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Jun 17, 2012

Flannery; on getting it wrong on Azaria Chamberlain.

Climate guru Tim Flannery has a history of being wrong in his predictions on climate change. This would not normally be that much of a problem as many others are wrong too. In Tim’s case though he has a significant role in government policy and has cost the nation untold millions of dollars with his predictions of everlasting droughts preventing the building of dams and causing the construction of desalination plants that were and still are, unnecessary.

He has never apologized for that but has made an apology over his belief in the guilt of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain over the loss of their child. The Azaria Chamberlain story is well known. A dingo was reported to have taken the baby, a Coroners inquest agreeing. Following a botched investigation charges of murder were laid and a guilty verdict put Mrs. Chamberlain in jail for three years until evidence was found, clearing her.

A further Coronial Inquiry, thirty years later has made a finding that a dingo was responsible.

The case probably ranks highly among the worst miscarriages of justice in this country. After the initial finding there seemed to be a deliberate and concerted effort to cast suspicion on the bereaved parents with a media frenzy fed by unsubstantiated claims by just about anyone with an opinion. Flannery’s article details some of the arrogance of the attitudes of the times:

… Australians should have taken more seriously the possibility that dingoes were responsible. Tragically, such was our naivety of the danger they represent back then that a media firestorm, the likes of which the country had never known, pushed people towards the wrong conclusions. Many of us were only too prepared to believe that Azaria was a victim of infanticide.

At the time of the first two coronial inquests I was a doctoral student in the biology department of a major Australian university, and my biases were such that I accepted Lindy Chamberlain's guilt uncritically.
Her religion was one factor. The Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists and media reports of the strange practices of their "cult" (as we were led to think of it) included inferences of child sacrifice that did not strike me as beyond belief. At the time I was one of many Australian scientists fighting to keep creationism out of the classroom, and fundamentalist beliefs were seen as the enemy.

But even more significant, I think, was Lindy's assertion that a dingo had taken her baby. Dingoes were introduced to Australia from southeast Asia around 4,000 years ago, and most Australians thought of them as part of the continent's native fauna. Biologists feared that they would face widespread persecution if the coroner found them to be the cause of Azaria's death.
Ah; the self-righteousness of callow youth, but at least he has had the decency to fess up.

From a personal perspective at the time, attitudes towards the Chamberlains were weird to the point of bizarre. People who should have known better, some of them from the bush, simply refused to believe that a dingo, which is a medium to large wild dog would take a child if the opportunity arose. It had to be the mother because they were from a non-mainstream religion.

One of the worst aspects was the published opinion that possibly one of the older children was responsible for it and the parents were covering up for them. Were the kids to have seen this, it is difficult to assess what the impact would be.

On the other hand a ninety-five year old neighbor made one of the most encouraging comments at the time. She stated that she had read everything she had seen reported on it and in her view it was wrong. She said, “Even if that woman admits to doing it in the future, there are no grounds to convict her at present.”

It’s a shame the public at large didn’t have such an open-minded attitude.

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