BREAKING: BCA drops libel case against Simon Singh!

By Phil Plait | April 15, 2010 11:04 am

london_fireworksGreat news: the BCA has dropped its ill-conceived lawsuit against journalist and skeptic Simon Singh!

WooHOO! My huge and hearty CONGRATS to Simon!

The British Chiropractic Association, an umbrella organization for chiropractors in Britain, had sued Simon for libel because he had written in a newspaper article that they "happily promote bogus remedies".

They said this was defamatory, and that Singh meant they knew that they were lying about the remedies. If you read what Simon wrote that’s clearly not true; he was obviously saying that they were happy to promote remedies that happened to be bogus, not that they necessarily knew what they were promoting was bogus. What Simon certainly was saying is that a lot of the so-called "remedies" chiropractors claim to work simply don’t, and have no evidence at all to support them. But he never said the BCA was knowingly lying to the public to promote quackery.

Simon SinghThey sued anyway, in what was a very clear attempt to silence critics. They didn’t try to defend their practices, or show how what they claim really does have medicinal value. Instead, they sued someone to shut him up and create a chilling effect in journalism.

That, as it now turns out, was a bogus remedy for the problem.

Like many alt-med placebos, it did seem to work for a while. In an initial hearing, a judge ruled that the BCA had a case, agreeing with the BCA that Simon’s words could be interpreted as them knowing they were quacks. This set the skeptic community in an uproar, and we made quite a stink about it. A group in the UK called Sense About Science set up an effort for libel reform to help support Simon and to get the word out about the atrocious and draconian libel laws in the UK.

As the case became more public, the BCA reacted. Eventually, they did make a lame attempt to defend their practices, but that was soundly torn to shreds by real doctors and skeptics. It read an awful lot like the kind of garbage astrologers, antivaxxers, homeopaths, and other nonsense-peddlers try to push on people when trying to defend their evidence-free claims.

Then things got worse when chiropractors all over Britain started panicking about the way they advertise. Again, instead of actually doing something useful, or defending their practice, an association of chiropractors warned practitioners to take down their websites. Isn’t that odd? Instead of fixing any mistakes, they were told to stop advertising by their own umbrella group. Hmmm.

Finally, last week, a wise judge ruled that Simon actually did have a defense, and could argue that his words were an opinion, and not a statement of fact as narrowly defined by the previous judge. That meant that not only could the case continue, but that Simon could mount an actual and strong defense.

We skeptics held our breaths, but we were pretty sure what would happen next, and we were right: the BCA caved. Folded. Bent. Dislocated, you might say.

They dropped the case, and it’s over.

Well, kinda. Actually, there are a lot of unresolved things here. One is that Simon is out over £100,000 of his own money. Had this gone to court and he won, the BCA would have had to pay his expenses. That’s a pretty strong incentive on their part to have dropped the case, not-so-incidentally. I’ll note that fellow skeptic Ben Goldacre says Simon may go after the BCA for costs, something I would dearly love to see.

Second, the libel laws in the UK are still truly awful. I hope that the libel reform groups there keep the pressure on the government to look over those laws and drag them from the 17th into the 21st century. Don’t forget to show your support (even if you’re not from the UK)!

And third, I wonder how this will affect the BCA. Will they be more careful? Will they review their practices, going over them carefully to see which ones are backed by scientific reviews and testing, and which ones may be nothing more than thinly-veiled nonsense that not only do not help but can in fact harm or even kill patients?

Right. Given that after this long, humiliating episode they still have the gall to claim they were even partially vindicated should tell you just how far removed from reality they are.

Given the craven nature of this entire episode by the BCA, and how it exposed them for who they are, and how it put chiropractors who promote bogus treatments on the defense all over England, and how it raised so much awareness about all this, I think Nelson sums things up best.

And as a final note… we have won here, and won big. Have no doubts this was a huge victory for science, for skepticism, and for free speech. But the purveyors of nonsense are still out there, still promoting their wares that are harmful and even deadly. This event will put wind under our wings, and we must use that to continue the fight. The anti-reality forces will never rest, and neither must we.

Fireworks over London image used under Creative Commons license from wobble-san’s Flickr photostream.


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