Beware the spinal trap

For anyone who has not been in the sceptical blogosphere much, there has been a rising tide of support for science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Their grounds for this action was an article published in the Guardian newspaper that highlighted the lack of evidence supporting some of the claims made by chiropractors. Rather than take the opportunity of a 500 word rebuttal of the article as offered by the Guardian, the BCA chose instead to personally sue Simon Singh.

The British legal system has an unusual take on libel laws that strongly favours the claimant by flipping the onus of proof onto the defendant (no innocence until proven guilty here) and by being prohibitively expensive (usually for the defendant). In the case of Simon Singh the judge in the case has fastened on the word “bogus” as having a very specific legal meaning entailing deliberate deception rather than simply being “not genuine” or “spurious” (for the ruling see the excellent Jack of Kent). This means that Simon has a long and expensive time ahead, first appealing this initial ruling and then (assuming his appeal will fail as most do) he will need to compile evidence to support an assertion that he never intended to make.

Many in the scientific and sceptical community are rallying around Simon to offer support where possible. We see the BCA’s action as being inappropriate because science is founded on rebuttal of claims by the provision of evidence, not on who has the best legal support. Science cannot progress without disagreement and libel laws are unnecessary when evidence should be used to rebut. The BCA’s actions undermine the scientific process and they significantly weaken the claims of chiropractic – after all, if they had evidence for efficacy, why would they go through the hassle of suing? The poor support for some of the claims made by chiropractors has been subsequently dragged into the light of the British Medical Journal by a variety of scientists (see DC’s improbable science), and a “quacklash” by members of the sceptical community (in particular by the efforts of Zeno and Andy at the Quackometer [and of course Simon Perry!]) has innundated the BCA with complaints against chiropractors who advertise  poorly supported ‘treatments’ for non-spinal conditions.

Below is an edited version of the original article by Simon Singh, which I am reproducing in support of Simon and the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of scientific debate.

“Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh. Continue reading