Sunday 18 March 2007

The many tragedies of Sally Clark

Experts indeed

The function of an expert is not necessarily to get it right, but to get it wrong for more sophisticated reasons. This should be attributable since I read it from I think the Economist many years ago, I cannot remember who made the statement.

I am sure there are many who have lived that credo when met with a situation they as experts are supposed to offer some authoritative opinion and the client ends up being baffled with science, confounded with jargon and assuredly made to feel inferior for not appreciating or understanding that opinion, in the end, obfuscate with atrocious statistics skewed to validate your point.

The death of Sally Clark

This comes about when I read with sadness that the mother who had been convicted and then acquitted of killing her two baby sons had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

This woman can only have been Sally Clark, and so great a tragedy had befallen her and her family too many times to mention, but for those who followed her travails, she died a victim, a martyr, a crusader and a sacrifice; sacrificed to appease the gravitas of an expert.

Cot death theories

As fate would have it, this woman suffered the death of two children within weeks of their birth just about 2 years apart in what has become known as cot deaths. Now cot deaths have been attributable to all sorts of circumstances but no clear indication as to why babies suddenly die in the comfort of their cots, the more scientific term is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Sadly, in Sally Clark's case, this happened to her twice, where experts should have dispatched their sense of duty and ethical responsibility to represent the truth fully without reservation, they suggested that she might have murdered her sons.

The case for the prosecution was then built on corroborating this suspicion and creating the seeming judicial fact that she had in some evil concupiscence shook her babies violently till their lives could no more abide their bodies and they died.

The expert witness

Enter the Expert Witness - Professor Sir Roy Meadow, a consultant paediatrician who had gained prominence from the seminal study of cot deaths which he postulated were mostly caused by child abuse through that he termed - Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy - a situation where a person makes a victim of another to gain attention, usually their wards or children.

Certain coincidences allowed for this theory to take hold and become part of the assessment of understanding why certain families lost their young children as the professor postulated with statements like "There is no evidence that cot deaths runs in families but there is plenty of evidence that child abuse does". This sealed Sally Clark's fate such that other evidence that one of the children might have died of a bacterial infection never got to the police, the defence or prosecution.

Debunking the expert

The weight of professorial gravitas allowed for incredible statements which suggested that the possibility of two cot deaths happening in one family was 1 in 73 million; this got the Royal Statistical Society quite miffed that they contended that there was no statistical basis for this assertion.

However, these assertions lead to a number of convictions for murder where the children had suffered cot deaths which might have been related to other un-researched phenomena, but everyone bought the expert opinion of Professor Sir Roy Meadow who had been knighted for his services to child health.

Sally Clark spent 3 years in prison, lost her first appeal because the overwhelming evidence of the professor was indisputable but such was the confidence of her family in her innocence that they appealed again and this time with new evidence and the debunking of the professor's statistical whammy.

With her release came the review of other similar cases especially where the professor had been called as the expert witness making those cases and convictions unsafe, as the women were freed the professor's reputation began to unravel.

Of sorrow and sad most despairing

One cannot begin to imagine the amassed tragedy of having lost a child and then having the ordeal of being accused of killing your child, leading to a trial, conviction and prison.

I am sure there might have deep dark times when Sally Clark might have almost believed that she did indeed kill her sons, despair, despondency, dejection and depression all colluded to weaken her resolve, which in the end could have contributed to her death at 42 even though she had been freed for prison for quite a while.

The expert however, whose intellectual arrogance allowed him to project postulations and suppositions as realities fights for his reputation having been struck of the list of doctors had to seek legal redress to be reinstated, he however is yet without remorse about how he completely destroyed the lives of grieving mothers to the enhancement of his career.

The expert's cardinal responsibilities

An expert has a duty of care to be honest, frank, informative and truthful, the ethical dimension to this expects that the expert understand that there is a responsibility when entrusted with listening ears for your opinion whilst that should be tempered with understanding the consequences of the proffered views and how that impacts on people and circumstances.

I would not be moved if the professor's profession titles are rescinded and his knighthood revoked, his handiwork has done nothing for the promotion of child health, rather he created a branch of study that allows the subjective assessment of circumstances to visit great misfortune on hapless grieving mothers.

The professor is an example of what an expert should not be, very much like the many Nigeria professors in ministerial positions doing nothing.

The disabling ignorance of experts

The words of Peter Drucker come to mind about what an expert should meditate on - discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it - it is sometimes difficult to appreciate intellectual arrogance in oneself, it is also a sign of strong character, principles and humility to accept your expertise is not all so encompassing that you have answers to everything or cannot go back and review your data and fact before offering an opinion.

An expert offers an opinion, that opinion has authority, with authority comes influence, usually indirect influence because someone else has to make decisions which might be solely based on this opinions, decisions that affect direction, strategy, missions and purposes, consequently, lives and livelihoods.

If you thinking you are just part of the chaos continuum, a butterfly flapping wings here and unsure of where the earthquakes would occur, think again, you might just be that extra force to push on either the brake or acceleration pedal.

Think before you pontificate

For every responsibility, there is a matter of consequence, you have to be ready to face up to the consequences especially if what you have proffered would surely destroy people's lives, Professor Sir Roy Meadows was the expert from Hell for Sally Clark, Trupti Patel, Angela Cannings and the Gays - I hope those left do get help beyond a gross miscarriage of justice being judicially restored; for Sally Clark, they say, she never really fully recovered from her ordeal, not many people can.

Rest In Peace - Sally Clark; if you do find the good life in the thereafter, I hope that you are comforted with seeing your sons again.

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