The newswires and blogs (and Boing Boing) have been burning up with the news that a man who's been believed to have been in a coma for 23 years was in fact conscious the whole time, something we've only discovered thanks to his newfound ability to communicate using special apparatus. But there's very little information about Rom Houben's communications, save for a few images. And these images appear to show Mr Houben and his aide speaking via "facilitated communication," wherein an aide helps a person with a disability or paralysis to painstakingly spell out words by lifting the disabled person's hand and responding to faint muscle signals.
And therein lies a problem, because facilitated communications has been widely discredited as a kind of Ouija board, in which the aide's unconscious movements guide the disabled person's hands around, without the aide even knowing that she's doing it.
Mr Houben's brain activity seems normal, and he can apparently communicate a little by moving one foot, but without more information, it's impossible to say whether the words attributed to him that we're reading are his, or a product of his facilitator's unconscious mind.
"If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don't trust it," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "I'm not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly…."
"I believe that he is sentient. They've shown that with MRI scans," said James Randi, a prominent skeptic who during the 1990s investigated the use of facilitated communication for autistic children. But in the video, "You see this woman who's not only holding his hand, but what she's doing is directing his fingers and looking directly at the keyboard. She's pressing down on the keyboard, pressing messages for him. He has nothing to do with it."
According to Randi, facilitated communication could only be considered credible if the facilitator didn't look at the keyboard or screen while supporting Houben's hand, and helped him type messages in response to questions she had not heard, thus ensuring that Houben's responses are entirely his own.
The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered a million-dollar prize to a valid demonstration of facilitated communication, and Randi invited Houben to participate. "Our prize is still there," he said.