Well, I’m healthy enough to be annoyed, so I guess that’s something.
I found this news story this morning, and skimmed it briefly, but didn’t pay a great deal of attention, and I was at work so I didn’t watch the accompanying video clip. It was a slightly unsettling piece about some guy who’d been in a coma for years, decades even, and apparently turned out to have been conscious but paralysed the entire time.
An idea that makes you shudder that much is bound to make for a great hook. It’s pretty scary to think of, being trapped in your own body but unable to move or communicate in any way, still awake but helpless as everyone assumes that you’re essentially asleep, unconscious, or braindead. It was unnerving, but I wasn’t in a mood to take a particular interest in it. I wondered briefly about just how much of a recovery he’d made, what state he was in now, whether he’d really been talking at length about his ordeal, and how he’d retained anything resembling sanity after living through such a trauma as constant and complete immobility for more than twenty years, and then I got on with some filing.
Well, the skeptical blogosphere brought the same story back to my attention later in the day, and I took a little more notice this time.
Turns out it’s almost certainly complete bullshit.
The coma guy isn’t actually any more awake or conscious or active than he ever was. If you can watch the video in that BBC article, you’ll see the method by which he’s been “communicating” about what he’s experienced over the years. (If it won’t let you see it because you’re not in the UK, have a YouTube link). See where that woman holds his hand and moves her hand with his as his finger presses those buttons? The bit where, if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was just using the guy’s fingers to press the buttons herself, and she should really stop doing that as it’s in rather poor taste?
This is called “Facilitated Communication”, and no solid evidence has yet been found to demonstrate that it’s anything more than utter, utter bollocks. And people have looked for the evidence where it ought to be, and still come up short. This is one of those times where an absence of evidence really is pretty good evidence of absence.
I’m going to prioritise FC for a full Skeptictionary entry, but you can get a reasonable gist by just watching it in action. It’s in worryingly common use with autistic children, and involves the “facilitator” providing “support” to a subject, allowing them to type their thoughts on a keyboard in a way they would otherwise be unable to.
Except there’s no evidence that it does that. And it really ought to look dubious to you from the outset. For one thing, that guy’s typing fast. He’s barely even looking at the keyboard, but he’s able to make little micro-movements with his hand (consistent with total paralysis, remember) at such a rate, and with such precision, that the woman holding his hand can feel exactly where he’s trying to point and hit the right keys several times a second. That’s really impressive. I think I’d have trouble matching that kind of speed with just my finger, and I’m a professional typist who’s not even in a coma.
I also hope it’s occurred to you how easy it should be to test something like this. You may also have noticed that the “facilitator” has her attention fully on the screen the entire time she’s helping the guy type. What would happen if she couldn’t see where he was typing, but he could? Or if a question was written down and shown only to him, not her? Would it still work? It ought to, right? Why not give that a try?
The heroically amazing Randi has written about this, and recounted some of his experiences testing FC with autistic children some years ago. The phenomenon failed every test of authenticity put to it, and it seems to be exactly the same thing going on in this new story.
Even if this is a real effect, you would (because you’re a smart person, I can tell) expect coma guy to be happy to comply with some basic tests of his abilities. Surely he can imagine more clearly than anyone the horrors of having someone trying to speak for you, and making fraudulent or delusional claims to have special powers to communicate with you, while you are helpless to contradict them or deny it. And you can’t deny this possibility unless you’re a raving ideologue. Of course someone could pick up a coma patient’s hand, use their fingers to type, and claim to be facilitating their communication. I bet it’s really, really easy. Why would you not ask more questions to make sure that that isn’t what’s really going on?
If you’re a grieving mother desperate to believe that your child is still with you, then there are a number of acceptable answers to that question, but if you’re a medical professional or a news-gathering organisation then there’s no excuse.
I’m running out of steam, but this is genuinely pissing me off. I’m yet to see even a token skeptical comment in any of the mainstream reporting on this, despite its obvious implausibility. Gah. Well, at least I’m writing again.
Edit 26/11/09: And before too long, Orac’s all over this.