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Simon Singh's last column
March 12, 2010 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Simon Singh: This is goodbye. Being sued for libel is not only ruinously expensive, writes Simon Singh, it takes over your whole life. Which is why this will be his last column. Previously.
posted by homunculus (74 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yet another example of the idiocy of the UK's libel laws. Sad.
posted by cerebus19 at 12:58 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this guy is getting sued for saying
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.
"This organization ... promotes bogus treatments." What a silly cross for the BCA to hang themselves on.
posted by muddgirl at 1:03 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


We should copy the UK's NHS, and the UK should copy our libel laws and lack of a monarch. Problem solved.
posted by mullingitover at 1:04 PM on March 12, 2010 [23 favorites]


Do the comments on that article seem dramatically more reasonable and better-spelled than any comments on any US news article, ever?
posted by pinky at 1:05 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is quite obvious that UK libel laws are deeply flawed and in need of reform. If you agree, you'll find the online petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign.

By the way, this is not simply of concern to British people. Under British law it is possible for you to be sued for libel in this country, even if you've never been here. All that is required is for your alleged libel to be accessible in Britain. Sign this petition as a simple step toward protecting your right to free speech.
posted by howfar at 1:07 PM on March 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


LOLUK
posted by kmz at 1:16 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


By the way, I have been sued for defamation in the United States. Well, sort of. I said that a guy on a message board was "clearly mentally ill", and he added my username to a suit that was already in progress (spelling it wrong in the process).

It was sort of fun to be part of the misuse of the American legal system!
posted by muddgirl at 1:18 PM on March 12, 2010


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.

Presumably the experiences of a child who had suffered any of the above problems and had had chiropractic treatment would constitute a 'jot' of evidence, one way or the other. A lot of such children would provide a lot of evidence. How many children do BCA members treat each year, and what for, and what are the before-and-after results of those treatments?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:23 PM on March 12, 2010


Dear Muddgril--

You're going to pay for your outrageous online comments regarding the status of the American legal system.

Yours,
The American legal system
cc: Series of tubes
posted by Skot at 1:25 PM on March 12, 2010 [12 favorites]


cerebus19: “Yet another example of the idiocy of the UK's libel laws. Sad.”

I think you can blame this on the silliness of the law only to a certain extent. However, the fact is that this wasn't directly caused by any law.

If this is an example of anything, it's the capriciousness of chiropractic practitioners and their cutthroat attitude about making sure they aren't denied public funds in the UK.

I know that might not be politically correct, but it's true: chiropractic practitioners, who for a long time nursed a spirit of victimhood about all this (feeling pangs of pride any time one of their number was arrested for practicing in the decades after chiropractic was invented in the late 1800s) have pretty much decided that the best recourse they have is to forcefully assert themselves in the public mind by seizing on other "alternative medicines" as allies and insisting time and time again that they deserve tax dollars.

I don't have any problem with people practicing bunk, bullshit science in the privacy of their own homes, or even in public if they so choose. But it's not something that any civilized nation should give tax dollars to fund. And yet every year in the UK millions of pounds go down the money hole that is chiropractic; never before in history did so many placebos cost so much to the people taking them. And millions upon millions of dollars are doled out by national medical plans in the US for chiropractic care. Thankfully, as far as I know the only chiropractic covered by Medicare is so-called "spinal manipulation," and the regimen of ridiculous and inane "remedies" prescribed by chiropractic is denied coverage as it counts as "maintenance care."

I have to say: I like "alternative medicines." I do Tai Chi every morning when I wake up; it corrects my spine and makes me healthier. Many herbal remedies have scientific properties the effects of which might be too small for science to take much notice of, but which are really serious effects. But even though I have an open mind about these things, and am a spiritual person who doesn't believe that science is the one and only truth about the world – I know that chiropracty is vicious hogwash. When you read about the founders of chiropracty and their ideas about health, you see that their notions were far from the friendly, happy image chiropractors like to portray today; they hated "traditional medicine," thought that using medical instruments of any kind was evil, and believed that their truth was far superior to medical science. It may seem nice and friendly, and individual chiropractors may be under the impression that their practice and field is a happy, helpful one, but in the modern world many things are not as they seem. Chiropracty is one of them.
posted by koeselitz at 1:25 PM on March 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


Is the Guardian footing the bill for Singh's defense, or is he alone in this?
posted by fatbird at 1:25 PM on March 12, 2010


See, you silly Brits? The only reason you can't watch Hulu is because of your scary libel laws! Hulu is just following the lead of the National Enquirer.
posted by XMLicious at 1:26 PM on March 12, 2010


@aeschenkarnos

We could play at semantics all day. By your definition of a "jot of evidence" essentially any statement that included "not a jot of evidence" would be libellous according to British law. Hardly a useful position to adopt.
posted by howfar at 1:26 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, is not a libel suit about semantics?

I'm not to sure about the pros and cons of UK libel law, but I am quite sure that the BCA will be able to come up with case studies which show their effectiveness. I am equally sure that they will be very weak and largely anecdotal, but it does leave Mr. Singh in the uncomfortable position of having made an unqualified factual statement that wasn't backed up and has "evidence" to the contrary, meaning from the BCA's point of view it was an absolute statement that slagged them and, from their point of view, was false. So, libel. Seems like a dirtbag, but sound, move to me.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:35 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The component countries of the UK have different libel/defamation laws.

Get it right, folks.
posted by the cuban at 1:36 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


...but I am quite sure that the BCA will be able to come up with case studies which show their effectiveness

Apparently the Advertising Standards Authority has already ruled:
“We considered that, whilst some of the studies indicated that further research was worth pursuing, in particular in relation to the chiropractic relief of colic, we had not seen robust clinical evidence to support the claim that chiropractic could treat IBS, colic and learning difficulties.”
So yes, the BCA is claiming to treat diseases despite a lack of robust, clinical evidence.
posted by muddgirl at 1:42 PM on March 12, 2010


My question isn't so much about the British legal system's interpretation of ordinary rhetoric ("not a jot" is clearly hyperbole), it's about the relatively easy resolution of the core question, production of a great number of the 'jots of evidence'. Which, if chiropracty works, would be something I would expect its practitioners not just to be fully in favour of, but to have already done, extensively. It's basic science: examine the person, do the treatment, re-examine the person, repeat for other people, tabulate the results.

So Singh's assertion can be either easily dismissed, "here is a a massive pile of evidence that chiropracty works", in which case he has libelled them (though the question remains open as to whether he has done them any harm, since he has merely expressed a commonly held opinion); or alternatively the plaintiffs will mumble and look down and shuffle their feet (as homeopaths do), ie stand unable to refute his statement, in which case it is either true, meaning he is entitled to say so, or an open question, meaning he is entitled to say so.

At least, that's the logical analysis, according to me. Whether British law rejects logic is a question for Britons, but there is at least one firm logical proposition in British law, which is that the law cannot require the impossible. Requiring Singh to do the impossible to prove himself not a libeller (libellist? libelizer?) would be in conflict with that principle.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:43 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Frederick Forsyth (despite his politics, a good storyteller) had a short story in No Comebacks that dealt with this in a satisfying, though unlikely, way.
posted by maxwelton at 1:51 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Terry Chimes (AKA Tory Crimes), who was The Clash's first drummer, is now a British chiropractor. I think this is telling.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:55 PM on March 12, 2010


I know people are commenting on the "not a jot of evidence" as part of the libel, but I'm under the impression that the "bogus" part is more important. It's been interpreted as though Singh said the BCA willingly and knowlingly misleads patients about the treatments - not whether the treatments themselves are effective.
posted by Sova at 2:02 PM on March 12, 2010


This is kind of a useless column, because it can be comprehensively summed up by the OP's single sentence. Singh doesn't really detail how it took up his whole life or what he spent all that time doing, apart from the phrase "poring over legal documents." It might have been an interesting read if he had taken the effort to detail what comprised those 44 weeks of work; he just says he spent that time "defending [his] article."

In other words, based on this one example, he's not a careful writer. And hey, he got sued for libel. Hmm.
posted by cribcage at 2:09 PM on March 12, 2010


Singh doesn't really detail how it took up his whole life or what he spent all that time doing, apart from the phrase "poring over legal documents."

Well, he went from an interesting science writer to someone who talks about libel all the time.
posted by smackfu at 2:13 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


chiropracty is vicious hogwash

Repeated for emphasis. Come get me, you limey bastards.
posted by schoolgirl report at 2:15 PM on March 12, 2010 [12 favorites]


The BCA doesn't have to "prove" anything. Under the law, Singh has to prove it wasn't libelous, or he's guilty by default. This is basically impossible.

It's the equivalent of charging someone with murder, and then they have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that they are innocent. The accuser doesn't have to prove anything.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:22 PM on March 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


aeschenkarnos - sova's right, this actually had almost nothing to do with the "not a jot" bit of his statement. The crux of the libel charge was the "bogus" part, and the trial mostly consisted of chiropractor after chiropractor proving that they really believe that chiropractic is what it claims to be, and not a sham. However, it amounts to much the same situation, in that it means that saying anyone's health remedy is "bogus" is a crime.
posted by koeselitz at 2:26 PM on March 12, 2010


Sova is correct that the case is not about the evidence, or lack therof, behind using back massages to cure infections. The BCA are specifically not contradicting Singh's claim that there's no evidence to support their practice. The case hinges on his use of the word "bogus", which the BCA assert (and a judge agreed) implies that the BCA were administering bullshit medicine deliberately.

For the purposes of this case, the BCA is accepting that their practices are complete crap (which is why the matter of evidence for or against chiropractic isn't being discussed), and merely contending that they haven't given out medicine that they knew to be useless. Their basic position, therefore, is that they're not evil but merely incompetent.

As I understand it (from reading the presumably biased libel reform site; IANAL), Singh needs to prove either that his use of the word "bogus" meant no such thing (which, in my reading, it doesn't) or that the BCA knew that they were pedalling bullshit rather than simply being sincerely deluded. It's terribly difficult to prove your own or someone else's intentions, so Singh is having a hard time of it.
posted by metaBugs at 2:39 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


aeschenkarnos - this is really the core of the problem.

In a similar way to homeopathy, these claims of chiropractic cures and aids may appear to work if you just ask people how they're feeling.

But I UNDERSTAND (look i'm terrified!!) that these results do not stand up against double blind testing and the rigours of true scientific cross examination. They are the equivalent to a "8 out of 10 women like this product" advert.

For more stuff on what scientific testing is and should be read the book "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre. He has a really good blog (http://www.badscience.net/) but for a good background on what you should be try reading the book.

For the english people on this thread write to your MP. My MP John Leech (Withington) replied to my email and is behind the campaign to revise the law.
posted by pigeonman at 2:45 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting article in the related column of the posted article: Furious backlash from Simon Singh libel case puts chiropractors on ropes. Excerpt:
A staggering one in four chiropractors in Britain are now under investigation for allegedly making misleading claims in advertisements, according to figures from the General Chiropractic Council.

The council, which is responsible for regulating the profession and has 2,400 chiropractors on its books, informs me that it has had to recruit six new members of staff to deal with a fifteenfold increase in complaints against its members – from 40 a year to 600. While it declined to comment directly on the costs inflicted by the reaction to the BCA's actions, it is clear that a six-figure sum will be involved for the extra staffing costs alone, to which will have to be added the considerable costs of any misconduct hearings.

The complaints all stem from a regulatory quirk exposed by blogger Alan Henness, who noticed that the council's rules demand that chiropractors do not make claims that conflict with past rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority. The advertising watchdog had previously criticised a number of chiropractors for making claims that their procedures can treat a variety of conditions, ranging from learning difficulties to arthritis.

The policy was exploited by numerous campaigners, who collectively worked their way through the BCA's membership list, Googling each member, and cross-referencing any claims on their website against previous rulings by the advertising watchdog. In a matter of weeks, complaints against more than 600 chiropractors had been lodged.

To the likely embarrassment of the BCA, those being investigated include its own officers.
posted by Kattullus at 2:48 PM on March 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


This post on the Jack of Kent blog from last month makes it sound like things are going well for Simon Singh. (Or at least much better compared to the Jack of Kent link in the previous FPP.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:49 PM on March 12, 2010


blue_beetle :It's the equivalent of charging someone with murder, and then they have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that they are innocent. The accuser doesn't have to prove anything.

Exactly!! Under the regular system, that is precisely the case: Singh can accuse the BCA of bogus treatments and it falls to the accused to defend themselves!! Thank god the UK has got it right and made the accuser defend their allegations.
posted by Bovine Love at 3:13 PM on March 12, 2010


Take that, truth!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:26 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


That article's really interesting, Kattullus. Thanks.

It's interesting to know that the British Chiropractic Association as pretty much shot itself in the foot with this action, all but destroying its credibility and creating something of an all-out war on chiropractic.

Unfortunately, that doesn't help Simon. Hope his life gets better, anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 3:46 PM on March 12, 2010


It might have been an interesting read if he had taken the effort to detail what comprised those 44 weeks of work; he just says he spent that time "defending [his] article."

The whole comprises the parts. You meant to say, "It might have been an interesting read if he had taken the effort to detail what those 44 weeks of work comprised."

In other words, based on this one example, he's not a careful writer.

And neither are you.
posted by limeonaire at 4:00 PM on March 12, 2010


Bovine Love, you're an ass. Sue me.
posted by Pendragon at 4:13 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heh, that's not libel.

I'm not just being contrarian. If it was the BCA libelling this guy, and destroying his career, and he had to bear the weight and cost of suing them to clear his name and problem them wrong, we'd be cursing that system and saying the UK system is more just (where the weight would fall on the BCA to prove they are right). I'm just saying both ways have merit and problems; it isn't obvious from this that the system is inherently flawed from a few cases where the villain is an easy target (wankers like the BCA).
posted by Bovine Love at 5:07 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's the equivalent of charging someone with murder...

No. It really isn't.
posted by cribcage at 5:22 PM on March 12, 2010


"Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!"
posted by bwg at 5:33 PM on March 12, 2010


Why not move to a country that doesn't suck?
posted by delmoi at 7:11 PM on March 12, 2010


But even though I have an open mind about these things, and am a spiritual person who doesn't believe that science is the one and only truth about the world – I know that chiropracty is vicious hogwash. ... but in the modern world many things are not as they seem. Chiropracty is one of them. -- koeselitz
I think it's important to point out that this is, in fact, incorrect. While obviously chiropratic care can't cure various diseases. The central premise of Chiropractic care, that Spinal Manipulation Therapy, which is also practiced by non-chiropractic practitioners including can help with lower back pain, is true.

For example, This literature synthesis posted on pubmed:
CONCLUSIONS: As much or more evidence exists for the use of spinal manipulation to reduce symptoms and improve function in patients with chronic LBP as for use in acute and sub acute LBP. Use of exercise in conjunction with manipulation is likely to speed and improve outcomes as well as minimize episodic recurrence. There was less evidence for the use of manipulation for patients with LBP and radiating leg pain, sciatica, or radiculopathy.
Here's another article:
CONCLUSIONS: Therapies with good evidence of moderate efficacy for chronic or subacute low back pain are cognitive-behavioral therapy, exercise, spinal manipulation, and interdisciplinary rehabilitation. For acute low back pain, the only therapy with good evidence of efficacy is superficial heat. This Cochrane review states it's results in a very negative manner, but shows the same thing: that SMT is as effective as "general practitioner care, analgesics, physical therapy, exercises, or back school", and more effective then placebo:
Main results: Thirty-nine RCTs were identified. Meta-regression models were developed for acute or chronic pain and short-term and long-term pain and function. For patients with acute low-back pain, spinal manipulative therapy was superior only to sham therapy (10-mm difference [95% CI, 2 to 17 mm] on a 100-mm visual analogue scale) or therapies judged to be ineffective or even harmful. Spinal manipulative therapy had no statistically or clinically significant advantage over general practitioner care, analgesics, physical therapy, exercises, or back school. Results for patients with chronic low-back pain were similar. Radiation of pain, study quality, profession of manipulator, and use of manipulation alone or in combination with other therapies did not affect these results.
--

In other words, Chiropractic care for lower back pain is as effective as other treatment options, and of course some individuals might be better off with it, others less so. Now, I'm certainly not saying that there are a lot of fruit-cake Chiropractors out there, unfortunately. They shouldn't be saying that Chiropractic care can cure random diseases, and they shouldn't have sued this guy.

It's also possible that Chiropractic care might be significantly more fruity in the U.K then in the U.S. I don't know.
posted by delmoi at 7:42 PM on March 12, 2010


"Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!"
posted by bwg at 8:33 PM on March 12 [+] [!]


Please produce irrefutable olfactory and genetic evidence to that effect, or I'll see you in court. For the next four years.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:19 PM on March 12, 2010


Bovine Love: “Seems like a dirtbag, but sound, move to me.”

Are you sincerely telling me that when I say that chiropractic is "bogus," I am committing LIBEL? Because that's what your words are saying, though I'm not sure you mean to argue that.

You're basically saying that no one can ever say that anything is "bogus." This amounts to saying that freedom of speech isn't really very important in the face of economic concerns. Do you really think that?
posted by koeselitz at 9:12 PM on March 12, 2010


me: “But even though I have an open mind about these things, and am a spiritual person who doesn't believe that science is the one and only truth about the world – I know that chiropracty is vicious hogwash. ... but in the modern world many things are not as they seem. Chiropracty is one of them.”

delmoi: “I think it's important to point out that this is, in fact, incorrect. While obviously chiropratic care can't cure various diseases. The central premise of Chiropractic care, that Spinal Manipulation Therapy, which is also practiced by non-chiropractic practitioners including can help with lower back pain, is true.”

This is what I meant when I said that "things are not as they seem." People believe that chiropractic is primarily based on spinal manipulation therapy - but it's not. This is not the central idea of chiropractic. The central idea of chiropractic is that the human body has an innate ability to heal itself. Chiropractic isn't a nice spinal manipulation therapy, even if that's the main experience most people have of it. It is a thoroughgoing rejection of modern medical science and a belief that there is a manifestation of God's power in man called "innate intelligence" which must be tapped in order to heal any pain or cure any disease. D D and B J Palmer, who invented chiropractic, scorned anyone who practiced or used both chiropractic and scientific medicine, calling them "mixers."

Spinal manipulation might have some value, but it's far from the sum of chiropractic, or even central to it. And the human back being as complex as it really is, I see absolutely no reason to place one's back in the hands of someone who believes that medicine is silly or that they're just releasing "innate intelligence."
posted by koeselitz at 9:46 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


You're basically saying that no one can ever say that anything is "bogus." This amounts to saying that freedom of speech isn't really very important in the face of economic concerns. Do you really think that?
Did the U.K ratify the first amendment at some point? I think I would have heard about that. It's a country with much greater restrictions on speech in general.
posted by delmoi at 9:52 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


People believe that chiropractic is primarily based on spinal manipulation therapy ... It is a thoroughgoing rejection of modern medical science and a belief that there is a manifestation of God's power in man called "innate intelligence" which must be tapped in order to heal any pain or cure any disease.

Well, Freud was basically wrong about everything, that doesn't make modern psychology hogwash. Even if the "philosophical underpinnings" are wrong, which wouldn't be surprising, but it's not clear (certainly not from your post) that the majority of practicing chiropracters actually think that, or do anything other then back adjustments.

The fact is, people go to Chiropractors when they have back pain, and the spinal manipulation therapy they get is effective.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


@pinky

You wrote:

"Do the comments on that article seem dramatically more reasonable and better-spelled than any comments on any US news article, ever?"

Yes. I moved to the UK in the early 1980s, and soon discovered that the most illiterate cretin from the most backwater English village could compose a more lucid paragraph than could a university graduate from the US.

Of course, I'm exaggerating, but not by much.
posted by Chasuk at 10:35 PM on March 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


The fact is, people go to Chiropractors when they have back pain, and the spinal manipulation therapy they get is effective.

But not significantly more effective than that provided by real medicine provided by a real doctor with a real education.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:11 PM on March 12, 2010


this case is so very important because it sets a precedent for science as a whole.

Science should work by people arguing very hard over evidence and fact. When Simon Singh wrote the article the BCA should have produced data to prove him wrong (if it exists) and the result would be who had the best evidence would win out.

but this hasn't happened, and when things like this go wrong it ultimately hurts us all as medical drugs aren't tested properly, treatment plans aren't reviewed and it ends up being massively detrimental.
posted by pigeonman at 11:12 PM on March 12, 2010


delmoi: “Did the U.K ratify the first amendment at some point? I think I would have heard about that. It's a country with much greater restrictions on speech in general.”

Oh, yeah - you're right. I know. I just think it's a little silly to act as though this is obviously a case of libel. There are at least several major, difficult issues at the center of it, and those who think it's sort of at the crux of problems with UK libel law are correct, I think, no matter what side you're on.
posted by koeselitz at 11:45 PM on March 12, 2010


chiropracty is vicious hogwash.

Repeated for emphasis. Come get me, you limey bastards.


Dear Mr. or Ms. Schoolgirl Report;

Please stop libeling and defaming our clients.

Sincerely aggrieved,
The hogs, London, UK
posted by zippy at 1:19 AM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's the equivalent of charging someone with murder, and then they have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that they are innocent. The accuser doesn't have to prove anything.

So not true. The complainant must prove that the statement was made and that it was injurious. They aren't required to prove that it was false, but that seems fair enough - do you expect people to prove negative statements? Shall Mr Smith be required to prove that he has never disparaged a lady, or Mr Jones prove that he has never kicked a dog?

The thing that gets me is, Simon Singh is supposed to be a science writer. He ought to confine himself to fact, or at least advertise when he's resorting to speculation. Instead he made (what is in my opinion) a silly and thoroughly unscientific statement: he said that there was "not a jot" of evidence for the effectiveness of a range of chiropractic treatments; and he said that the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments".

The first statement is false. There is surely at least some (i.e., at least "a jot") evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic treatment for, e.g., colic. It might be as weak as "My auntie says that her neighbour used it and it worked", but it's still some evidence.

The second statement is a claim that the treatments are "bogus" - not just ineffective or poorly-substantiated, but false in a way that implies posturing and showmanship; and that the BCA has a particular state of mind when it promotes these bogus treatments: that it does so "happily". I can see how someone would take this to mean that they are knowingly promoting treatments that will not work. What is Simon Singh's evidence for this? I suspect the correct description is "not a jot".

I despise the promoters of chiropractic treatment. I think the theory behind it is stupid. I think they are incorrect when they say that it can cure things like colic. But I wouldn't say that a particular person or group was knowingly promoting ineffective treatment unless I had actual evidence for it. I bet Simon Singh wishes he hadn't, either.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:23 AM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Simon Singh should consider buying a new laptop, or at least a new printer.
posted by thejoshu at 6:31 AM on March 13, 2010


> When Simon Singh wrote the article the BCA should have produced data to prove him wrong (if it exists) and the result would be who had the best evidence would win out.

The BCA eventually provided "details of research that exists to support the claims which Dr. Singh stated were bogus". Steven Novella has a pretty detailed analysis of it here. Also worth reading: Beware the Spinal Trap.
posted by The Mouthchew at 6:33 AM on March 13, 2010


Are you sincerely telling me that when I say that chiropractic is "bogus," I am committing LIBEL? Because that's what your words are saying, though I'm not sure you mean to argue that.

Um, no, I said no such thing. For starters, you are not doing it in a publication as an authority, where it can hurt them. That is a very important difference. Secondly, I'm not saying he libelled BCA, I'm saying that their case has some basis; he did slag them, and did intend to injure them, and likely did injure them, and chose his attack poorly. He seems to have taken it for granted that he was right and it was obvious they were just a bunch of crooks. Now I agree, I think that their health claims amount to fraud, but that still doesn't mean I should automatically get a pass to use a publication as my pulpit and slander them without evidence (which, of course, would then make it not slander). (and no, I don't think self-publication such as provided by mefi counts as important enough)

But my real beef is with this seeming to prove that the UK system is fundamentally broken. He did make the allegations, I don't see why he shouldn't (and can't) back them up. Sure, when it is some wankers like the BCA we can sympathize with the poor little man getting all beaten up by the villains, but that doesn't prove the system is broken, it just shows it can be abused (which is what things like summary dismissals, etc. are for). Again, I ask, what if he had made solid allegations and the BCA attacked him in the press, and tried to injure him and ruin his career? Lets say he sued them. Now how do we feel about the burden of proof? Should he have to prove that he is not a science hack who cheated on his exams? No, we would feel that they should have to prove their allegations. This is no different; the fact there is an obvious villain on the other side doesn't make the system broken.
posted by Bovine Love at 6:34 AM on March 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's also possible that Chiropractic care might be significantly more fruity in the U.K then in the U.S. I don't know.

Having had the unfortunate experience of working for one, I can assure you the chiropractors in the U.S. are pretty damn fruity. Like sugar-pill-under-your-tongue-and-stand-on-one-leg-while-I -twist-your-arm-and-I-tell-you-you're-cured-of-the-flu fruity.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:43 AM on March 13, 2010


But not significantly more effective than that provided by real medicine provided by a real doctor with a real education.

But not any less effective either. And of course, you can do a lot of things at once too. SMT isn't incompatible with doing exercises, painkillers, 'back school', etc. A lot of times, chiropractors will give you exercises to do. Regular doctors recommend chiropractic care for their patients all the time.

Obviously I think this lawsuit is nonsense, and the judge's interpretation of the word bogus is ridiculous. And it's important to point out that Simon Singh wasn't even making saying that SMT didn't work for back pain. He was talking about Chiropractors who were going way beyond that, and claiming that they could cure a host of diseases.

I think it's too bad that Chriopracters are often so fruity, which causes this useful treatment to get lumped in with Acupuncture, homeopathy, etc.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on March 13, 2010


or alternatively the plaintiffs will mumble and look down and shuffle their feet (as homeopaths do), ie stand unable to refute his statement, in which case it is either true, meaning he is entitled to say so, or an open question, meaning he is entitled to say so.

Except that truth is not an absolute defense against libel in the UK.

So that kinda ruins everything.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:16 AM on March 13, 2010


delmoi: what you are missing here is that Chiropractic is not spinal manipulation therapy. It is a fully elaborated alternative to the germ theory of disease. A conventional doctor or physical provide spinal manipulation therapy.

Defending Chiropractic by saying that spinal manipulation therapy works is like defending the mob because people should be loyal to their families.
posted by idiopath at 1:08 PM on March 13, 2010


*physical therapist can provide
posted by idiopath at 1:08 PM on March 13, 2010


what you are missing here is that Chiropractic is not spinal manipulation therapy.

Isn't that what confuses the issue? It's both. Which one depends on which chiropractor you go to.
posted by smackfu at 3:10 PM on March 13, 2010


@Bovine Love

The point is that the claim of defamation should not be used as a means of intimidation. The reason that this is a big story is that Simon Singh is not a "little guy" but a best-selling author with support and resources, who is prepared to fight the case, rather than shy away at the threat of the British libel laws. Most people just print timid retractions when threatened with the courts, because they know they're going to lose money either way.

I suggest you look a little bit more deeply into the problems with British libel law.
posted by howfar at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2010


What I mean is that the effectiveness of spinal manipulation therapy is not an argument for Chiropractic - it is an argument for spinal manipulation therapy. There is a clinic here where I live that treats the homeless for free, and offers you a sandwich. The positive health effects of eating a sandwich if you are malnourished do not validate subluxion theory or any of the other pseudoscientific nonsense that Chiropractic is based on. Chiropractic is not only wrong, it is dangerous, and literally has nothing positive to offer that you could not get from a good physical therapist.
posted by idiopath at 3:26 PM on March 13, 2010


@smackfu The BCA has in the past made and supported claims that chiropractic has medical benefits which are not borne out by any good data. I think it is reasonable to believe that this is what Singh meant by "bogus" claims. So far the British legal system has not agreed with me, rather taking Singh's words as a claim that the BCA has knowingly connived in a deception.

Of course there are perfectly decent chiropractors who give you a nice massage and crack your back and give you some exercises. Just like an osteopath or physiotherapist might do (with less emphasis on the crack, of course). This is often beneficial, but it's not the subject of the court case.
posted by howfar at 3:36 PM on March 13, 2010


The first link in idiopath's last post should go here.
posted by howfar at 3:41 PM on March 13, 2010


And and the last link should go here
posted by howfar at 3:56 PM on March 13, 2010


howfar: thanks, I bungled those pair of links.
posted by idiopath at 4:01 PM on March 13, 2010


Bovine Love: “But my real beef is with this seeming to prove that the UK system is fundamentally broken.”

Ah. So you think the US system, whereby freedom of speech is valued more highly than freedom from slander, and whereby the burden of proof is on the accuser rather than the accused - you think the US system is the one that's fundamentally broken.

He did make the allegations, I don't see why he shouldn't (and can't) back them up. Sure, when it is some wankers like the BCA we can sympathize with the poor little man getting all beaten up by the villains, but that doesn't prove the system is broken, it just shows it can be abused (which is what things like summary dismissals, etc. are for). Again, I ask, what if he had made solid allegations and the BCA attacked him in the press, and tried to injure him and ruin his career? Lets say he sued them. Now how do we feel about the burden of proof?”

First of all, Simon Singh didn't make any "allegations" at all. He didn't accuse anyone in a courtroom. The BCA accused him.

Second of all, you don't seem to be very familiar with the UK system, but its slander and libel laws have always been problematic, and the movement to change them is at least thirty years old. And it has absolutely nothing to do with chiropractic. We're not just anti-BCA because they're the 'big bad guys;' this is a case of the system working badly.

Third of all - fine. You want the state to make a distinction between comments on Metafilter and "important publications" which can "damage someone's reputation." But you've misunderstood something very, very important about slander and libel laws - it doesn't matter what effect speech has on a person's livelihood or career. If it did, then any of the capricious or random things anybody says might be slander or libel. When the press reports that a politician has had an affair - libel. When someone mentions that a company's product is crap - libel. There is literally no limit to the number of situations in which an accusation of slander or libel can be made. No – slander and libel have to do with the content and form of the statement; nothing more, and nothing less.

And Simon Singh's statement simply cannot be libelous. If saying that something is "bogus" and that it's not backed by science, and saying so in an 'important' forum where such information is seen as having authority, is libelous – then most of the very processes by which science functions become libel. I've read dozens of scientific papers and journal articles that make the very same claim, not just about other articles but even about the life's work of other scientists and thinkers. If simply saying something someone else has said is "bogus" or "not backed by science" is libel - then there can be no scientific debate at all whatsoever, for simply disagreeing with someone else counts as libel. And you can't tell me that scientific debate has no effect on people's careers, livelihood, or credibility - I spent enough time in academia to know many, many people whose careers, their earning power, their future well-being, hinged on a good or bad review from fellow academicians. If all of those people could suddenly sue because a reviewer called their work "bogus" or "not scientific" – well, let's just say the legal system would be a lot more clogged than it already is.

So rational legal systems in civilized nations have to be very precise about what slander and libel mean. That's all we're arguing for. The content of the slander or libel must be a primary basis for its being understood as such, and we have to be careful how we define it. Slander or libel must consist of a real and exact claim about someone – that claim must be about some real detail of their life, and it must be intended to have authority. Most importantly - the accusation must be a lie, which is to say it must be intentionally false - and it must have been invented in order to harm the person being slandered or libeled.

That's how it works, at least, here in the US; and I think we've got it right on this point. So, for instance, in this case, the BCA would be required to prove that Simon Singh knew that chiropractic isn't "bogus," and that he was lying when he said it wasn't backed up by science. They appear to try to claim this in some publicity material, but they never had to argue it in court; and if they had, I would hope they would've been laughed down. Of course Simon Singh doesn't think he's lying. Of course he believes what he's saying when he says that there's no good scientific evidence. So, by definition, he has not libeled the BCA.

For what it's worth, Bovine Love, Kattullus' linked article above points out that the GCC (the General Chiropractic Council) has itself rejected the BCA's claims and, more startlingly, has put forth proof that Simon Singh was correct when he said that the particular claims of the BCA are not backed by science. In short, they've put forth proof that Simon Singh was clearly telling the truth. But the UK legal system is structured such that it doesn't even matter that what Simon Singh said was true - he's still guilty until he proves himself innocent, and since he's been given an impossible thing to prove (namely, that he didn't mean to imply that they were hucksters, only that they were wrong) it's nigh impossible for him to get off on this charge.

The thing I most want to impress on you is that this isn't typical of UK law (which doesn't tend to be this strange and anachronistic) and that this is indeed a real and longstanding problem. If you don't take my word for that, please accept the testimony of the highest legal authority in the United Kingdom, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, who has in his term pushed a programme of reform of libel procedure and pushed to restrict the powers of judges in libel cases. Lord Judge has said that he is "baffled" that the case of Simon Singh has still not be put right.
posted by koeselitz at 4:10 PM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


An 'e' snuck in the link at the end accidentally - sorry. Here's the proper link for Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge.
posted by koeselitz at 4:28 PM on March 13, 2010


...you think the US system is the one that's fundamentally broken.

It is unnecessary to put words in my mouth. I see your point, I disagree, I see no need to analyze my knowledge of the UK system; I disagree with your interpretation of its intent and outcome, it doesn't I'm ignorant.

And as far as I can tell he most certain meant to imply they were hucksters. Hell, they are.

Also, I missed the part where they won.
posted by Bovine Love at 6:35 PM on March 13, 2010


truth is not an absolute defense against libel in the UK.

The people at YourRights.org.uk disagree with you:
Justification (truth)
It is a complete defence to an action for defamation to prove that the defamatory imputation is substantially true.
There are actually two major exceptions to this. The first is that truth is no defense when defaming someone by referring to their spent convictions, although justification may still be a defense. The other is that you can't spread a rumour by saying "I don't know whether this rumour is true or not, but I have proof that there is such a rumour". If you're going to spread a rumour you had better be prepared to prove that the underlying facts are true. IANAL.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:56 PM on March 13, 2010


Bovine Love: “It is unnecessary to put words in my mouth. I see your point, I disagree, I see no need to analyze my knowledge of the UK system; I disagree with your interpretation of its intent and outcome, it doesn't mean I'm ignorant.”

Sorry; I didn't mean to imply that you're ignorant. I only wanted to point out that the highest legal authority in the UK also thinks that the system is broken. You've said that we only feel as though this is an example of libel/slander law being messed up because we don't like the big, bad BCA ganging up on Simon, and that we would feel differently if the situation was reversed; I disagree, I think this is a real and thoroughgoing problem, and I just wanted to show that. This isn't personal, though, and I'm sorry if I made it sound like it was.

“And as far as I can tell he most certain meant to imply they were hucksters. Hell, they are.”

Are they? I don't think he was arguing that they really believe that they're intentionally lying to people. I think Simon Singh believes that they're simply incorrect, that they're superstitious or something. That makes the most sense to me. It takes real guts to knowingly lie to people for money - only high-grade Scientologists do this kind of thing nowadays, so far as I can tell. No, I think chiropractors really do believe that what they're saying is true - I just believe that they're wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 6:59 PM on March 13, 2010


No problem. I tend to have faith in people and do doubt that most chiropractors are flat out lying; as you say, it takes real guts, not to mention a fair hunk of "evil" if you believe in such things. I suppose huckster does require a certain amount of intent, so perhaps your right.

Still, I find the basic premise of their system fascinating, particularly when you see the legal system used as a weapon so often. Now, of course, it is being used as a weapon in this case, but it is so often used the other way, where the person defamed is in a position of relative social/economic weakness and, because the burden of proof falls on them, is unable to force the stronger party to be accountable. The British system, in theory at least, promises to improve that. Of course, it can be abused as well; I'd be curious as to which system is most inclined to abuse. Certainly we've seen many morally questionable cases there, but that is the case for everywhere.

I'm actually don't believe either the british or US system is fundamentally broken and both have things they could learn from each other.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2010


If you genuinely think that the British libel system helps to protect the underdog from unfair allegations by the rich and powerful, then I honestly don't know what to say to you.

I could point out that there is no legal aid for libel cases, that there are massive legal costs involved in retaining a silk (who can charge up to £900 per hour), that the payment into court system is little more than an extremely high stakes game of roulette, that procedural errors can cost innocent people hundreds of thousands of pounds through no fault of their own, that libel awards are out of step with all other payments for damages within the British legal system legal, that an steady increase in libel tourism is making speech less free both in Britain and across the globe, that cases can drag on for half a decade and completely destroy people's lives or that the current system is seen as a convenient source of occasional tax-free income for the super-rich at the expense of those who cannot afford to fight in the current system.

I don't know what else I can say to persuade you. I am agog that anybody could take even the most casual look at the British libel laws and describe them as anything other than fundamentally broken.
posted by the latin mouse at 1:38 PM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you missed the "in theory".
posted by Bovine Love at 8:27 AM on March 15, 2010


New thread.
posted by homunculus at 11:41 AM on April 1, 2010


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