How Science Resists Knowledge of Anomalies | Ron Westrum

In the middle of the 1950’s, the new discipline of pediatric radiology was finding a syndrome associated with repeated injuries (sometimes in different stages of healing) to children that did not seem to be explained by the parents’ “history.” Children were being harmed, apparently, by why or by whom was not known. John Caffey, who wrote the first textbook on pediatric readiology, was the pioneer in bring “multiple unsuspected traumata” into the medical corpus. But he was a very reluctant pioneer, and did not connect all the dots between the injuries to children (brain hematomas, greenstick fractures in the arms and legs) and the dynamics of the family.

Pediatricians mostly did not believe that parents for other caregivers would inflict injuries on the children, even though evidence was abundant that it was happening. Into this vacuum stepped Henry Kempe, charismatic pediatrician, with a background in public health, and a determination to do something about the problem. Developing interdisciplinary teams that included both physicians and social workers, Kempe used a dramatic public presentation to put child abuse (“the battered child syndrome”) on the medical agenda. Within a decade, child abuse and neglect went from a stage of “uncorrelated observations” to controversy and finally public acceptance.

In considering this case, we can see that often scientists are not themselves aware of the dynamics of science, and often erroneously think that if certain events were occurring, “they would be the first to know.” We can show, by contrast, that they are often the last to know, and fail to consider how their own attitudes might prevent knowledge from accumulating. Furthermore the case study underlines the processes that allow awareness to take place, including in this instance the ability to do something constructive to solve the problem. Other anomalies may well share similar dynamics, so it is important for our approach to anomalistics to take into account how anomalies reach public awareness, often in “unscientific” ways.

Ron Westrum is emeritus professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, where his specialty has been the dynamics of science and technology. He also is adjunct professor of “society and risk” at the University of Stavanger, Norway. He is widely recognized for his contributions to system safety, particularly in the area of corporate culture, where he has shown the consequences of different cultures in information processing. He is a member of the Resilience Core Group, and is frequently asked to present his ideas to international meetings on aviation, nuclear, and medical safety. In addition to numerous contributions to journals and handbooks, he has published three books, the most recent of which is “Sidewinder: Creative Missile Design at China Lake” (Naval Institute Press, 1999). He has two children and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Recorded at the 30th annual SSE Conference in 2011 at the Millennium Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

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Published on November 13, 2018