Thursday, 4 June 2009

Simon and the Chiropractors

Simon Singh Back in April 2008 British journalist and author Simon Singh wrote an excellent opinion piece in the Guardian, in which he called “bullshit” on the British Chiropractic Association and some of their more outlandish claims.

Singh had taken exception to claims like those in this leaflet which says…

…chiropractic care has helped children with the following symptoms: Asthma, Colic, Prolonged crying, Sleep and feeding problems, Breathing difficulties, Hyperactivity, Bedwetting…

…and rightfully pointed out that no evidence for this kind of Chiropractic efficacy actually exists. Then, he eloquently took the BCA to task for promoting “bogus” treatments.

And what was the reaction of this respectable association? Did they produce the evidence they claim they have, thereby soundly trouncing Dr Singh’s claims?

No. Of course not. They sued him for libel. After all, Singh is right. The evidence doesn’t exist.

In the US, chiropractors and other alternative practitioners know better than to try this sort of thing. Over there the law would require them to prove their treatments are effective. They can’t do that, so they don’t.

But English libel laws are different. They’re heavily weighted in favour of the plaintiff, so the burden of proof is on Singh to prove that chiropractic isn’t effective, rather than on the BCA to prove that it is.

It’s a tough call, but not impossible. What makes it tricky is that the presiding judge latched onto the word “bogus” and interpreted that as implying a knowing deception on the part of the BCA. Now that’s pretty much impossible to prove.

Singh has appealed that ruling and we’ll be watching the outcome of with great interest.

If the ruling is overturned then Singh has an excellent chance of beating the libel charge. What’s more, the likely exposure of chiropractic as a largely ineffective treatment will have the BCA regretting they ever brought the case to trial.

If it isn’t overturned then Singh probably doesn’t have much of a chance at all. Worse, the precedent set will be a huge blow to freedom of speech, and a huge setback to the much-needed skepticism of (I’ll say it) bogus claims like those of the BCA.

Jack of Kent is tracking the details of the case closely, and Sense about Science has a petition with a very impressive list of signatories.

Let’s hope reason prevails.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

Next term I'm teaching Geoffrey Robertson's The Justice Game. Reading through it again, it's incredible just how ridiculous the British libel laws are.

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