Simon Singh is a British science journalist who aside from being a great populariser of science also happens to be the co-author of one of my favourite books ‘Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial‘. He is also currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).
The BCA took exception not at his book, wherein he discussed chiropractic medicine at some length- it’s history, it’s clinical evidence and it’s problems- but at an article (and in particluar one paragraph) he wrote in April 2008 for the Guardian’s website (ironically titled ‘comment is free’). The article has since been removed from the Guardian’s website, however, a copy is now being hosted on a Russian server here (and it makes a good read!).
The article itself, although containing strong criticism of chiropractic medicine is, when compared with other critical articles I’ve read online, actually quite restrained. The article includes this paragraph, for instance:
But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.
Critical, but hardly worth suing over, especially when all the scientific evidence supports Singh’s statements (as well he knows, having researched and written a book on the subject!). The BCA however is not challenging those statements, instead, the particular paragraph that has the BCA in a flap is one in which he laments the fact that chiropractors continue to advocate chiropractic treatments for a whole host of illnesses for which they are totally unsuitable. In particular, he highlighted that the BCA claimed that chiropractic treatment had been shown to help children with 1) asthma, 2) colic, 3) prolonged crying, 4) sleep and feeding problems, 5) breathing difficulties, 6) hyperactivity, 7) bed wetting and 8) frequent infections, particularly in the ear. Illnesses such as asthma, breathing difficulties and frequent infections are quite serious and Singh, quite rightly, disputed that there was “one jot of evidence” that chiropractic treatments can treat any of them.
Now, the BCA obviously can’t deny that they did promote chiropractic treatments for those ailments, since this is clearly stated in the 2nd page of this leaflet. So instead they seem to be taking issue with the ‘not one jot of evidence’ statement- a summary of the legal case they are putting forward can be viewed here. I can imagine the BCA lawyer’s rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of trotting out ‘expert’ witnesses willing to provide hours of anecdotal evidence that chiropractic treatments really do help these treatments.
However, to Simon Singh’s (and his defence team’s) credit his defence to this tactic has been to counter-argue that the meaning of his statements were that there is no “reliable scientific evidence” to support these claims and that in matters of healthcare for children and medicine in general ‘reliable scientific evidence’ is what counts. His defence also went in to specific detail for each of the illnesses mentioned summarising the lack of evidence, and in the case of asthma the evidence to the contrary, for the efficacy of chiropractic treatments.
His defence is more complicated than this however the above example does illustrate his overall strategy, which seems to involve the brilliant tactic of making the evidence for chiropractic treatments a main element of the trial, effectively turning the tables on the BCA. A summary article of his defence is again available over at the skeptical, legal blogger Jack of Kent’s site and is definitely worth reading through.
However, the very fact that he is having to go through such an expensive and time consuming process simply for stating the truth is something that is extremely lamentable. Litigation has, it seems, in recent times become a weapon wielded with impugnity by wealthy organisations or individuals who seek to silence their critics through the fear of expensive legal battles. This when coupled with the British legal sytem, which places the onus on the accused to prove his innocence in cases claiming libel, makes for a nightmare situation for lone critics of powerful organisations or financially well off individuals. The BCA is not alone in favouring libel as a tactic of silencing critics and is joined by such respected bed fellows as ‘The Church’ of Scientology, HIV denialist & vitamin salesman Matthias Rath and poo-obsessed ‘Dr.’ Gillian McKeith.
All of this makes Simon Singh’s decision to fight the BCA, rather than say offering to retract his statements, extremely admirable and extremely brave. Remember, the BCA is sueing Simon specifically, not the Guardian, and in libel cases the losing party has to pay their opponents legal fees. This means a potentially gargantum bill for Simon and one can only hope that sanity prevails. Whatever the outcome though, Simon Singh definitely deserves support for his willingness to stand up and fight for the freedom to criticise fraudulent and potentially harmful alternative medicine claims!
The first hearing of the trial the 7th May 2009. Fingers Crossed.