Tinted Lenses

How bias distorts perception and shapes social interaction.

A Brief Update on Rom Houben

Facilitated communication fails scientific testing – again.
Steve Livingston
This post is a response to Is Anybody In There? by Steve Livingston

In late November of last year, I wrote a piece entitled "Is Anybody In There?" (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tinted-lenses/200911/is-anybo...) about the curious case of a Belgian named Rom Houben. Houben was assumed to be in a coma for over 20 years as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. One of his treating neurologists, Dr. Steven Laureys, claimed that Houben was actually misdiagnosed, and that he was now able to not only read and move his feet, but also to communicate lucidly and intelligently through the use of a computer.


Skeptics, including myself, pointed out that Houben's purported messages were obtained through the use of facilitated communication (FC), a controversial technique that has repeatedly failed under conditions of rigorous testing. The messages were also suspicious in that a person who was unwillingly locked into a non-communicative state for more than two decades was so articulate and forgiving of the medical staff who had dismissed him. FC proponents decried such skeptics as cold-hearted and unable to accept clear proof of the therapeutic value of FC.
In an interview with New Scientist magazine (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18209-steven-laureys-how-i-...), Laureys said that the doubts were inflicting renewed insult and injury on a man who had already been through so much hardship: "I am a scientist, I am a sceptic and I will not accept any communication device if it is not properly tested."

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According to a follow-up article in Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,677537,00.html), it seems that Laureys has finally conducted those 'proper tests'. Houben was shown a series of objects and words in the absence of Linda Wouters, his speech therapist and facilitated communicator. After each presentation Wouters was brought back, and Houben asked to type out what he saw. Houben failed all 15 trials in the test.


Or, to put it more accurately, Wouters failed.


To his credit, Dr. Laureys is now publicly retracting some of his earlier statements and rightly saying that the words produced by the facilitator cannot be properly attributed to Rom Houben. However, Laureys still believes that facilitated communication is valid in at least some cases. With his professional credibility now tangled up with the validity of FC, Laureys appears to be quite unwilling to reject the procedure entirely.

The real horror in this case is that brain scans and other evidence suggest the possibility that Houben may well be conscious and a victim of locked-in syndrome. The cruel farce of FC delays research into credible techniques that would allow Houben and others like him to achieve real communication with the outside world.

Steve Livingston is a social psychologist based in Toronto.

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