Bittersweet justice for Singh

by Colby Cosh

Simon Singh MBE, the celebrated science writer and documentarian, has officially won his libel tilt with the British Chiropractic Association. In April 2008 Singh wrote a column for the Guardian about the persistence of pre-scientific ideas in the British chiropractic trade. What most people now think of as merely an expert form of massage began with the claim that spinal maladjustments were the source of virtually all disease in humans, and some chiropractors still believe they can cure a lot more than back and joint pain. Singh wrote:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. 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.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

(Singh’s column went on to discuss the controversy surrounding the 1998 death of Saskatchewan chiropractic patient Laurie Jean Mathiason.)

English libel law is so tough on defendants that the world’s rich and offended will torture jurisdictional logic to the point of incoherence if it means their complaint can be heard in an English courtroom. But the BCA had it easy; Singh was trapped right there on the island with them. They took him to court. And only him; they chose not to name the Guardian in their claim at all.

English libel requires the judge to issue pre-trial rulings on the meanings of offending passages. Singh, whose piece had appeared in the Comment section of the Guardian, argued before Sir David Eady that his use of the word “bogus” meant only that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of the impugned treatments. But the judge not only closed off the fair comment defence; he ruled, without giving much indication that he was paying close attention to the arguments or the relevant text, that the term denoted conscious and deliberate dishonesty. This shifted a frightful burden of proof onto Singh, requiring him to show not only that British chiropractors were offering useless and unverifiable treatments, but that they did so with the certain and specific knowledge that they were useless and unverifiable.

It became clear almost immediately that the BCA had overplayed its hand. Eady’s ruling rightly raised a worldwide clamour against the depraved state of the law and the health of free inquiry in the land of Newton and Darwin. (This has helped put libel reform on the agendas of all major parties in the current UK election.) It is, after all, almost not enough to say that science “depends” on the freedom to make tough evidentiary criticisms; considered socially, science is practically equivalent to the possibility of making them. Meanwhile, the beam of a million-watt searchlight had been attracted to the claims and conduct of the British chiropractic business. In a canonical demonstration of the Streisand Effect, the country’s statutory regulator of chiropractic, which holds the activity and advertising of practitioners to an explicitly scientific standard, was obliged to launch literally hundreds of investigations into strip-mall spine-crackers.

The harm that British chiropractic has done to itself is incalculable; meanwhile, it has had to give up hope of impoverishing Singh, who had Eady’s ruling overturned by the England and Wales Court of Appeal on April 1. In asking a public controversy concerning a question of evidence to be a matter for a libel suit, wrote the Lord Chief Justice, the BCA was inviting the court to serve as “an Orwellian ministry of truth”. The court, he added, must decline to do so. (He did not neglect to throw in a pinch of old John Milton and his Areopagitica.)

One ought not to admonish the BCA for abandoning its libel action; it was self-evidently the right thing to do. But what does it say about British libel law that the Association did so almost immediately once the fair comment defence was made available to Singh—a commentator by profession, one whose standing to assess and challenge scientific evidence could hardly be higher? Just one month ago, Singh announced that he would be ceasing his newspaper column for good. One hopes he will reconsider, but it is still uncertain that he will recover his own defence costs, and the time and effort he has expended will never be recouped.

Bittersweet justice for Singh

  1. I guess shooting oneself in the foot is less of a science and more of an art, then.

  2. "What most people now think of as merely an expert form of massage began with the claim that spinal maladjustments were the source of virtually all disease in humans …. "

    I knew nothing about the chiropractic trade until about 18 months ago and my shoulder was bothering me and regular doctors could not help. I went to see chiropractor and she sorted out my problem in two, twenty minute appointments. I thought chiropractors were great and then started to read more about the quackery many of them peddle and decided that some people are nutters, and some are doing valuable work.

    I think UK justice system is mess because there are two different systems at work. You have traditional UK common law and for the past 10-15 years there have also been many directives from Brussels about justice/libel/speech laws. Libel reform may be on the agenda of the parties but there is little they can do to change system unless they are willing to take UK out of EU, which none of them have the spine to do.

  3. This case should also serve as a warning to those that consider the courts a better place to set policy than parliament. The initial judgment was so bad it almost beggars belief.

  4. Wonder what 'Doctor" Dhalla would say?

  5. A review of British libel law could have been set in motion long ago. The Mclibel trial in the 1990's for instance showed that large companies were willing to go to extreme lenghts to shut the mouths of any and all critics, including underemployed activists.

    As an aside, it's a general outrage that the rights and privileges of citizens in many parts of the world including Canda, have been blithely coopted into corporate rights by the courts, without any debate or democratic decision, and that those rights we have extended by default are now used to bully actual citizens who have real concerns or public interest to defend.

  6. Good thing for Singh that they backed off. It sounds like he was given an impossible burden of proof to meet.

  7. All that being said, anything that shines light on the hocus-pocus of bone-twisting for cash is a step in the direction of the triumph of evidence over bullsh*t.

    I wonder if there's a connection here…

  8. And you will of course follow this up with a column on how the CRU scientists were cleared of the scurrilous and untrue allegations raised against them by Steve McIntyre and Co., and will then turn your attention to debunking the bogus science behind AGW denier claims.

    Soon, I imagine. Real soon.

    • The CRU scientists were told pretty clearly–even by a rather compromised arbiter–that they needed to clean up their act when it comes to statistical practice. I'm not sure why McIntyre would regard this as a defeat, especially since his work was singled out personally for praise by the statistician on the Oxburgh panel.

      • Well, CRU was told that their statistics were essentially correct if not quite as efficiently done as they could have been; McI was told that his work was admirable but wrong. HE certainly regards it as a defeat.

        And if you want to persist with "its a whitewash" line, go right ahead. This is, however, the third report exonorating CRU, but I suppose you could just argue that means the "conspiracy" is even broader than you previously thought.

        • I bet you make the quotation marks with your fingers when you act like this in real life, don't you?

          • From the Guardian:

            "The inquiry, the second of three set up in the wake of the controversy, found "absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever", according to Lord Oxburgh, who led the investigation.
            Instead, Oxburgh said, many of the criticisms and assertions of scientific misconduct were likely made by people "who do not like the implications of some of the conclusions" reached by the climate experts."

            Considering the allegations made were almost exclusively centred on the supposed falsification of data undermining the whole climate change argument, and not so much on sloppy record keeping, I would count this as a pretty epic smackdown.

          • Oxburgh's assertions about the motives of the critics would carry more weight if he had bothered to actually read and listen to their criticisms. It is not a whitewash; he didn't even bother to get the brush out.

          • "Instead, Oxburgh said, many of the criticisms and assertions of scientific misconduct were likely made by people "who do not like the implications of some of the conclusions" reached by the climate experts."

            I think someone is projecting. If science is sound, and can withstand some scrutiny, why put guy with ties to 'green' energy in charge of investigation? You would think someone in UK without ties to climate science could be found to investigate.

            "Climate sceptics questioned whether Lord Oxburgh, chairman of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and the wind energy company Falck Renewables, was truly independent because he led organisations that depended on climate change being seen as an urgent problem." The Times, March 23, 2010.

          • The issue raised was McIntyre, specifically. Did you not get this far in the same Guardian story?

            "At a press conference to launch the review's findings, [Royal Statistical Society chief] David Hand re-ignited a long-standing row about a high-profile study published in 1998 by scientists led by Michael Mann at Penn State University, US. The paper featured an emblematic graph known as the "hockey-stick" that showed temperature rise in the twentieth century was unprecedented in recent history. Hand said the study gave him an "uneasy feeling" because it used "inappropriate statistical tools". The hockey-stick effect was genuine, Hand said, but the 1998 paper exaggerated it. He praised Steve McIntyre, a Canadian climate blogger who led much of the criticism of the CRU scientists, for identifying the problem."

            The people who said "McIntyre is an anti-science nutjob" when I wrote about him a few months ago are apparently now content to mumble "OK, he might be a complete amateur whose handling of statistics is superior to that of the entire CRU combined, but he's still a bad guy with an agenda". I do not think my McIntyre piece has been epically smacked down; I think if I have ten more days that good in journalism they'll build a statue of me. Feel free to make your own judgment.

          • In my defence, I was reacting to what you wrote today. Hadn't actually read your previous piece.
            But allegations of fraud were entirely dismissed. If you choose to disagree with the competence or bias of the investigator, that's another argument entirely.

            As to the smackdown, effect, that was intended as a general shot across the bow for all those (and lord knows how many chimed in) warming skeptics who claimed, with gusto, that the emails proved deliberate fraud. Inforwars, climatechangefraud.com and multitudes of others. Not that any of those folks are likely to accept these findings.

            As for your journalistic skills? You've invited me to make a judgement, so I've gone back and read the piece.
            As one who once earned a living as an ink-stained wretch, I can only opine, using my own standards, that if you have ten more days "that good" in journalism, you'd be underqualified to be an assistant editor of Macleans.

            Hey, you asked.

          • We don't let people who use cigar-scented clichés like "ink-stained wretch" set those standards anymore. Many of them lots their lives in the terror-purges.

          • The standards of good journalism haven't changed, Mr. Cosh.
            Research, try to keep an open mind, and present both sides of a story.
            Do your best to remain objective.

            How's that working for you?

          • Pretty well, apparently. How's whatever you do when you're not being anonymous on the internet working for you?

          • …Quite, 12 years ago or so McI noted a minor minor statistical flaw in Mann's paper, which Mann corrected 11 years ago and afterwards got the same result. If you look at the "spaghetti graphs" proxy studies produce nowadays they look very much like Mann's origonal hockey stick.

            McI, 12 years later, is still insinuating that the hockey stick graph has been utterly undermined and therefore so is all climate science, when in fact the actual scientific significance in his result is about equivalent to me finding a typo in one of your stories from a that same time period.

            All the stuff about Briffa cherry picking information, or the commie plot stuff, that McI has pushed over the past six months are denounced as garbage in the Oxburgh report (as McI admits at Climate Audit–the report took alot of shots at him, though he is never named).

            If you don't think McI thinks he lost this one, visit his website and listen to his whining.

            PS. How often do you shave? Every six months whether you need it or not?

          • Hand doesn't think the error was insignificant, and he emphasized yesterday that the visual drama of the hockey-stick is much diminished when it's re-done properly. Apparently this is received wisdom now (and very suddenly too), but this doesn't count as a victory for McIntyre. As long as you're moving goalposts, maybe you could come mow my lawn too.

          • OH MY! The Visual Drama was Diminished! DIMINISHED, I TELL YOU! That's just one step down from being a world-wide commie plot to lie about temperature records!

            …which is the line you were channeling a couple of months ago.

          • The "line I was channelling"? DEATH TO THE RIGHT DEVIATIONISTS AND CAPITALIST ROADERS! ALL-CAPS ARE THE UNANSWERABLE ARGUMENT!

          • Amen, bigcitylib and M_A_N.

            "Journalists" (yes, I'm using my fingers) like Cosh are only interested in covering the initial controversy to get eyeballs and web-hits on their leaden prose. The results and eventual truth that comes out of the inquiry? Who cares, right Cosh? No wonder science literacy and journalism is in such a sorry state in this country.

          • It is odd, though, how he champions evidence-based science with the chiropractic story, then ignores inconveniently accurate science in the climate change file. Were he using the same standards, both Mr. Singh and CRU would be in the right, or the climate change deniers and the chiropractors would be celebrating their victory together. Quite odd.

            Cognitive Dissonance must be a right bugger to self-rationalize…

          • "Plagued by reports of sloppy work, falsifications and exaggerations, climate research is facing a crisis of confidence. How reliable are the predictions about global warming and its consequences? And would it really be the end of the world if temperatures rose by more than the much-quoted limit of two degrees Celsius?" Der Spiegel, Apr 01, 2010
            http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,…

            Best article I have seen so far in msm that presents both sides of the argument.

            "It is odd, though, how he champions evidence-based science with the chiropractic story, then ignores inconveniently accurate science in the climate change file …. "

            The science that CRU, and others, are doing is not remotely evidence based. We all know the truth – climate science is a new science and there is no agreed upon general theory of climate. Scientists are just making it up as they go along, they can't predict climate accurately over the course of a decade but we are supposed to believe the science is sound when they predict a century or two into the future.

            By not writing about how un-scientific climate science is, msm is doing the warmists a huge favour.

          • Re: "The science that CRU, and others, are doing is not remotely evidence based." and "Scientists are just making it up as they go along…"

            Thanks for making my point about how poor science literacy is in this country.

          • Are you pointing out how poor your science literacy is and are complaining about school system?

            As just one example of what I am talking about:

            "Even though researchers have been refining their climate models for more than 30 years, there is one natural phenomenon that continues to elude them. "Clouds still pose the biggest problem for us," says Marotzke. "The uncertainties are still very big. This remains the most important issue for us."

            It all seems simple enough in theory. When temperatures rise, more moisture evaporates. But does that mean that more clouds form as a result? And if so, do they curb or accelerate global warming?

            On their upper surfaces, clouds act like mirrors. They reflect sunlight back into space, thereby cooling the atmosphere. But on their lower surfaces they prevent the heat reflected by the Earth from escaping, and temperatures rise.

            Which of the two effects predominates depends on the height and type of clouds. "You just have to look up to see how many different types there are," says US cloud expert Björn Stevens, the new director of the MPI-M. "And each cloud type behaves differently." Spiegel, Apr 1, 2010

          • Nice non-reply, Colby.

    • And aren't we all surprised that UK government in general, and Lord Oxburgh in particular, are declaring that CRU is just great. What are the chances of government admitting they got it wrong and should have not spent tens of billions of $$$ on something that is not occuring. It is one big scam to bilk taxpayers out of cash and transfer it to the wealthy and connected. Nice policy Labour is following, take from the poor, give to the rich.

      "A member of the House of Lords appointed to investigate the veracity of climate science has close links to businesses that stand to make billions of pounds from low-carbon technology …. Climate sceptics questioned whether Lord Oxburgh, chairman of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and the wind energy company Falck Renewables, was truly independent because he led organisations that depended on climate change being seen as an urgent problem." The Times, March 23, 2010.

  9. Remarkably well, actually.

    Sadly, my employment prevents me from being more forthright as to my identity. I avoid complications with this situation by remaining mostly civil and staying away from potentially actionable situations. Hell, I can't even put up election signs.

    And I'm glad you recognize that, humourous asides aside, the standards actually haven't changed. I don't like your writing style, but then again, I liked Battlefield Earth, and I still think Hemmingway should have cut most of his sentences in half.

    • You liked Battlefield Earth? I don't mean to question your taste in movies, but are you sure you watched it sober?

      • Well, I wasn't drinking much back then…however, there may be other explanations.

        Perhaps "liked" could be substituted with "enjoyed the experience, man".

      • Nice one, CR.

  10. Came for the personal testimonials of chiropractic cured readers' ADHD and halitosis, man. Leaving disappointed.

  11. The fight is neither new nor over. The enforcement of the state on our most basic needs and the favoring of the politicaly well connected is as old as government. The state wouldn't dare impose our religion on us, but doesn't blink when it comes to something just as profound. I'm sure few to none will read this link…perhaps you will Colby?
    http://blog.mises.org/12495/100-years-of-us-medic

  12. It seems to me that chiropractic is like so many things in life: it does have a role, it does do some good in certain circumstances. The problem stems from two things: people with vested interests in it (e.g., unscrupulous chiropractors looking to expand their book of business by claiming it cures everything), and fanatics/nutjob adherents (e.g., people who completely buy into the claims by the former). Both of these camps end up claiming way too much for chiropractic, and that's where all the idiocy stems from. The one time in my life I went to a chiropractor, she was very good, and she definitely cured the specific alignment problem (a rib-head injury) that was causing me pain and discomfort. I was thankful for that. But I've never been again, because there's been no need.

  13. For those who might think there is no value in chiropractic treatment I would refer them to another in a long line of reports as to efficacy and cost effectiveness called Do Chiropractic Physician Services for Treatment of Low Back and Neck Pain Improve the Value of Health Benefit Plans? The full text of the report is available athttp://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://images.v

  14. My wife dragged me to a little information that a chiropractor held, I thought it was just so much magical thinking. Just the fact that they have to have little propaganda nights tells me that it's bunk… does your doctor do that?

    • He doesn't have to…his/her trade association made contrary opinion illegal/illiogical…read the link above to the Von Mises blog and learn some inconvenient history, perhap you'll give your chiro another shot.

      • I don't think I'll be giving her another shot. Much of what she said was easily disproved and borderline laughable.

      • I Read it.

        Peter, for your next assignment you and Mises should take town the American Mathematical Association. In particular I would like to know if they have a history of racism and sexism, because if they do, where does that leave arithmetic?

        I'm sick of subtracting two apples from three and being left with just one; isn't it time we opened our minds to other less hegemonic kinds of figuring?

        • Perhaps you will have to extend yourself and incorporate "understanding what you've read" into your repetoire. Check the references. Ultimately the AMA is just like the Teamsters or any other self-serving outfit. Elsewhere in this thread is a gunfight about AGW…the mechanism is identiclal the motives very similar. The difference is you are seeing the fraud exposed in real time via the net. In the 20s and 30s the same trusts pushing for the AMA also had a lock on the media. Testimony to the safety and efficacy of natural medicine is its persistance in the face of a global smackdown that has lasted for 100 years. The big problem with natural medicine is that from a "business" point of view the products are unpatentable (because they are natural molecules). (cont)

    • as a chiropractor who practices in a manner befitting the honor of his profession, i would like to give advice to those seeking relief from musculoskeletal pain and wanting to give chiropractic a try. 1) seek out a chiropractor who you feel comfortable speaking with first before making an appointment. 2) if they insist you bring along a family member or friend to an evening "talk", cancel your appointment 3) if they want you to sign a contract before starting care, go find another chiropractor. 4) If they want you to commit to a treatment plan longer than 4-6 weeks, then consider seeing another chiro 5) be wary of those who insist they don't diagnose, but rather only " treat subluxations" . what that means, usually is that they aren't skilled enough to diagnose and therefore avoid rendering a diagnosis. Chiropractic care is incredibly helpful in that it has a great level of efficacy, is extremely cost efficient and is a proven treatment for mechanical low back pain as well as other musculoskeletal conditions.

  15. "is a proven treatment for mechanical low back pain as well as other musculoskeletal conditions."…and it's lawn raking/digging in the garden season so there should be a ready supply of folks po'd with nsaids and exo-skeletal muscle relaxers! Try it, you go in walking like a crab and come out ready to book a tee time.

  16. (cont.)The Big Medicine counter has been "evidence based medicine", unfortunately for patients, the business community has no interest in heath outcomes and a tremendous vested interest in sales outcomes: ergo the only way to collect the evidence is to jump through multi-hundred million dollar hoops to get to market. While arguably a majority of MDs understand this, their educational debt loads and their need to stay within the "standards of practice" mandated by their self-reinforcing licencing authorities (see the flexner report) keeps them quiet. The problem is greatly exacerbated by pension liabilities and entitlement programs and Wall St. chicanery….see deepcapture.com, the Denderon story…and in that one they are eating their own.

    • Before I descend into your web of selectively capitalized Medical Conspiracies, and check your sources' references, and their references' references, I just want to know: can you cure my ear infection or not?

      I'm perfectly happy with the reasonable suggestions made by ethical-doc (below) about chiropratic's efficacy in treating a narrow range of problems (although I wish they'd change their name to "low back therapists"). I'll go one better and urge the medical community to co-opt modern chiropractic's superior finesse with the healing ritual.

      When your sales pitch involves pointing out the ages-past flaws in the other guy's practice while simultaneously exempting yourself from any standard of evidence, I start to wonder who's paying YOUR bills.

      • Brilliant post.

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