Simon Singh, Libel Law, and the British Chiropractic Association

For those not aware, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) brought a libel suit in English courts against science writer and comedian Simon Singh for an article he wrote in The Guardian in April 2008. The crux of their disagreement rests in this excerpt from Singh’s article:

“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.”

For some time, it appeared that Singh would lose the battle on legal semantics. Following a May 2009 preliminary hearing, the judge found Singh’s statement that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments” was Singh’s assertion of fact and not opinion. Therefore, the burden of proof rested on Singh to show that the BCA knowingly provided treatments which they (as an organization) and their members (as individual practitioners) patently knew to be ineffectual. Short of every BCA member sitting on the stand and admitting their malfeasance (a near impossible task), Singh was sure to lose the case and face financial ruin in the process. The scientific and libel reform communities could do nothing but hang their heads in disgust. A break in a string of bad news came earlier in the week, however, when the Royal Courts of Justice in London rendered an appellate decision to permit Singh’s statement as a matter of opinion, thereby permitting a “fair comment” defense. While this is great news for Simon Singh and a first step towards the much-needed reform of British libel laws, it is still a capitulation to the slovenly and ignorant BCA and the pseudoscience they employ to justify their actions.

Categorizing Singh’s criticism of the BCA as opined rather than factually based leaves the public nearly where it was prior to the original Guardian publication. The underlying truth to all of this, of course, is that the BCA hasn’t the slightest bit of peer-reviewed proof, as Singh rightfully pointed out, that any number of remedies they espouse do anything beneficial at all. Quite to the contrary, there is significant evidence that some chiropractic treatments sanctioned by the BCA actually cause harm. When asked to produce research proving that the BCA knew its treatment was efficacious and therefore not “bogus”, the organization cherry-picked its results, only providing data on lower back pain and not the number of problems (ear infections, asthma, infant colic, etc) that were specifically refuted by Singh. While the appellate decision will likely spare Singh financial calamity, it does little to address the fraudulent claims made by the BCA.

The language used in the court’s formal ruling reads sympathetically to this conundrum, that the suit “almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic.” The relevant judges in the case continued by quoting from a landmark 1994 case in the United States involving libel suits and science, “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation.” Such a strong statement gives clear direction to lower courts when considering future libel cases along the same lines, which does go a long way in the reform of British defamation law. It’s just a pity that Singh’s article must be relegated from factually grounded scientific journalism to the realm of lowly opinion in order to turn the litigious tide.

For the record, the BCA is bogus, and so is the American Chiropractic Association. Its practitioners are deluded at best, and they continue to make claims that are wholly unfounded. They do nothing to advance science-based medicine in either country, and are a prime example of the serious pitfalls alternative medicine brings to modern health care. While my microphone isn’t the size of Dr. Singh’s, I have no problem saying so. They can’t sue us all.

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~ by Wil Finley on April 4, 2010.

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