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Alex Broadbent: Keeping libel out of Science

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Wednesday, 21 October 2009 at 10:14 am

The libel action by the British Chiropractors' Association against journalist Simon Singh has provoked a campaign to "Keep Libel Laws Out of Science". This unopposable title, and the campaign it heads, tend to put an unfortunate spin on the case. Singh is not being sued simply for claiming that chiropractice does not work, but for questioning the honesty of chiropractors - at least in their eyes. Anyone who feels they have been accused of dishonesty surely has a moral right to challenge that in the courts, if they stand to lose, or their accuser to gain, from the accusation.

Singh claimed, among other things, that the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments." It may be debatable whether this phrase, or the article as a whole, actually does attribute dishonesty to chiropractors. But it would be wrong to see the case, as many do, simply as a battle between the forces of good science and evil quackery. Truth is a defence against libel. If the case came down to scientific evidence, then one hopes that Singh would have little to fear: on pain of hypocrisy, he surely possesses evidence sufficient (in his eyes, at least) to tip the balance of probabilities in favour of his own claims that chiropractice is without scientific basis. Indeed, if scientific claims were at issue, then presumably Singh's widely-advertised book on the subject would be a more obvious target for an action by the BCA.

But to prove that chiropractors don't believe their own claims would require more than just scientific evidence. It may be, of course, that Singh did not intend to accuse chiropractors of dishonesty. But if intentions alone determined meaning, then learning languages would be a great deal easier. The question is whether he did accuse chiropractors of dishonesty. If chiropractors believe he did, that helps both explain and justify their action.

Dr Alex Broadbent is Teaching Associate in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University

Comments

Keeping libel out of Science
brianeblood wrote:
Wednesday, 21 October 2009 at 07:57 pm (UTC)
This is a surprisingly shallow analysis of the case between the BCA and Simon Singh. It is a little more complicated than 'who thought who said what'.

The BCA represents itself as a trade/professional body for a significant proportion of those who provide 'quasi-medical' treatment following the precepts of chiropractic.

Singh has co-authored a book which examines the scientific evidence for the efficacy of chiropractic and particularly when it is used to treat certain childhood medical conditions.

The current scientific evidence suggests that

i. the benefit is no more than might be expected from a placebo effect which could be achieved using any form of sham treatment; and

ii. that certain specific aspects of chiropractic treatment involve a risk of injury (possibly serious) to the patient and in particularly to young children.

In the light of these observations, Singh, writing in the Guardian newspaper, expressed surprise that the BCA should be happy to promote a treatment of dubious benefit which exposed young children to unnecessary risk.

One wonders what a mainstream medical body would have been required to do faced with such a damning analysis of any of its treatments: ineffective drugs would be withdrawn; surgical interventions that could not be shown to benefit the patient would cease; and so on.

But the playing field is not level - unlike with 'evidence-based' medicine, so-called 'practioners of alternative medicine' are not required to demonstrate the efficacy or benefit of their treatments, potions or pills. They are free, like the cosmetics industry, to engage celebrities to make increasingly outrageous claims for increasingly pointless treatments subject only to the occasional altercation with the Advertising Standards Agency.

Evidence cannot be trumped by conviction. A madman is no saner because he thinks he has his wits about him. A mountebank is not judged honest because he is deluded.

In the modern world we rely on objective tests for sanity and honesty.

And so it should be with medicine, alternative or otherwise. Every aspect should be approached with a degree of scepticism, which is the chief characteristic of scientific enquiry and no profession should be able to hide behind the shields of belief, authority or reputation. Evidence alone should support the soundness of their position.

Singh did not chose his battleground - this was chosen for him by the BCA. But we can surmise, from their statements and actions, that the BCA's tactics would appear to have been designed entirely to avoid any consideration of the scientific evidence (or lack of it).

Rather they, with or without the advice of their legal advisers, have decided to exploit the oddities of libel law as practised in the English courts that suggests that even the basest rogue has some reputation.
unexpectedtiger wrote:
Wednesday, 21 October 2009 at 10:10 pm (UTC)
The meaning of that phrase is debatable yes. So are a lot of phrases; that's the limitation of language. The point is, nobody should have to have to pay a lawyer £10 a word to comb through everything they write before they publish it. A libel suit should redress a clear, untruthful attack on a reputation, not seize on single ambiguous phrases.

And the article also misses the extreme unfairness of the defendant having to prove their case. I mean, even they were dishonest, it's not as if Simon could prove what's going on inside their heads.
mightydrunken wrote:
Thursday, 22 October 2009 at 04:17 pm (UTC)
While truth is a defence against libel but it may not be easy for Singh. I believe the whole thing boils down to the interpretation of, as was quoted, "This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments." It seems the judge took that to mean that Singh was saying the the BCA knows some of their treatments don't work but still promotes them anyway. There is no way Singh can prove that is true, and he says that is not what he meant anyway. Even if he shows chiropractic treatment does not work that may not be enough for the judge. Libel laws in the UK are certainly stacked in favour of the plaintiff.

I also believe that Singh study says there could be some benefit in regard to chiropractic techniques - some of them are similar to physiotherapy. What he was saying was bogus was the treatment, "for such problems as ear infections and infant colic".
reasonaboveall wrote:
Tuesday, 27 October 2009 at 01:45 pm (UTC)
The article also ignores the rulings against the BCA by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The burden of proof is the other way round in those cases and when the BCA advertised that Chiropractic treatment could cure colic and infant bedwetting etc the ASA demanded to see their research that would allow the BCA to advertise such a claim.

The "research" was sufficiently lacking to allow the ASA to order the withdrawal of the adverts and to prohibit their use until there was sufficient scientific evidence in support.


I am a lawyer, and as a result of Mr Justice Eady's original judgment (now thankfully being appealed) I took a straw poll of what "Bogus" meant.

Funnily enough, to those that have seen "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" it meant "not cool" and there was no hint of a suggestion of dishonesty.

The meanings of words change, but whatever the outcome the BCA could have had a grovelling apology from Dr Singh simply by releasing their evidence to be peer reviewed just like any other scientific researchers.

Of course they had already released the best evidence they had... to the ASA.
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