In which Dr Aust reads the BCA’s latest press release, almost causing a beer-keyboard “critical incident”
Many sceptical bloggers have commented that the British Chiropractic Association may win their libel case against Simon Singh, but stand to lose, as the saying goes, “in the court of public opinion”. Following Singh’s announcement that he will carry on the fight, seeking leave to appeal Mr Justice Eady’s “astonishing and highly illiberal” (to quote Jack of Kent) ruling on meaning and perhaps ultimately looking to the European Court of Human Rights, the BCA seem to be getting a bit nervous.
Now, various puffs of black and white smoke emerging from Chiro-world seem to show that the campaign by bloggers to subject chiropractic’s quasi-medical claims to examination is having an impact. You can find a summary over at The Lay Scientist.
But the thing that seems to have especially rattled the BCA in the last couple of days is the campaign launched by Sense About Science:
So far, more than four thousand people have signed the statement. And the campaign has also gathered considerable media coverage (links here).
The BCA have now issued (on Thursday) a new statement:
4th June 2009
BCA LEGAL ACTION AGAINST SIMON SINGH – BCA STATEMENT
“The BCA sued Simon Singh only as an act of last resort. He published what the Association believed were libellous remarks in the Guardian. He could have retracted the remarks and apologised and the debate would have continued away from the legal world. He chose not to do so. The case against Simon Singh has been re-characterised by his supporters as a freedom of speech issue. It is not. The law of libel is about the proper censuring of individuals’ ability to publish false and defamatory material that causes damage to reputation. To stifle scientific debate would clearly be wrong. The BCA is fully supportive of scientific debate and this should be a fundamental right. However, with rights come responsibility and scientists must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous”.
Now, that sounds to me like they are getting worried that, while they won the first battle, they are losing the war.
The sentences that will cause a laugh amongst any scientists following the Singh case, and certainly nearly caused me to choke on my post-prandial beer, are:
“To stifle scientific debate would clearly be wrong. The BCA is fully supportive of scientific debate and this should be a fundamental right”
Following which I had a fleeting vision of His Holiness the Pope renouncing Catholicism and signing up as a snake-handling Evangelical preacher.
Why do I find the BCA’s claims about being “fully supportive of scientific debate” a bit hard to swallow? Well, consider first the following history of the libel action, given by Simon Singh in his online essay about the case:
“Initially The Guardian newspaper tried its best to settle the matter out of court by making what seemed to be a very generous offer. There was an opportunity for the BCA to write a 500 word response to my article to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence. There was also the offer of a clarification in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column, which would have pointed out: “The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19).”
Unfortunately, the BCA rejected these offers and moreover made it absolutely clear that it was not suing The Guardian, but rather it was suing me personally.”
So, er, one opportunity to engage in scientific debate gone there, then.
More recently, there has been much speculation about this evidence the BCA are harping on about. Not surprisingly, really, since that is how scientific arguments are constructed, by setting out and then interpreting the evidence.
Now, we know the outline of what Simon Singh sees as the key scientific evidence regarding the claims made in the BCA’s leaflet Happy Families, because it is set out in the particulars of his defence, filed back in the Autumn and extensively summarised on Jack of Kent’s blog.
In contrast, we still know little of what the BCA thinks about the science – or even what science it is thinking about. The disputed Happy Families leaflet is gone from their website. As far as I am aware, the BCA has not released the list of the “27 different publicly-available research papers” that their press release of May 26th made a great play of. These are the papers that they were demanding to know whether Simon Singh had read before he wrote his Guardian article.
As many others have asked, can we see this list of (published) evidence? Please? Pretty please? That would be a start, at least. It seems bizarre to me that, nearly ten months after Singh and the Guardian made their offer of a forum to air the evidence, we still don’t know what this “plethora” of literature is that the BCA find so convincing. It deserves emphasis that this was so conclusive in their minds that they stated (more than a touch pompously, if you ask me):
“If Dr. Singh had read the research he could not have held the view he expressed in the Guardian unless he simply chose to ignore the facts.”
Hmm. To state the blindingly obvious, again: it is hard to argue about the merits, or otherwise, of scientific evidence, if we don’t know what it is.
Which reminds me of a well-used and very apt phrase:
“Show us your evidence. Not your legal muscle”
Dear BCA. Show. Us. The. Evidence. Please.
If, that is, you have any that stands up.
Now, something else occurs to me too. The BCA have presumably worded this latest statement carefully, with the advice of their lawyers (kerr-chinng). But I do wonder about the implication, taken together, of the following sentences:
“[Singh] published what the Association believed were libellous remarks”
“The law of libel is about the proper censuring of individuals’ ability to publish false and defamatory material that causes damage to reputation.”
“..with rights come responsibility and scientists must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous”
Now, though the last sentence says “scientists”, it seems to me that a reasonable person would be likely to draw the inference that the BCA is referring in this sentence, not merely to scientists in general, but to Simon Singh in particular. After all, their dispute with him is the subject of this press release, and they state clearly that they believe his published remarks were libellous.
Anyway, to press this point, consider if I were to amend the final sentence to:
“with rights come responsibility and scientists, like Simon Singh in this case, must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous”
Now, in this amended sentence, which I would contend is what most people would take the BCA’s original sentence to mean, Singh would be being accused of publishing something whilst knowing it to be untrue. Publishing, in effect, a bogus statement.
Which, as I recall, is exactly what Mr Justice Eady has insisted Singh accused the BCA of doing by using the B-word.
Anyway, I would have thought this would be a clearly defamatory statement about Simon Singh, liable to cause grievous damage to his reputation and good name.
Now, it may be that my legal understanding is incorrect here – in which case I await Jack of Kent coming by to put me right. Or alternatively, and perhaps more likely, this may be already “subsumed” in the existing action by the BCA against Singh.
But still, I wonder if Simon Singh might possibly be able to sue?