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More Pseudoscience from the Science Media November 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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The recently-reported case of Mr. Houben is another example of the science media running amok.

Houben was completely paralyzed after an accident and had been diagnosed with Persistent Vegetative State (minimal brain function but no consciousness) for 23 years. But thanks to the technology of modern neuroscience, (MRI scans that measure blood flow) Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the ­University of Liege in Belgium, was able to determine that Houben was completely conscious but just unable to communicate. This is an important development that suggests misdiagnosed coma cases may be more prevalent than previously realized.

But as this story in the Guardian reports:

This led to further evaluation of Mr. Houben’s clinical state, and it was discovered that he was able to communicate by typing out messaging on a board. Mr. Houben soon began recounting how he was awake the whole time, screaming inside his head, and eventually retreated into his dreams. He now feels like he has been reborn and looks forward to interacting with his family. [The NY Times ran a similar story]

Many scientists, while acknowledging the importance of Laureys’ brain scan studies, are highly skeptical of the claims regarding communication. This commentary by Stephen Novella is typical:

I don’t know what Mr. Houben’s exam is. But I do have a video of him communicating. What I can say with high confidence is that this is a video of bogus facilitated communication. The “facilitator” appears to not just be supporting Houben’s hand, but moving it around the keyboard.

Houben is looking in the general direction of the keyboard, but at times not directly at it (which is necessary for single finger typing). It is not clear if he can even see, and since his eyes are not in line it is not clear which eye he would be using.

His hand is also in a brace; his finger is not touching the board – the plastic of the brace is – so he would have little sensory feedback.

And yet his hand flies dextrously across the board typing very quickly. It seems impossible that someone with his level of paralysis, and years of inactivity, would be able to type so quickly with just a little “support”. There is little doubt, in other words, that his typing is the product of bogus FC – the facilitator is doing the communicating, not Houben.

Reporting of his typing is without skepticism, and so basic questions are not addressed. It would also be almost trivial to test whether or not the communication were legitimate – the report says he responds in Flemish – so have a non-Flemish speaking facilitator hold his hand. Apparently, he also understands English so you could have a non-English speaking facilitator answer questions posed in English. Or blind the facilitator to the keyboard or visual information that Houben has access to. […]

The only thing I am certain about in this case is that the typing out of messages through FC is bogus. Otherwise, I do not have access to sufficiently detailed information to make any specific conclusions.

Another video has Mr. Houben typing furiously with his eyes closed.

Facilitated communication involves a “facilitator” holding a patient’s hand to “help” them communicate by pointing to letters on a board. It was proposed some years ago as a way of helping brain damaged patients communicate but controlled, blind studies have shown that the communication is being done by the facilitator, not the patient. Yet these stories are reported with none of the skepticism such a hypothesis deserves.

So we seem to have another case of a credulous media drawing implications from a story with no facts to support them.

And as Novella points out:

It is also, in my opinion, a further abuse of this patient. Mr. Houben, if he is truly conscious, has now been deprived once again of his ability to communicate – usurped by a facilitator, who will be communicating in his name (and even writing a book, we are told). Never underestimate the ability for pseudoscience to make a bad situation worse.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Paul J. Moloney - December 1, 2009

But without this kind of journalism where would we get the drama for the movies on the Lifetime Channel.

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