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I Know Why the Caged Bird Singhs

by Phil Plait, Jun 10 2009

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.

sas-libel

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.

16 Responses to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Singhs”

  1. Wrysmile says:

    Hey phil

    Check out the latest from the McTimoney Association it’s fantastic.

    http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2009/06/chiropractors-told-to-take-down-their.html?showComment=1244636247379#c3366639589112889572

    It pretty much says hide all the bogus stuff quick.

  2. uksceptic says:

    The above link would not work for me try;

    http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2009/06/chiropractors-told-to-take-down-their.html

    Great article Phil. Have followed this case closely for a while and I am really impressed at the support Simon is recieving from the sceptical community. Lets hope and do all in our power for justice to win out.

  3. Muero says:

    Brilliant title, Phil!

  4. Jason says:

    It is a positive sign for science that alternative medicine spanning 3 continents is coming under serious scrutiny right now. Between Gloria Thomas’ preventable death and recent verdict against her parents, as well as the media attention in the Dana McCaffery pertussis case in Australia, Daniel Hauser’s near-refusal of cancer treatment in favor of faith healing in the US, and the overwhelming support for Simon Singh in his lawsuit in the UK as described above, people seem to really be taking notice. And judging by the hilarious letter on the quackometer website from comment #2, hopefully cranks and pseudoscientists everywhere are quaking in their shaman suits.

    It’s infuriating that despite countless other people having been materially harmed or losing their lives in the past to woo, that it takes yet more suffering and drama for people to stand up and take notice, and accept reality and evidence.

    I sincerely hope the anti-vaccination situation gets under control next, before more innocent people die.

  5. Almost... says:

    Simon is 100% correct, I knew someone who worked for a Chiropracticquaker, they quit the job although they needed it as he would tell sick people not to seek the assistance of a normal doctor or normal medicine as the end all be all fix was an adjustment, several of them a day…

    The group was very cult like, you believed what they believed or you were not on the friend list..

    He would invite clients to classes for free and try to brainwash them into believing that conventional medicine was toxic… His wife got a bladder infection a real bad one and he tried to adjust it out of her, well that did not work… so she secretly went to the doctor with out him knowing…

    Maybe aligning things can help in a mechanical sense, but a virus does not care how strait your back is…

    The sad part is some people feel out of control of their life and health and when someone starts preaching their propaganda they want to believe so badly they fall in line and follow the wrong leader down the wrong path..

    We need to teach people in a general sense from youth to be more skeptical / logical and that their destination is in their own hands..

  6. Max says:

    The judge’s ruling is bogus.

  7. Tochol says:

    Fabulous comment on this same issue. See Language Log’s posting at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1426

  8. Jules says:

    British libel laws are so incredibly screwed up. I have to wonder what would have happened if Andrew Wakefield managed to successfully sue Brian Deer…

  9. I have a work associate who visits a chiropractor for back problems. He swears by him. He’s been going regularly for 14 years. I’ve asked why he still goes. “Because I have back problems.” But 14 years? You’d think the time would come when a patient bails out of an ineffective ‘medical’ protocol.

  10. Ben says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use some of the million dollar prize to help support these battles. Is there any way to use this or interest from it to fund science and reason to the same extent as what the quacks have available?

  11. Probably not, in that the quacks collectively have far more money available.

  12. Jerry Bean says:

    The Wakefield comparison is interesting. I just looked it up. Brian Deer actually admitted accusing Wakefield of dishonesty. His people seem to have made a point of emphasising that.

    http://briandeer.com/wakefield/lawsuit-meanings.htm

  13. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    On the SGU, Singh pointed out another disturbing fact about the British judicial system. People in other countries who write about British people on the internet can be charged with libel in England due to “tourist” libel laws. This has prompted laws in the U.S. to counter these “tourist” laws. He said that some U.S. states have passed laws stating that people (in the U.S.) cannot be tried for liable in other countries if what they wrote would not be considered libel here.

    Even still, the whole trial stems on which definition of a word (“bogus”) is being used by the author. Many a battle have been waged due to confusion over a definition, as biblical scholars would point out.

  14. The Skeptic Canuck says:

    The chiroquacktic folks believe that reality is just one adjusted subluxation away from being the way they want it to be.