Jack of Kent has now posted his much-awaited report, giving more details of the various parts of Lord Justice Laws’ comments in today’s excellent development in the BCA v Singh case.
One of the points Jack makes is that at the brief hearing this morning Lord Justice Laws mentioned the paragraph of Simon Singh’s original article which directly followed the paragraph that ended with the much-debated (and allegedly libellous) sentence.
This following paragraph reads:
“I can confidently label these assertions [that chiropractic could successfully treat ailments other than musculoskeletal ones] as utter nonsense 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.”
(italics and underline mine)
This paragraph has been much discussed by those on Singh’s side of the argument, since it can logically be read as clarifying why Singh regarded the claims made by the BCA as “wholly without foundation” – the sense in which he has always stated he meant the much-debated word “bogus”.
- Edzard Ernst, the expert, read the papers critically;
- he found that they did not stand up – a view bourne out by the analysis of the BCA’s “plethora”, links to which can be found in this summary by Petra Boynton, and by commentary in places like the British Medical Journal;
- so therefore Ernst and Singh regard the claims that chiropractic can treat such things as “utter nonsense”.
In the case of Singh’s Guardian article, the inference (“bogus treatments”) is put up front as a rhetorical device, that is, at the end of the previous paragraph (the words complained of). It is also repeated for emphasis at the start of the subsequent explanatory paragraph (“…utter nonsense…”). However, the common origin of the debated statements (and thus, by implication, the meaning that a reader would likely take from them in this context) is obvious, I would argue, from reading the two paragraphs together.
A major effect of Eady’s ruling on meaning was to throw out – or at least, to make redundant – this kind of argument where the two paragraphs should be read together. “Happily promotes… bogus”, Eady told us, meant Singh was plainly accusing the BCA of deliberate deception. No other meaning could possibly be borne by the phrase, and thus clarifying meaning from the overall context (the rest of the article) was irrevelant.
This part of the Eady ruling, it now seems, has likely been overturned (though we will need the full judgement to be sure).
Strangely, one part of me is actually little sad - for the following rather whimsical reason.
I opined in one of my earlier posts on BCA v Singh that Simon Singh’s mistake was arguably to have put the sentence “happily promote…. bogus” ahead of the explanation. In journalism it is usual to give the things one thinks one knows first – for instance, Ernst examined all the trials, and they didn’t stand up scientifically. Then one moves on to inference: therefore these claims are nonsense, and therefore in turn it is extraordinary that the BCA was promoting them on its website. Arguably, had the offending sentence come at the end of the paragraph just quoted, the meaning of the phrases would have been even more obviously derived from the explanation. I would love to know whether the BCA would still have sued.
Of course, written that way round it would not have been as good a read.
Anyway, there would be something surreally and tragicomically ridiculous about a writer getting sued for putting his sentences the dangerous way round because it made for a better read. One would need Evelyn Waugh, perhaps, to do such an idea justice.
In my mind’s eye-vision of such a scene, Simon Singh stands in the dock before a bench of stony-faced red and black-robed justices. One of them intones:
“Simon Singh, you stand before us accused of the heinous Crime of the Reckless and Dangerous Use of Rhetorical Devices. How do you plead?”
Indeed, what would one plead?
Now, for some reason, this image in turn puts me in mind of a favourite cartoon of mine, drawn by the wonderful John Callahan.
A caveman and his wife are sitting in their living room (cave?) watching TV. The pre-programme admonition about what might be coming appears.
“Warning: The following program contains LANGUAGE.”
Dangerous things, words. Dangerous things.