Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Chiropracters sue for libel

Science writer Simon Singh, best known for his popular science books on code breaking and "Fermat's Last Theorem," has been sued by the British Chiropractic Association for writing in his co-authored new book on alternative medicine, Trick or Treated, that chiropractic is a 'bogus' form of medicine.

Chiropractic is quite uncommon in Singapore but widely practiced in countries like the US (where it started) and the UK. Its central tenet is that diseases are caused by misalignments of the spine, and so can be cured by the appropriate manipulations of the spine and other joints to bring them back to the proper position (Medline article, Wikipedia page).

While it might actually have some help with back pain, which is the most common reason that people visit chiropracters, practitioners also claim that it can help with diseases like colic and asthma, claims which Singh's co-author, Edzard Ernst, had found to be unsupported by published clinical trials.

Nick Cohen writing in the Observer has details on the case and some important observations, foremost among them being that if the criteria of libel laws are being used to settle scientific (or in this case, pseudoscientific) matters in court, then it is impossible to defend oneself against pseudoscientists (or conspiracy theorists, etc.) who claim that one has defamed them by accusing them of being dishonest, which is implied by the word 'bogus', because "the worst thing about the deluded is that they sincerely believe every word they say."

Furthermore, the legal costs associated with defending oneself are also crippling and may force capitulation even if there is a good chance of a successful defence.

This matters to us who are involved in science, whether as researchers or educators or even as members of the public curious about scientific matters, because there's no telling who would take offence at scientific commentary in the public sphere. The evolution/creationism issue (I'm not going to call it a 'debate' because it's hardly an equal match) is one, but also climate change, alternative medicine, and even UFOs.

Defamation is a notoriously dicey aspect of law, and I have the feeling that there is still a fair degree of deference to 'expert' authority among the public in this country, such that pseudoscientists are unlikely to choose legal avenues to press their opinions. But as alternative views become more common (in the UK, for example, alternative therapies like homeopathy and acupuncture enjoy public funding and even royal patronage), we will certainly have more members of the public questioning the 'scientific establishment' and its pronouncements.

I would actually welcome such a dialogue because it would mean that people are actually thinking critically about issues in the news and not simply accepting what they are told as-is. Those of us who work in science then have to do our part to communicate what we know in a robust and effective way.

After all, there's no point in doing science if it's just for ourselves and a small circle of specialists. The public has a right to know what their tax dollars are funding.


P/S: There's a Facebook group for those who would like to find out more or support Singh's cause.

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