Now it’s cancel forensic science, champion junk

Andrew L. Urban.

“The events surrounding the retraction of a properly peer reviewed journal article point to a forensic science community in Australia that can over-ride scientific publishing processes in order to suppress criticism.” So conclude Chris Brook, Niels Lynoe, Anders Erikson and David Balding, in a scathing paper just published in Forensic Science International, condemning the retraction of a peer reviewed article about Shaken Baby Syndrome that challenges the junk science around the subject that is accepted, yet produces wrongful convictions. 

The authors, all scientists, describe “events arising from the case of Joby Rowe, convicted of the homicide of his three month old daughter, and explore what they illustrate about systemic problems in the forensic science community in Australia.” A peer reviewed journal article that scrutinized the forensic evidence presented in the Rowe case was retracted by a forensic science journal for reasons unrelated to quality or accuracy, under pressure from forensic medical experts criticized in the article.

“Details of the retraction obtained through freedom of information mechanisms reveal improper pressure and subversion of publishing processes in order to avoid scrutiny. The retraction was supported by the editorial board and two Australian forensic science societies, which is indicative of serious deficiencies in the leadership of forensic science in Australia. We propose paths forward including blind peer review, publication of expert reports, and a criminal cases review authority that includes scientists in its membership, that would help stimulate a culture that encourages scrutiny, and relies on evidence-based rather than eminence-based knowledge.”

Brook’s 2019 article in the Australian Journal of Forensic Science (AJFS), “critically examined the scientific basis for SBS/AHT, focusing on the Rowe case. The article scrutinized the evidence given by three highly credentialed forensic medical experts (the experts hereafter). According to the editor of the AJFS, Brook 2019 was reviewed by individuals “of high standing in their respective disciplines” and “the correct editorial processes” were followed. However, the paper was later retracted by AJFS under circumstances that highlight serious problems in the way forensic science is practiced in Australia.”

We published an extract in September 2019, in which Brook argues that “The notion that certain brain injuries can only occur through violent shaking is at the heart of the controversy over SBS. It creates a presumption that when a baby presents certain symptoms, the last person to have been looking after it must be guilty. Brook’s article quoted one witness in the Joby Rowe trial who stated that amongst physicians who work in paediatrics and this field, there was ‘very, very general agreement that this is a valid diagnosis’. Another also invoked this ‘consensus’. “However, such opinions are not based on science,” wrote Brook.

The retraction was supported by the editorial board and two Australian forensic science societies, which is indicative of serious deficiencies in the leadership of forensic science in Australia

The authors relate in detail how the article was retracted, demonstrating how unscientific was the nature of the pressure to effectively censor – or cancel – the well documented article. It was confronting the medical community’s ruling orthodoxy on the subject. A familiar story, from Gelileo to Peter Ridd to Brook et al…

The story is worth telling in their words: “ … a senior pathologist who worked at the forensic medicine institute of one of the experts phoned the editor to complain about the article and, according to the editor, expressed surprise that the editor “hadn’t brought it to their attention earlier”. The boss of another of the experts, who had signed off on the report of the expert and so was party to the work being criticized, wrote to the editor asking for the article to be retracted, and expressing concern “that the journal’s clear and explicit criticism of decisions made in the Victorian Supreme Court might impact future prosecutions, particularly prosecutions for child homicide.”

The editor suggested that they arrange to meet, with boss of the expert agreeing to meet to talk to the editor “about the peer review process and editorial decision making”.

Such phone calls and meetings are not part of a proper post-publication discussion process and should not occur in an open science system. Further, the individuals who contacted the editor outside usual scientific channels were more senior forensic scientists than the editor, creating an opportunity for improper pressure.

“One of the experts thought it “extraordinary (and alarming) that this journal would publish this paper without consulting” [9] her or the other experts from the case. It is, however, neither extraordinary nor alarming but an established part of a robust scientific system. The editor should not consult experts before publishing criticism of their work, to avoid undue pressure that might stifle fair criticism. The review is instead performed by disinterested, external, experts acting as referees. The standard process is that if an unfair criticism or an error survives this review, those criticized or others can write a post-publication response (a letter to the editor) to which the original authors are offered an opportunity to reply.

“The editor offered the experts an opportunity to publish a response alongside the original article. Two of the experts proposed to write a response on the condition, contrary to scientific norms, that the original author Dr Brook be denied a right of reply [10]. The editor then suggested that the experts publish a “commentary” (rather than a “response”) thus avoiding the presumption of a right of reply: if Dr Brook did reply, the editor could use his “discretion as to whether it would be published” and he would “prefer to not do so”.

The “commentary” was titled “In response to Brook C Is there an evidentiary basis for shaken baby syndrome? The conviction of Joby Rowe AJFS 2019” making it clear that it was a response to Brook 2019.

Meanwhile, two experts from outside Australia (co-authors of the present paper) who have published extensively in the field, and had no connection with the Rowe case, independently wrote a letter to the editor in support of Brook 2019. The editor planned to send that letter to referees, thus treating these independent experts differently from the experts who had a vested interest and who had applied pressure on him from outside of the system.

Ultimately, neither the response from the experts, nor the letter to the editor from the independent experts in favour of the article, were published.”

The authors also offered some helpful suggestions as to how the issues could be remedied.

“We encourage the Australian forensic science community to address these issues by incorporating more of science’s systems. Our suggested improvements are adequate training of expert witnesses, the publication of reports, anonymous peer review of reports, uniform standards across forensic fields, and the added scrutiny of a criminal cases review authority that includes scientists in its membership. Efforts also need to be made to increase the quality of the justice system’s ability to deal with expert reports and evidence, including a reliability requirement.” Imagine that! A reliability requirement! What next, courts insisting on proper science?!

The authors

Chris Brooka Niels Lynøeb Anders Erikssonc David Baldingd

a Universidad de La Laguna, Av. Del Astrofísico Francisco Sánchez, ES-38206, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain

b Centre for Healthcare Ethics, Karolinska Institutet, SE-171 77, Stockholm, Sweden

c Department of Community Medicine and Rehabilitation, Forensic Medicine, Umeå University, SE-907 12, Umeå, Sweden

d School of BioSciences and School of Mathematics & Statistics, University of Melbourne, VIC, 3010, Australia

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3 Responses to Now it’s cancel forensic science, champion junk

  1. Garry Stannus says:

    Editor, the following comment is submitted by me to respond to some perhaps ‘junk comments’ made in the face of expert forensic science…

    Melissa Brown: You asked me on my Facebook (13Nov21 at 14:51):
    “Why did you not copy and paste that sentence about Dr Reynolds opinion under cross-examination onto your comment on Urban’s blog?”

    I have replied to her: ”
    I’ve asked you for details, as I’m ignorant as to which of my various comments made here and there you might be referring to.

    I would answer you, but please just tell me what my comment was. Then I’ll perhaps know why I did or didn’t do what you were asking about.

    You mentioned your friend, Donald Sanderston, who – as you say – attempted to post the relevant sentence and of which you write, that Andrew did not want to publish it.

    Maybe what you asked me about might be answered by this:
    …there was a moment a little while ago when I was trying to re-format what appears at the head of this Facebook post and in the moments when I had time to return to the task (there were some technical issues complicating things), I don’t think I’d progressed far when I saw that Andrew had ‘pulled the plug’ on blood-in-the-dinghy comments. He attributed that to the sequence of comments that kept being received from your friend Donald.

    Actually, I felt frustrated in that I’d been trying to prepare for posting what I’d written on my Facebook, onto Andrew’s WCR blog. It’s not the first time that because of one person’s coming to occupy an inordinate amount of comment-space or submitting what I suppose Andrew must feel is a ‘no-matter-what’ contrarian attitude, that Andrew has ‘pulled the plug’.

    This usually means that Andrew decides (for such reasons or others) that he will not take further comments on a particular thread and … me … who has been writing, researching, drafting etc for days, some times weeks … I miss the opportunity to make a comment … just because people such as your friend Donald have saturated a particular comment thread or have in other ways induced Andrew to pull the plug.

    I should say that I’ll submit this Facebook comment of mine as a comment somewhere where it might appropriately fit on Andrew’s blog… perhaps onto his most recent … “Now it’s cancel forensic science, champion junk”.

    You see, in my view, the forensic science placed Meaghan Vass on the Four Winds. Okay, Maxwell Jones would not go as far as to insist that hers was a primary transfer of DNA (could just possibly have been secondary, but in his view, primary). He ruled out chewing gum. So now, [your] you-know-who is positing a seagull dropping the deposit!

    Saints alive!

  2. Brian Johnston says:

    The opening paragraph shouldn’t have though did include your non qualified bias. Your ego is getting in the way.
    You referred to junk science which is an opinion. You should have said science or lack of science depending on who is consulted.
    You say “produces wrongful convictions”. They may be wrong though that is only an opinion. Should read, which many qualified people consider produces wrongful convictions.
    For the record the conviction of Joby Rowe seems very questionable. I would need to know more.
    I hope an appeal is lodged.

    • andrew says:

      This blog’s function is clearly described as “Exploring and exposing miscarriages of justice – news, analysis, opinion”. You’ll just have to make allowances for my ego ….

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