What do you do if you promote pseudoscientific nonsense and don’t want people to criticize you? Sue their arses right?
This is the avenue that can be considered to exhibit the most cowardice and bullying and is the path taken by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to quash the legitimate criticism of science journalist Simon Singh.
Reverse burden of proof
In the UK, libel suits are bad news for the defendant. Essentially, if you publish or report legitimate criticism, or criticism of any kind, you have to demonstrate that your claim has substance and that you did not intend any malice. It is a very confusing and counter intuitive law.
Shouldn’t the onus be on the BCA to prove that their claim has validity and has caused unjustified harm to them? The obvious flaws to this law have been thrust into the limelight as Singh digs in and defends what was accurate and justified criticism of the pseudoscientific background and claims of chiropractic.
Here’s what Simon Singh had to say about the issue and how it arose from the book the wrote, Trick or Treatment, with Professor Edzard Ernst:
When the book was published in April 2008, I wrote an article for The Guardian which focused on chiropractic. The article also coincided with Chiropractic Awareness Week, which was organised by the British Chiropractic Association. The article discussed history of chiropractic and the founder’s belief that manipulating the spine could treat 95% of all diseases, because disease was supposedly caused by blockages in the flow of innate energy along the spine and through the nervous system. Many modern chiropractors have moved away from this fanciful model of disease and treatment, and instead have focused on treating back problems. However, I pointed out that some chiropractors still believe that spinal manipulation can treat problems not related to the back.
In particular, I wrote about the likely risks of chiropractic treatment and whether or not there is any evidence that it is effective for various childhood conditions, including asthma. I thought it was quite an interesting, important and well-researched article, but unfortunately the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) claimed I had defamed their reputation and threatened to sue me for libel.
– Simon Singh. (The full story can be found at Sense About Science).
Bullying – the last resort of the desperate
Unfortunately, the “shut up or I will sue you” threats are a common knee-jerk reaction from peddlers of unscientific nonsense. The complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) community is fundamentally against scientific testing, let alone criticism. This is a telling signal.
What has one possibly got to fear from testing and inquiry? Answer: The truth. (I would say inconvenient truth, but some guy has already hijacked that term). And the truth is bad for business.
Of course, the defensive/offensive dynamic inherent in issuing a libel suit on someone is indicative of the insecurity of the BCA. When you are making claims counter to more than a 100 years of scientific enterprise you have reason to be nervous about criticism.
New Zealand not immune to threats by unscientific bullies
In my own backyard of New Zealand, there has been a “we’ll sue” gun pointed at those who criticised chiropractors. The New Zealand Medial Journal published an article warning of chiropractors claiming status as medical doctors.
The story prompted the lawyer for the New Zealand Chiropractor’s Association to write an editorial response accusing the writer David Colquhoun of defamation. *(Mr Colquhoun is writer of the DC Science blog). After a complete destruction job of such claims, the NZ Medical Journal’s editor, Professor Frank A Frizelle, weighed in with a few comments of his own:
“The Journal has a responsibility to deal with all issues and not to steer clear of those issues that are difficult or contentious or carry legal threats. Let the debate continue in the evidence-based tone set by Colquhoun and others.”
“I encourage, as we have done previously, the chiropractors and others to join in, let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle.”
Intellectual honesty and libel reform
Ultimately, this is what Singh wants to engage in – an honest debate about the legitimacy of empirical claims made by chiropractors, homeopathists and other peddlers of unscientific woo.
Unfortunately, the legal system in the UK is setup to discourage this very type of dialogue, which very obviously does the public a huge disservice.
If people like Simon Singh are not permitted to honestly present the facts to the public about health claims, then this opens up all kinds of abuses. Particularly as many of these claims about supplements and health practices are made by people who have become very rich promoting them And therefore can afford legal bills).
The imbalance is quite astounding, and unless it is addressed soon, the truth is the real casualty to come out of all this mess. Thank you Simon Singh, you are doing the world a tremendous service by taking one for the team to defend the right to criticise nonsense.
- Simon Singh interviewed on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, Episode 202
- Sense About Science story – “Sign up to keep libel laws out of science” June 2009
- The New Zealand Medical Journal Article, “Dr who? Inappropriate use of medical titles by some alternative “medical” practitioners” -By David Colquhoun, July 2008
- “Silence Dissent” – The Bad Science blog, Ben Goldacre, August 2008
- DC Science article on the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association – “Chiropractors resort to legal intimidation” August 2008.