Despite the scorn I frequently heap upon woo-wooism of various types, I honestly feel that most of it is pretty harmless. Hunting ghosts, chasing Bigfoot, messing with Tarot cards or numerology or astrology -- about all that's really at risk is your bank balance, and if you're willing to pay for your own particular brand of pseudoscience, well, that's your choice and no real damage done.
Not so with Facilitated Communication.
I bring this up because MIT is hosting a conference on Facilitated Communication, starting today and running through Friday, a move that gives me further reason to question the judgment and critical thinking abilities of our educational leaders. If you have never heard of FC, let me give you a brief rundown.
In the late 1980s, a woman named Rosemary Crossley had an idea. This idea was that non-communicative children -- especially those with severe retardation, cerebral palsy, and severe autism -- might not lack intelligence, despite their inability to express themselves. So she developed a technique by which a "facilitator" could use hand gestures and tiny changes in the affected individual's facial expressions and body language to "interpret" what the person was really thinking.
Despite a large number of controlled studies showing that FC doesn't work -- that the outcome is based upon the thoughts, wishes, and desires of the facilitator, not the patient -- FC has caught on, and for a very good reason. It gives the family members and caregivers of non-communicative individuals a false sense of hope. And because of this, it has proven to be very lucrative. In 1992 a Facilitated Communication Institute was founded, under the aegis of Syracuse University. (Largely because of the bad press FC has gotten, the institute was recently renamed "The Institute for Communication and Inclusion" and FC renamed "supported typing.") Crossley herself has become famous for a book called Annie's Coming Out, with co-author Annie McDonald -- a severely retarded girl with cerebral palsy, who allegedly communicated her thoughts to Crossley via FC and helped to write the story. The book later became the basis of an award-winning movie.
It's not that it's impossible that there are non-communicative individuals who still have highly active brains; consider Stephen Hawking, whose decades-long fight with ALS has still not stopped him from writing scores of books and academic papers. But with FC, the "facilitators" are taking the easy way out, injecting their own knowledge, thoughts, and feelings into the "messages" that are supposed to come from the patients' minds. More than thirty controlled studies of FC have shown that the practice has no value, and yet Crossley and her partner Chris Bothwick continue to rake in money, charging $250 for a six-part video series on how FC works and what it can do for non-communicative patients. Practitioners of the technique charge hundreds of dollars an hour to create messages that are alleged to come from the patients, and of course Crossley and Bothwick are kept busy (and well-paid, not to mentioned wined and dined) on the world-wide academic lecture circuit.
It's bad enough that Syracuse University has bought into the whole thing -- their FC Institute (pardon me, the "Institute for Communication and Inclusion") continues to thrive -- but now MIT, traditionally a bastion of peer-reviewed science, has given its tacit approval to the whole thing by hosting the FC conference this week.
I am appalled, and it's not just at their embracing pseudoscience -- as if they were hosting a conference on telepathy, or something. I am appalled mostly because this technique, which has failed every test that would be necessary to establish it as rigorous science, bilks people out of their money using the lever of the desperation of thwarted hope, love, and compassion -- by giving family members the promise of communicating with a loved one who is locked inside a hopelessly non-functioning body. It makes them think, falsely, that children whose brains are damaged beyond repair are actually experiencing high-level thoughts. It rips people off by providing them with false hope -- and as such, should be scorned by professional psychologists and educational institutions (and even more important, prosecuted by the legal system), just as we would scorn and seek to prosecute quacks who give patients with terminal illnesses useless medications.
And the administrations of Syracuse University and MIT should be ashamed of themselves.