegatative state.
‘I dreamed myself away,’ he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer.
Many skeptics called bullshit immediately, being well aware of the lack of credible evidence that facilitated communication was anything more than a variety of the ideomotor effect (also the mechanism behind dowsing, which is also bullshit).
Even if it hadn’t been largely discredited as a technique, video footage showed Houben and his facilitator tapping away on a keyboard at a remarkable rate, even when his eyes were closed or not directed towards his hand. Anyone with half a brain immediately called for a basic test to be performed to verify whether it was Houben or his facilitator speaking for him. This would involve telling him something while his facilitator was out of the room, and then inviting her back to help him describe what had been said.
Well it appears they finally got around to performing such a test*, and wouldn’t you know it… he [ie his facilitator] failed!
Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben’s apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared.
“We did not have all the facts before,” he said. “To me, it’s enough to say that this method doesn’t work.” Just three months ago the doctor was proclaiming that Houben had been trapped in his own body, the victim of a horrendous misdiagnosis, and only rescued from his terrible plight thanks to medical advances.
The part of this new article that bugs me most [apart from the fact that it avoids pointing out that everyone clearly fucked up and should be ashamed of themselves] is this paragraph:
The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was.
No they did not say it was impossible; as mentioned above they expressed great skepticism and called for the claim to be verified in a simple and scientific manner. Skeptics don’t declare anything impossible; they simply don’t accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence to support them. That throw away sentence also implies that we thought it was impossible outright, as though we could not accept that someone in a coma might be fully conscious (as completely horrible as that would be).
Skeptics never cry “Impossible!” – they simply cry “Prove it!”
* the testing was carried out by Belgian skeptic group SKEPP who describe their findings here and conclude:
The international news coverage of this case has given many relatives of coma patients false hope, and the advocates of the illusionary facilitated communication got an undeserved publicity boost. The emotional impact on patients′ families can’t be underestimated. The decision to present this case before the international media was premature, to say the least.