I saw a fascinating film recently about a young boy with quadroplegic cerebral palsy. Because of his severe physical disabilities it was incredibly difficult to establish any method of communication with him. His mother devised all sorts of ingenious techniques for overcoming the physical blocks to communication, but was often met with scepticism from professionals who were not convinced of her son’s intelligence. Part of the challenge was that he was only able to communicate with physical assistance.
The film was powerfully put together, and I was very moved by the way his mother had to struggle against a system that seemed very rigid and unresponsive.
But I also watched with some doubt in my mind. (It’s not pleasant to doubt things that other people with so much more knowledge of a situation clearly believe so strongly, but sometimes holding back on asking difficult questions is a fake respect, implying that you don’t think they’ve considered the issue. So while I try to be polite and open minded, I am trying to have the confidence of my own doubts, and not worry overmuch about what people will think about me for asking.)
Anyway, I have recently (for example, here) been looking into new-age claims for dowsing and similar, and in particular the ideomotor effect. (There’s a good article on this at: http://www.randi.org/library/dowsing/). Essentially, the movement of the pendulum or other device is influenced imperceptibly by the dowser’s state of mind, even though they are not aware of this and do not intend it. The effect is very misleading, so people dowsing are often sincerely convinced that the pendulum is reflecting something in the outside world, because they have no conscious intention of influencing its movement. Nevertheless, under double blind testing dowsing performs no better than chance as a measure of what is going on outside the mind of the dowser.
So in watching the video, I was worried to what extent this effect might be intervening in assisted communication. I sympathised deeply with the mother, but also with the professionals whose scientific training trained them to doubt, to demand consistency and exclude all possibility of experimenter bias. The ideomotor effect is so insidious – with someone who has to be physically supported for communication, how it is possible to be absolutely sure that the assistance isn’t affecting the message? How is it possible to design a test that would prove beyond reasonable doubt that this was not taking place? To what extent did the professionals have cause to be doubtful?
The film addressed this difficult question of how to be sure directly. Some of the people most closely involved with the boy spoke of their moments of doubt. But they felt that the real problem was that those who were assessing his intelligence were unwilling to challenge their preconceptions about what people with such severe communication barriers were capable of mentally.
Someone asked an interesting question at the meeting – is there training that could be given to professionals to suppor them to design their own ways of testing in these unusual circumstances? I like that idea – looking for tests that are as innovative as a loving mother, whilst still rigorous enough to give real certainty by excluding any potential for bias or randomness.
Our expectations will inevitably colour the way we interpret what we see in the world around us. And people with differing expectations will see the world differently. So the challenge is to set aside our attachment to our expectations and design tests that will bring us closer to the truth, whatever that is. It’s hard to do, but I can’t help feeling it’s crucial.
Of course it’s not always possible to reach that level of certainty, so sometimes we do have to deal with situations that really are ambiguous. In which case the only way to proceed seems to be to choose the viewpoint which is least likely to do harm if untrue.
When it comes to assessing intelligence, there seems to be a lot more harm in a false negative than a false positive. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to be an intelligent human being for whom communication with others is such a struggle. Making that struggle unnecessarily worse through preconceptions and overzealous scepticism is abhorrent. So it seems far safer to work on the basis that the person is intelligent, and draw on the experience of those who know the person best to understand what they wish to communicate.
One final thought – the woman who made the film was herself severely disabled and could only communicate with assistance. And her distinctive voice could be heard in the clear structure and strong message of the film. Which for me is a very powerful testament to the fact that difficulty in communication may obscure intelligence, but should never be assumed to mean that it’s not there.
With the best will in the world, our preconceptions about what is unfamiliar to us can easily get the better of us. So I am deeply grateful to her, and to those who participated in her film, for the way in which they have opened my mind.