The Peculiar Case of Simon Singh

By Phil Plait | August 4, 2009 12:19 pm

Science thrives on criticism. Reality, being what it is — real — can withstand the slings and arrows of critics. It’s our methods, models, and interpretation of reality that are subject to withering critique, and through such honing moves us ever-closer to understanding the true nature of the world.

Any claim that is said to be scientific should be held up to such scrutiny. If it is correct, it will survive. If it is not correct, it can be abandoned or improved. That is in the best interest of everyone.

So why is it that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued scientist and journalist Simon Singh when he criticized them for making claims that are clearly not research-based? They could’ve presented their case, but instead tried to muzzle him under the draconian UK libel laws. Oh yes, they did eventually try to make their case using research, but presented laughably bad and inappropriate evidence for their claims.

And why is it that many chiropractic groups in the UK decided to take down their websites rather than actually go about making sure their claims about cures were actually, y’know, accurate?

Interesting. One might almost assume that claims of chiropractic efficacy in relieving such ailments as colic, asthma, and infections are completely — gasp — bogus.

It was the use of that word that got Singh in trouble, since a judge in the UK went completely off the rails, saying that Singh’s usage of the word "bogus" (saying the the BCA happily promotes bogus remedies) meant that he was saying the BCA was guilty of knowingly promoting quack medicine. While it’s possible they are knowingly committing fraud, that is not what Singh was saying. Still, the judge’s ruling is what it is. Singh tried to appeal, but that, incredibly, has been turned down. Jack of Kent as usual has the up-to-the-minute details of all this. Fellow skeptical journalist Ben Goldacre also has an excellent summary of the entire affair.

The BCA tried — and in some ways succeeded — in using the law to create a chilling effect for journalists, scaring them into not criticizing "alternative" medicine. But they also screwed up here, big time. Bloggers reposted Singh’s original article with the offending parts redacted — such as on Skepchick — signed petitions, and basically took up arms to defend Singh against the BCA.

I urge my readers to stay on top of this case, as it has impact on us all.


Comments (39)

  1. Phil-
    This flowchart does a good job of illustrating the way science goes through the cycle of review and refinement:

    As an aside, I’m a big fan of Mr Singh and have read several of his books.

  2. Small typo:
    being what is is
    should probably be
    being what it is

  3. Actually, “reality being what is is” works on a subtle level….

  4. If I do a google image search for “bogus”, one of the top hits is a poster for “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”. Does that mean the judge thinks Bill and Ted’s journey was intentionally fraudulent?

    Bogus. Heinous. Most non-triumphant.

  5. Orac has posted the full original text, including the “offending” language.

  6. It’s interesting that a judge ruled on the meaning intended by Singh, without apparently taking into account Singh’s thoughts on the meaning. That part of it still gets to me.

    S: I meant bogus, in that they don’t work.

    J: Hmm. Yes, I agree you meant bogus, in that they were knowingly fraudulent.

    S: Wait, that’s not–

    J: So ruled. Pbtbtbtbt.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    Hell, they(BCA) WERE knowingly fraudulent, they ARE currently fraudulent and they are as BOGUS as it is possible to be.

    Now, to whom in the Brit legal system do I send this?

    Gary 7
    PS Where do we send money to help out Singh?

  8. How about this – the BCA are a bunch of ignorant jerks. There, let them sue me now.

  9. IBY

    Although I can’t understand why the lawyers or whoever decided to modify the article. Isn’t their argument that the bogus word was in a certain context, not the way the judge believed the context was in? If so, isn’t showing the full original article better? Since it shows at what context the word bogus is used as.

  10. Jon - SitP Tallahassee

    Should the worst happen, and Singh get stuck with the 6-figure tab from which everybody has benefited, is there a site set up to receive donations to help recoup the cost?

  11. IVAN3MAN

    Todd W.:

    It’s interesting that a judge ruled on the meaning intended by Singh, without apparently taking into account Singh’s thoughts on the meaning. That part of it still gets to me.

    Now you know where the term “Drunk as a Lord” originates from!

  12. @IVAN3MAN

    Yah. Apparently justice is not only blind, but deaf, too.

  13. IBY

    And don’t forget somewhat brainless.

  14. Kevin

    Let’s all start an Internet Chant:

    The BCA is Bogus!!
    The BCA is Bogus!!

    Let them try and come after all of us. I double dare ’em!

  15. JT

    From now on I’ll make a point of always referring to this organization as the Bogus Chiropractic Association (BCA).

    Although now that I think about it “bogus chiropractic” is a bit redundant.

  16. For my part, I posted the modified article because, although I support Simon and deplore the judge’s bogus interpretation of his meaning, it is still possible (given the appalling law) that the BCA will win the suit. In which case, they will likely go after others who have criticised them. Being a UK resident, I just can’t afford to take the chance.

    I know that feels like a win for the bad law and the bullies.

    But I’ll damn well make sure as many people as possible see the BCA for the cowardly, evidence-free bullies they are. And I’m glad that our allies abroad are (relatively) free from the British legal farce so that they can post the full article without risk of attack. And we can link to them.

    And anyone can feel free to point to folks like me as evidence that the libel laws here unfairly stifle free speech.

  17. Also, I invite anyone to check out a discussion of the bogus interpretation in question by linguist Mark Liberman at Language Log.

    They also have a more recent take, from the linguist’s perspective, on one of Ben Goldacre’s own pieces on this subject, here. I should warn folks that linguists can get even more indecently gleeful about wordplay than certain astronomers we all know.

  18. Elmar_M

    The BCA is Bogus!
    Alright, sue me! SUE ME!

  19. I went to a lecture by Simon Singh, and he said that the observable universe must be 13.7billion light years across (as part of his Katie Melua parody). It hurt my ears.

    The suit against him was absolutely awful in my opinion, it was in The Guardian. Many other newspapers and magazines have allowed far less flattering articles to go to press, why shouldn’t they too be sued rather than discriminate against Dr. Singh alone?

    If we start censoring the press, where does it end?

  20. Leander

    “In many and perhaps most cases our criminal justice system is fair if somewhat overtaxed.”

    This, “incredibly”, must be one of the peculiarly few cases where it isn’t fair, huh ? Well, even if they’re quacks, gotta cut the BCA some slack for “using” the law the way they did. Seems they’re really powerful, how else could you explain how they defeated REALITY through court process ? Oh well, yeah, by one of these coincidences that come in so handy every once in a while…no wait, it’s because the UK laws are so primitive in comparison to the US. That must be it.

  21. Michael Kingsford Gray

    A cached copy of the original guardian webpage is hosted here,
    for those who are curious to see the article as it appeared:

  22. mymatedave

    Just saw him tonight at the Camden Roundhouse in London, looking good and very entertaining where he proved that the universe is expanding by, and I’m telling the truth here, electrocuting a pickled gherkin. Now that’s science.

  23. coolstar

    Important thing to note here: while Americans are quick to criticize the Brits on this, by my count NOT ONE PERSON, especially not Phil, has mentioned AMERICAN chiropractors (their British counterparts must be SO different?). Gee, I wonders why……..

  24. Leander, assuming you’re not a troll, in fact the UK libel law is very bad compared to comparable US law. It might help to read the links I provided before making such an ironic comment.

    And coolstar, gee, so glad you’re back. What does the US chiropractic have to do with this? The whole point is that they sued under UK law, and the ramifications of this have been UK-based.

  25. coolstar

    I would have thought it was obvious: it’s very easy (and cheap) to criticize the well known harsh Brit libel laws, much harder to do something about the MUCH larger and essentially identical problem in the States. No serious person believes you’re going to have an impact on CHANGING Brit libel law. There’s absolutely nothing at all surprising about the British case, as much as I deplore the decision. I’m assuming that the point of your post was to attack the root problem, then again, with you, one never knows. If you have actually commented on American chiropractors here, you’d think the least you could do would be to link to it (no, I have no interest in becoming your archivist).
    Oh, I’ve never left…….I just sometimes take a short break from commenting on drivel.

  26. Nigel Depledge

    Leander (22) said:

    Seems they’re really powerful, how else could you explain how they defeated REALITY through court process ? Oh well, yeah, by one of these coincidences that come in so handy every once in a while…no wait, it’s because the UK laws are so primitive in comparison to the US. That must be it.

    So … did you have a point?

    ‘Cos what it looks like from within the UK is that the BCA is trying to use libel law to exempt themselves from criticism. We (humans in general, I mean) can only arrive at consensual truth by being critical, and by demanding that conclusions are justified by evidence. Those propositions that have the evidence to withstand criticism are either true or good approximations of the truth.

    In the case of the BCA, they have no real evidentiary support for the claims they made. IMO, as supposed healthcare providers, they have a duty of care to make sure that what they offer actually works. From what I have read about this, they do not even seem to be trying to obtain evidence to support (or refute) the claims they made.

    If you happen to support chiropractic as a viable healthcare option, then perhaps you should contact the professional societies (I assume wherever you live there will be an analogue of the BCA), and demand that they fund studies to prove* that chiropractic does what they claim.

    * I use the word “prove” here in its old sense, meaning “to test” (now rarely used except in terms such as “proving ground”). Unless you happen to be a judge, in which case I meant whatever you choose for me to have meant.

  27. Clive DuPort

    Coolstar, the title of this blog is “The Peculiar Case Of Simon Singh”. Bringing in US chiropractic is going off topic.

  28. Scott

    While I agree, do not lump all of “alternative” medicine into the horribly irresponsible and laughably pathetic actions of the BCA.

  29. JT

    coolstar, if you honestly think that Phil hasn’t mentioned American chiropractors in the past then you obviously haven’t been paying attention. But even if he hadn’t, why should that prevent him from mentioning these evil actions taken by their equally bogus British counterparts? If he posted something on US chiropractors, would you be similarly complaining that he didn’t mention the chiropractic association of Timbuktu?

    Leander, that almost sounded like an attempt at sarcasm. I must be mistaken, given your oft’ stated opinion that trying making a point with humor is base and primitive.

  30. Good for him. Someone has got to challenge unsubstantiated medical claims. I don’t think anyone really wants to be taken advantage of even if it’s Gov’t sanctioned. But what a strange angle to take… libel? The reality of alternative treatments however is that people want to believe so that is helpful in it’s own way. But scary to think that real physical damage can occur through chiropractic techniques. I’ve been to a couple myself before I wised up and realized what they were really doing.

  31. ww

    Concerning the questions about supporting Simon Singh financially, look at the Sense about Science site:
    Simon Singh has the following message for donors: “Many people have very generously offered to
    contribute to my legal costs. At the moment, however, I am able to fund my legal battle, so I am
    reluctant to accept donations for the time being. ….

    You may want to donate to their “Keep Libel Laws out of Science” campaign instead:

  32. Lyn Bates

    What an admirable character is Simon. It takes talent to write the books he has authored, but real guts to stick up for his principles in these circumstances. My sincere thanks Simon, the case is far bigger than the pathetic BCA.

  33. Upper Cervical

    Simon published a couple of great pop-science books and on the way made some money (which a good thing). He then approached or was approached by Ernst (who may be bogus) to help co-author and, I suspect, market this new book. In a marketing moment of genius Simon stirred up his newspaper in order to raise awareness of the book and, I’d cynically suggest, sales (which is a good thing and a pretty standard bit of marketing). In the article he said a fair amount about chiropractic and if you read it and for a minute imagine yourself as a chiropractor I think you’d be pretty angry at it. Especially as he gets to create acres of adverse publicity with no chance of you doing the same as I’d never get that ‘column inches’. Now, as a journo he should know that you can say what you like about a profession, i.e.: all journos are manipulative scum but you can’t about a person or body, i.e.: Singh is a manipulative publicity seeker who has spun this something rotten and you may all be suckered by him. And he is now paying for the marketing mistake.

    The Singh spin:
    1. We all now believe that the BCA is huge and wealthy (I’d suggest an association of about 2,000 is going to be neither)
    2. The BCA want to stop all research. (No, just poor research and Ernst is the significant provider of this)
    3. Chiropractors are snake oil peddlers all depending on patients with infant colic. (Not what NICE and the Bone and Joint Decade task force think – oh, Google them and read the damn things and see what I mean because these are seminal bits of science but ignored by Ernst and Singh).
    4. Simon stands for truth and justice against the wrath of a massive organisation the size of the General Medical Council. (Really, he’s running very scared of the libel bill about to arrive on his mat and you can bet his “don’t worry about me, I’m doing it for truth” will all suddenly change.)

    Incidentally, I wonder how much the chiro profession has made from treating these conditions as opposed to low-back pain – not much I’d suggest.

    Finally, think like this for a bit, what would you do if you were an honest, hard working, chiro with no colic patients coming through your doors but a steady stream of patients who like you and value your service and who are being cured? What would you do when Svengali-like Ernst used media manipulator Simon to damn your profession based on really shoddy science with the only possible chance of a come back in the letters page of the Guardian?

  34. Belfast1

    The amount of idol worship of Singh on here is very telling of the pseudo-scientific facade that the posters try to present themselves as representing. The ‘debate’ about the efficacy of spinal care as it may impact the health and well-being of a person has been influenced on both sides by personal and professional bias for decades. As someone who has my own vested interest in the topic, I wish there was no need for legally holding a critic libel for his opinions. However, it seems that this case is not just about someones opposing opinion, but the rather imbalanced strategy of professional assassination on an incremental and inappropriate use of a postion of influence without possible access or ability of an equal defence. (sorry for sentence structure} Once, let it go. Twice, let’s try to create dialogue. Three or more attacks, then it is much more specific and needs to be addressed by all means possible. If there was a equal or at least proportionate distribution of research monies for health professions other than medicine, than I would be more than confident in obtaining the true research necessary to compare and assess the necessity and efficacy of spinal care to contribute to the health of each human who happens to exist with a spine during their lifetime.


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