The Sciences

Singh the blues

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 3, 2009 9:17 PM


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[Pardon this lengthy post, but this is an issue central to science and skepticism, and is thus very important. I ask my readers to please read the whole thing. I am not exaggerating when I say this issue has profound ramifications.] Simon Singh is a journalist in the UK; he writes for the Guardian. Moreover, he's a science journalist, and a good one who, like so many of us, prefers reality the way it is. The British Chiropractic Association, however, prefers reality to bend to their will. They've been making some outrageous claims lately about the efficacy of their "treatment", things that are clearly wrong. Simon wrote about this in a column, saying,

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

Unsurprisingly, the BCA took a dim view of this. So of course they produced copious variable-controlled double blind studies with statistically significant testing procedures to back up their claim. HAHAHAHAHAHAhahahahahaha! No, that would be silly! Of course they didn't do that. They sued him instead. In the US that would be a dumb thing to do, as our libel laws put the burden of proof on the claimant (in this case, the BCA), as things should be. However, the UK is very different: when party A sues party B for libel, it's up to party B to prove their innocence. The ramifications of this are obvious: a chilling effect on dissent in the media against, well, anything. If you call someone on the carpet for making fallacious claims, they can basically shut you up by suing you. Not surprisingly, there are many people dissatisfied with this approach to libel, but it's what Simon is dealing with currently. Worse, in Simon's case, a judge ruling in the preliminary hearing agreed with the BCA, citing Simon's use of the word "bogus" to mean that the BCA knowingly is perpetrating fraud. The judge is obviously wrong here; Simon went to some pains to indicate in that very article that his use of bogus did not mean intentional fraud, but instead to mean wrong, as in chiropractic techniques cannot be used to cure the ills the BCA claims. To understand this breathtaking lack of judicial wisdom on the part of the judge, one need only read Jack of Kent's entry on the ruling. Certainly, one could say that Jack of Kent may be biased, and didn't give a fair account of the case. However, Jack also posted the actual official ruling in the case, and I draw your attention to sections 12 and 13:

What [Singh's] article conveys is that the BCA itself makes claims to the public as to the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments even though there is not a jot of evidence to support those claims. That in itself would be an irresponsible way to behave and it is an allegation that is plainly defamatory of anyone identifiable as the culprit. In this case these claims are expressly attributed to the claimant. It goes further. It is said that despite its outward appearance of respectability, it is happy to promote bogus treatments. Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

Emphasis mine. This clearly comes down to the definition of the word "bogus". Merriam-Webster calls it "not genuine : counterfeit, sham". Of those three, only sham denotes knowledge on the part of the person involved; something can be not genuine or counterfeit, yet presented honestly if mistakenly. It seems to me that this is a very narrow ruling based on the use of the word bogus to mean knowingly fraudulent, but Simon meant it to mean wrong and useless. That does not mean the BCA was aware of the treatment being wrong and useless. After all, they may honestly be peddling quack medicine. So the judge is wrong, and Simon is doing the right thing: he's appealing. This is an extremely important decision on his part. If he can appeal this ruling, he stands a chance of at least easing the libel laws somewhat, if only as a precedent when a judge makes a bad call.

There's a lot of support for him. I personally support him, as is clear from this post. Sense about Science, a group supporting science education in the UK, has started a campaign called Keep the Libel Laws out of Science. If you are a blogger or web site owner they have a button you can download to put on your site. I have mine in the sidebar now. There was a support meeting for Simon recently, and a lot of great people showed up (he was introduced by my friend Professor Brian Cox). James Randi and I issued a statement which was read there:

We at the JREF support Simon in his quest for justice. It's clear from his writing that his intent was not to claim that the BCA knowingly commits acts of fraud, but that the BCA is nonetheless incorrect in their claims of the efficacy of chiropractic. Simon is, of course, correct. Furthermore, the ruling, as it stands, would produce a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to question the claims of anyone, including pseudoscientists. Whatever path Simon chooses over this issue, the JREF will be there, and to the best of our ability we'll have his back.

We are thrilled Simon is appealing this frankly incorrect ruling, and you can bet we'll be watching the proceedings carefully. I will continue to post more information as I find it, and you can also check in on Sense about Science and Jack of Kent for more as well.

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