Randi, facilitated communication, and the comatose Belgian

Over at his website, James Randi attacks the notion that the Belgian man who supposedly emerged from a 23-year coma, claiming that he was conscious all the while, is now engaging outsiders using facilitated communication.   A “helper” holds the guy’s hand while he supposedly chooses letters on a keyboard.

Anybody who has looked at these videos with an objective eye, rather than sympathetically, sees immediately that something is fishy. The typing seems to be done by the facilitator, not by the patient.  The problem is highlighted in Randi’s post when he links to a video showing that the “facilitated communication” occurs when the patient seems to be asleep:

I’m enraged. Several perceptive persons have sent me to msnbc.com – where we can see Dr. Nancy Snyderman relating a story.  It’s a heartrender, described thus by Dr. Snyderman:

“A mother [in Belgium] says her son has emerged from what doctors thought was a vegetative state to say he was fully conscious for 23 years but could not respond because he was paralyzed.”

No, that is not what the man said, Dr. Snyderman. That’s what an incompetent layperson typed for him! I ask you to first go to http://tinyurl.com/y8lku48, and note the section of the video from 12 to 35 seconds, then come back here.

This is the same problem that plagued similar studies of “facilitated communication” in autistic children.  As far as I know, they turned out to be bogus.  It’s sad, but the will to believe is strong.


UPDATE:  Orac doesn’t believe it either.

h/t: Butterflies and wheels


  1. Posted November 28, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    When I first saw this story, the first thing that it reminded me of was an Ouija board (which our local priest warned was a tool of the occult.)

    I remember “Guiding” the pointer to spell out the letters of the girl I thought was the cutest in our 6th grade class when the question was “Who will Mike marry.”

    I swear it wasn’t me, it was the spirit telling me. And all this facilitated communication crap is dangerous hokum.

  2. Posted November 28, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Not that subtle; it’s actually quite apparent. Has anyone interviewed the facilitator? I’m sure many people are thinking the same thing.

  3. Posted November 28, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Looks like a Sylvia Browne technique writ large.

  4. Paul Claessen
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Note that there are TWO issues here: a) Is the guy conscious or not, and, b) Is that woman communicating with him.

    I think it’s fairly obvious that the answer to b) is ‘No Way’.

    But the MAIN issue should be a). And THAT’s by no means a clear case.

    The most balanced comment on this case I’ve read so far is one by Steven Novella (the well known skeptic and neurologist):

    With an update here:

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the links to Steve Novella. I remain utterly unconvinced of the science in this and seeing the response to Novella’s questions (or at least what he showed of the responses) I am only more convinced that Dr. Laureys is acting unethically.

    • Posted November 28, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes thanks very much for those links – excellent value.

  5. Posted November 28, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    This is the same problem that plagued similar studies of “facilitated communication” in autistic children. As far as I know, they turned out to be bogus.

    They did – very bogus. Double-blind testing produced a result of zero. Zero. When the facilitator saw a different picture from the one the autistic subject saw, the autistic subject got the answer right zero times. The autistic subject always ‘saw’ the object that the facilitator saw.

    It’s odd, FC is still described as ‘controversial’ – but it isn’t- it’s just completely bogus. It’s ‘controversial’ only in the (familiar) sense that some people simply say ‘oh the testing was wrong, the subjects were nervous’ and so on.

  6. Vance Lunn
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I have read that the researcher is more likely to find the results he/she expects to find in his/her hypothesis. This shows the importance of true objectivity in science and this value of double blind techniques. Having said all that, I do hope that they would act as if he is concious (ie. show proper respect around him, don’t talk like he’s not there, etc.).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 28, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      In the link given by the updated post they are not showing any respect whatsoever. The facilitator blows in his face to get an avoidance reflex, and use his hand to type while he is sleeping>/i>.

      Ouch! If comatose I wouldn’t want to be treated like this man.

  7. newenglandbob
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    What I do not understand is what the ‘facilitator’ is getting out of this? Her name in the media? Can it be that crass?

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      The publicity is just one part – she can then fleece the distraught families of numerous other victims of stroke, accidents, etc. She also says she will be writing a book – that would have at least 3 beneficial effects for her – money from the book sales + more publicity + more people believing in the facilitated communication scam.

      The only ethical thing for Dr. Laureys to do, and I cannot see why he does not do it unless he is an accomplice to the scam, is to make a public statement about the capabilities of the patient and that the facilitated communication is a scam. It would be a simple matter for him to set up a test to demonstrate that it is a scam. Unless he does so his academic career is at an end anyway because scientists around the globe have now associated him with this scam and will have a very hard time accepting any results from him.

      • AdamK
        Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        I suspect (reading between the lines of Novella’s comments) that Laureys is involved in the diagnosis but rather distant from subsequent treatment.

    • AdamK
      Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      It’s entirely possible that she is completely sincere, takes her “training” seriously and is as much of a dupe as anyone. Automatic writing doesn’t have to be a conscious process.

  8. MadScientist
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    In the absence of strong condemnation from the researchers, it looks to me like the brain imaging is facilitating the scam. From a scientific viewpoint, any medical imaging has to do an awful lot more than just show parts of the brain lighting up to be able to claim consciousness. I wonder if that coma group does anything more than offer false hope to the family and friends of victims. It would not be the first time that there have been rogue researchers.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 28, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      AFAIU brain imaging isn’t accepted as giving a diagnosis on this type of coma. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any generally accepted diagnosis.

      This is what happens when you (are supposed to) do research on a population, and then turn around and think that the method and result is somehow useful as diagnosis on specific individuals.

      Typically you would instead want to set up a procedure to minimize false positives, which is another process to go through. Apparently this hasn’t been done to everyone’s satisfaction.

  9. Ted Powell
    Posted November 29, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Just think: perhaps he is fully conscious and capable of communicating with eye movements/blinks, but nobody notices because of the distraction of the “facilitator” doing things with his hand.

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