Singh appeal successful

2010-04-01

in Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Science, Writing

In a very welcome development, science writer Simon Singh (discussed twice before in relation to alternative medicine) has won his appeal against the libel suit brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. It was brave of him to launch the appeal, with all the further financial harm that would have accompanied another loss. Getting to this stage involved legal costs of £200,000. The whole kerfuffle was spawned when Singh wrote in an article that chiropractors promoted ‘bogus’ treatments, for which there was no scientific evidence of effectiveness. This statement was interpreted very strangely by a judge at an earlier stage in these legal proceedings, leading to much of the subsequent trouble.

This is a victory for free speech, sanity, and open inquiry. Hopefully, it will also free up some of Mr. Singh’s time to write more excellent books.

British Chiropractic Association President Richard Brown has said that they may appeal to the Supreme Court.

[Update: 11:20am] The ruling is online and worth a look. It contains some strong wording, along the lines of: “to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth.”

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 1, 2010 at 10:14 am

For the curious, here is exactly what Singh said in his original article:

“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.”

According to a British legal blogger, Judge Sir David Eady interpreted the use of the word ‘bogus’ as follows:

“The word “bogus” meant deliberate and targeted dishonesty. So it did not mean that chiropractic for the six named children’s ailments (including asthma) was simply wrong, or that it was contrary to established medical practice or research, or even that it completely lacked evidence.

“Bogus” meant a lot more. The judge held that by the mere use of the word “bogus” Simon Singh was stating that, as a matter of fact, the BCA were being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for those children’s ailments.

The ruling means that, as it stands, Simon Singh would have to prove at full trial that the BCA were being deliberately dishonest. This is not only extremely difficult but it was undoubtedly not Simon Singh’s view in the first place. The BCA, as with many CAM practitioners, may well be deluded, irresponsible, and sometimes rather dangerous; but calling their promoted treatments “bogus” was not an express statement of their conscious dishonesty.”

Hopefully, this ruling will encourage people in the UK to express well-justified beliefs, with less fear that those who are threatened by them will resort to libel suits to silence their critics.

. April 1, 2010 at 11:23 am

“The present case is not in this class: the material words, however one represents or paraphrases their meaning, are in our judgment expressions of opinion. The opinion may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth. Milton, recalling in the Areopagitica his visit to Italy in 1638-9, wrote:

“I have sat among their learned men, for that honour I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; …. that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”

That is a pass to which we ought not to come again.”

Sarah April 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

That is an interesting ruling, particularly in paragraphs 35 & 36 where it goes beyond the specific case to explicitly criticize existing UK liberal law for using the term ‘comment’ instead of ‘honest opinion’.

. April 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

Case dropped against Simon Singh
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

The British Chiropractic Association has dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh.

Dr Singh was being sued by the organisation because of comments he had made in the Guardian in 2008 about the effectiveness of chiropractic.

The case itself had sparked an intense debate about the role of libel actions in areas of scientific controversy.

Dr Singh recently won an appeal that would have allowed him to use the fair comment defence in the case.

On Thursday, the website of William McCormick QC, one of the barristers acting for Simon Singh, said the British Chiropractic Association has served a “Notice of Discontinuance”. This means the case is now over.

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