This was published in March, 2010. It’s not that well-written, but it was my very first post that could be called a blog-post, rather than an article on a website.
What really strikes me, looking back on it is the scarcity of links. These days, I’d not think of writing a post with so few. Ho-Hum.
In 2008, scientist Simon Singh published an opinion-piece in The Guardian about false claims by chiropractors, a variety of medical quackery that was, and as far as I know still is, being funded, with no real evidence for its veracity, to the tune of four-million pounds a year by the NHS, in which he made the following statement.
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. 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 (my italics). This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
The BCA (British Chiropractic Association) then sued him for libel, even after being offered equal space in the newspaper to refute his claims.
Two years on, and Singh has spent, to date, around £300,000, while the courts fiddled around with petty things like the legal definition of the word bogus, just to get to the point where he can actually defend his case in court. In fact, as he himself has said, if he didn’t have the financial advantage of having written a couple of best-selling books, he’d have been forced to settle out of court. The sad fact is that English libel laws are so biased toward the claimant, and so expensive for the defendant, that the majority of cases are so settled. In short, being right doesn’t matter a jot. Having the financial muscle to scare your opponent out of the court room is what wins most cases. The cost of defending a libel action in this country has been variously quoted as being one-hundred to one-hundred-and-forty times higher than anywhere else in Europe. That’s just the costs, mind you—youll pay that, or a large proportion of that, just to have your say in court, regardless of the court’s finding against or for you. This financial might-makes-right situation just has to be wrong, and when applied to scientific debate, especially in matters affecting the medical services, it’s more than wrong, it’s scary. People have died as a result of the mis-application of chiropractic.
It’s got so bad that London has become the libel-tourism capital of the world. People in one foreign country are suing people in another foreign country in English courts, on the basis that the content has been viewed a handful (in some cases literally a handful) of times, in England. In another extremely bizarre case, Sheffield Wednesday tried to sue their own fans for complaining about the club’s condition on an unofficial website. Thankfully, the case eventually got dropped, but at what cost, and to whom I can only guess. I should imagine they’ve lost a few fee-paying fans at the very least though.
Even more interestingly (getting back to the Simon Singh case), in the meantime while the courts debated points of semantics, the Advertising Standards Authority have looked into the ‘evidence’ provided by the BCA for treatment of various non-spinal related conditions and have instructed them to remove any advertising making such claims. The evidence shown by the BCA included cases where they had (I assume deliberately) included findings that had been quoted out of context to skew the conclusion, in some cases by chopping off a sentence half way. They had also disregarded cases where the findings were negative. In short they lied, both by misquotation and by omission. This cannot, I hope, have anything but a detrimental affect on their case when Simon finally gets his say in court.
The most worrying thing about this to me, though, isn’t really the individual case; it’s the fact that scientific debate, and especially where it involves public health funding, should take place in the lab, not in the court, and that this is by no means an isolated incident. Remember the MMR/autism scare? That was started by one man with no properly peer-reviewed evidence wanting to get his name in the headlines. The fall-out of that particular peice of unethical headline-grabbing is still having world-wide repercussions. Pharmacutical companies, alternative medicine proponents and others are more and more regularly using the financial threat of libel as a method for covering up badly done science.
Science—real science—thrives on debate. A scientist, or more commonly a group of scientists, publishes a hypothesis, usually with details of experiments used to support it. Then other scientists do their damndest to blow it out of the water. Any problems with the hypothesis are thus exposed and can be dealt with by modifying it to take the negative results into account, and the process is repeated, and repeated…and repeated… When, and if, the point is reached that no one can find any more flaws, the hypothesis becomes a theory, and is treated as (in laymen’s terms) fact.
What this boils down to is that the BCA have advanced a hypothesis (that chiropractic can cure various non-spinal related conditions) but have supplied no real evidence and have not subjected what evidence they do have to the back-and-forth process of ongoing peer-review. They have then represented that hypothesis as fact in their advertising. Their advertising took this out of the realm of scientific papers and into the public sphere, in a way that seems designed to mis-represent the ‘evidence’ in their favour. Someone took it upon themselves to point this out to the public. The BCA threw the scientific method of verifying evidence right out of the window, and tried to make it a matter of opinion based on the meaning of a few words, rather than scientific evidence, by taking him to court, probably on the assumption that a large-ish body would have more financial muscle than a single person and that they would be able to make themselves appear right in the court of public opinion by shutting him up. Thanks to the fact that they appear, unluckily for themselves, to have picked on someone who had more financial clout than they realised, they will probably lose this one, but do we really want our justice system do be based on a matter of luck and finance? Not to mention the fact that a further diabolical feature of the libel system is that they don’t have to prove that he libelled them, he has to prove that he didn’t. Now is it me, or is that a case of ‘guilty until proven innocent’?
That this situation has been at least partly brought on by the papers, by printing various scandal-stories with no evidence, over the years, is quite probable, so many people would probably say that they only have themselves to blame, but surely the way to deal with that is to make the fines heavier so that actual libellers pay more, not increase the cost of going to court, so that those accused of libel have to be in the lucky position of being able to pay the costs just in order to actually get to argue their case. And surely the person or body accusing someone of libel should have to prove that they’ve been libelled, rather than the other way around. All-in-all, and not to sound too ‘Daily-Mail’ about it, this country is becoming a libel-law laughing stock, with other countries, notably some states of the USA, actually finding themselves in the position of having to pass laws saying that they won’t uphold the findings of English libel courts within their own borders, because they find them draconian and unfair. It has even been denounced by the The European Court of Human Rights—how’s that for the country that’s so proud of the Magna Carta and free speech?
If you’ve even partly agreed with what I’ve said, please visit http://libelreform.org and sign the pledge-wall. You can sign even if you’re not a UK resident, as at the moment our libel laws are affecting debate and free speech world-wide, through libel tourism.
If you want to read more about Simon Singh’s case and other such matters, I can recommend the excellent blog by lawyer Jack Of Kent
There’s also a facebook group you can join to show support for Simon.
There’s also Simon Singh’s own site where you won’t find much on the ongoing court case, for obvious reasons, but you will find a fair bit of scientific fun.
For some excellent articles on scientific ethics, and quackery and other forms of pseudoscience, I don’t think you can do better than Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.
Next time: Religion in politics…
Since my writing the above, the BCA have dropped their libel case against Simon Singh, but as of this writing I don’t know if he will be able to recover his costs, or even a part of them. All three major political parties have added libel reform to their agendas, should they win the upcoming election. Only time will tell how good that promise is, and how much reform they will undertake.