Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interesting observation on that Belgian case

Have a look at this video, particularly from around 12 to 35 seconds:

The facilitator is moving the guy's hand on the keyboard. Doesn't that seem, well, a bit strange? James Randi certainly thinks so. Dr. Nancy Snyderman introduces the segment as follows:
A mother [in Belgium] says her son has emerged from what doctors thought was a vegetative state to say he was fully conscious for 23 years but could not respond because he was paralyzed.
To which Randi responds:
No, that is not what the man said, Dr. Snyderman. That's what an incompetent layperson typed for him!
Looking at the video, Randi definitely seems to have a point. Wishful thinking can be awfully effective, not to mention any ulterior motives some folks might have for promoting the version of the story that the mainstream media is running.

Thanks to Stimpson for tipping me off to this interesting twist on the story.


cherenkov said...

There was a Law And Order episode where this exact thing was the case-breaker. Jack McCoy proved that the "communication" was really just a manifestation of the wishful thinking of the parent who was "assisting" her paralyzed son.

Ixion said...

I would just like to say that I can appreciate all too well the problem of looking like I'm not ‘there' while my brain is still quietly processing away in the background.

The use of typing as a communication medium seems suspect especially as he would have experienced spectacular muscle loss over that time period. (It would be cheaper than the alternatives, though.) If you think that sitting for a few hours makes your limbs go numb, just imagine what lying in bed for 20+ years would do to you. We also don't really know what he's doing in that photo op with his helper except typing something.

The tendency to project personal desires onto others is all too human. (You may recall, for example, that the academic study of primatology has a long and venerable history of projecting human needs onto non-human primate. 'Dominance hierarchy,' anyone?)

On the other hand, the use of any system that involves a helper can introduce a greater or lesser degree of bias into the process. This fellow might be little more than a high-tech version of Clever Hans. A version of this occurred in Douglas Copeland's Microserfs, but they circumvent the issue by having the individual answer questions that only they (and their spouse) would know the answer.

The only way to reduce the possibility for external interference in situations such as this would be the use of a system that tracks the user's eye motions on a key pad. Awkward but less prone to external manipulation.