Science, Chiropractic, and libel laws

Scientist and author Simon Singh is in a spot of trouble. His crime is writing a strongly-worded article on the lack of evidence for several claims made by the chiropractic profession. In it, he criticizes the British Chiropractic Association’s (BCA) promotion of chiropractic treatments for certain conditions:

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.

Note that he’s not name-calling here. He’s making a claim – that certain treatments promoted by the BCA have no good evidence behind them – and backing it up with data. (Here’s an Amazon link for the book he mentions.)

So why is he in trouble then? Surely stronger (and less well-evidenced) claims are made in the media all the time.

Rather than try to refute his claims on scientific grounds – perhaps by submitting a counter-article – the BCA responded by crying libel. They have taken advantage of the ill-designed and internationally condemned libel laws in the UK, tying Singh up in expensive proceedings which are already going against him.

Specifically, the BCA is complaining about the word “bogus”. The judge at the preliminary hearing agreed with the BCA that the word implied that the BCA knowingly promoted unproven treatments. I’ll leave it to more savvy linguists to address the dramatic ridiculousness of this interpretation – or read Singh’s article (linked and excerpted above) to see for yourself.

Basically, the BCA’s original claims are factually wrong;, and Singh’s critique was proportionate to the evidence, with no evident desire to exaggerate the facts in order to damage the BCA’s reputation. Is he being sued only because the BCA doesn’t like to be criticized? It looks like it. As a British taxpayer, I do not think that deserves my tax dollars. The case should be thrown out, and the BCA should pay expenses to Singh, plus a penalty for wasting the court’s time.

But I’m not the judge. And even if I were, British law is skewed massively in favour of the accuser in libel cases – particularly if the accuser is rich.

Which is very worrying. Does British law value the tender feelings of professionals over free speech? Do we want honest, evidence-based criticism to be trampled on in favour of wealthy interest groups?

The judgement in the preliminary hearing feels like a blow against free speech, science-based journalism, and common sense, there is cause for hope. Check out these links for extensive roundups of the case and the coverage it has gained in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Between the BCA’s bullying behaviour, the bad law, and the ridiculous linguistic inclinations of the judge, they are likely to end up looking even worse (and Singh even more noble and valiant) than if they’d just let the article sink into yesterday’s news.

If you live in the UK and are as disturbed as I am about how Britain’s unjust libel laws can be and are used to silence important exercises of free speech, then sign this online petition. It will be seen by MPs. In conjunction with the increasing media coverage, a petition like this might actually motivate them to reform the libel law in this country.

And, since that won’t change things in the short term, let’s make some noise in support of Simon Singh. Here are some other bloggers that are keeping an eye on the situation:

Here is a Facebook group for supporters of Simon.

I would also like to extend kudos to the Guardian newspaper, for supporting Singh in this fight (and Ben Goldacre before him). The little-guy-against-the-giant image may be inspiring, but in real life it’s good to have slightly more even odds. Good for them.



4 Responses to “Science, Chiropractic, and libel laws”

  1. Deena Says:

    I sent this query to the BCA:"I read the on the BCA website the latest update regarding the Simon Singh libel case ( and was curious regarding the 27 papers in support of chiropractic mentioned in the article. Would you be able to provide me with the references for these articles so that I can look them up? Or are they listed on a page on the BCA website?Also, the update expresses scepticism regarding any risks of chiropractic treatment. I went to a chiropractor several years ago in Canada and I remember having to sign some type of waiver/release acknowledging that I was aware of the possible (though extremely slight) risk of injury due to chiropractic treatment (I think it specifically mentioned stroke and paralysis). If I were to visit a chiropractor here in the UK, would I be asked to sign any similar type of document?"and received this reply:"Thank you for your e-mail enquiry. As the case is still sub-judice, I regret that for the time-being the BCA is unable to relase details of the papers mentioned. In the UK, as chiropractic is statutorily regulated, chiropractors are required to obtained informed consent from patients before treatment can commence. This includes discussion about risk factors, and other relevant issues but consent does not have to be given in writing."In other words – the BCA cannot provide any evidence to me, a consumer, that chiropractic treatment is safe and effective until the libel case is over?? Seems more than a tad fishy to me!-Deena

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thanks for that, Deena.Also, take a look at this article about chiropractic in New Scientist, written by Edzard Ernst (coauthor with Singh of the book Trick or Treatment). He doesn’t say much about the libel suit, but he does make the following comment:”Is it acceptable that scientists and journalists are restricted in their criticism by the legal muscle of those who are being criticised? And is it acceptable that professional bodies, such as the British Chiropractic Association – or indeed any other organisation – are able to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by scientific data?”Remember that this is a professor of “complementary and alternative medicine” – someone who has no vested interest in debunking chiropractic.And here’s another excellent article in the Guardian on the issue. The author (Nick Cohen) lucidly presents the central issues here – specifically the evils of using legal rather than scientific forums to persuade people of the effectiveness of medical treatments.He also shares some very interesting (if only barely relevant) notes on the life of Daniel David Palmer, the man who came up with chiropractic in the late 19th century.

  3. Science, skepticism, and chiropractors « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] indignation stirred up by their libel suit against Simon Singh (which I have blogged about already, here and here), the British Chiropractic Association has put forth another defense of their actions (and […]

  4. Singh fights on « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] the basic story, see my earlier post or just do a web search for Simon Singh and BCA. Jack of Kent is keeping pretty detailed track of […]

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