Great Moments in Skepticism and “Settled Science”

Via Radley Balko:

The phrase shaken baby syndrome entered the pop culture lexicon in 1997, when British au pair Louise Woodward was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Massachusetts infant Matthew Eappen. At the time, the medical community almost universally agreed on the symptoms of SBS. But starting around 1999, a fringe group of SBS skeptics began growing into a powerful reform movement. The Woodward case brought additional attention to the issue, inviting new research into the legitimacy of SBS. Today, as reflected in the Edmunds case, there are significant doubts about both the diagnosis of SBS and how it’s being used in court.

In a compelling article published this month in the Washington University Law Review, DePaul University law professor Deborah Teurkheimer argues that the medical research has now shifted to the point where U.S. courts must conduct a major review of most SBS cases from the last 20 years. The problem, Teurkheimer explains, is that the presence of three symptoms in an infant victim—bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain, and brain swelling—have led doctors and child protective workers to immediately reach a conclusion of SBS. These symptoms have long been considered pathognomic, or exclusive, to SBS. As this line of thinking goes, if those three symptoms are present in the autopsy, then the child could only have been shaken to death.

Moreover, an SBS medical diagnosis has typically served as a legal diagnosis as well. Medical consensus previously held that these symptoms present immediately in the victim. Therefore, a diagnosis of SBS established cause of death (shaking), the identity of the killer (the person who was with the child when it died), and even the intent of the accused (the vigorous nature of the shaking established mens rea). Medical opinion was so uniform that the accused, like Edmunds, often didn’t bother questioning the science. Instead, they’d often try to establish the possibility that someone else shook the child.

But now the consensus has shifted. Where the near-unanimous opinion once held that the SBS triad of symptoms could only result from a shaking with the force equivalent of a fall from a three-story to four-story window, or a car moving at 25 mph to 40 mph (depending on the source), research completed in 2003 using lifelike infant dolls suggested that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, the shaking experiments failed to produce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS deaths….
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.”

Before I am purposefully misunderstood, I am not committing the logical fallacy that an incorrect consensus in issue A means the consensus on issue B is incorrect.  The message instead is simple:  beware scientific “consensus,” particularly when that consensus is only a decade or two old.

  • Michael J Kubat

    Well done!

    The science on SBS has never been in, except in the minds of the faithful, and other possible causative factors of the symptoms said to comprise SBS were vigorously shouted down. As a psychotherapist, I have dealt with cases where SBS was used as a weapon to keep children away from fathers and to smear the fathers as “violent,” “angry” etc.

    I am not qualified to say that SBS was not present, but everyone involved in these case rushed to judgment, and not one was willing to consider alternative explanations, even when data casting doubt on the SSB diagnosis were already available.

    The psychological damage due to such rush to judgment was great, to say the least.

  • Ben

    I’m not a scientist or medic, but there is something that immediatley strikes me as odd with the SBS diagnosis. Surely if the 3 symptoms showed that a baby had been shaken to death then a fourth symptom would have necessarily been present. How could you shake a baby to the extent of producing bleeding in the back of the eye without causing some sort of neck trauma.

  • Charlie

    Some AGW alarmists derisively use the term “flat-earthers” for people that are skeptical of the science, while the alarmists repeat the “the science is settled” and “there is a scientific consensus” mantras.

    What they seem to overlook is that a flat earth view was the consensus at one point. In the same way, the heliocentric model of the universe was (literally) heretical at one point.

    Somehow people overlook the fact that consensus is not always the same as correctness.

  • You morons must have missed the day in Jr. High science class where they explained the final step of the scientific method:

    If you can’t come up with experimental proof for your hypothesis, go and do a poll of other scientists and see if your theory sounds good. It’s pretty much the same thing.

  • ADiff

    There are two distinct issues. The 1st is a reminder that Science is fundamentally permanently non-conclusive. Nothing in Science is EVER beyond question, revision, or outright disproof, no matter how well supported, or widely accepted at any point. Any contention to the contrary is fundamentally anti-Scientific. The 2nd is that Scientific judgment is one thing, social action on that basis something entirely different. Legal decisions and policy actions are very much conclusive by their nature. Assumptions about Scientific certainty in social policy on the basis of mistaken ideas about the character of Scientific ‘consensus’ can entail terrible costs, and horrible tragedies, which can be, and indeed largely always are, irrevocable and irredeemable.

    This seems the case with AGW. It seems quite probable that regardless the actual ‘truth’ of the Scientific Theories, we’re stampeding toward a massive over-reaction entailing huge costs, very possibly to no commensurate obtainable benefit.

  • I have posted a blog about “the double hell of science-led policy” a couple of months ago. That example was about (ab)using Science in child-rearing
    http://omniclimate.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/the-double-hell-of-science-led-policy/

  • kristof

    Whatever helps you sleep at night I guess. No scientist ever claimed that the science is 100% certain (in any field) (why do people continue to feel the need to remind scientists of that? They know). But what do all you offer as an alternative? Waiting and hoping that this science too will prove to be ‘incorrect’. What a great way of dealing with reality. (Most science does not get completely overthrown, but rather fine tuned, adjusted and expanded into a wider/narrower range of application).

    I also want to be able to pick the scientific results on a ‘what I want’ basis and hope the ones I don’t want are just wrong.

    I also hope that the climate scientists have it wrong, but don’t you think it is just a little bit too much wishful thinking? (I guess not)

    And your final sentence was pretty hypocrite seeing the responses you get until now.

  • Dean

    It’s one thing to say that science is never absolutely perfectly settled. Another to suggest that the IPCC, the NAS, the AAAS, the Royal Academy, and dozens of other scientific academies, are the equivalent of the Medieval Catholic Church when it claimed that the earth was the center of the universe.

    Some things are certain. F=ma. No, climate science is not at the level of F=ma, which can be easily tested. But if you want to go against the list above, you need more than a few bad thermometers, a science fiction author, and misrepresentations of a few surmises of urban pollution-related global cooling in the 1970’s.

    There is an overwhelming agreement among scientists of certain aspects of climate science, and you shouldn’t expect it to be easy to challenge virtually every multi-disciplinary science academy around the (admittedly round) globe on those issues. Particularly if your theory is that all of those academies, plus Nature, plus Science, are all part of some conspiracy to get funded.

  • Mark Fawcett

    Dean (Sep 22, 8:42pm)

    “There is an overwhelming agreement among scientists of certain aspects of climate science, and you shouldn’t expect it to be easy to challenge virtually every multi-disciplinary science academy around the (admittedly round) globe on those issues. Particularly if your theory is that all of those academies, plus Nature, plus Science, are all part of some conspiracy to get funded.”

    It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy of the kind wherein all parties are somehow “in on the secret” – it can simply be enough to “go with the flow”. If funding is available to study the effects (and potential solutions) to climate change it follows that papers that publish saying “nothing to see here” will not get airtime, simple. It is also then very hard for any such parties to get a slice of the cake for next time. Remember, people are effectively pre-wired to want to be part of the pack. In science there is one “killer” – confirmation bias, I personally think climatology is riddled with this due to the lack of double-blind testing of theories.

    When very influential people and organisations have put their reputations on the line by repeatedly banging the same drum then they will naturally fight any perceived ‘attack’ on their position, and use any and all means at their disposal, it’s human nature. Some of the biggest and brightest minds have often been the most blinkered, stubborn and arrogant when it comes to being shown the cracks in their world-view.

    History is littered with examples of the concensus railing against the maverick (think flat-earth, heliocentricity, plate-techtonics, heliobacter etc. etc.)

    The current level of hysteria with regard to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, doom-laden, messages coming out is simply ridiculous. All predictions (sorry projections) for the catastrophe we are facing with a circa 2.5C rise in temps are patently rubbish and reminiscent of ancient soothsaying and rune-reading.

    All projections are based on incomplete and inaccurate models of a natural system that is so complex that it may actually be impossible to ever get close to. The whole science of climatology is in its infancy, esp. with regard to future predictions, how can we, as a race, possibly be so arrogant to assume that we fundamentally have a handle on everything when we’ve only really been studying it for a short time.

    Show me some fundamental proof that we’re all basically f*cked – please don’t include GCM projections because they are simply not science; I can write a GCM to show you any scenario, there are so many variables that can be tweaked and indeed that have “guesses” applied to them. Please also don’t include studies indicating hockey-stick shaped results as these have been shown to have incorrect and bad statistical methods applied. Proxy analysis where you select the proxies that give you the signal you want are similarly void.

    When real science is done, such as measuring (as best we can) real data using a consistent set of tools the picture seems less bleak…global temps flat for a decade, sea-ice above 30-year average (globally) and ‘recovering’ in the arctic, very low hurricane numbers etc. etc.

    Cheers

    Mark

  • hunter

    Dean,
    When people pointed out that eugenics was a horrid idea, they were dismissed, demeaned, and disregarded.
    After all, eugenics is how evolution works. And evolution is science. And how dare anyone question science, unless they are flat earthers, fundies or ignoratti?
    That you are here presenting a list of what you think comprises the basis of skepticism of the AGW theory of climate science shows much more about what you do not know than what you do know.
    If you think Nature and Science mags are treating the AGW theory the same as any other science you might want to pay more attention.
    And if you think science is an immaculate process that is immune to making the kind of systemic errors that plague every other endeavor of mankind, then you are operating out of faith based, and not fact based, thinking.

  • kristofv

    ‘And if you think science is an immaculate process that is immune to making the kind of systemic errors that plague every other endeavor of mankind, then you are operating out of faith based, and not fact based, thinking.’

    Who was talking about immaculate? Why does it have to be that ‘Science has to be 100% correct, settled, justifiable’ before one has to listen to its results?
    This black and white argument ‘if science is not 100% sure, we don’t have to bother’ is a fallacy. Skepticism is always needed, ignoring the science all together is something else. A good thing a majority of people didn’t do the same when confronted with the ozon layer and acid rains problems. Was the science then 100% settled? Probably not. But the indications were severe enough to require action.

    and about ‘how can we, as a race, possibly be so arrogant to assume that we fundamentally have a handle on everything when we’ve only really been studying it for a short time.’
    I has been studied for over a 100 years now (the first theory about greenhouse gases was stated even before 1900). If you would read about the history of climate science you see how in the beginning everyone had a theory (which is the same as saying that no one had any idea what they are talking about), and how it slowly converged in what is now the dominant theory of climate science (which embodies more than just the greenhouse effect). That theory will no doubt be further refined and understood in the future. That is science, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t listen already to what it could mean for this world.

    ‘Show me some fundamental proof that we’re all basically f*cked’. So you don’t want to do anything unless it is the end of of a world scenario and at the same time you complain about the end-of-the-world hysteria. I don’t think that many scientists are talking about the end-of-the-world. They do talk about great consequences for our present world. Some how it seems smart to get some control on these consequences. But that is just me.

    (But anybody who really believes it is just because the current climate science is ‘biased’, and not themselves of course, will probably only be convinced when it is already too late).

  • Climate Agnostic

    Kristofv

    “That theory will no doubt be further refined and understood in the future. That is science, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t listen already to what it could mean for this world”.

    Absolutely correct – and there is slow refinement going on already. After continual denial the Hadley Centre eventually agreed that Al Gore’s warming/co2 relationship was the wrong way round (although it will be different this time – they said). After being part of “the atmosphere hasn’t warmed for a decade” deniers group – a sizeable chunk of the AGW community, an article on the Met Office website at present starts

    “Global warming continues to pose a real threat that should not be ignored — a claim reinforced in a new study by scientists, reported in a supplement of the August issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. This is despite very small global temperature rises over the last 10 years.”

    The point is that this decade of little change fits pretty well into an oscillating pattern within what has been a slow overall temperature rise for 200 years or so – please don’t mention hockey-sticks!

    As someone who was a user(customer)of atmospheric model output, almost from its inception, I am not easily impressed by modellers, except where they demonstrate skill in their predictions. please don’t flame me to say its climate not weather as a few have in the past. I don’t even bother to take that seriously – I am well aware of the differences and similarities of the models. Both use parametrizations (informed guesses). With synoptic models you only have to wait a few months to know if your fudge factor improves the output. Obviously many of us will be dead before climate models are brought to book, but climate models are not showing much accuracy yet. That’s a worry if we are to spend $billions on the back of them.

    I remain open to science – unfortunately much AGW is just propaganda.

  • hunter

    Kristov,
    Show us where AGW theory has achieved anything close to reliable or meaningful predictions. And please stop confusing ‘greenhouse effect’ with AGW.
    AGW takes the greenhouse effect and confabulates a huge house of positive feedbacks and tipping points that are not supported by evidence, except that of models which have not shown to be accurate.
    Neither tipping points or runaway feedbacks
    No one wants to take unreasonable risks.
    and no one should be forced to suffer from a massive application of the precautionary principle. To be kind, a misuse of the precautionary is principle is all AGW offers.

  • kristofv

    (sigh), so this is a denier’s comment section. It is too bad it helps to degrade a beautiful word as ‘skepticism’.
    If you haven’t seen anything (and I mean anything) reliable or meaningful by now from climate science, then you have or been reading the wrong things, been reading very selective, or even unwillingly.

  • Mark Fawcett

    kristofv:
    “So you don’t want to do anything unless it is the end of of a world scenario and at the same time you complain about the end-of-the-world hysteria. I don’t think that many scientists are talking about the end-of-the-world.”

    I think we should be doing many, many things including: reducing river pollution, fighting city smog, improving sanitation in the third-world, eliminating malaria, being more energy efficient, reducing landfill volumes and so on.

    I do not think we should be spending so much money on useless groups like the IPCC, who could, potentially end up helping to direct/dictate policy that will end up with even more (trillions) being wasted on fighting something that isn’t actually a threat to mankind. I dread to think how many “good causes” are going to end up being screwed because climate-change has the lion’s share.

    As for end-of-the-world hysteria then I agree with you, I don’t think the scientists are particularly vehement on this (with the exception of a few good loons like Hansen who seems to have lost the plot recently). However, the same scientists have also kept their mouths’ shut when those with media access over-egg the pudding; such phrases as “death trains”, “death spiral”, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank” etc etc etc.

    It is interesting that a number of senior climatologists (including the venerable Gavin et al) have actually started to make public statements about not over estimating the negative effects of certain aspects of climate change. Should have spoken out earlier in my view.

    Cheers

    Mark

  • hunter

    Kristov,
    (sigh) so this is how a typical true believer deals with sketpics.
    I have read far more, for far longer, than you, I will wager.
    Show me where I have gone wrong.
    Show us the meaningful predictions. Show us where something was predicted 20 years ago that is not well explained by typical climate variability or processes.
    Show us where AGW predictions are held at 95% confidence levels.
    Or else just be yet another in a long line of gullible AGW true believers.

  • hunter

    kristov,
    And by the way, your rather pathetic attempt to pretend that skeptics should behave a certain way, and your persistence in calling skeptics who make you uncomfortable ‘deniers’ is annoying and only makes you look even more average.

  • ADiff

    Dean says, “It’s one thing to say that science is never absolutely perfectly settled[, a]nother to suggest that the IPCC [et al.] are the equivalent of the Medieval Catholic Church when it claimed that the earth was the center of the universe.”

    Besides being an obvious ‘strawman’, the statement compares ‘apples & oranges’, Dean. Comparison of criticism of past medieval orthodoxy from the perspective of today, can’t be compared to current criticism of current AGW orthodoxy. Now if one where to compare it to the skepticism and criticism by medieval contemporaries of their own current orthodoxy, at that time, that might be an apt analogy. However such analogy would entail implications perhaps discomforting to advocates of a current orthodoxy.