Imagine police coming to your home with a warrant for your arrest. The charges are that you sexually assaulted a family member. You are completely innocent and everyone is shocked at the accusation, which seemed to come out of nowhere. Then, it turns out that the accusations were based on a psychic’s vision.

Eventually the charges are dropped, but not until after your family is shattered and your life disrupted by spending over a month in jail.

This may seem like an absurd scenario, but it has happened many times, most recently to Jose Cordero, who was accused of molesting his 7 year-old autistic son. The “psychic vision”, however, is something equally pseudoscientific – facilitated communication.

This technique was developed in the late 1980s and was popular through the early 1990s. It consists basically of supporting the hand of a client who has impaired communication, helping them to type out or point to letters in order to communicate. The premise is that there are some people who have more of an ability to communicate than is apparent because of physical limitations. By helping them get over their motor deficits, untapped communication potential is revealed.

This was never a very plausible premise. It is mainly wishful thinking. For most communication-impaired individuals, especially children in the special-needs community, the problem is not purely motor. They have intellectual limitations. Holding their hand is not going to suddenly make them literate.

Still, the technique took the community by storm, unfortunately getting way ahead of any scientific validation. Red flags were immediately apparent, however. Children who were apparently severely intellectually limited were suddenly writing poems. They not only had mysteriously acquired the ability to read and write, they were advanced beyond their age. Some children had the impossible ability to touch type without even looking at the keyboard.

It also did not take long before children were accusing their parents or caregivers (never their facilitator, however) of abusing them.

When the research was finally done it was convincingly demonstrated that the facilitators were doing all the communication. They were not just supporting the arm of their clients, they were directing them to the letters. This was probably mostly subconscious, a form of the ideomotor effect (subtle subconscious movements based on expectation). Essentially the facilitators were “dowsing” the letter boards.

Reviews were published, official statements were made, and facilitated communication became a cautionary tale about adopting new techniques before they are scientifically validated. But that is unfortunately not the end of the story.

Belief in facilitated communication was already deeply embedded in the special needs community, like a fungus, and it was hard to eradicate. Just when you think it’s gone, it comes back with a vengeance.

Now, a quarter century after its thorough debunking, a new generation is encountering the remnants of facilitated communication and, unaware of its history, are falling for it all over again.

In this case the child’s elementary special-education teacher, Saul Fumero, had learned a technique he called “hand over hand” (facilitated communication by another name) and used it to “help” his students communicate. It was through this technique that the sexual assault allegations came out.

Fumero admitted he had no formal training, but that would not really have made any difference. The school also claims they did not sanction the technique, but I find their excuse inadequate.

It is also incredible to me that the police took the accusations seriously enough for Cordero to spend 35 days in jail and be separated from his family for months. The moment they learned the accusations were made through facilitated communication, they should have investigated Fumero, not Cordero.

The lessons here are clear. There is a reason we advocate for high standards of scientific validity in medicine, which includes mental health and psychological services. Medicine is hard, and there are many possibilities for self-deception and error. Rigorous scientific methods are necessary to avoid becoming nothing more than a witch doctor and snake oil salesman.

There is also great potential harm in practicing pseudoscience. Any professional has the responsibility of due diligence, to make sure they are using valid techniques, and to avoid harming their clients, those connected to them, and society, with pseudoscience.

The deeper lesson for the professional community is the harm that is done from adopting even promising methods too soon. What tends to happen is that they become embedded in the infrastructure. Before long there are institutes dedicated to the technique, seminars, specialists, even continuing education credits. The trappings of legitimacy can be acquired very quickly.

A new generation trained in the technique, and convinced by confirmation bias and their own anecdotes, may find it difficult to abandon the technique later.

To their credit, many language specialists did abandon facilitated communication when the science came out against it. But enough continued to support it that it was allowed to endure.

There are also many soft apologists for facilitated communication who argue that, even if studies do not confirm it, there are individual cases in which clients trained with the technique later learn to read and write independently.

These anecdotes, however, cannot be used to support facilitated communication. We don’t know where these clients would be without the technique. They likely just improved as they matured, or any nurturing interaction would have been sufficient for them to improve. It is wrong and dangerous to use non-specific effects, or uncontrolled anecdotes, to support claims of specific efficacy for a specific intervention. This is the foot in the door for pseudoscience.

The broadest lesson of all this is that professionals need to learn not only about their science, but about related pseudosciences. We need to learn what isn’t true, and how we know.

Every educator, or anyone who works with special needs children, should learn about facilitated communication and why it is complete pseudoscience. Police also need to learn about various techniques that might be presented to them as valid evidence.

Schools and other institutions also should police themselves for pseudoscience, as a basic component of quality control and professionalism.

In this case, everyone failed. Fumero failed by using an invalid technique he learned on his own on the children with whom he was entrusted. The special needs community failed by allowing this pseudoscience to simmer within their profession. The school failed to do even basic quality control in letting this happen. And the police failed by arresting a man based upon “spectral evidence.”

Every couple years we have to write about facilitated communication again, like applying ointment to that rash that just won’t seem to go completely away.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.