Monday, February 15, 2010

Update on the Rom Houben Story

You may recall my previous discussion of the Rom Houben case. Houben is the Dutch man who has been in a coma for over 20 years, and was "discovered" to be conscious and capable of expressing his thoughts coherently through the bogus technique of "facilitated communication", or FC.

I and many other skeptics had doubts about the facilitated communication part of the story, while creationists such as Denyse O'Leary bought it unquestioningly. Creationist Kirk Durston joined the fray in the comments here, with Kirk claiming it was "doubtful that this team of scientists, headed by Laureys, is falling for fake messages typed out by a crackpot assistant" and assuring us that "We can infer from that, that what we are seeing in the video is a method that Laureys’ team has developed, or helped develop." Further, Durston accused another skeptic, the renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of being "unethical" for pointing out that the bogus FC technique had been used.

Now Orac reports that O'Leary and Durston were wrong on all accounts. Further tests have shown that, indeed, Houben was not able to communicate through FC, and that Laureys and his team were, in fact, taken in by the bogus claims of an FC practitioner.

I also observe that FC has nothing to do with the other work of Laurey's team, namely developing a way to communicate with patients by asking them to associate "yes" with, e.g., thinking about playing tennis and "no" with thinking about being in his house. That's an interesting, though still controversial, idea that may be useful. It is a shame that Laureys' reputation will certainly suffer from his association with FC on Houben and his failure to use adequate controls when testing the FC claim. I also note that Laureys did not forthrightly respond to questions about his use of FC and never answered my query about it.

I feel very sorry for Rom Houben, who may be conscious but has had his voice stolen by FC crackpottery that Laureys helped publicize.

As for Denyse O'Leary and Kirk Durston, they were insufficiently skeptical and came to the wrong conclusion. Will we see them admit it? Will Durston apologize for his libel of Caplan?


Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I fail to see why the possibility that patients in vegetative state may be conscious has made some people hopeful, specially those opposing euthanasia.

I, for one, being in such a state (conscious mind trapped in an unresponsive body), would wish the euthanasia more than everything. I even think that this is the case in which one might support euthanasia more strongly.

Kirk Durston said...

This morning, I received an email from Jeffrey Shallit containing a link to this blog and a brief statement, ‘Awaiting your apology ... ’. I appreciate the link to this blog and read it with interest. If the reader here wants an accurate understanding of the previous discussion, please use the link that Shallit has provided above. I want to break my response up into two separate posts, one dealing with my being ‘insufficiently skeptical’ and the other dealing with me accusing Arther Caplan of being unethical for, as Shallit puts it, ‘pointing out that the bogus FC technique had been used.’

As for being ‘insufficiently skeptical’, in the previous discussion, I did give the benefit of the doubt to Laureys and his team that they were not using the bogus FC technique after:

a) looking at two videos carefully and finding them inconclusive as to whether FC was being used and,
b) looking at some of Laureys’ papers, especially one that dealt with communicating with patients, which further cast doubt on the idea they would resort to quackery and,
c) reports that the patient could provide feedback through a foot pedal and,
d) a personal email from Laureys’ wherein he stated that his methods would be published in the scientific press and,
e) a statement by Laureys that he had done his own test without the aide to see if the patient gave right answers and found that he did (note that Orac mentions this initial test as well, although later tests falsified Laureys’ initial findings.)

On the basis of the above, I was very skeptical that Laureys’ was using FC and gave him and his team the benefit of the doubt that he was not, but was using a falsfiable method that would soon be published in a peer reviewed science journal.

It turns out now that Laureys had, indeed, fallen for some quackery and been using bogus FC.

Do I feel bad about giving Laureys and his team the benefit of the doubt given the reasons I stated above? I do not, but I do wish I had kept the benefit of the doubt to myself, rather than going to bat for them on a public forum. If one gives people the benefit of the doubt on basis similar to the reasons I stated above, every once in a while one is going to get burned. I got burned. So, yes, I admit Laureys and his team were using bogus FC quackery, as does he, it now appears.

Kirk Durston said...

In this post, I wish to respond to Jeffrey Shallit’s comments re. what I said about the ethics of Arthur Caplan’s decision. First, with regard to Shallit’s ‘libel’ comment: really now, arguing that another person has done something unethical on the basis of ones own view of what is ethical, pales in the face of the steady stream of insults and sneering, mocking comments that pour forth from Shallit’s own blog on a regular basis. If Shallit is worried about libel taking place on his blog, he may want to have an objective reviewer go over the past few years of his own comments.

In the original Laureys discussion some months ago. Shallit states ...

Science and medical reporting is extremely shoddy, so I would be very skeptical of drawing any conclusions based on claims you find there.

With that in mind, let us proceed.

First, Shallit states that I accused Arthur Caplan of being unethical “for pointing out that the bogus FC technique had been used.” Shallit has misrepresented me here, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was due to being rushed, rather than being dishonest.

My problem was not with Caplan concluding that FC was being used, but it was that he reached that conclusion on the basis of a few seconds of video footage, and went so far as to publicly insult Laureys and his team for using ‘ouija board stuff’ without, at the very least, getting in touch with Laureys to ask a few questions to verify or falsify his own initial assessment. In my original statement, I said ....

Caplan made this statement on the basis of a few seconds of video footage while failing to do his homework on Laureys and Houben. Thus Caplan, professor of bioethics, has done something that is unethical. If one is going to publicly mock another person, accusing them of ‘ouija board stuff’, then ethics demands that such a person do some very careful research on the case before lumping it in with quackery.

Given Shallit’s own statement that ‘science and medical reporting is extremely shoddy,’ if all one has seen is a few seconds of video footage then, at the very least, one might want to say something like, ‘without any additional information, it appears to me that FC is being used here.’ I would also forego the ouija insult. Thus, one is merely making a statement about what the video appears to show. Such a cautious statement does not commit oneself, and avoids insulting Laureys just in case further information changes ones initial assessment.

My own view on what is ethical is that if I am going to publicly smear a scientist by accusing him/her of doing ‘ouija board stuff’, then I would want to make very sure I had either personally corresponded with the scientist to give him/her a chance to clear up any misunderstandings I may have, or at least do it on the basis of some article the scientist had published that clearly laid out his/her methodology and that I could confidently quote from. Of course, I realize we don’t all hold precisely the same identical set of ethics, but this is my own view of what is ethical.

It turns out that Caplan was correct in his assessment, but my problem was that he made his public ‘ouija board’ statement on the basis of a few seconds of video footage without any additional inquiry.

Now if Caplan actually made that statement after checking further into Laureys work, or upon correspondence with Laureys, and it was simply not mentioned in the article, then I do owe Dr. Caplan an apology and I sincerely apologize forthwith. But if he made that ouija board insult without checking into it further either by giving Laureys a chance to clarify his methods, or on the basis of some article of Laureys, then I still have an ethical problem with that, at least by my own standard of ethics, even though Caplan’s initial conclusion turned out to be right after further investigation.

Now, having argued as I have, what Caplan did is very easy to do in the heat of the moment in an interview, and I have done the same myself.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


You seem very confused.

Mockery and insults do not constitute libel, even under silly Canadian law.

Accusing someone of unethical behavior, however, could well be libel.

As for deciding that FC was being used on the basis of the video, I'll say it again. If you are ignorant of the technique, you might not recognize it on the video. If, however, you are familiar with the technique, as people like Randi, Caplan, and I am, then what we saw on the video was clearly and unequivocally FC. We are not responsible for Kirk Durston's ignorance.

As for Kirk's weaselly non-apology ... well, that's just par for the course. And let's all be glad that Kirk's "standard of ethics" isn't shared by most reasonable people.