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.


  1. I agree that the libel laws in the UK are in need of serious review. However, Simon's article also made me physically ill. My father is a chiropractor, I have friends all across the circuit, so perhaps my view is skewed just as his may be. However, I have seen my father help people every day of his life. The number of drug-related deaths or medical-mistake deaths over a year worldwide is staggering.(In just the US, this number rests at 32,000 a year for prescription drugs and at least another 7 for common NSAIDS such as aspirin). Without the massive profit margins and academic proclivities drugs benefit from, and emerging from an age in which the profession was under direct attack by the medical institution, Chiropractic is not as extensively studied. Simon's claim that it is entirely unsubstantiated, however, is a pure falsehood. Long-term studies exist showing that, for example, chiropractic treatment lowers work-days lost and number of hospital visits in back-injury cases substantially better than "traditional" medical care.

  2. Obviously I disagree with you on the topic of chiropractic.

    My grandmother is a homeopath, and I love her dearly. But I don't believe that homeopathic medicines are anything but inert little balls of sugar. People who visit her do get better, but this is due to the placebo effect. More and more research is showing just how powerful this effect is, and how great an influence it can have on healing and recovery. Which is to say, I'm sure your father helps people, but not in the way he thinks he does.

    I would also add that I have made no claim that mainstream medicine is without risks or that medical doctors cannot make mistakes. Singh and I merely claim that chiropractic is not an effective form of treatment. This does not make chiropractors like your father and friends quacks or monsters - they are simply wrong about the efficacy of chiropractic.

    Anyway, you have your set of studies claiming that chiropractic is helpful, while Singh has his set, which claim that it is harmful. Now it would be very useful to look at both sets and examine the rigor of their methods and analysis.

    However, the BCA doesn't want this to happen. They want to be able to simply state that chiropractic works without having to defend this claim scientifically. And they are happy to stomp on free speech to get their way.

    Which makes me sick to my stomach.