Simon Singh and the battle for free speech

On Monday I spoke at a hugely encouraging meeting in defence of Simon Singh, the acclaimed science writer. He is being personally sued for an article in the Guardian in which the court heard that he wrote

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 organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments. I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions

The British Chiropractic Association is upset, naturally, and you might have expected the courts to act in the interests of public health by testing Singh’s claims to see if they were true. If you did, you knew nothing of our judiciary. In a typically restrictive ruling, Mr Justice Eady said that because Singh used the word “bogus” he had to prove that chiropractic therapists knew their treatments were worthless but sold them on to the public anyway. On Eady’s logic a political writer who condemns as “bogus” the Jewish conspiracy theories of radical Islmaists and neo-Nazis could be sued if the lawyers for radical Islamists and neo-Nazis jumped up and protested that their clients sincerely believed their conspiracy theories to be true. The point here is not just that it is next to impossible for a writer facing a crippling court action to prove that deluded and fanatical people are insincere, but that the worst thing about the most deluded and most fanatical people is that they are entirely sincere and believe every word they say.
Jack of Kent has the full details on what he calls Eady’s “astonishingly illiberal” decision .
There is a ray of hope, however. The judge and I think the chiropractic association did not take account of the growth of science activism. Writers and scientists are furious at the attempt by the law to restrict debate, and a net-roots campaign for freedom of speech is building nicely.
You can see it growing by watching the highlights of the meeting.

Dave Gorman has more here. And then there is New Scientist and Index on Censorship .
For the wider picture, see also my earlier post on libel tourism.

PS A helpful reader has translated Simon’s critique of the “alternative” medicine of chiropractic therapists into a critique of the “alternative” history of holocuast denial.
The Holocaust Revision Association claims that their members can help historical scholars disprove the existence of the holocaust even though there is not a jot of evidence in support of their position. This organisation seeks to be the respectable face of the holocaust denial movement and yet it happily promotes bogus history.

If Simon had gone for fascists rather than therapists, presumably the judiciary would have insisted that it was not enough for him to prove that the Holocaust did in fact happen, but that he must convince the court that those who denied it sincerely believed that it had not.
Frankly I think the Mr Justice Eady does not begin to realise what he has unleashed. It is intolerable for lawyers to start policing science, because science of all areas of intellectual endeavour requires free speech and unfettered peer review. Ben Goldacre sent a fraternal but menacing message to Monday’s meeting.

Ideas and practises improve when they are criticised, and that’s important, because medicine always has the potential to do great harm. Sadly the alternative medicine community has shown itself to be utterly intolerant of criticism: they refuse to disclose their university teaching materials, their university exams are closely guarded secrets, and rather than embracing and engaging with critics, they sue them, silence them, smear them, or stifle them.

“Brothers and sisters in nerdiness, we stand together!”

To judge from the reaction on the web and the anger at the public meeting, the nerds are on march. Their cause is just and spirit strong. I would not like to be on the receiving end of their righteous anger.

33 thoughts on “Simon Singh and the battle for free speech

  1. One thing occurs to me, after a few days reflection, is that it could just be that, like many other people, that Eady actually believes that Chiropractors offer a genuine and respected form of therapy rather than the cult-like and pseudoscientific nonsense it really is. That may explain why he appeared to have pre-prepared his judgement and concluded that Singh was accusing them of ‘quackery’.

    Yes. Chiropractic is quackery. And this ruling will not allow Simon to defend his words on those grounds.

  2. Mr Singh’s intention will be to help the lives of people. Why stop that?
    I hope Mr Singh will succeed; and he’s only a young man: it will be a sad day ahead when he cannot fulfill what he does, which is acclaimed, because this looming, ludicrous law and those versed in it follow him everywhere, squeaking behind justice Eady.
    Libel tourism, Nick Cohen’s posting: necessary reading!

  3. As I understand it, the “translated” holocaust piece would face the same dilemma.

    See “David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt” where it appears Lipstadt did indeed have to prove the holocaust happened after labelling Irving a denier – as I understand it.

    (Suddenly I find myself always wanting to qualify everything as a personal opinion based on my understanding of the issue)

  4. The ghastly Eady is a public danger. If anything can be done to stop him and people like him silencing debate and protecting the guilty – or even the merely foolish – I’m in all the way.

  5. In a national newspaper’s Events guide it has Ben Goldacre in London, discussing Bad Science, this coming Thursday evening.
    If his message to last week’s meeting is anything to go by then he’ll be in a fighting shape as comparably good as Darren Barker’s for it.
    Something to look forward to.

    Elsewhere, in a Cumbrian newspaper on the same evening, we have:
    Silloth’s Young Farmers Association (YFA) are continuing their week-long annual Hay Festival,
    (the more twine the merrier!) it cheerfully adds.

    And, also, on the Events page is: ‘Frying tonight!’

    But not what, where, who, or why?

  6. Was the article published in a Scientific journal?
    So why are you worrying.
    It was published in a newspaper.
    If they were suing him over a journal article I might be worried. It’s a newspaper, hardly a peer reviewed journal.
    You talk about freedom of speech. Well what about freedom of choice. If people want to go to alternative therapists well let them. They have just as much right to go to a chiropractor as Simon Singh has to express his opinions.
    I don’t agree with the action the BCA has chosen but also I don’t like to see so called scientific minded people calling others, who happen to choose alternative therapies, as idiots and stupid.
    Calling people names is just childish. Lets all act like the adults we are.
    And as for this fund. I hope that once you donate to his fund you could possibly donate money to other charities. Perhaps a few medical ones. They certainly need a bit of extra cash.
    Don’t let this sidetrack you from real issues that threaten science such as government funding or rather the lack of it.

  7. *EXHALES*Okay, let’s reform English libel laws now!*INHALES*(EDIT: I rileased that this makes me sound like I am not excited. I SO AM. I am also relieved and looking forward to the continued libel law conversation.)(EDIT: GO TEAM SIMON)

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