British physicist and science writer Simon Singh wrote in The Guardian that there is not a jot of evidence for the claim of the chiropractics that their treatments are effective for certain children’s ailments, but that this doesn’t stop them from ‘happily’ selling their ‘bogus’ treatments. The chiropractics, many of whom claim that their treatments are helpful in conditions like asthma, adhd and – as they did on this blog – even cancer, dragged Singh to court for libel. The judge found for the chiropractics, but Singh decided to appeal the verdict.
The science broadcaster and writer Simon Singh has been refused permission to appeal against a ruling in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. His case has aroused the anger of many in the science community, who describe the libel laws as encouraging the law courts to silence critics. Singh will launch a new attempt to appeal.
The ruling, made in May by Mr Justice Eady, said that an article by Dr Singh for the Guardian newspaper, published on 19 April 2008, was defamatory and alleged that the association was happy to promote bogus treatments (BMJ 2009;338:b2127, 26 May, doi:10.1136/bmj.b2127).
In the article (which has been removed from the Guardian’s website) Dr Singh criticised the British Chiropractic Association for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic,
ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. He described the treatments as “bogus,” saying that they lacked sufficient evidence, and accused the association of “happily promoting” them.
The association claimed that the statement was wrong, defamatory, and damaging to its reputation. However, Dr Singh refused to retract the statement when pressed to do so by the association, leading to the libel action against him.
A statement from the campaigning group Sense About Science said, “Simon now has an option to apply for an oral hearing to try to overturn that decision. If he decides not to or if this fails his case will be tried on a meaning of a phrase he did not intend and is indefensible. This decision highlights the problem of narrow defences that, along with high costs and wide jurisdiction, make the English libel laws so restrictive to free speech.”
Last week publishers came out in support of Dr Singh by reproducing his article, in slightly modified form, in more than 50 magazines and blogs around the world. Sense About Science is running a campaign, “Keep libel laws out of science,” in support of Dr Singh and to promote an open debate about science and medicine in general. The group says that “the use of the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence discourages debate, denies the public access to the full picture, and encourages use of the courts to silence critics.” Rather than the association suing Dr Singh, Sense About Science would have preferred that it “had defended its position about chiropractic through an open discussion in the medical literature or mainstream media.”
The campaign, launched on 4 June, is backed by more than 100 people from the worlds of science, journalism, publishing, comedy, literature, and law, including Stephen Fry, Martin Amis, Richard Dawkins, and David King,
former chief scientific adviser to the government.
In the Guardian last week (29 July) Ben Goldacre, a doctor and author of the book Bad Science and the Guardian column of the same name, said that the case of Dr Singh has travelled around the world and drawn attention to
“often not compelling” evidence of the effectiveness of chiropractic.
Evidence to support specific claims of chiropractic’s effectiveness, which the British Chiropractic Association released 15 months after the case began, was “meticulously” taken apart by “a ragged band of bloggers” within 24 hours, says Dr Goldacre. He credits the bloggers with doing “a better job of subjecting an entire industry’s claims to meaningful, public scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself and even its own regulator.”
Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3166
See also: Jack of Kent on the reasons for the Court of Appeal’s refusal and Dutch skeptics have ‘bogus’ libel decision overturned on human rights grounds.