Facilitated Communication, Marian Apparitions, and Alchemy

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality." - G.B. Shaw

Shaw has a point. Excess belief can have dire consequences, and that is the focus of this issue's column: a retarded man on trial for rape in Maryland based on accusations obtained by "facilitated communication" from a 9-year-old autistic girl; a Virginia housewife and Marian visionary who has been "granted" the power of healing; and a distinguished Texas professor who reportedly delves into alchemy. When does the happiness borne of belief become a "cheap and dangerous quality?" Perhaps a glimpse at these cases will provide some insight.

Helping Hands?

Facilitated communication (FC) is a controversial method to overcome the conversational limitations of the disabled, particularly autistic children (Mulick, 1993; Dillon, 1993). In FC, an aide holds a disabled person's arm or wrist so the person can type a message on a computer keyboard. The use of the technique should, in theory, be a means to allow the disabled person to eventually communicate on their own. In practice, it is often viewed as an end rather than a means, such that the disabled person will always be totally dependent on the facilitator. Furthermore, results from serious research into the procedure have been largely negative. Dr. Howard Shane, director of the Communication Enhancement Center of Children's Hospital in Boston, has been quoted that "facilitated communication has failed 100 percent of the time" in his tests on thousands of disabled individuals, and that "there's never been one bit of evidence found that facilitated communication works. It certainly looks real but it never stands up to validation" (McMahan, 1993). Dr. Shane continued: "I don't think that there is any reality to this phenomenon. Maybe it's no different from ESP or believing in aliens. There are many people who believe in them. But are they real? I don't think so." On the other hand, Dr. Michael Weiss, a Boston psychologist, has been quoted that "a published review of 218 reported cases of facilitation assessed four as valid. I want to know more about what's going on in that small percentage of cases where it works" (Ablow, 1993). One can understand why FC is such an emotionally-charged issue. Who is communicating, the disabled person or the facilitator? It looks like it works, and it provides hope and comfort for the parents of the disabled who are able to communicate with their children for the first time. Is that such a bad thing?

Perhaps. There have been more than 60 charges of various sorts filed in U.S. courts by disabled individuals using facilitated communication, and the courts have been split over the issue. A spokesman for the American Bar Association said that of the four cases in New York State, two judges allowed facilitated testimony and two banned it. And now another is scheduled for trial in Frederick County, MD. This case involves a 9-year-old autistic girl who used FC to accuse a 27-year-old mentally-retarded teacher aide of rape, child abuse and sexual offense. According to the charging document, the girl typed a series of connected words indicating that she had been sexually assaulted and naming the assailant. The girl allegedly said these events happened first when she was 5 and last when she was 7 (Meyer, 1994). Dr. Shane has questioned how the girl, who had the developmental ability of a 2-year-old at the time of the accusation, and had no instruction in reading, could communicate at the level of a 10-year-old and type sentences and spell (McMahan, 1994). As a result, the judge in the case has ordered a scientific trial of the girl's ability to communicate. "There must be a level playing field," said the judge. "If there is to be a fair trial, there can be no suggestion of the facilitator influencing the trial testimony." The judge is expected to act as the independent observer of the test, the details of which will be decided by the prosecuting and defense attorneys. The prosecution insists that claims by proponents of FC that (a) the technique is more reliable in a natural environment for the patient, (b) a considerable amount of time is required to build "trust" between the patient and the facilitator, and (c) certain testing methods occasionally keep the technique from working, must be considered in the experimental design. The trial is scheduled for June 1994.

Marian Skepticism

Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) insisted on the fact that the assent to apparitions was of human faith following the rules of prudence. Fr. Mucci wrote in La Civilta Cattolica about the traditional criteria of an apparition's authenticity, including that (a) the apparitions should never produce any sentiment of contempt toward anyone, (b) predictions that do not come true or are continually postponed do not speak in favor of their divine origin, and (c) revelations are suspect when they aim to settle theological or other disputes (Trigilio, 1994). How do the myriad of Marian apparitions in recent years stack up against these criteria? Is belief in the reality of Mary's appearances necessarily a bad thing? These questions formed in my mind as I read a recent article (Schneider, 1993) about Ann Marie Hancock of Richmond, VA, described as a "society hostess with a 10,000-square-foot home, a Jaguar convertible, an indoor pool, a cottage at the lake and a personal relationship with the Virgin Mary." Mrs. Hancock, mother of three, is a former reporter and TV talk show host, who is active in community affairs and local charities. Her mystical experiences during a visit to Medjugorje in 1987 resulted in the first of several books, the latest of which, "Wake Up, America! Take My Heart, Take My Hand" describes the Marian events in Conyers, GA. All proceeds from the book are donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for children with terminal illnesses. An admirer of Nancy Fowler, the visionary of Conyers who receives messages from Jesus and Mary, Mrs. Hancock claims to have received healing powers and is now the recipient of requests for healing and guidance from around the world. She believes that Jesus and Mary take a minute interest in daily events, and is angered by skeptics. "People are coming from all over the world. Their hearts are being changed. They're being healed of cancer and neurological diseases," she says. "Why would you want to take people's hope, people's faith? What is the purpose of writing something that hurts and destroys?" Why indeed! Is belief such a bad thing?

Perhaps. While no one is hurt when the Virgin Mary saves Ann Marie from paying double for plane tickets, or Jesus suggests the right car for Nancy Fowler to buy, it is quite different when Nancy Fowler proclaims Jesus to say (April 2, 1991): "(name deleted) husband will burn a long time in Purgatory if he goes through with the divorce." or Mary to say (Oct 15, 1992) "... slain babies' blood will be poured out upon the world ... My Son's hand will continue to pound the earth until you stop! Stop violating the laws of God!" Or when Mary proclaims through Veronica Lueken of Bayside, NY (June 2, 1979) that "Your leaders now condone homosexuality, an offense to your God and all mankind. And what are the fruits of this condoning of sin? Mur-r-rders!!! Murders of the young!! Bands of roaming homosexuals ..." Or when Mary proclaims through Sr. Agnes Sasagawa of Akita, Japan (Oct 13, 1973) that "the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity ... fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad..." Or when a multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy victim refuses to take a new drug treatment because of her faith in Ann Marie Hancock's healing gift.

Despite claims in the Catholic media (Szczepanowski, 1993) that the Vatican has declared the Akita apparition to be "worthy of belief", and that others have been granted preliminary approval by local churches, the fact is that the Vatican has remained skeptical or neutral (since they realize that such incidents do return people to the faith). No Marian apparition has been declared "worthy of belief" since 1949, when the 1932-33 apparitions at Beauraing and Banneux, Belgium were approved. A national commission of canonical inquiry recently gave a negative judgment on the supernatural character of the Akita occurrences, where Sr. Agnes Sasagawa had reported seeing a statue of Mary weep some 100 times between 1973 and 1981, and heard warnings of a heavy chastisement that God was preparing to inflict on the world unless people offered "prayer, penance, and courageous sacrifice" for sins (Drummey, 1994). The mysterious occurrences had taken place, the commission said, but they were attributed to the ectoplasmic influence of Sr. Agnes. According to the commission, this nun had the subconscious capacity to make her own tears and her own blood appear on the statue! An official diocesan commission investigating the apparitions to Veronica Lueken of Bayside, NY, concluded that they were "the product of a fertile imagination." The local archdiocese has not made an official ruling on the veracity of Nancy Fowler's visions, but the Archbishop did state that the church does not endorse her visions and has ordered priests to stop conducting mass (or otherwise acting in official capacity) on her property. The church has taken no stand on the apparitions to Anne Marie Hancock.

One of the most interesting analogies drawn to such apparitions refers to an incident in Salem Village, MA over 300 years ago. In his critical book on Medjugorje, Michael Jones quotes from Marian Starkey, who wrote The Devil in Massachussetts. He considers the significance not that the witch trials were initiated by crazed adolescent girls, but rather that the behavior was continued and validated by the colony's adult population ... not just the ignorant, but the best minds as well (Jones, 1988).

Academic Freedom or Scientific Misconduct?

Universities often tolerate all sorts of faculty member activity under the guise of academic freedom, but apparently they draw the line at alchemy. At least they do at Texas A&M, where distinguished professor of chemistry, John Bockris, is under fire for reportedly accepting $200K and a guest researcher to carry out alchemical experiments which have been variously described as transmuting lesser metals into gold and silver (Begley, 1994), changing mercury into gold (UPI, 1993), or turning silver into gold (Pool, 1993). A petition signed by 23 of the 28 distinguished professors at Texas A&M called on the university provost to strip Dr. Bockris of his title as distinguished professor. The petition follows a letter written by 11 full professors in the chemistry department (out of the department's 38 full professors) calling on Dr. Bockris to resign and remove the "shadow" he has cast over the department. The petition from the distinguished professors said "For a trained scientist to claim, or support anyone else's claim to have transmuted elements is difficult for us to believe and is no more acceptable than to claim to have invented a gravity shield, revived the dead or to be mining green cheese on the moon. We believe that Bockris' recent activities have made the terms 'Texas A&M' and 'Aggie' objects of derisive laughter throughout the world ..."

Dr. Bockris categorically denies any allegation of scientific misconduct. He has had a long and distinguished career in electrochemistry, authoring or editing 15 books and more than 600 papers. He also ardently supported the work of cold fusion researchers Pons and Fleischmann, and headed research teams at A&M that claimed to have reproduced the positive cold fusion results. Later, his fusion work (as well as that of others) was criticized by an internal review as a "breakdown of scientific objectivity."

According to media sources, the alchemical experiment was directed by Joe Champion, a "self-described researcher and inventor from Tennessee", who instructed Bockris and his assistants in the proper procedures. In four separate experiments, they ignited a mixture of potassium nitrate, carbon, and various salts to produce small amounts of gold. However, once Champion left Bockris' group, they could not get the technique to work. It did not help Dr. Bockris' reputation that Champion was later sentenced to one year in prison in an unrelated felony-theft case in Arizona, and the source of the $200K funding, William Telander, has been charged with fraud in a $7.8M foreign currency exchange scam. Dr. Bockris has also expressed interest in "low-energy" nuclear reactions such as the production of heat and the formation of calcium from potassium during the electrolysis of light water on nickel, the formation of iron from carbon in an arc under water, and nuclear changes in biological organisms (Bockris, 1993), which has not likely endeared him
to his colleagues.

I do not agree with Dr. Bockris' theories, particularly those dealing with elemental transmutation by electrolysis or biological mechanisms. Much, if not all can be explained by contamination and bad analytical chemistry (Epstein, 1994). However, I would remind those who seek his ouster or demotion that their actions threaten the core of academic freedom. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but
no one should be punished for attempting to provide that proof.


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Begley, S., and Levin, S. (1994). All that glitters isn't chemistry, Newsweek, Jan 10.

Bockris, J. (1993). The chemical stimulation of nuclear change, NASA-Goddard Engineering Colloquium, Nov 1.

Dillon, K.M. (1993). Facilitated communication, autism, and ouija, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 17/3, p 281.

Drummey, James J. (1994). Catholic replies, The Wanderer, Jan 6.

Epstein, M. (1993). Comments on Michel Bounias' letter to the editor, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 7, p. 446.

Jones, E.M. (1988). Medjugorje: the untold story, South Bend, Fidelity Press.

McMahan, G. (1993). Facilitated speech may face court test, Frederick News-Post, Nov 19.

McMahan, G. (1994). Communication method faces test, Frederick News-Post, Jan 11; Autistic girl to be tested, Jan 13.

Meyer, E.L. (1994). Judge is hesitant in autistic girl's case, Washington Post, Jan 11.

Mullick, J.A., Jacobson, J.W., and Kobe, F.H. (1993). Anguished silence and helping hands: autism and facilitated communication, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 17/3, p 270.

Pool, R. (1993). Alchemy altercation at Texas A&M, Science, 262, p. 1367.

Schneider, G. (1993). Visions of the Virgin Mary, Virginian-Pilot, Dec 22.

Trigilio, J.P. (1994). Our lady of the roses has thorns, Soul Magazine, Vol 45/1.

UPI (1993). Top Texas A&M profs seek demotion of colleague over alchemy research, Dec 22.