Apparently I went to bed just too early last night to see the Twitterscape and blogosphere explode with the news: Simon Singh is indeed going to be appealing against the ruling in the preliminary hearing, in his legal case in which he is charged with libel by the British Chiropractic Association.
His book Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Edzard Ernst, is currently in the process of knocking my socks off (quite inconvenient and uncomfortable, actually, especially if I’m also wearing shoes at the time), and although I haven’t got to the chapter on chiropractic yet, I’ve read the article that sparked all this controversy, and I’m becoming fairly familiar with the nature of his approach and the rigorous care with which he uses language when discussing these matters.
He described some of the treatments promoted by the BCA as “bogus”, because there is no solid scientific evidence suggesting that they’re effective. He clarified his use of the word “bogus” in the very next paragraph, and has taken great pains, in many different circumstances, to clearly delineate the differences in his descriptions of the treatments, and of the people and organisations promoting them. Large passages of his book are about how easy it is for people to be mistaken in their personal evaluations of the evidence, if a great deal of scientific rigour is not brought to the proceedings, and how many treatments have thus, in the past, been honestly and sincerely promoted, while not actually having any genuine clinical benefits.
The BCA seem to want to think that, as a result of reading Simon’s comments, people will imagine a cackling horde of evil alternative medicine practitioners, gleefully rubbing their hands at how many gullible fools are falling for their tricks, and wondering what they can do next to deceive us for their own nefarious purposes. But I really don’t think that this is what’s implied by his criticism of their treatments.
What he’s trying to do, above anything else, is discuss modern medicine, and any such discussion which doesn’t permit even the most basic criticism – “This seems bogus; where’s your evidence?” – is entirely worthless. A debate that encourages questioning, promotes careful scrutiny, and demands that claims be backed up with carefully analysed facts, is what allows us to make progress in our understanding, and come to know things that we didn’t used to know.
Suing for libel as soon as you hear a voice of mild disagreement and trying to suppress it? Does that in any way improve the overall state of affairs, or help establish any actual medical facts about the efficacy of chiropractic, or do anything to assist the public at large in making informed decisions about how best to look after themselves and their families? Or does it just stifle dissent, ignore evidence, and keep people in the dark?
It may not be unreasonable to ask that there be some limitations on the kind of accusations that people are allowed to throw at each other. But calling some of the treatments promoted by the BCA bogus (which they are) is really pretty tame as far as libel goes. He’s never suggested (and nor am I) that the BCA are doing anything knowingly dishonest. (Though DC’s Improbable Science has a great quote from an 1894 Iowa newspaper, which shows how much less restrained people had a chance to be in their assessment of “quackery” in the late 19th century.)
If a country is going to claim to be a place that values free speech while keeping a straight face, things really need to be strongly weighted in favour of the unfettered expression of ideas. We shouldn’t start shutting people up and forbidding them from saying whatever the hell they want, unless we’re pretty damn sure that what they’re saying is not only incorrect, but doing someone undue harm – for the same reason that we do our best not to lock people in a cell for years at a time until we’ve made pretty damn sure they’ve really done something to merit it.
I really hope this turns out well. Simon’s a good guy, with the knowledge and the brains to know what he’s talking about when it comes to this kind of data, and the intellectual honesty, curiosity, and humility to genuinely follow the truth as best he can. If the BCA had the evidence on their side, and used it to form an actual counter-argument, I really think he’d support them and the treatments they promote, insofar as a scientifically rigorous understanding of the facts justified it. They’re not taking that option, though, because so far the scientific evidence just doesn’t seem to be on their side. So they’re just suing him, hoping he’ll shut up, and scaring the hell out of anyone else who might be thinking of speaking up in defense of science-based medicine and against bogosity.
And because the libel laws in this country are completely backward, they don’t even have to prove that he did a damn thing wrong, for him to be in a lot of legal trouble and massively out of pocket.
The site Sense About Science has an article by Simon Singh from yesterday, detailing his thoughts on the whole process up to this point. They’ve also set up a petition which you can read here, and sign here, in support of allowing scientific dispute and evidence-based discussion, rather than letting libel law stifle free expression. They also have a compilation of what many people much cleverer than me have said about this case. Top of the list are some wonderful words from Stephen Fry. There are also a great number of esteemed scientists, journalists, and so forth, but… do you really think you know better than Stephen Fry? (If you spotted the Appeal to Authority fallacy, well done! However, a little-known fact of logic is that a loophole in this fallacy exists in the case of Stephen Fry, and you can in fact appeal to his authority and be indisputably correct.)
A plethora of hat-tips (mostly alerted to me through Twitter) to: