Logical Fallacies in the Facilitated Communication Debate

I recently published an article about the erasure from Wikipedia of autistic people who use or have used facilitated communication. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been a few persistent arguments that violate the principles of argumentation as they are taught in critical thinking courses in university.

In particular, I want to address some of the logical fallacies people fall back on when the topic of facilitated communication comes up.

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning. Some of these incidents of faulty reasoning occur so often that they have been given names (e.g., “straw man,” “ad hominem,” “red herring,” etc.)

In order to address these in a critical sense, I need to first be quite clear about what my arguments actually are, because those themselves keep getting twisted by critics. And since I’ve been criticized for not including in-text citations by those who don’t want to click links to find information, I’ll even include them.

First argument: We should presume competence of non-speaking people.

  1. Current tests of intelligence require someone to speak and move reliably. (source) Competence of non-speakers, who often also have motor difficulties, cannot be judged by these standards. (source)
  2. The part of the brain which controls the ability to speak and the part of the brain which processes language are not the same. The Broca area is responsible for forming and producing speech (source), and the Wernicke area is responsible for language comprehension (source).
  3. Research indicates autism may, in fact, be characterized by motor and sensory challenges (source); the intelligence of autistic people has been underestimated under previous understandings of autism. (source)
  4. None of the conditions that may result in being unable to produce speech necessarily include intellectual disability. (source, for ASD)

Second argument: There is no scientific consensus on FC or RPM (or: FC and RPM have not been debunked or proven pseudoscientific.)

  1. There have been studies conducted where the evidence has failed to support authentic communication. (source)
    1. Researchers have attributed the failure and evidence of facilitator influence to the ideomotor phenomenon. (source)
  2. There have been studies conducted where the evidence has supported authentic communication. (source, source)
    1. Researchers have used linguistic analysis (source), eye tracking (source), development and use of verbal speech while typing (source), and successful message-passing (source) to verify this.
    2. Further, there are many who have used FC and RPM to develop their motor functioning enough to graduate to independent typing or pointing (source).

With these facts in mind, I encouraged activists and advocates not to dismiss these methods of communication out of hand, as doing so would contribute to the erasure and silencing of our non-speaking autistic siblings.

Though my article was mostly well-received, it did attract a few critics. None of them have presented an actual counter-argument yet. Many have made use of logical fallacies, and I’d like to address them for the benefit of others who might encounter them.

Straw Men

A straw man argument occurs when the original argument is misrepresented, making it easier to defeat. The major straw man fallacy I have encountered is the interpretation of my argument as a black-and-white, shut-and-close opinion.

“You unquestioningly believe that FC and RPM work.”

I provided a lot of information in the previous article. I didn’t come to my conclusion without questioning it, doing the research, and reading about the methods. I definitely expect people to question a method that has been the subject of controversy. That’s why I included so many links to articles and studies.

I mentioned that FC users have spoken about facilitator influence that they have experienced. I mentioned that FC and RPM are still developing best practices for use. I mentioned that information with significant consequences should be verified. I think I’ve been quite clear that I think the methods can be unreliable. Even spoken words from people with apraxia of speech may also be unreliable and should be verified with them.

Yes, they work. The problem comes when you assume that “they work” means “they are 100% effective 100% of the time.” You won’t find me saying or implying that, but you’ll definitely find people claiming that I did.

Red Herrings

Red herring fallacies are distraction tactics, and a lot of different fallacies can be covered under them. Most of the ones directed at me have been appeals to irrelevant information.

Appeal to Emotion

An appeal to emotion is a fallacy in which emotionally-laden words and arguments are used as reasoning. Despite outlining the reasons for my argument quite clearly, I was accused of making a “feelings-based” argument in the comments of the previous article. This was particularly interesting because the counter-arguments that same person presented were “feelings-based” appeals to emotion.

“FC has been used to justify abuse and murder.”

True. However, these cases are rare and having been used to justify abuse and murder doesn’t negate evidence of authentic authorship. That’s why I didn’t mention it in my article.

Further, FC has also been used to validate allegations of abuse (source). I’m of the opinion that removing someone’s method of communication because they might accuse someone of abuse is inhumane. It’s not a decision made to protect the person communicating; it’s a decision made to protect everyone else. False allegations are not specific to FC. Using abuse allegations as a counter-argument is not a reason to prevent others from accessing it.

Use of loaded language

Both sides in a debate will likely use loaded language to sway others to their position. I certainly do, but I also don’t use it as my main argument. Critics believe that they are defending those who would use FC or RPM from being “exploited” or having their voices “stolen.”

I have heard comparisons made to “puppets” with their “strings” being controlled by facilitators. I have seen FC compared to identity fraud, etc. These comparisons may sway opinion, but ultimately they fail to negate evidence of valid communication.

Appeal to Authority

An appeal to authority is when someone points to specific authorities on a matter as proof. This happened a lot when I was on Wikipedia. I kept getting directed to mainstream media articles in which scientists said things like, “Everyone in the scientific community knows FC is debunked!” These were used as “proof” that there was a scientific consensus.

Yet, the fact still remained that there were many articles detailing evidence that supported valid authorship. Clearly, the evidence is conflicting. Why would I take random scientists’ and skeptics’ opinions of FC over the studies themselves? I stuck to the conclusion that there is no consensus.

Appeal to Popularity

An appeal to popularity is a fallacy in which an idea being popular is taken as proof that it must be true. A response to my article suggested Googling facilitated communication to see how widespread the claim of it being debunked is.  Something being a widely-held belief does not negate evidence of authentic authorship.

Every new idea was once treated in the way that facilitated communication was. It’s not a logical argument for or against the practice.

Shifting Goalposts

Shifting the goalposts is less of a logical fallacy and more of a logical bias and often proof of a bad faith argument. It refers to changing the criteria for truth once the previous criteria have been met.

Within FC, I have experienced it like this:
“You need evidence” ->
“You need evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal” ->
“You need quantitative evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal” ->
“You need quantitative evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal that has been Medline indexed.”

FC users themselves have also been subject to shifting goalposts:

“Your words are not authentic… if someone is holding your hand” ->
“if someone is holding your arm” ->
“if someone is touching you at all” ->
“if someone is in the room with you” ->
“if you ever used FC/RPM in the past.”

This final goalpost is why typists like Sue Rubin (and now Lucy Blackman) have been erased from Wikipedia despite the fact that they are both capable of communicating without a support person touching them (source and source); even being able to independently type is questionable to critics.

When the ideomotor effect no longer explains how non-speakers are capable of writing, opponents of FC go on to claim that non-speakers are being “subtly cued” to know what to type.

There’s absolutely no evidence for this, but people are so willing to cling to the belief that non-speakers can’t produce cohesive language that they’ve come up with new ways of discrediting them. This is particularly why competence is part of my argument.

Arguments From Analogy

When arguing from analogy, the stronger the similarities between the two things you are comparing, the stronger the argument. A logical fallacy occurs when the analogy is too weak. When discussing FC and RPM, people have tried to draw analogies with channelling, mediumship, automatic writing, ufology, cryptozoology, etc.

Anything that is considered pseudoscience is up for comparison.

These people fail to take into account that we are talking about a human being who is visible. Comparisons to people claiming to receive information from invisible beings are not relevant. Comparisons to unidentified flying objects are not relevant. Comparisons to Bigfoot are not relevant.

They are brought up to try and discredit the argument further, but they contribute nothing in terms of sound reasoning.

In conclusion…

Critics will surely continue to move the goalposts, but I’ve outlined my argument and supporting premises quite clearly.

Let’s stick to the facts from here on out.

This article is also published at the author’s blog, NeuroInsurgent.

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26 Responses

  1. Ren Everett,
    Thank you for this reasoned response. My son used a letterboard to learn to spell his thoughts, and now types independently. Your argument here is spot on, and I thank you for correcting many of the errors people use (often deliberately) to discredit actual people who are simply trying to communicate.

  2. This is a controversy that’s probably going to go on for quite some time. Too many people are emotionally (and even professionally) invested in viewing any form and level of autism as a serious and disabling disorder. After all, despite all current evidence to the contrary, we’re still seeing claims that some 80% of autistics are mentally challenged. There’s a certain amount of cultural lag here, which is normal, but those invested in the older views of autism aren’t going to give way in the face of mere logic. Or facts.

  3. Even typing independently after having used FC is not valid now???

    I can’t seem to find the logic here, at all.

  4. I understand you are saying that they don’t always work, but you put too much faith in this method of communication. For instance, the videos of nonverbal autistics supposedly typing independently don’t clearly show which keys they type due to the camera angle.

    1. I was going to answer this question reasonably, until I realized something. You are, again, throwing down more hoops through which a “nonverbal” autistic person must leap before you will believe them. I actually know that if I video my son typing, and show the keys as he types (which would be easy), you would find another reason to deny the communication. You would argue that the person was typing a script, or that someone is breathing or blinking in the same room. Perhaps if is enough for you to just say that you don’t believe non speaking autistic people are capable. That would actually be a fact.

      1. The only case where I would consider that FC is proven is if the autistic individual could write/type basic sentences only about everyday events, like on how they feel and the weather. Somehow, a lot of those alleged FC success stories involve being able to construct complex political and/or philosophical arguments, write entire books, legitimately serve as board members of organizations…

        1. So essentially you think they can’t have intelligence because they don’t speak out loud. Why?

          1. It’s possible for a non-speaking autistic individual to be very intelligent, but it’s very hard to objectively prove at this time. That’s why I’m quite skeptical.

            There are quite a number of nonverbal autistic savants, but their talents involve highly restricted interests, as opposed to being able to partake in complex politics.

    2. They don’t owe you an explanation!! Have you actually looked into how FC and RPM work beyond your skepticism? Have you offered to visit anyone who expresses him/herself this way so you can see for yourself? Maybe YOU should seek out answers rather than telling others they must prove themselves to you. What if you are wrong? Have you even allowed yourself to consider that it is possible? What if you are wrong and you’ve committed yourself to tearing down people who have beat the odds and managed to make great achievements? Do you want that to be your legacy? You have shown yourself to be disingenuous by repeatedly writing that Tito does FC. You made that up! I don’t have anything against FC, but Tito does RPM and they are not the same thing. You know this, but it works better to discredit Tito if you call his means to self-express “FC”. If you are committed to the truth you can’t bend it when it works in your favor. You know, a lot of pro-cure people claim that the ND folks don’t care about the quality of life for non-verbal autistics. But here we are: Ren is fighting for them to have a means of communication and you are doing everything you can to shut them down. Shameful!

      1. I’m sorry you feel this way. No, they don’t owe me an explanation, but every reliable, peer-reviewed source claims that it is “the single most scientifically discredited intervention in all of developmental disabilities”.

        I would like to visit someone that uses FC (if I have the money), but I would have to be able to study them carefully to ensure reliability.

        Many prominent articles and studies against FC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitated_communication

        A large list of Abuse allegations and facilitator misconduct: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitated_communication#Abuse_allegations_and_facilitator_misconduct and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_abuse_allegations_made_via_facilitated_communication

        Based on our understanding of autism, those kinds of achievements are about as likely as winning the jackpot. So it is not 100% unlikely, but unlikely enough to the point where it isn’t worth considering. I might have misrepresented Tito in that regard, but FC and RPM are very similar.

        We need to fight for quality of life, but also need to fight for the truth.

        1. Interesting that you would cite Wikipedia in a “fight for the truth,” when I’ve posted an entire article about how those pages completely violate neutral point of view.

          I have provided reliable peer-reviewed sources over and over to you. You’re a lost cause in this regard, an utter monster in my personal opinion, and I highly discourage people in the comments from continuing to engage with you.

          If you keep pushing misinformation in article comments at The Aspergian after this point, I will be deleting them. You may have convinced Wikipedia editors that you’re in the right, but we don’t have to deal with your bullshit here.

          1. Confirmation bias is bad, like you saying Thomas Clements is an autistic “autism advocate,” then saying all autistic advocates are like Thomas Clements.

          2. Yuval,

            Nancy’s opinions (in 2010) about cellphone towers are irrelevant to this discussion, and your comments drawing attention to them are classic ad hominem and red herring logical fallacies, which I hope Ren will leave in tact since they so perfectly exemplify the the subject of this article.

            FC and RPM are not as similar as you think, nor is either of those “methods” monolithic as you (and the research you cite) seem to assume. Meanwhile, the well-documented independent typing of Tito (and Ido and many others) is evidence which you cannot wave away by pointing at research of tangential relevance or treating hyperbolic expert opinions as gospel. It exists and will continue to exist, whether you will consider it or not.

            Scientists will take notice, study and learn from it, as some (not blinded by prejudice) have already begun doing. And these nonspeaking individuals will continue (and others will begin) writing – some of them with sophistication and intelligence you won’t believe. If I were one of these people, and I read your comments on this blog and on Wikipedia, I would not give you the time of day.

  5. Thank you for gathering these citations. There are so many opinions thrown around on these topics by people who should know better that it is easy to doubt the positive evidence, unless one has very direct experience (which few of us do) or is able to read a thoughtful article like this one and check the references.

    It seems that the time is ripe for a shift in the scientific consensus, away from the kneejerk dismissal of all forms of FC, RPM, and related techniques and toward a nuanced and realistic understanding of this complex and evolving subject. Meanwhile, it is a shame that Wikipedia filters out all positive evidence and even absurdly condemns such visibly independent typers as Sue Rubin and Lucy Blackman to temporary oblivion.

  6. What is Wikipedia up too erasing stuff that was created using this technology. Did they forget this technology was used by the late professor Steven Hawking. Is Wikipedia going to erase all of his work too?

    1. Steven Hawking used an AAC system, not comparable to FC, developed by Howard Shane, a long-time FC opponent. I know FC is real but your comment is incorrect.

  7. The only proof necessary that it CAN work is a SINGLE double-blind study in which Patients (A) and Facilitators (F) are provided with separate datasets, independent of one another. Patients and Facilitators are then brought together and Patients are asked about the data.

    If the answers correspond to dataset A more closely than to dataset F, it is the Patients and not the Facilitators who are communicating. But to the committed skeptic, not even irrefutable proof is legitimate evidence. Or as someone else famously put it: “If they don’t believe Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe if someone rises from the dead, either.”

    1. I’m sure that has already been done before. But if you carry out a study like that, I would be interested to see the results published in a peer-reviewed journal.

  8. Somehow I missed until now this follow-up article by Ren Everett dated July 22, 2019.

  9. Ren -thank you for your articles. When I saw the title of your first article my first reaction was to give a very loud wail of “NOOOO” but since I was with other people I had to resort to biting my tongue and keeping my composure. I had thought that the FC debate was about over since people like Cara(?) not sure spelling and others have progressed from FC to being able to communicate independently. But what upsets me more is the entire rational that non-speaking people can;t think . What happened? I thought it had progressed beyond that mentality ?? My personal interests in this is that I got fired about 12 years ago for using a modified form of FC. didnt know thats what I was using. All I knew was that a client I worked with could write better if I held her hand down closer to the paper. I’ve felt like a failure since that there was something I should have -could have done to convince them that she COULD communicate. Their response was ” Well if she could think she wouldnt act the way she does” and my response was ” She IS!! she just needs a communication system to let us know what shes thinking. ” there was one yes/no device allowed but when I started actually using it to communicate and not a program it disappeared. I’m wondering – is there a place where stories-videos-blogs etc of nonspeaking people can be found? like website links etc? If not I am more than happy to create one.

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