Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Deflating the Miracle.

More on Rom Houben at the New York Times:

On Tuesday, Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, told Wired blogger Brandon Keim: “If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don’t trust it.” Mr. Caplan added, “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.”

After examining video of the Belgian man being helped to type, Mr. Caplantold The A.P. on Wednesday:

That’s called ‘facilitated communication.That is Ouija board stuff. It’s been discredited time and time again. When people look at it, it’s usually the person doing the pointing who’s doing the messages, not the person they claim they are helping.

Facilitated communication still has its defenders, and we should note that the controversy over its use in the 1990s involved messages supposedly typed by people with autism, not locked-in syndrome.

The skeptics who are attempting to diagnose Mr. Houben from afar, using just video evidence, seem to be in a similar position to the members of Congress who tried to evaluate the condition of Terri Schiavo in 2005, during the legal battle over the decision to remove her feeding tube. On Wednesday ABC News reported:

The family of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was artificially kept alive for 15 years, say they feel both heartbreak and vindication over the news this week that a Belgian man thought to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) was fully conscious for two decades.

As a reader of The Lede correctly points out, we should underscore there is no evidence that Ms. Schiavo’s condition was misdiagnosed the way Mr. Houben’s was. After Ms. Schiavo’s death, The Times reported that an autopsy showed that her brain was severely “atrophied,” weighed less than half of what it should have, and that no treatment could have reversed the damage. One of the doctors who performed the autopsy said that Ms. Schiavo’s condition was “consistent” with that of a person in a persistent vegetative state. He added that the damage to her brain “was irreversible.”

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