Simon Singh and the back quacks

[BPSDB]I’d like to support Simon Singh in his current legal difficulties but I have no intention to join Facebook. (I did start signing up once but I read the terms and conditions and changed my mind.)

If there are some who don’t know what this is about, Dr Singh is a victim of the broken libel laws of England. He wrote an article criticising chiropractors for the following claim by the Brtish Chiropractic Association (BCA): “There is evidence to show that chiropractic care has helped children with the following symptoms: Asthma Colic, Prolonged crying, Sleep and feeding problems, Breathing difficulties, Hyperactivity, Bedwetting, Frequent infections, especially in the ears”.  Dr Singh and his colleague Edzard Ernst studied the evidence thoroughly and found none that supported the claim.

However, the BCA did not withdraw the claim (although the original leaflet is no longer on the BCA website) and did not produce any evidence for the claim. Instead, it sued Dr Singh for libel.

The BCA has put out a highly misleading statement. The BCA has not been “vindicated” as the trial has not yet taken place (and may yet not happen). It is important to remember that damages in a libel case are awarded as compensation for loss of reputation. The BCA has not been awarded damages, only costs of the hearings so far.

What has happened is that the judge has put an obstacle in Dr Singh’s way by insisting that, to win his case, he must prove something that he didn’t mean in the first place (and apparently, even the BCA did not claim that he meant it). He has to prove that the BCA dishonestly promotes unproven treatments. Jack of Kent has further details from a lawyer’s point of view.

The English libel law is a litigant’s delight, but reputation is not only a matter of the law. It is likely that the BCA will come to regret its actions. The fact is that they made the claims about chiropractic (even though they have taken the document off their web site) and they have failed to provide any evidence to support them, opting for legal action instead. Suppose that the BCA  had come forward with evidence. I am sure that Dr Singh would have withdrawn his criticism graciously, and if he had not, there might then have been grounds for a libel action.

As it is, going straight to law (or threats of legal action) without first publicly answering criticism may well become widely thought of as a distinguishing mark of the quack, especially when the matter is one of scientific evidence. See Quackometer and the Society of HomeopathsDavid Colquoun and Ann Walker, and Ben Goldacre and Matthias Rath – if you follow these issues through, you will see that the quacks lost in each matter. A legal ruling can offer only a monetary remedy, but trying to suppress criticism sets in process a whole series of consequences which may never have been intended.

And as far as I’m concerned, the BCA has demonstrated its lack of integrity, and also why you should never touch a chiropractor with a bargepole – or, rather, never let them touch you.