Don’t fool yourself: Facilitated Communication continues to be a cautionary tale

When I (Bob) was an undergrad, I took methods/stats in the psychology department.  I wasn’t a psych major, but I wanted to take a class on brain and behavior, and I was told I had to take methods/stats first.  At the time, I had no plans on pursuing a career in science–I was majoring in philosophy and obsessed with computer programming.  I had no idea what a methods/stats class was even about.

In the first week of the class, the professor (William Hayes!) wheeled in a TV and VCR cart and popped in a tape (no–there were no projectors or computers in the classroom; we watched the tape on what was probably a 20-inch tube TV).  I had no idea my life was about to change.

The video we watched was an episode of Frontline called “Prisoners of Silence” providing an overview and expose on Facilitated Communication (FC).  If you want your life to be forever changed, too, you can watch the video here (and you won’t even need a VCR):

This documentary has stuck with me, and I now show my methods/stats students the film at the start of each semester.  It’s an incredible lesson in how easy it is to fool oneself, and how powerful simple scientific techniques can be to help dissolve self-delusion: all that is needed is the courage and wisdom to put our ideas to a rigorous test.  For me, this was my ah-ha moment of understanding what stats/methods is all about, and the beginning of my life-long journey to try hard not to fool myself.  I’m sure it hasn’t always been successful, but there it is.

This is all a long preamble to mentioning that Facilitated Communication is again back in the news.  And, incredibly, it seems to have fooled some prominent philosophers–folks who one would hope would be skilled at detecting the many problems with FC.   As usual, FC is surrounded by controversy and tragedy.  This summary, by excellent science journalist Daniel Engber at Slate is well worth reading:



I'm a teacher, researcher, and gadfly of neuroscience. My research interests are in the neural basis of learning and memory, the history of neuroscience, computational neuroscience, bibliometrics, and the philosophy of science. I teach courses in neuroscience, statistics, research methods, learning and memory, and happiness. In my spare time I'm usually tinkering with computers, writing programs, or playing ice hockey.

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