Simon says… Appeal!

Keep Libel Laws out of Science

A good idea...

I’m definitely flogging a dead horse at this stage but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that Simon Singh has announced that he will be appealing the horrendous decision from the preliminary hearing of his court case against the British Chiropractic Association.

This great news in itself but that’s not all… 

Yesterday, also saw the launching of an extensive and deeply impressive support campaign lead by the UK charity Sense About Science. The campaign is going under the straightforward title of ‘Keep Libel Laws out of Science’ and included the unveiling of a petition asking for exactly what the title suggests. The petition when unveiled already included an incredible list of signatories including university professors, renowned journalists, world famous comedians and yes even skeptical bloggers.

To drop a few names for anyone who hasn’t had a look: Richard Dawkins, Alan Sokal, David King, Stephen Fry, Dara O Brian, Derren Brown, Ben Goldacre, Alok Jha, Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, James Randi, Phil Plait, Nick Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin, David Starkey, Jonathan Ross and David Allen Green have all signed their support (and also all happen to be folks whose work I admire!). There are also many more impressive signatories and I encourage everyone to have a look and then provide their own signature which can all be done from here.

Much good could be said about those who offered their support but all I will say is that after reading through the list and the extended comments I have absolutely no doubt that on this issue I am on the right side. Now to be fair, I already knew this before the celebrity endorsements but at the same time I think anyone who reads the petition and has a glance at the list of signatories should immediately realise that this is an issue that is drawing together many diverse groups and individuals and they should also realise there is a simple reason for this…

It’s because Simon is right to defend his article because it is wrong that due to the UK libel laws a science writer can be dragged through a costly and time consuming legal battle simply for offering his opinion on controversial medical claims which he had researched thoroughly! That is big time wrong and as such it is not difficult for people to recognise that it as also a clear illustration that the UK libel laws are seriously in a mess when they support this kind of action.

And that’s why all the support is there. Not because folks want to put the boot into chiropractors or because Simon has a nice personality and intriguing hair, but because a journalist and science writer being sued for doing his job properly and it being fine from a legal point of view is a sign that something is drastically wrong and something needs to be done.

Right so with that said, further details about the campaign can be found on the Sense About Science website and everyone should go there have a look, add the nice logo if you have a blog/website, sign that petition and then join the facebook group if they haven’t done that already and feel so inclined.

Also, I heartily recommend that if you don’t want to have a look through the many, many articles and blogs on this topic (listed here) that you should at least take a look at one of the following sources: Jack-of-Kent’s provides typically thorough coverage, Steven Novella has an excellent article and Phil Plait covers the whole affair in good detail.  

Now before I wrap up this surprisingly cheerful post considering it’s about a depressing legal case there is one more aspect of this whole affair that I feel deserves some further attention and comment and that is the very different ways in which the BCA and Simon Singh have interacted with the public and presented their positions throughout this whole debacle.

On the one hand we have the BCA. The BCA have issued a grand total of two press releases and one statement on the case, all of which read as if they have been extensively edited by their ‘brand alchemists’, the PR company publicasity.

Their first press release on the 7th May was simply a short matter-of-fact pat on the back statement that they were happy with the outcome of the preliminary hearing. However, their second press release, which coincidentally came shortly after Simon’s support rally in the Penderel Oak, was more combative in tone. And took the ill advised angle of slinging some mud at Simon for actually daring to challenge the legal action rather than simply backing down.

But perhaps more significantly, this second press release also spoke about how Simon was “refusing to apologise in the face of overwhelming evidence” and stated that the BCA had presented “a plethora of evidence that the treatments work” including “27 different publicly-available research papers”.

None of this evidence has been presented publicly however, despite repeated calls, and as a result there is no way for anyone beside a judge (who will have no expertise in assessing clinical trials) to assess the compelling ‘evidence’ the BCA claims it has. This is a very odd position given that the BCA is right now claiming on the front page of it’s website that it is “fully supportive of a scientific debate” and that “this should be a fundamental right” while continuing to offer no scientific evidence to support it’s claims… except behind closed court doors. Science is not conducted in the courtroom so the BCA’s commitment to scientific debate rings hollow. 

And that’s it… two press releases, a statement on it’s website and claims to have mountains of evidence which it apparently does not feel any desire to make public.

Now let’s turn to Simon. Simon being the subject of a libel suit was rather tight lipped on the subject in the run up to the trial. With that said we were much less in the dark about where he was drawing his information from as the original article included references, mentioning a study by Ernst and a systematic review from 2001. On top of this he had also recently published a book  called ‘Trick or Treatment’ which contained a solid chapter with numerous references discussing the evidence (or lack thereof) for chiropractic medicine.

More importantly, his actual defence, which was made publicly available on Jack-of-Kent’s site, included a specific section in which he addressed the six ailments which he had criticised chiropractic medicines ability to treat. Here he referenced in detail the sources he was drawing his conclusions from and pointed out which sources he considered to be scientifically flawed. This defence was released well before the BCA’s second press statement and makes one wonder whether the ‘brand alchemists’ (or whoever it was that composed it) had actually read his defence, as if they had their accusation that Simon had failed to present his evidence seems a bit untenable.

A further striking difference between the BCA and Simon can be seen in their engagement with those following the case. Simon after the hearing came to the pub to talk and offer his thanks to those who showed up and from that point on he has kept his supporters well informed making it clear when he planned to make announcements and always being willing to speak about the topic and answer questions on why he had written the article and why he felt it was important to defend.

To illustrate this point let me recount one example:

One week prior to the Penderel Oak support meeting Simon spoke at Goldsmith college, at the invitation of noted skeptic Prof. Chris French, about science and the media, the portrayal of alternative medicine in the media and why he had decided to write ‘Trick or Treatment’. During this talk he recounted how he had complained to the BBC about a BBC documentary on alternative medicine which had contained a misleading portrayal of an open heart surgery operation.

The documentary gave the impression that the surgery had been carried out with just acupuncture and no anaesthesia but in reality it turned out that the patient had a combination of the three most powerful sedatives and local anaesthetic along with their acupuncture. Now most people on discovering the documentaries error would leave it at that, but not Simon. He complained, had his claim rejected, appealed, had it rejected again, appealed again, had it rejected again and finally appealed a third time and this time with the complaint now referred to the heads of the BBC it was upheld and a clarification was issued.

Simon discussed this as being part of his motivation for deciding to examine alternative medicine from a scientific perspective and explained how he viewed it as being part of a science educators job to challenge misleading information. He also discussed how similar motivations had driven him to challenge the BCA’s libel claim in the first place as he still stood behind what he wrote in the article and felt that it was worth defending.

This kind of candid discussion seems to be not uncommon for Simon and indeed in an attempt to “clarify a few points” he has just recently provided an incredibly detailed account of his experience over the past year since the case first begun. His account covers not only his thoughts and feelings on the case, it’s further implications and the support he has been receiving, but also, provides a startling amount of disclosure about what went on behind close doors.

For instance, Simon revealed that the BCA was originally offered by the Guardian the chance to write a 500 word response which would be published alongside a statement in the corrections and clarifications column that would have read:

The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19). 

The BCA rejected this and more importantly made it clear that it was suing Simon Singh specifically and not the Guardian. This to me, is a very significant point as it makes it abundantly clear that the BCA was not interested in ‘debating the issue’ or ‘addressing the scientific evidence’ and instead seems to have been intent on using the extremely unfair and widely derided UK libel laws to bully a science reporter into retracting a critical article.

We wouldn’t know any of this background however if it wasn’t for Simon’s candid account and this is the point I’m (rather badly) trying to draw attention to.

Simon has publicly provided references to support his arguments, has spoken in detail about his motivation for defending the case and has provided a detailed account of his take on the case and it’s implications. Whereas the BCA has not engaged in a debate on any of the issues the article raised, has not provided ANY public reference to the ‘plethora of evidence’ it claims to have supporting it’s case and has only offered three short press statements filtered through a PR company. This is strange behaviour for a group which contends that it is interested in settling the issue with evidence.

Less I go on ranting indefinitely, (as this whole affair does tend to lend itself to ranting) I’ll now bring things to a close. To me this is a straightforward case of alternative medicine practitioners trying to legislate away a critic instead of addressing their points and as a result the scientific community, the skeptical community, the journalistic community and many more are all standing in support of Simon.

We all hope for a good outcome from the appeal but even if the outcome is less than desirable the fact remains that the issues raised by this case in relation to the terrible UK libel laws and the alternative medicine communities penchant for legal action over debate are now receiving greater attention than ever before. This in the long run can only have a positive effect. Similarly, this unfortunate case also seems to have resulted in a greater unification of the disparate groups supporting freedom of speech and science. So Simon should realise that even just by announcing that he will appeal he has already done much for the causes he is fighting for! Good job Simon and good luck!

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