Apr 01 2010

Good News for Simon Singh

We have been following the libel case of science journalist Simon Singh, and I am happy to report that there is a bit of good news on the case. But first, to recap: Simon was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an article called Beware the Spinal Trap – which I and other bloggers have since reproduced.

The particular line of interest was Simon writing that the BCA “happily promotes bogus therapies.” The BCA contends that this implies they dishonestly promote therapies that they know do not work. This has become the first point of contention for the libel suit. Simon maintains, and this is backed up elsewhere in the article, that he never implied that and in fact BCA chiropractors are likely self-deluded.

From the point of view of science and medicine, this is a minor point – the treatments are bogus (specifically chiropractic manipulation for childhood ailments, like colic) whether or not the BCA believes in them. But from a legal point of view, this distinction is everything. Originally a judge ruled that Simon’s line should be interpreted as saying the BCA was knowingly lying about their therapies. This would have put Simon in the position of having to prove in court that the BCA institutionally, and perhaps BCA chiropractors individually, believed that their treatments did not work. This would have been nearly impossible, and many feared that Simon may have lost his case on a technical point about definition.

Well – Simon appealed that original ruling, was granted the right to appeal, and now the higher court has just ruled that the original ruling was in error. The new ruling, in essence, says that Simon’s statement were an expression of his opinion, not a fact of the state of belief of BCA chiropractors. Therefore Simon can use the “fair comment” defense. This puts him in a very good position to win the overall case.

There are three important issues at stake with this trial. The first is the easiest as it is a scientific question – is there evidence to support the use of chiropractic manipulation for childhood ailments, like ear infections, colic, and bed wetting. The answer to this question is a clear no.

I reviewed the evidence for these claims here. In my article I also discuss the fact that the BCA put out a statement listing the evidence they believed supported their treatments. The list contained many irrelevant references, and also excluded many negative studies. What the BCA provided, however, was evidence to support the notion that they in fact do promote treatments they know to be bogus, because they could not provide evidence to support their treatments and they ignored evidence which shows their treatments do not work.

The second issue is the use of libel suits to silence public discourse on important scientific subjects. This case has become a signature case for this issue – and science journalists and bloggers are paying close attention. In the UK in particular it is easy to silence criticism or open discussion by the threat of lawsuit.

The third issue, which is related to the second, is that the libel laws in England are out of step with the rest of Europe and Western countries. Specifically it is much more expensive to defend a libel case – 140 times as expensive as the European average. Simon reports that it cost him 200,000 pounds to determine the meaning of his single phrase – and he is not through yet.

This unreasonable expense means that even successfully defending a libel case can be financially ruinous. It allows deep pockets to intimidate individuals or small publishers. And it also creates libel tourism, where people from around the world will file libel cases in England in order drag their targets into the ruinously expensive English courts.

Scientifically the BCA is on thin ice, and they have already been exposed as charlatans. Further, this is a significant victory for Simon in this specific libel case, and I am optimistic that he will prevail in the overall case.

However, the bigger battle is to reform the libel laws in England as they are a menace to free speech and the necessary free exchange of ideas that science requires.

In fact, Simon has doggedly continued to defend his case specifically to use it as a platform for lobbying for libel reform. A libel reform campaign is now in full swing. The fight is not over.

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