Doubtless, everyone in the world has by now heard the story of the “sleeping Belgian”: Rom Houben was believed to have been in a coma for 23 years, but was actually fully conscious for all that time. If the reports are to be believed, it would have potentially serious implications for the way we think about treating the seriously incapacitated. (I don’t think that any normative lessons would follow automatically – whether or not someone is conscious is unlikely to be sufficient to swing the moral debate – but that’s for another time: I’ll try to cobble something together over the next few days. Or, for the sake of my career, I might keep my poweder dry and actually write a paper about it, with proper research and everything.)
If it’s true, that is.
There’s a number of sources in which doubts are being expressed. Yesterday, for example, PZ Myers expressed doubts about the footage of Houben shown on TV:
How did they figure out that the poor man was actually alert and mentally competent beneath his deeply damaged exterior? They’re using facilitated communication: somebody holds his hand and moves it around to tap out messages on a computer. Look at the fellow, sitting there slack and grimacing and drooling, and the staffer deftly and quickly using his finger to peck out lucid and grammatical sentences. How does anyone fall for this?
I’d like to see how well Mr Houben communicates when his ‘facilitator’ is blindfolded, or when he is asked questions about objects in his line of sight but hidden from hers.
Martin Robbins also isn’t so sure:
The facilitator is moving the finger at an incredible rate of knots, but Houben is not even looking at the screen, or the keypad – his eyes are firmly shut. Now, yes, I can touch-type, but try touch-typing with your eyes closed, and directing somebody else’s finger. It’s a bloody big ask.
Robbins cites Arthur Caplan, who calls facilitated communication “ouija-board stuff” – and, indeed, there are deep parallels with Derren Brown’s ouija-board trick a little while ago (see here, too). Robbins also links to James Randi’s blog – and to say that Randi isn’t so sure… um… well… Let’s say that he’s not exactly equivocal.
Over at Practical Ethics, Neil Levy considers the quality of life questions posed by people who are “locked in”, but also admits that “I have been unable to find a scientific paper reporting the case. Instead, like everyone else, I am forced to rely on press reports”.
There’s an increasing number of sceptical voices out there. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
(Oh, yeah: I meant to mention the Daily Mash’s take on the story.)