Peer review at Scientific Reports, VII

Reviewer II next turns to the concept of message passing. Here’s what I wrote:

The most direct way to validate authorship is through “message passing” tests involving prompts that the facilitator has not seen ahead of time. For contact-based facilitation, studies dating back to the 1990’s indicate that facilitators do in fact guide typing.2,3,4 Results show that the overwhelming majority of typed responses—when they occur—are based on prompts that the facilitator witnessed, and not on prompts that only the typist witnessed, strongly suggesting that the facilitator is the actual author. As for assistance via held-up letterboards, practitioners have yet to participate in rigorous, published, message passing experiments.5

2. Moore, S., Donovan, B., & Hudson, A. Facilitator-suggested conversational evaluation of facilitated communication. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23, 541–552 (1993).
3. Wheeler, D. L., Jacobson, J. W., Paglieri, R. A., & Schwartz, A. A. An experimental assessment of facilitated communication. Mental Retardation, 31, 49–59 (1993).
4. Saloviita, T., Lepannen, M., & Ojalammi, U. Authorship in facilitated communication: An analysis of 11 cases. Augmentive and Alternative Communication, 3, 213-25 (2014).
5. Tostanoski, A., Lang, R., Raulston, T., Carnett, A., & Davis, T. Voices from the past: Comparing the rapid prompting method and facilitated communication. Developmental Rehabilitation, 17, 219–223 (2014).

But for Reviewer II, message passing (MP) means something completely different. Rather than being a means (indeed the best means) to test authorship, it’s a means for interpreting the autistic person’s code.

MP can work to a minimally verbal person’s advantage and should be tailored to that person’s non-verbal gestures and cues. In fact, one should develop a system that much like the BMI/BCI systems, learns the person’s code and teaches that to the other person (the facilitator), so they can communicate naturally. MP can be and must be better understood and coded so we can finally help these children communicate using their means, rather than imposing ours, just because it is inconvenient to us to make the effort and take that alternative route of learning who they are and how to best help them.

Reviewer II seems unconcerned about the many studies I cited showing that honest attempts by the facilitator to channel an autistic person’s cues have resulted in something far worse than person 1 imposing a particular communicative medium/methodology on person 2. That far worse result, of course, is person 1 (unwittingly) imposing their own messages onto person 2.

But for Reviewer II, such message substitution is no big deal; it’s apparently not that different from how the rest of us learned to communicate, and will inevitably result in minimally-verbal autistic kids being able to communicate independently so long as they’re respected and nurtured:

yes, there may be a learning process whereby initially the facilitator may speak on their behalf, but in due time, that help yields its way to allow for an independent child with agency. It is the way we all learned from infancy with our mother and father, until we were able to act independently. Here the path may take a bit longer and be more convoluted than our path, but it is nonetheless destined to succeed when we respect them and nurture them.

Diametrically opposed to this, Reviewer II suggests, is the behaviorist approach. This, and not facilitator cuing, is what (or so he claims) leads to meaningless, Clever Hans-like learning:

Human children are certainly capable of acting like Clever Hans when conditioned through Skinnerian animal conditioning techniques that behaviorists have forced on them in the autism world. But when we support them as Prof. Jaswal’s study did, when given the most elemental human right that we all enjoy, they flourish.

Given that behaviorist approaches underlie all kinds of effective, evidence-based instruction–whether of basic reading via phonics drills, or of the fundamentals of arithmetic and algebra via memorization of number patterns and repeated practice with algorithms–we have to wonder whether the best educated among us are no better than clever horses–or, for that matter, clever computers–with zero sense of other humans’ minds or of real-world meaning.

But humans do differ from computers in some well-established ways, making Reviewer II’s comparison between machines and facilitators, once again, specious. Machines are susceptible neither to the Ouija-board-like ideomotor illusion, nor to the projection onto to others and channeling back from others of imagined communicative goals. More generally speaking, machines, unlike people in general and facilitators in particular, aren’t capable of imagining, even imperfectly, what’s going on in other people’s minds.

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