Keep Libel Laws Out of Science: The Simon Singh Affair

free debate

What’s the icon above about? You may have noticed it on the Science-Based Pharmacy website for the past several weeks. Simon Singh is a science writer who wrote about the British Chiropractic Association, and their stated claim that chiropractors can treat childhood conditions, like colic.  His comment, published in the British newspaper The Guardian, was as follows:

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.

The BCA was offered the opportunity to respond in writing in the Guardian. Instead of providing evidence to support their claim, the British Chiropractic Association decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. English libel laws are probably the most difficult for bloggers, authors, skeptics or anyone that critically appraises evidence, as the burden of proof lies on the defendant, not the group alleging libel.

During a preliminary hearing, the judge ruled against Singh. Happily, he’s decided to appeal.

The organization Sense About Science has started a campaign to draw attention to this case, and the use of libel laws to silence and stifle scientific debate.  So far, over 15,000 people have signed a petition to draw attention to this issue and this case.  if you click on the icon, that’s where it will take you.  Singh’s has been written about in newspapers around the world, including The Economist. It’s a nightmare of bad publicity for chiropractors, and the BCA.

This hasn’t been the end of the attention to this case and the tactics used by the BCA.  Under pressure to produce evidence to substantiate their claims, the BCA published a list of 18 references that they argued supported their original statement.  This list of references was promptly reviewed by Edzard Ernst,  who noted that many of there references provided no supportive evidence, and that evidence that did not support the BCA’s argument was omitted from their list. The BMJ, in a superb editorial published this week, noted the following about Ernst’s critical review of the evidence:

His demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete.

But that’s not all. Bloggers, particularly science-based skeptics, have taken up the cause of Simon Singh.  Over 5000 web pages now refer to this case.  You can keep up with the the story by following the excellent blogs by Jack of Kent, The Quackometerjdc325’s Weblog,  and gimpy’s blog. The Wikipedia article on Simon Singh continues to grow.  You can monitor the discussion on Twitter by following the #singhbca tag. David Colquhoun, in his blog, DC Science, has written extensively about this case. He maintains a fantastic list called the Patient’s Guide to Magic Medicine. He just added a new term to the list:

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

The effect on the BCA, and the reputation of chiropractors, has been nothing short of disastrous.  One British chiropractic association went so far as to advise all of their members to take down their websites, lest they be subject to  scrutiny or complaints. But this didn’t stop one enterprising blogger from reporting 500 chiropractors Trading Standards office and the General Chiropractic Council for making claims about the treatment of conditions for which they argue no persuasive evidence exists.

You might feel that the BCA’s action are simply another illustration of the Streisand Effect, where attempts to censor information and suppress free speech simply backfire, increasing the awareness of the original issue. But it’s much more than that. In order to keep science, medicine, and pharmacy practice based on evidence and fact, it’s critically important for there to be the ability for open exchange and debate of information, and and critical appraisal of published evidence.  As the BMJ also noted in their editorial,

Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine.

It’s critical to keep libel laws out of science. We at Science-Based Pharmacy urge all of you to do what you can to support Simon Singh, and the work to maintain free speech and open debate of scientific issues.

2 thoughts on “Keep Libel Laws Out of Science: The Simon Singh Affair

  1. Pingback: Libel Reform: Canada vs. the U.K. « Science-Based Pharmacy

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