Simon Singh Wins

Many people who read this blog might be aware that Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Libel Chiropractic Association for writing an article questioning their practice of promoting chiropractic treatments for ailments that have no supporting evidence (such as colic and asthma). What did Simon say?

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 judge of the preliminary hearing ruled that Simon’s comments were statements of fact, not opinion. Simon appealed that decision and news has broken this morning that Simon won his appeal. The new judge agreed that the statements were opinion and said (in an earlier court date) that “no reliable evidence” was implied by the context — a phrase the BCA lawyers admitted wouldn’t have brought Simon to court in the first place.

It’s not quite over yet, though. The BCA can seek permission appeal to the Supreme Court and, assuming their post-hearing statement isn’t empty posturing, this looks likely. However, the current ruling means that Simon can use the “fair comment” defense at trial.

The most ironic part of the BCA statement was this:

Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged. To reiterate, the BCA brought this claim only to uphold its good name and protect its reputation, honesty and integrity.

I wonder if anyone at the BCA is aware of the Streisand Effect. Suing Simon Singh got the BCA more scrutiny and negative attention than his original Guardian article ever could have. Most of the negative attention was after they presented their 29 studies — largely found to be irrelevant or not studies at all — as evidence, and after an email from the McTimoney Chiropractic Association was leaked, showing this:

“If you have a website, take it down NOW.

“REMOVE all the blue MCA [McTimoney Chiropractic Association] patient information leaflets, or any patient information leaflets of your own that state you treat whiplash, colic or other childhood problems in your clinic or at any other site where they might be displayed with your contact details on them. DO NOT USE them until further notice.”

Referring to the BCA’s initial resistance to argue that they did in fact have “jots” of evidence to support their claims, choosing instead to sue for libel, the judge fairly asked (paraphrased): if the BCA could rebut the contention that there was no evidence, why didn’t they simply publish it?

Boy and Chiropractor“This treatment is backed up by reliable evidence, right?”

Good question. This is ideally how scientific debate works – in the open, dealing with direct (and sometimes harsh) criticism by providing more and more evidence to justify claims.

This case continues to serve as an example of why the UK is in desperate need of libel reform. Had the original ruling stood, it would have made it very difficult for any scientist or journalist to call claims into question, effectively blocking consumer advocacy.

For now we’ll have to see what the BCA does next and how many more thousands of pounds Simon might have to pay to defend the intended definition of a few words.

UPDATE: The BCA has dropped its case against Simon as of April 15.

*I am not a lawyer. If I got any of the legal jargon wrong, I am of course open to polite correction in the comments. Thank you. I’m about 99% sure that this is not a cruel and elaborate April Fools joke. :)

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.