Tuesday, July 7

Lies, damn lies, and their place in a scientific debate.

By now, you've probably come across some of the fuss regarding Simon Singh's being sued by the British Chiropractic Association.

I like Simon Singh. And though I regularly get chiropractic treatment for my spine and joints because it works whilst conventional medicine can't even be bothered, that doesn't mean that I'm not at least as suspicious of the BCA as I am of the BMA. Organisations regularly do silly things, because they're run by the sort of people who run organisations. So, when I first read about this case, I suspected that the BCA were abusing the system. And then I went and found the offending paragraph, and decided that no, they're not. They have a case here.

Here's the paragraph that's landed him in trouble:

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 organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.


The scientific community (whatever that is) are up in arms over this. There's been much complaining that Justice Eady, who has made the preliminary decision that Singh's words could indeed mean what the BCA say they mean, has misinterpreted the word "bogus". But Eady didn't actually rest his decision on the one word "bogus" as strongly as some of his detractors claim. Here are the relevant paragraphs of his decision:

12. What the article conveys is that the BCA itself makes claims to the public as to the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments even though there is not a jot of evidence to support those claims. That in itself would be an irresponsible way to behave and it is an allegation that is plainly defamatory of anyone identifiable as the culprit. In this case these claims are expressly attributed to the claimant. It goes further. It is said that despite its outward appearance of respectability, it is happy to promote bogus treatments. Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

13. It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments "happily". What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct.


It seems clear to me that what Eady is looking at is the whole sentence. And, frankly, though I think he's wrong about the word "bogus" in general, I think he's right about that sentence. For me, what does it is following "This organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession" with "and yet ...". That "yet" means that what follows is in opposition to what precedes it. It really can't mean anything other than "If they were respectable people, they wouldn't be doing this." And that is what gives the rest of the sentence the context that makes Eady right about the words "bogus" and "happily".

Even Ben Goldacre concedes:

technically there is a reading of simon’s piece that suggests he thinks the BCA deliberately and knowingly peddle quackery.


In fact, I'm beginning to think that Singh simply isn't a very good writer:

I would have to offer an apology for an article that I still think is reasonable and important according to its intended and obvious meaning.


One might think that, by this point in the proceedings, Singh might have realised that his intended meaning is not as obvious as all that. It is clearly, by definition, debatable.

And there's an interesting point here from a Metafilter commenter called Mutant:

The Woolf reforms of 1999 set forth a structure of early discussion and exchange of information to determine the validity of complaints. This framework and the obligations / responsibilities of all parties is known as the "pre action protocol on defamation proceedings".

Litigation is discouraged and both settlement out of court - "an offer of amends" in response to a "letter of demand" - as well as mediation strongly suggested. Suing now without following this protocol every step of the way will negatively bias the judge and will reflect in his or her instructions to the jury (all libel / slander cases in the UK are heard by a jury).


In short, it will harm the BCA's case not to have made reasonable offers to Singh to settle this out of court. But he has repeatedly publicly stated that he refuses to apologise for the piece.

Now, a lot of people want to keep libel laws out of science, and with good reason. There certainly have been cases, well documented by Ben Goldacre, where organisations have attempted to use libel laws — especially English libel laws, which are crap — to defend their dubious scientific claims by stifling those who point out that they're wrong. But this is not one of those cases. The BCA have not sued Singh for what he said about the evidence for chiropractic; they've sued him for what he said about the personal character of the chiropractors in the BCA.

Which is probably why The Guardian's initial offer to placate them didn't work: it was based on completey the wrong premise:

Initially The Guardian newspaper tried its best to settle the matter out of court by making what seemed to be a very generous offer. There was an opportunity for the BCA to write a 500 word response to my article to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence. There was also the offer of a clarification in the "Corrections and Clarifications" column, which would have pointed out: "The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19)."


It seems clear now that what they needed to be offering was to say in no uncertain terms that members of the BCA are not fraudsters. But it just didn't occur to them, because they were fixated on the idea that this is all about scientific evidence. It's not. Such an offer would not necessarily have been accepted, of course, but it would at least have had a better chance. The BCA have said that they didn't just leap into court over this, but tried to resolve the matter more informally first; they have been forced, they say, to resort to libel proceedings because anything less was being ignored. And, reading Singh's defence today, this is hardly surprising, as he still doesn't seem to understand how it is that he has actually pissed the BCA off.

So yes, by all means, please, someone reform British libel law: it badly needs it. The reforms should make scientific claims a no-go area for libel and should make libel suits considerably less attractive for those who are wrong and know they're wrong but wish to shut their critics up. They should also, as Singh correctly points out, cost a damn sight less money to the defense. But what reform shouldn't do is make this sort of case impossible. When someone very publicly accuses you of fraud or dishonesty, you should be able to sue them — no matter what line of work they're in. It would be a terrible idea to simply make "But I'm a scientist!" a valid defense.

And the other reason that such cases shouldn't be put out of the reach of libel law is that a bunch of concerned scientists should get together and sue Jeni Barnett's arse clean off. Because she didn't just say that MMR vaccine is unnecessary. She didn't just say that it can cause horrible side-effects. She said that it's a conspiracy. She said that it's all about profit. She suggested that information about MMR has been suppressed by the powers that be. Which rather implies that doctors and scientists know that MMR is bad for children but push it on them anyway, for the money. Barnett basically accused large numbers of people of being, essentially, monstrous — and she presented this accusation to millions of listeners. If I were a doctor who'd given the jab to a few hundred kids, I'd rather resent the implication that I'm deliberately harming them for money. If you're in the doctoring line of work, that sort of accusation could be pretty bad for your career. I firmly believe that a few dozen such doctors should pool some money, retain a lawyer, force Barnett to issue a full public apology for such a horrendous slur, and take some of her money off her.

And then move on to the next malicious idiot.

Scientists as a group are wrong about this. They think that all these debates are scientific, which is why they tend to lose — we've got a measles epidemic and some dead kids now to show just how badly scientists lost the MMR fight. Yes, keep science out of the libel courts: it's not the way to present evidence. But recognise that not every claim made about science is a scientific claim. A lot of these claims are simply personal attacks on the character of scientists, and, by letting such claims stand, scientists do plenty to encourage an environment in which such attacks are popular and acceptable.

This is not about science. It's about character. Your character is important; it's what makes the difference between good and bad people. And, if the public think you're bad people, they won't follow your advice. This is getting even more serious now: the anti-vaccine crowd's influence has moved on to swine flu: people are going to "swine-flu parties" to deliberately spread it around, making it more prevalent, making it more virulent, killing people. Letting maniacs portray scientists as evil money-grubbing sadistic experimenters-on-children with impunity has had bad consequences.

Your character is important and incredibly valuable. So defend it.

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