Friday, 27 November 2009

Back from the dead?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

You'll no doubt have seen the story, reported around the world this week, of Rom Houben, a 46-year-old Belgian who is said to have been conscious for 23 years while doctors believed him to be in a coma. You may have read quotes attributed to Houben, such as "I will never forget the day they finally discovered what was wrong. It was my second birth", and wondered who is the woman in the photos, who holds Houben's hand while he supposedly types his messages into a special computer.

It was the presence of this woman – Houben's "helper" – that set alarm bells ringing among sceptics, including James Randi, who suspected that a discredited technique known as "facilitated communication" was being used to produce the words attributed to Houben. On our website we have just published a piece by Nicholas Pearson, in which he examines the Houben story and explains the contrioversial history of facilitated commuinication. Here's how he describes the technique:
"The main point of contention is the use of Houben’s “helper”, as this appears to be a case of “Facilitated Communication” (FC), a controversial technique that has previously been used with profoundly autistic children and other communicatively-impaired individuals. In facilitated communication the facilitator supports the arm of an incapacitated person while using a keyboard or similar device to spell out words and sentences. In cases involving autistic children this was found to be due to the ideomotor effect – the facilitators were typing, unaware of their own unconscious movement. The same phenomenon has been investigated and found to be responsible for dowsing and Ouija boards."
Pearson's article is an important reminder of the need for scepticism when we encounter stories of apparent "medical miracles" in the press. You can read the whole piece over on our main website.


David said...

Kicking in the heads of atheists one at a time...

PZ, I thought the Morris Police Department was going to save you from the wrath of God...

sgl said...

Just get a helper that doesn't speak French (or Flemish).

This should shed some light, non?