The dangers of “scientific consensus”

| September 22, 2009

No, I’m not talking about “climate change”, though President Obama’s speech to the UN on the subject had some glaring and easily verifiable falsehoods. Instead, I’m talking about “shaken baby syndrome” (SBS), a well-known and well-established form of child death that results in about 200 murder/manslaughter convictions each year here in the United States. I certainly have had no reason to question its reality until now.

Except that it now appears that you can’t actually kill a baby just by shaking it (hat tip to Instapundit):

The research implies that human beings simply cannot shake a baby to death without an accompanying impact to the head. SBS cases, however, frequently show no external injuries. This suggests that other causes are at work. Additional research has shown babies to be lucid up to 72 hours before classic SBS symptoms set in, casting doubt on the long-held theory that the child’s caretaker at the time of death (or loss of consciousness) was the likely killer.

Last year, Discover magazine published a provocative article laying out much of this new research. Notably, the magazine found several specialists who have since changed their minds after testifying for the prosecution in multiple SBS cases. (At a post-conviction hearing for Edmunds, all of her defense experts said that when the case was tried in 1995, they would have testified for the prosecution.) One of those specialists is Ronald Uscinski, a student of Ayub Ommaya, the scientist whose research on monkeys in the late 1960s is thought to be the origin of the SBS diagnosis. When Uscinski went back and reexamined the study, he found no support for the way Ommaya’s research is currently being being used in the courtroom.

“When I put all of this together, I said, my God, this is a sham,” Uscinski told Discover. “Somebody made a mistake right at the very beginning, and look at what’s come out of it.”

Here’s the most telling passage of all:

This whole controversy speaks to a fundamental tension between science and law. Science moves along a slow trajectory from inquiry toward certainty. While the courts have been eager to embrace new science—particularly forensic science—at the trial level, they’re reluctant to revisit those cases when the science changes. One example is the now-discredited specialty of identifying bite mark evidence. But while science is mostly interested in testing, revising, and improving existing theories, once the jury has delivered its verdict, our criminal justice system puts a premium on finality. It takes a major upheaval in the scientific community (like DNA technology) to get courts to consider reopening old cases

I might note that there is a parallel tension between science and politics, with a similar lag in government reacting to  valid scientific issues and questions.  In other words, having committed itself to a given position, government works hard to reinforce that position and suppress dissenting research rather than to question it in the light of new information.

Such as with, well, you know.  ..bruce w..

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Category: Climate Change, Litigation, Main, Science

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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