I have just come home from a gathering of Skeptics in the Pub in the Penderels Oak in Holborn and I am excited and dismayed.
Simon Singh – bloodied but unbowed
This was a special meeting to discuss developments in the court case being brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the popular science author, Simon Singh. There was a packed house, a charged atmosphere and rousing, heartfelt speeches by Dave Gorman, Nick Cohen, David Colquhoun, Dr Evan Harris MP and Simon Singh himself. And rightly so: the issue goes to the very heart of our freedom to discuss science.
Science is about measurement of the world. And, perhaps more importantly, about being measured — in the sense of being steady, dignified, thoughtful, considered, deliberate, restrained. The first point about measurement goes without saying. Tonight, the second will bear some re-iteration.
Simon Singh has publicly criticised the BCA for their claim that the curative power of chiropractic extends well beyond the remedy of back pain and, for example, offers relief from childhood asthma.
How have the BCA responded to this critique? With verve and wit?
With a swathe of peer-reviewed scientific papers that robustly support their claim?
Not as far as I can tell.
They have sued him for libel.
Using the UK’s dangerously lax laws on what you can and cannot write in a supposedly free press, they have brought the heavy weight of their legal muscle to bear. The BCA seems, in my view, to be more interested in their reputation than in setting the facts before the public.
And they are winning — for now — thanks to what may come to be regarded as a dubious interpretation of the word ‘bogus’ in Singh’s article. See Jack of Kent’s superlative blog for more of the back-story.
There are intricacies to this case that I do not yet understand. Ben Goldacre, though very supportive, has criticised Singh on technicalities, suggesting that the evidence in favour of the BCA’s position is weak and partial, rather than non-existent (as was claimed). But if Singh really got it scientifically wrong, are the courts the best place to settle the argument? If the BCA had a mature, serious and scientific outlook, they could have swatted Singh aside with the overwhelming mass of the evidence in their favour.
But where is this evidence? Let’s have it. As scientists, we can willingly share in the common goal to refine and improve health treatments for the population, so let’s scrutinise the data and test its quality. But I have yet to find it. Perhaps the BCA could point me in the right direction. A quick search of my own turned up a Cochrane review from 2005 on the efficacy of manual therapies for asthma (including chiropractic):
The review found there is not enough evidence from trials to show whether any of these therapies can improve asthma symptoms, and more research is needed.
I don’t think libel is any way to proceed if you are serious about science. Why, you have to ask yourself, is the BCA leaning on libel laws that place an undue burden of proof on the defendant?
This cannot stand. If science means anything, it must be strong enough to call into question any and all claims. If what the BCA says is within the power of chiropractic is backed by scientific evidence (I admit I haven’t looked hard enough), then hurrah — it will be a victory for patients and scientists alike. If not, let them withdraw and fall silent on the matter.
If you have a care about science, I would urge you to take an interest in this case. Let us all take a closer look. But let us do so carefully, rationally, rigorously, openly. Let us take a measured approach.
If you want to offer support, start here.