Thursday, 25 June 2009

Simon Singh vs the BCA

"If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market."

 — Simon Singh

In a Guardian opinion column on the 19th April, respected science writer Simon Singh wrote about chiropractic, a type of alternative treatment involving the manipulation of the spine. Chiropractic is usually applied to help with back problems, but some practitioners also claim it can be used to deal with various children's ailments such as colic.

Singh pointed out that there is no evidence for its effectiveness even for back problems, much less for colic, and that the treatment was rather more dangerous than people believe, potentially leading to serious spinal problems or even, in at least one case, death.

The British Chiropractic Association was less than pleased about this and promptly sued Singh for libel. This may sound a bit silly, but has actually turned out to be quite a serious problem. It turns out that English libel laws are notoriously unbalanced: libel cases take huge amounts of money to fight, and the burden of proof lies, strangely, on the accused.

Furthermore, if the libel case is won, the judgement can be enforced in other jurisdictions, leading to something called "libel tourism" where people all over the world are being sued for libel in the UK. All it takes is "publication" in the UK, which can be as little as a few people reading a web page.

Rather than back down and retract his statements, as most people would have had to do, Singh decided to rely on his comfortable financial resources (and hard-headedness) and fight the case. Things haven't gone that well so far on the legal front, though, with a preliminary ruling stating that Singh's article was a "fact" article rather than an "opinion" one, which is a bit strange given it was published in the Guardian's opinion section. (The Guardian has since decided to withdraw the column due to the threat of the aforementioned legal costs.)

But the BCA's actions, and the widespread realisation of just how unfair and frequently abused British libel laws are, has spawned a number of interesting campaigns:

Sense about Science have started a campaign and petition called "Keep libel laws out of science" stating that current UK libel laws are damaging free discourse and scientific discussion.

And one blogger at Adventures in Nonsense found some 500 chiropractors claiming to treat colic and reported them to their local Trading Standards office. (The Trading Standards Agency has ruled that chiropractors may not claim to treat colic.)

I have only scratched the surface of a messy but fascinating dispute. I definitely encourage you to read more about it.

If things go badly, we will end up with a precedent enabling all kinds of snake-oil salesmen to silence their critics. But if things go well, there is a real chance of reforms that will protect critics and scientists from being silenced by powerful organisations.

So what can you do?

  • Sign the "Keep libel laws out of science" petition.

  • Sign this government petition asking for libel law reform.

  • If you have one, write to your MP asking them to support libel law reform.

  • Help with this campaign by looking up your local chiropractors and fact-checking their claims: Do they pretend to have academic titles they don't actually hold? Do they claim to cure colic? (The Advertising Standards Agency says they're not allowed to.)

  • If you're into that kind of thing, there is also a Facebook group.

  • Spread the word - blog about it, tweet about it, bring it up in conversation.

Finally, given that the amount of bloggage produced on this is quite huge, and that I have understandably not read all of it, if you have any further suggestions on what to do, please leave a comment and I'll incorporate it.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Guerrilla Gardening

Life in modern Britain is often described as a series of dissociations. People have become estranged from public spaces, which have become the preserve of private business, of crime or of state surveillance supposedly in response to that crime. They have lost connection with their communities and with the origins of their food.

I can't offer a panacea that will fix all of these problems, but I have found a way to work against them: guerrilla gardening.

Guerrilla gardening takes place all over the world, and gardeners see their work in many lights: purely as art, or to press for reconsideration of land rights; to build communities and reclaim public space for the public; for the effect of beauty, humour or surprise; to provide fresh food for local people or even work towards self-sufficiency; or sometimes as part of a larger protest. At the London May Day protests in 2000, for example, Reclaim the Streets "repurposed [Parliament Square] as a gardening area, with rockeries, a village pond and tress and plants."

This afternoon, I met up with the Cambridge Guerrilla Gardeners group, who state on their Facebook group:
We want to make Cambridge beautiful (and maybe even vegetable producing). We're always looking for new people to help out and new places to plant things - join up or get in touch : )
A small corner of land by a busy intersection of roads, otherwise neglected and ignored, is now a beautifully haphazard collection of foxgloves, roses, onions, cabbages, swedes and poppies: it's a certain improvement.

For information and inspiration on guerrilla gardening, Guerilla is essential. Local groups abound and can be found by a quick web search. All you really need to get started with this grubby, hopeful movement, though, is a few seeds and a forgotten patch of dirt somewhere in your local area.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Rape crisis crisis followup

I have been in contact with Yvonne Traynor, director of the Croydon rape crisis centre currently forced with closure due to Boris Johnson reneging on his promise of funding. According to her, they are currently in negotiation with the major's office, so let's hope some good will come of that.

Meanwhile, others have set up a campaign called Boris Keep Your Promise aimed at saving the centre. They had a charity event on the 4th which I sadly did not find out about in time, but I will get in touch with them and keep you posted on further activities. Alternatively, you can get in touch with them directly by email or Facebook.

The consultation to decide the funding closes on 20th July. Please write an email or letter to the Major and (politely but firmly) remind him to keep his promise. You can use this one I sent, though I urge you to paraphrase or edit it significantly, as a set of identical emails is just going to be ignored:

Dear Mr Johnson,

I have recently been made aware that you have failed to provide funding for London rape crisis centres. You specifically promised to fund them in your election manifesto. As you are no doubt aware, this means that the only London centre may well have to close.

This is a shameful state of affairs. It is not what you promised, it is not what your supporters signed up for. I urge you to correct this at once and provide the centre with the funding you promised.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

Your sincerely,

your name here

Friday, 5 June 2009

Un-freedom of Information

What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people? Read the language of the bill; it doesn't even hide the fact that its only objective is to empower the President to conceal evidence of war crimes.

 — Glenn Greenwald

The ACLU is currently trying to get the US government to release certain photographs allegedly depicting abuse of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

President Obama initially supported the release of the photographs, but has now changed his position, citing national security concerns. Which is perhaps questionable but within the provisions of how the Freedom of Information Act works.

But not content with this, the Senate has now voted to introduce new law, the "Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009". The law allows the Secretary of Defence to quash the disclosure of any photographs of US detainees taken between 9/11 and January 2009. It effectively guts the FOIA when it comes to photographs of US prisoners.

Why are those photographs so important? Simply put, if photographs of torture become public, then the torturers' crimes become visible and provable - and preventable. Make no mistake - waterboarding is torture, waterboarding was used at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and there are plenty of suggestions that even worse happened.

The law was tacked onto the end of a spending bill, which so far has failed to pass the House of Representatives, thanks to a number of Democrats refusing to vote for it. Of course, said representatives are now being put under pressure to support their bill.

What can you do? Well, it obviously helps to be a US citizen for this one.
Even if you're not, please spread the word about this by social-bookmarking, linking to, or forwarding this blog post or this article.

If you are a US citizen, you can do the following: