The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, December 11, 2003

Voodoo science on cot death takes more hits

It's a black box to me: but, even viewed thus, the story of cot death (or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - SIDS) looks increasingly like a pretty putrid tale of gullibility and truth-distortion.

The latest developments: there has been yet another conviction quashed of a woman (Angela Cannings) convicted of murder of cot death babies - (Guardian today).

Cannings is the third woman whose conviction was based on the evidence of the fanatical Sir Roy Meadow, and subsequently overturned by the English Court of Appeal [1].

Meadow gave credence to this little Salem de nos jourswith his infamous incantation (Observer June 15):
one cot death is a tragedy and two is suspicious and three is murder.

And his mantra that the chance of three such deaths happening by chance was
73 million to one.

Regrettably, this facially dubious and substantively baseless propaganda was allowed before the jury; and, with the medieval credulity to which that institution is fatally prone, they swallowed it, hook, line and sinker.

The London Times is suggesting today that there will be no more such prosecutions.

Meanwhile, another cot-death mantra looks as if it may go the way of phlogiston and Piltdown Man: UK readers may remember from the early 1990s the earnest campaign led by daytime TV presenter Ann Diamond (who had been bereaved of a child by cot death herself) to get parents to lay their infants on their backs to sleep - and not, as had for some decades been the standard advice - to put them on their fronts.

The accepted wisdom was in a surprisingly short period switched; and this coincided with a rapid decline in the number of SIDS deaths in the UK. Similar campaigns achieved similar results elsewhere.

Now, doubt has been thrown (London Independent December 9) by
Dr P N Goldwater, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Women and Children's hospital in North Adelaide, Australia
on whether laying on the back caused the reduction in deaths. The originators of the back theory in New Zealand are disputing the Goldwater findings.

While the medical issue is the most important, the cot-death saga also raises issues surrounding the media's mania for gee-whiz science stories, especially involving medicine - most especially, involving children - and strong media-friendly personalities. Any amount of oversimplification that serves the media product is fine; and, when things go wrong, the hacks who boosted the story in the first place have long moved on.

  1. The others were Sally Clark - site and Court of Appeal judgment of April 11 2003 and Trupti Patel.

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