Caveat Emptor

Call in the expert! The media’s first reaction to almost anything. There he stands, shining with confidence or she trots out the latest statistics, from which they extrapolate their conclusion. The problem is the more confident they are, the more likely they are to be wrong, especially if forecasting the future,

Likewise, two witnesses in court: a stolid reliable police officer and a hesitant witness. According to Think Like a Freak, the firmer your conviction, the more likely you are to be inaccurate. And this is even worse when you are up against the prevailing dogma.

Dr. Waney Squiers, a paediatric neurologist who specializes in shaken baby cases, is being subjected to what The Telegraph (UK) calls a witch hunt. She changed her opinion: she no longer supports the standard medical view that a triad of symptoms presumes the caregiver’s guilt. Parents have been jailed and children taken into care after a shaken baby verdict. So, as her studies have shown her that there are other possible explanations, she is particularly cautious in her evidence.

Good? Who wants unjust imprisonment and broken families on top of losing a baby? No, says the establishment, who are hounding and investigating her. Woe betide anyone who goes against the dogma grain.

Back in the 90s, Sally Clarke was convicted of murdering her two babies. The expert witness, Dr. Roy Meadows, had a simple rule, subsequently adopted by children’s aid: one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proved otherwise. He never asked the obvious question: if more than one child dies of SIDS in one family, is there a genetic cause?

His theory has been discounted, his stats disproved; Sally Clarke was exonerated – but committed suicide. As with the Dr. Charles Smith cases in Ontario, mothers have been cleared and released. However, many of their children had been taken into care, adopted and never returned. The courts ruled it in the child’s best interest to remain in the adoptive home.

So why am I writing this? Because, like you, I have been on the receiving end of professionals who have dictatorially told me what is best for me – and they have sometimes been wrong. And when they were wrong, they were still convinced they were right.

We have seen Vioxx, HRT, Fosamax – gold standard treatments subsequently reversed. I personally refused Fosamax and HRT on the basis of research I dug up in the 1990s. I showed studies to my doctors, who pooh-poohed them, but I was later proved right. Currently, my husband has been put on a low salt diet (less than 2,300 mg. daily), whereas a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds the lowest death risk is between 3,000 and 6,000 mg.

I don’t suggest we live in a permanent state of distrust, but rather that we retain the right to question and to be heard. Mistakes can be costly and we, not the expert, pay the price. When something doesn’t make sense, we should feel free to query it and we should understand that we are the master not the servant.


More info

Shaken Baby Expert Faces Witch Hunt link

Sibling SIDS deaths – link

Forensics Under Fire – link

Sally Clark – link

Wrongful Diagnosis of Child Abuse link

Professor Philip Tetlock’s study on the accuracy of experts – link

think lLike a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levittown and Stephen J. Dubner.

Dr. Charles Smith – link

Low-Diets May Pose Health Risks link

New England Journal of Medicine – sodium study – link


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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