The Sciences

The Peculiar Case of Simon Singh

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 4, 2009 4:19 PM


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Science thrives on criticism. Reality, being what it is -- real -- can withstand the slings and arrows of critics. It's our methods, models, and interpretation of reality that are subject to withering critique, and through such honing moves us ever-closer to understanding the true nature of the world. Any claim that is said to be scientific should be held up to such scrutiny. If it is correct, it will survive. If it is not correct, it can be abandoned or improved. That is in the best interest of everyone. So why is it that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued scientist and journalist Simon Singh when he criticized them for making claims that are clearly not research-based? They could've presented their case, but instead tried to muzzle him under the draconian UK libel laws. Oh yes, they did eventually try to make their case using research, but presented laughably bad and inappropriate evidence for their claims. And why is it that many chiropractic groups in the UK decided to take down their websites rather than actually go about making sure their claims about cures were actually, y'know, accurate? Interesting. One might almost assume that claims of chiropractic efficacy in relieving such ailments as colic, asthma, and infections are completely -- gasp -- bogus. It was the use of that word that got Singh in trouble, since a judge in the UK went completely off the rails, saying that Singh's usage of the word "bogus" (saying the the BCA happily promotes bogus remedies) meant that he was saying the BCA was guilty of knowingly promoting quack medicine. While it's possible they are knowingly committing fraud, that is not what Singh was saying. Still, the judge's ruling is what it is. Singh tried to appeal, but that, incredibly, has been turned down. Jack of Kent as usual has the up-to-the-minute details of all this. Fellow skeptical journalist Ben Goldacre also has an excellent summary of the entire affair. The BCA tried -- and in some ways succeeded -- in using the law to create a chilling effect for journalists, scaring them into not criticizing "alternative" medicine. But they also screwed up here, big time. Bloggers reposted Singh's original article with the offending parts redacted -- such as on Skepchick -- signed petitions, and basically took up arms to defend Singh against the BCA. I urge my readers to stay on top of this case, as it has impact on us all.

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