Shaken Baby Syndrome Critic Barred from U.K. Courtrooms

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Last year I wrote a column about a minority but growing chorus of forensic specialists who are questioning the way Shaken Baby Syndrome is diagnosed and used in the courtroom. New Scientist reports this week that one of those critics has been temporarily barred from testifying in U.K. courts.

The pathologist in question, Marta Cohen of Sheffield Children’s Hospital, learned of the restrictions following a private hearing on 22 July before the General Medical Council, the body that investigates complaints against doctors in the UK.

“The decision is appalling,” says John Plunkett of the Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, who has shown that short falls can cause the trademark symptoms said to be exclusive to child abuse.

The fear of similar outcomes means that British-based pathologists who dispute SBS are unwilling to take on cases of alleged child abuse. “It means that no one will take any head injury cases,” said one, who asked not to be named. “If you disagree with the prosecution, you risk being called before theGMC.”

The verdict appears under Cohen’s registration details on the GMC website, stating that: “She must not give evidence as an expert witness in cases where there is alleged non-accidental head injury to an infant or child.” It also makes clear that the restrictions are temporary precautions while the complaints against her are further investigated by theGMC.

It is not clear who complained to the GMC, but the motivation appears to come from criticisms circulated to prosecution services by a judge, Justice Eleanor King, following cases last year in which Cohen gave evidence. King’s criticisms included accusing Cohen of developing a “scientific prejudice”, of being “disingenuous” in her citing of research and unwilling to defer to prosecution expert witnesses.

The GMC will not explore the validity of the competing scientific theories about SBS, and will simply investigate Cohen’s “fitness to practice”. The GMC’s ruling comes at a time when evidence is mounting that innocent events such as the birth process itself, choking, short tumbles and breathing difficulties can cause the classic symptoms (BMJ, vol 2, p 430).

Given what we know about the history of forensic science and the tendency of specialists to overstate its certainty, the decision to bar an SBS critic from testifying is troubling. Even if the ban on Cohen is lifted, it sends a pretty clear message to SBS skeptics. Testify for the accused, and you’re risking an investigation.

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12 Responses to “Shaken Baby Syndrome Critic Barred from U.K. Courtrooms”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    Sounds just like Missisippi and those who gave trouble to Steven Hayne.

  2. #2 |  Mattocracy | 

    That’s what you get when you question mainstream science. See Galileo for further reference.

  3. #3 |  Cappy | 

    Anybody else see the ties?

    That being an industry controlled by the state.

    Silences those who disagree with the state.

    With this healthcare law in the US, coming soon to a courtroom near you.

  4. #4 |  EH | 

    Ha ha, “unwilling to defer to prosecution expert witnesses.” Could they be any more obvious?

  5. #5 |  SJE | 

    I note that in the UK system, there is much more of a concept of “court experts” instead of dueling experts from each side.

  6. #6 |  Elemenope | 

    That’s what you get when you question mainstream science.

    This is not so much the dangers of “questioning mainstream science” so much as “questioning conclusions the state is heavily invested in assuming to be true”.

    Not the same thing at all. In point of fact, the state often remains invested in things that scientists on the whole have long since moved past. Witness, if you will, how far local legislators generally lagged behind scientists in embracing evolution as the preeminent explanation for the diversity and similarity of life on Earth.

    Somehow–and by all means stop me if I’m wrong–you’re rolling this one down the hill and attempting to hit AGW?

  7. #7 |  Elemenope | 

    Wow, that should read “Somehow I get the sense…”

  8. #8 |  Mattocracy | 

    What is AGW? Anti-Global Warming? Anthropogenic Global Warming?

    No, that’s not really what I’m aiming at. You’re right about the state being heavily invested in a scientific truths to justify it’s actions, which was partly what I was refering to. Some people put Global Warming in that category (such as myself), but there is a whole range of topics other than that. Eugenics, shaken baby syndrome, the supposed evidence that there is no medicinal use for marijuana, etc.

    The reason I said “mainstream” is because it’s not just government. No one likes to admit that they were wrong about anything, especially if they have a scientific career invested in it. And when bad research leads to really bad things, like innocent people going to prison, the liability of admitting you were wrong really begins to cloud one’s objectivity.

  9. #9 |  Mannie | 

    CSI and similar forensic shows that are now the rage notwithstanding, a significant part of so-called forensic science is still dominated by Witch Doctors in white lab coats. Actually, I may be forced to apologise to Witch Doctors, and do so now.

  10. #10 |  Tybo | 

    I have to mirror Elemnope’s comment – This isn’t as much a problem of science-in-practice as it is government involvement in hindering it.

    Maybe I’m kind of sensitive to the card Matt played, though. Most of the time, when people are claiming victim for going against “mainstream science”, it’s because their arguments just aren’t worth taking seriously anyway; for example, the same “mainstream science” card is often a rallying cry from the alt-med types, even *after* the establishment of the huge negative-result factory known as NCCAM. (Not that negative results are useless, but after enough of them, you’re beating a dead horse…)

    Forensic science unfortunately often falls on the “we need results now” policy/judicial work side of things rather than the “we have time to duke it out in literature” normal science. The simple fact that this is getting reports and research (as mentioned in the article) is showing that the actual science side is pulling its weight, and that the gov’t side is where the slack lies.

  11. #11 |  Mattocracy | 

    @ Tybo,

    Fair enough. There are plenty of examples of people with far fetched notions crying about the establishment being stacked against them. I think that the “vaccination=autism” crowd fits that label.

  12. #12 |  Dan | 

    SBS is similar to SIDS-neither exist in the current context of the medicolegal world, except…..where it is accepted by the pathologist doing the autopsy. If the ME doing the autopsy accepts SIDS as a plausible COD, then it will be found on lots of death certs..same with SBS…there are numerous pathologists that find SBS, and there are numerous that see the same findings at autopsy but have a diff. results in the COD/MOD
    Look at the docs in the Miami ME office, see how many of them have seen SBS at their work, then ask how many of them get asked to testify in other jurisdictions about SBS. I had one from Miami tell me Texas was a gold mine
    Similar to SIDS, its all crap. Look at the SIDS rate of Las Angles Co…they have “Sids” and the next thing you know, people are trying to extrapolate data on how to prevent SIDS based on the LA county data….then look at somewhere like Austin, TX. By that rationale, living in Austin prevents SIDS..because the docs in Austin call BS on SIDS-proper death investigation,
    In my years of (albeit not that many compared to others) death inv. , i have investigated quite a bit of baby deaths, and have yet to have a case where I said, shit, this is SBS…