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Rom Houben: Not communicating through facilitated communication

The news is finally filtering out to the rest of the world.

As Steve Novella and my good buddy pointed out a few days ago (and as Steve pointed out in an interview on NPR), Dr. Steven Laureys admitted that Rom Houben, the unfortunate victim of a car crash that left him in what had been diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state, was in fact not able to communicate through the woo known as facilitated communication. This came as no surprise to anyone who has followed FC over the years. In fact, what had come as a surprise is that Dr. Laureys could have been so easily taken in by pseudoscience that had been so thoroughly debunked in the 1990s. To his credit, though, after a period of initially stubbornly defending FC, he relented and allowed objective testing, and the result was predictable. It took a few days, but the English language world is learning of the failure of FC in Houben’s case:

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was. The story of Rom Houben of Belgium, which made headlines worldwide last November when he was shown to be “talking”, was today revealed to have been nothing of the sort.

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.

What was not reported is that skeptics were involved in the testing of Rom Houben. I recently received a statement from the Belgian Skeptics (SKEPP):

At the request of the medical institution where Mr Houben is cared for, on February 4 2010 SKEPP was present as advisor for a planned test of this controversial method of communication, and we also conducted our own tests. From the staff of the institute we learned that during two years all attempts to establish any form of communication with the patient by detecting and coding minute movements of the eyes or any other body part had failed. With FC he now seemed to produce correct words and elaborate sentences. Indeed, his answers to our simple test questions were intelligible and sometimes elaborate, but when the facilitator did not know the questions, his answers were all completely wrong. Most of the time he typed with his eyes closed, but as soon as the keyboard was shielded from the facilitator’s view the typing produced gibberish and halted. There clearly was no communication with the patient, only with the facilitator. We wonder what world-shaking news there would have been to communicate if it hadn’t been for the spectacular answers the facilitator produced.

Our intent was to not to test Mr Houben, but to test FC, and once more we demonstrated that the method is a sham. This is not to deny that Mr Houben may have some limited consciousness. If so, how frustrating must it be for him to hear all the bogus messages being produced in his name, without any possibility to protest ? After our test we had a long conversation with Dr. Laureys. He insisted that we test more facilitators before drawing conclusions. We declined and advised him to clearly distance himself from the FC scam, which he has done today. Out of respect and to allow them time to discuss the results with the family and the dedicated staff, we agreed on a 2 weeks embargo before making the results of our test public. Of course, not everyone is convinced yet. In a phone conversation today Mr Houben’s mother told us that she still believes in FC, because “sometimes it had produced answers that only her son could have known”. She is convinced that Dr. Laureys will ultimately find a method to communicate with her son. His team is experimenting with other methods. Let’s hope her wish comes true.

Indeed.

I want to emphasize once again that those of us who blasted FC in the wake of this case said nothing about whether Mr. Houben is conscious or not. We merely pointed out that FC is a long-discredited sham and, from evidence of videos available on the Internet, clearly could not be a mechanism by which Houben communicated if he in fact has consciousness. I and others have also pointed out that it’s horrible enough to be conscious and trapped in a motionless, useless shell, but imagine how much more horrible it would be to be conscious, trapped in a motionless shell, and having the only hope for communication with the outside world coopted by a facilitator.

In any case, props to SKEPP. They done good. Real good. Now let’s hope that, if Houben is conscious, Dr. Laureys, chastened by this experience, will find a way to communicate with Houben that isn’t based on the ideomotor effect and wishful thinking.

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health

Leave a Comment (19) ↓

19 thoughts on “Rom Houben: Not communicating through facilitated communication

  1. skeptyk says:

    Once again, skepticism is shown as the compassionate, humane attitude. Thanks for the update.

  2. Danio says:

    While I’m greatly distressed by the unconscionable actions of the ‘communicator’ here, the silver lining is definitely the triumph of skepticism and science-based medicine. Way to go, SKEPP. Thank you, on behalf of the global community of skeptics.

  3. theshortearedowl says:

    I was glad to see the rebuttal of facilitated communication make it into the mainstream news. However the Guardian article made it seem as though Dr Laureys real research, and his assessment of Mr Houben’s state of consciousness, had also been proved wrong. As I understand it, that is not the case. I guess you just can’t win with the media.

  4. beadle says:

    Why, in all of the coverage of this story I have seen, has the name of the person doing the FC scamming come to light?
    Dr. Laureys should not be castigated for not knowing about FC, and he should be commended for changing his opinion based on the objective evidence presented to him by those who did know.
    Mr Houben should be pitied once for having to endure this kind of existence, and twice for being the defenseless pawn in the (literal) hands of a quack.
    But the person we should all be focusing on and publicly chastising is the person (or persons) who have inflicted all of this anguish on the patient, his family, and Dr. Laureys.

  5. bob1726 says:

    I think it will turn out that Dr. Laureys is wrong about Rom’s consciousness too. Dr. Novella raised that point in passing when he discussed this case on SGU a couple months back.

  6. qetzal says:

    I agree with beadle. The facilitator deserves at least a very public rebuke for her (?) actions. I don’t think there’s any question she was knowingly deceiving Laureys and Houbens family.

  7. pmoran says:

    “I don’t think there’s any question she was knowingly deceiving Laureys and Houbens family.”

    Possibly, but humans have an extremely well-developed capacity to fool themselves. The FC will almost certainly claim to be receiving authentic messages somehow.

    Laureys himself illustrates how easily we can be fooled. He must have been closing his mind to glaring evidence of the scam, such as closed eyes when “typing”, and the absence of the simplest intelligible response otherwise — presumably because this case slotted in nicely with his other research and theory.

  8. David Gorski says:

    I don’t think there’s any question she was knowingly deceiving Laureys and Houbens family

    I do.

    The ability of human beings to fool themselves into believing what they want to believe is almost without limit.

  9. BillyJoe says:

    qetzal

    “I don’t think there’s any question she was knowingly deceiving Laureys and Houbens family.”

    Why do you think there is no question about it? Do you have evidence that it is so, or are you just being as uncritical as the facilitator may have been in this affair.

    :)

    Actually the reason for my response is that I have a second hand connection to the person who invented FC. I once met the young paediatrician who originally supported Rosemary Crossley at about the time the whole thing got started, and just before she made headline news here in Melbourne, Australia. Rosemary was a “personal care attendant”. She worked with children with disabilities and she decided that one particular child in her charge, a young girl with cerebral palsy called Annie, was actually very intelligent but that her crippled body prevented her from communicating that fact. She invented the means of communicating with her that is still used today by FCs. She ended up adopting the girl and there was little doubt at the time that she was self-deluded rather than deceptive. The paediatrician impressed me as being supportive of Rosemary and Annie, but not necessarily convinced about the validilty FC.

  10. qetzal says:

    In most cases, I agree, but I don’t buy it here. When she was ‘facilitating’ those elaborate communications from Houbens, I believe she knew on some level that she was making stuff up.

    She might deny it even to herself, but I still believe she knows it.

  11. qetzal says:

    BillyJoe,

    Of course there’s evidence:

    - When there were no controls to prevent her making stuff up, the facilitator produced elaborate communications that she claimed were coming from Houbens.

    - When there were controls, she failed utterly.

    There’s very little room to doubt that she invented most or all of Houbens supposed communications. (Unless someone thinks Houbens deliberately gave wrong answers during the SKEPP tests.) And while it’s possible she was totally unaware she was doing so, I think that’s very unlikely. In my experience, people who make up elaborate lies are still aware on some level that they’re lying. Unless there’s evidence that this woman has serious mental illness, I think the reasonable conclusion is that she knew she was lying.

  12. Chris says:

    When I listened to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast today Dr. Novella mentioned that Houben “communicated” through the FC that he did not want to be tested! Um, that really sounds like a red flag to me.

    Link to podcast in on the right hand side of this page.

  13. Danio says:

    Chris, I agree. For me that very fact is what tips the scales from “well -intentioned delusional” to “calculatingly deceptive”.

  14. BillyJoe says:

    “Houben “communicated” through the FC that he did not want to be tested! Um, that really sounds like a red flag to me.”

    There is also cognitive dissonance.

    You believe it works and your experience with it confirms that belief but some doubts creep in when posters on the internet see your videos and point out that the your patient has his eyes closed while he is typing away with gay abandon. Your patient then helps you out by typing that he wants no further testing.

    If she was going to fake this she would have done a far better job of that video. She would at least have made sure he was at least half awake and facing in the general direction of the keypad. She would have made a show of him taking time trying to get to the right key, perhaps even making the occasion typo here and there.

    That this wasn’t done speaks more of delusion to me.

  15. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Facilitated Communication mimics the way non-verbal people often get treated by their caregivers — as if they were people without volition in need of someone else’s volition. As sad as FC is, the default for many non-verbal folks is also sad — life as a marionette.

  16. tmac57 says:

    Would it be possible in principle, to try to elicit communication with Houben, using neurofeedback in some simple yes/no scheme?

  17. The “ideomotor effect” as defined in The Skeptic’s Dictionary contains a link at the bottom discussing this motion’s contribution to pain relief. There’s been a great deal of work done on this concept during the past few years. Perhaps it will contribute one day to a true understanding of this movement inherent to survival.

  18. tcw says:

    I remember the first time I saw a bottle of homeopathic liquid. I had no clue what it was, and just shrugged it off as another harmless vitamin product; there were more important things to worry about. Could Laurey’s have had the same attitude–”keep doing whatever you are doing, I have to finish my research and paperwork”. . . and with a hand wave at first just accepted the FC people hovering, but later was forced to confront it. I can’t really blame the guy at this point, and must commend him for changing one’s mind, which was a topic on this blog recently. Maybe he thought it was inconsequential at first, and gave a nod to it, and never had time nor interest to really think about it.

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