The respected science writer, Simon Singh, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association because he dared to write an article (that link is to a copy – the original has been removed from the Guardian web site) which said this:
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.
The BCA didn’t agree with this description and went to court. Jack of Kent has some interesting detail (and opinions) on the case. The judge has, unfortunately, ruled in favour of the BCA.
There are two important principles at stake here. Both of which are subjects that I’m very interested in.
Firstly there’s the idea that people like Singh should, of course, be free to expose bogus scientific nonsense wherever they find it. Chiropractice is one branch of “alternative medicine” which has worryingly high levels acceptance amongst the general population. Most people don’t seem to realise that it has no scientific basis. Articles like Singh’s, exposing the unscientific basis for such practices, can only be a good thing. It’s a shame (though not, of course, at all surprising) that the BCA have put their concern for their members’ income above the well-being of society.
And that leads me to the second principle – the UK’s ridiculous libel laws. In a case like this where it’s a (figuratively) small person against a large organisation, the large organisation always wins. Partly because they an pay for better lawyers, partly because the small person is likely to be scared of the punitive damages that can be awarded, but largely because UK law reverses the burden of proof in a defamation case – the defendent has to prove their innocence rather than the accusor having to prove the defendent’s guilt.
Singh is now hoping to appeal the verdict. But that’s a risky business as he could lose again. Last night there was a public meeting of his supporters in London (here’s a good write-up by the New Humanist magazine). I was unable to be at the meeting, but there are two important principles at stake here, so I’ll be giving this cause all the support I can.