Sue Luttner is the editor of a blog called OnSBS. (OnSBS.com) After reading a recent Quick Click on the Wrongful Convictions Blog, she was inspired to author a post on her blog. The Quick Click in question is one about the San Antonio Four – four young women who were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for what was described as “Satanic cult child abuse”; even though the theory of Satanic cult child abuse had been debunked years prior to that. You can read the Quick Click article here. [Sidebar: You may remember the McMartin Preschool case from the 80's, which was driven, at least in part, by a wave of "Satanic cult ritualistic abuse" paranoia that had taken the country. This was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history, and eventually, all charges against all defendants were dismissed; although, one of the defendants had already spent 5 years in prison. This was truly a black mark on the US justice system.]
In the post, Sue draws an insightful parallel between the debunking of the old Satanic cult theories and those of the entrenched medical dogma of SBS and the “triad” (a combination of three symptoms said to be uniquely indicative of SBS). See Sue’s OnSBS post here. She very appropriately titles the post Old Theories Die Hard.
I’d like to leverage off the message of that title within the context of SBS. I once heard pathologist and anti-triad crusader Dr. John Plunkett say, “It takes 10 years to get a new idea into medicine, but it takes 100 years to get a bad idea out of medicine.” I believe he was speaking from experience. There has been much recent, new, and still emerging research that clearly calls into question the 100% validity of the triad. There’s lots of other stuff that can cause a child to present with retinal hemorrhage, subdural hematoma, or diffuse edema. And the old theories that triad symptoms can’t be caused by short falls, and that there’s no such thing as “lucid invertal” have been proven absolutely untrue. However, the vast majority of the medical community seems to turn a blind eye to it. How can that be?
Part of the reason is captured in a quote from Nobel physics laureate Max Planck, when he said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Or as arson and fire science expert John Lentini likes to paraphrase it, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” But in the case of SBS, I think there’s more to it.
What follows will be strictly “editorial”, and reflects only my opinion developed over 5 years of involvement with SBS cases. It’s only been 5 years, and I am certainly not an “expert”, but I am a “science guy”. My brain is driven by logic and reason and data and science. Consequently, my perceptual filters tend to cast aside all the political and diplomatic BS, and go straight to the core of “root cause” and “cause and effect”. What I have perceived and observed is that, within the medical community, the SBS dogma has become both “political” and “religious”.
It’s “political” in the sense that many high-level medical people have taken a very strong, public stand over the last couple decades in support of the triad. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), this has been endowed with the sanctity of “policy”. The response of the AAP and most of the medical community to new research and new data disproving or questioning the triad is to “circle the wagons”, throw up the deflector shields, and attack it. This is typically done in the editorial sections of medical journals or by speakers at conferences. If these people are “scientists”, why can’t they say, “This is new data. We need to look at this.”? [Sidebar 2: Medical Journals. Much credence is given - in court - to citations to the "peer reviewed medical literature". In the course of the last 5 years, I've read lots of medical journal articles. From the standpoint of being scientific, a good measure of them are just "junk" - statistically insignificant population sample sizes; no control of independent variables. If they tried to publish some of this stuff in a journal of the physical sciences, they'd be laughed out of the profession.] However, instead of admitting they may have been wrong for the last 30 years, their choice is to stubbornly stick to what they have always thought was true – very much like a political “platform”. (“This is what we’ve always believed, and don’t confuse us with the facts.”) This is not about science. This is about “face saving”. If the AAP had to admit that they’ve been wrong all these years, there would be enough egg on enough faces to make egg sandwiches for the city of Chicago.
It’s “religious” in the sense that within the medical community, practitioners are expected to have blind faith in the triad, and to question it can risk derision and career damage. Here in Cincinnati, I tried for 3 years to recruit a local pediatrician – practicing or retired – who would be willing to just consult on SBS cases for the Ohio Innocence Project. Nobody would touch it, and most doctors refused to even talk to me.
So there you have it. Old theories die hard. But in the mean time, I continue to be dismayed by the number of innocent people in prison for inflicting what’s now called “abusive head trauma” on their babies when they actually did nothing at all, and whom I know are absolutely innocent. Science will ultimately prevail, but it will first have to work its way past the politics and religion.