The Syndrome documentary review: baby with the bathwater

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The Syndrome green light

A smartly dispassionate and skeptical look at “shaken baby syndrome,” and an accidental portrait about how science fails us when it solidifies into dogma.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

We’re all familiar with “shaken baby syndrome” from fictional crime dramas and, perhaps most infamously, the 1997 Boston trial of nanny Louise Woodward, who was convicted of killing an infant in her care by, allegedly, shaking him so hard it caused severe brain injury. But does SBS even exist as a scientifically valid phenomenon? Or is it hysteria built on junk science? Award-winning journalist Susan Goldsmith, who has specialized in covering child abuse and larger societal issues surrounding the treatment of children, teams up with first-time filmmaker Meryl Goldsmith (the two women are cousins) for a film that may lack the slickness we’ve come to expect from modern newsy documentaries but makes up for that with its smartly dispassionate and skeptical look at SBS.

The notion of being a “skeptic” has gotten a bad rap in recent years even though skepticism is an essential aspect of the scientific method; the term has been hijacked by woefully unscientific “global-warming skeptics.” And, indeed, it’s the very lack of skepticism on the part of the scientific and medical establishment (and the legal one as well), as we see in The Syndrome, that has contributed to SBS being raised to a certitude that it may not deserve. The doctor who originally proposed that a cluster of symptoms might be found in children who’d been violently shaken — neurosurgeon Ayub Ommaya (who died in 2008), a specialist in head injuries and trauma — is here shown to be horrified at how his work was being misrepresented and misused by police and judicial authorities. And we meet the other doctors, surgeons, pathologists, and law professors who have raised scientific doubts about SBS, such as that its supposed markers could have other medical causes (detailed in the film), and that the “diagnosis” never seems to include neck injury, which should not be absent when a small baby is shaken so badly that it causes fatal brain trauma.

“People are being charged and convicted for crimes that simply did not occur,” forensic pathologist Dr. John Plunkett says here. And of course that’s a huge issue (and there are legal projects underway to get past convictions reconsidered on appeal, much in the same way that advancing analysis of DNA evidence has prompted new looks at old, supposedly solved crimes). But there’s an even bigger systemic problem highlighted here: The Syndrome is also a portrait of how easily science as an institutional endeavor can fail when it abandons the scientific method and succumbs to personality politics and allows itself to solidify into dogma. Though the film is focused on the US, doubts about SBS have been cropping up all over the world (including, recently, in the UK), from serious and respected experts. But unlike in the case of, say, global-warming “skepticism,” the SBS skeptics are making legitimate scientific arguments against the concept. Those arguments may turn out to be wrong, but they are being dismissed by the medical establishment, we see here, not because they have been refuted by other, better scientific evidence but merely on the basis that they are questioning the current conventional wisdom. Ridiculing dissenters and holding closed conferences where disagreement and even simply raising questions are not allowed, both of which are documented here, is not science. When bad science — even quickly debunked bad science, such as the supposed connection between vaccines and autism — has such huge potential to do significant harm to the world today, this is something we all need to be worried about.

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Mon, Apr 18, 2016 3:40pm

And at that the evidence for SBS is stronger than the evidence for the health benefits of removing salt from the diet. In both cases you have to fight a medical establishment that thinks it has a nice easy answer to a hard question, with a clear villain to be blamed so that everyone else can go home happy.

Jeremy Praay
Jeremy Praay
Mon, Apr 18, 2016 4:03pm

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” SBS research has yet to produce this extraordinary evidence. Somehow, this has been turned upside down. We can never prove that something doesn’t exist. I can’t prove Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Yet that’s what the defense is expected to do in these cases. If you can’t find an alternative explanation for the injury (or death) of the child, then you’re quite likely going to be convicted. It’s like having a bank robbery, and you’re given 10 suspects: suspects 1 through 9 are eliminated, so therefore, suspect #10 robbed the bank. This is not even remotely a sound legal conclusion, yet this is how these diagnoses are made. Quite frankly, it makes one wonder how this ever got into the courtroom.

reply to  Jeremy Praay
Mon, Apr 18, 2016 4:09pm

Just to make things even worse, this sort of medical dishonesty gives the antivaxxers a foothold: look, they lie about this, why shouldn’t they be lying about that too?