net.wars: Backbone

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 19 December 2008

There's a sense in which you haven't really arrived as a skeptic until someone's sued you. I've never had more than a threat, so as founder of The Skeptic, I'm almost a nobody. But by that standard Simon Singh, author with alternative medicine professor Edzard Ernst of the really excellent Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, has arrived.

Wendy M Grossman

I think of Singh as one of the smarter, cooler generation of skeptics, who combine science backgrounds, good writing, and the ability to make their case in the mass media. Along with Ben Goldacre, Singh has proved that I was wrong when I thought, ten years ago, that getting skepticism into the national press on a regular basis was just too unlikely.

It's probably no coincidence that both cover complementary and alternative medicine, one of the biggest consumer issues of our time.

We have:

  • a government that wants to save money on the health service. We have
  • consumers who believe, after a decade or more of media insistence, that medicine is bad (BSE, childhood vaccinations, mercury fillings) and alternative treatments that defy science (homeopathy, faith healing) are good. We have
  • overworked doctors who barely know their patients and whose understanding of the scientific process is limited. We have
  • patients who expect miraculous cures like the ones they see on the increasingly absurd House.
  • Doctors recommend acupuncture and Prince Charles, possessed of the finest living standards and medical treatment money can buy, promotes everything else. And we have medical treatments whose costs spiral every upwards, and constant reports of new medicines that fail their promise in one way or another.

    But the trouble with writing for major media in this area is that you run across the litigious, and so has Singh: as Private Eye has apparently reported, he is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. The original article was published by the Guardian in April; it's been pulled from the site but the BCA's suit has made reposting it a cause celebre (have they learned nothing about the Net?).

    This annotated version details the evidence to back Singh's rather critical assessment of chiropractic. And there are many other discussions.

    As a media strategy, suing Singh could hardly be stupider. By suing, the BCA is drawing far more attention to the criticisms of the treatment it wishes to promote than Singh's original article would ever have attracted. It is also going to make the point loud and clear that chiropractic does not welcome scientific scrutiny. I say "chiropractic" rather than "British chiropractic" because this isn't the first such case: see also a previous similar situation in New Zealand. And people complain about Big Pharma – the people alternative-medicine folks are supposed to be saving us from.

    I'm not even sure how much sense it makes as a legal strategy. As the "gimpy" blog's comments point out, most of Singh's criticisms were based on evidence; a few were personal opinion. He mentioned no specific practitioners. Where exactly is the libel? (Non-UK readers may like to glance at the trouble with UK libel laws, recently criticized by the UN as operating against the public interest..

    All science requires a certain openness to criticism. The whole basis of the scientific method is that independent researchers should be able to replicate each other's results. You accept a claim on that basis and only that basis – not because someone says it on their Web site and then sues anyone who calls it lacking in evidence.

    If the BCA has evidence that Singh is wrong, why not publish it?

    The answer to bad speech, as Mike Godwin, now working at Wikimedia, is so fond of saying, is more speech. Better speech. Or (for people less fond of talking) a dignified silence in the confidence that the evidence you have to offer is beyond argument. But suing people – especially individual authors rather than major media such as national newspapers – smacks of attempted intimidation. Though I couldn't possibly comment.

    Ever since science became a big prestige, big money game we've seen angry fights and accusations – consider, for example, the ungracious and inelegant race to the Nobel prize on the part of some early HIV researchers. Scientists are humans, too, with all the ignoble motives that implies.

    But many alternative remedies are not backed by scientific evidence, partly because often they are not studied by scientists in any great depth.

    The question of whether to allocate precious research money and resource to these treatments is controversial. Large pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to do it, for similar reasons to those that led them to research pills to reverse male impotence instead of new antibiotics. Scientists in research areas may prefer to study bigger problems. Medical organizations are cautious. The British Medical Association has long called for complementary therapies to be regulated to the same standards as orthodox medicine or denied NHS funding. As the General Chiropractic Council notes NHS funding is so far not widespread for chiropractic.

    But if chiropractors want to play with the big boys – the funded treatments, the important cures – they're going to have to take their lumps with the rest of them. And that means subluxing a little backbone and stumping up the evidence, not filing suit.

    Technorati tags:   
    Argument: not permitted - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).