By now you must have heard the story of Rom Houben, the poor man injured some 23 years ago, who — it turns out — was misdiagnosed all those years as being in a vegetative state, but who in fact was wide awake but simply unable to communicate. The Associated Press, CBS News, the (UK) Telegraph, NPR, CNN, and even Al Jazeera — among thousands of mass media outlets — have all reported this amazing story. How could it have happened, people have have been asking? How could the doctors have been so stupid or inattentive? How did they miss this? The talking heads have pontificated endlessly on how and why no one ever bothered to review poor Mr Houben’s condition or reassess his status.

There’s only one problem with all of this. The story, it turns out, may be fraudulent.

That’s right … this story which has transfixed the world for the last couple of days … may be a hoax.

To parrot the question being asked of Mr Houben’s doctors … “How could this happen? How could thousands of media outlets have been swindled?” Well, Wired magazine explains this astonishing story:

The statements of a Belgian man believed to be in a coma for 23 years, but recently discovered to be conscious, are poignant, but experts say they may not be his words at all.

Rom Houben’s account of his ordeal, repeated in scores of news stories since appearing Saturday in Der Spiegel, appears to be delivered with assistance from an aide who helps guide his finger to letters on a flat computer keyboard. Called “facilitated communication,” that technique has been widely discredited, and is not considered scientifically valid. …

Facilitated communication came to prominence in the late 1970s after an Australian teacher reportedly used it to communicate with 12 children rendered speechless by cerebral palsy and other disorders. …

Researchers said that facilitators were unconsciously or consciously guiding patients’ hands. Multiple professional organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that facilitated communication is not credible.

It was James “the Amazing” Randi who first raised the specter of fraud in this story, and who is quoted in the Wired piece:

“I believe that he is sentient. They’ve shown that with MRI scans,” said James Randi, a prominent skeptic who during the 1990s investigated the use of facilitated communication for autistic children. But in the video, “You see this woman who’s not only holding his hand, but what she’s doing is directing his fingers and looking directly at the keyboard. She’s pressing down on the keyboard, pressing messages for him. He has nothing to do with it.”

According to Randi, facilitated communication could only be considered credible if the facilitator didn’t look at the keyboard or screen while supporting Houben’s hand, and helped him type messages in response to questions she had not heard, thus ensuring that Houben’s responses are entirely his own.

Randi is absolutely correct when he said, “This cruel farce has to stop!” Now that the cat is out of the bag, as it were, it’s time for all those thousands of media outlets who picked up and parroted this story, to retract it, admit the account they reported was fraudulent (not that they were being fraudulent, but rather that the people who fed them the story had presented them a lie), and explain how they allowed themselves to be swindled.

This is a case of disingenuous “facilitated communication,” nothing more. And it’s time for the mass media to stop propagating it … immediately.

This story has even become political fodder for the Religious Right, especially those who still remember the Terri Schiavo case and who sanctimoniously refuse to let go of it. It’s even being used to whine and complain and fume about “Obamacare,” even though neither Barack Obama nor “socialized medicine” had the slightest thing to do with this hoax.

Curiously, I suspect the mass media do not, in fact, have the integrity or fortitude it would take to admit this was a hoax, take back these reports, and explain how they were deceived. Then again, they might surprise me. At least one talking head at MSNBC is expressing doubts. Let’s hope more media figures do the same.

Hat tip: The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

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