Sunday, 17 August 2008

On Simon Singh against the Chiropractors

The Chiropractic is generally Woo. There is some evidence that it helps with back pain, but its wider claims are (in my view) without serious foundation.

The extent of the efficacy of Chiropractic is an important area for a public debate about public health. And such a debate should not be subject to the veto of vested commercial interests.

However, the British Chiropractic Association have issued a writ against the leading science writer Simon Singh. The newspaper report for this development is here.

This claim is brought in respect of a (now removed) comment piece in The Guardian, printed in full here and (with notes) here. (A tip of Jack's Hat to Svetlana Pertsovich, Gimpy and Blue Wode for these links.)

In simple terms, the BCA wants the High Court to ban Simon Singh from saying something about them.

I will be watching this case keenly. The exact details of the claim and of the defence have not been published. But going just on what has been reported, I have three very general thoughts.

First, the BCA is able to sue because it is a "legal person", that is a company. If it were a public authority, like the statutory General Chiropractic Council, it would not be able to sue under the "Derbyshire Rule" preventing such bodies from suing for defamation. It would be good if the High Court used this case to extend the Derbyshire Rule to such representative bodies: a nice gunshot wound to the BCA's own foot.

Second, even if the Derbyshire Rule is not extended, the article was by Britain's leading science writer in the comment section of a quality newspaper discussing concerns about an important aspect of public health, that is the treatment of sick children. If Article 10 of the ECHR, which protects freedom of expression, does not apply here, then we may as well not have a Human Rights Act. Singh's article is exactly the sort of contribution to public debate which should have legal protection from the intervention from commercial interests.

Third, as my friend Mojo says on another forum, there is simple advice to anyone bringing a libel case. Don't. Just don't. Even if my two concerns above did not apply, such cases are invariably counterproductive. Even now the BCA are being roundly criticised in the blogosphere and the alleged libel repeated and repeated.

This is simply not a matter for the Court room. The fact that Woos use legal muscle is both depressing and suggestive. But it doesn't necessarily mean they will prevail.

The Devil may well have the best tunes, but not always the best lawyers.


jdc325 said...

Hi Jack,

Nice commentary – there’s not been much mention of the Derbyshire Rule or Article 10 of the ECHR on other blogs covering this. Interesting to read more about that side of the spat.


LBB said...

I'm a law student in the US, and most of the very little that I've heard about UK libel law is that it's hard on defendants, because they bear the burden of proof. Glad to read a more optimistic analysis from someone who knows better. =)

HolfordWatch said...

Unity over at the Ministry of Truth asks an interesting question: Can you libel woo? She has some plausible insights into what might be driving the chiropractors' agenda in this action.

"Conceivable, the public kicking that another bunch of woo merchants - homeopaths - has gotten over the last year or so may have spooked the BCA but, casting around for information presents a rather more enticing and plausible explanation as to why they might want to prevent the publication of adverse commentary in the press and any kind of critical public debate surrounding the efficacy and risks of chiropractic…

…and to see that explanation first hand one need only take a short trip over to the website of NICE the National Institute for Clinical Evidence, where we find that one of things they’re working on is a new set of clinical guidelines for the treatement of non-specific lower back pain.

Yep, its the key to the NHS gravy train. If NICE approves the use of chiropractic manipulation as part of the treatment regime for lower back pain then the door opens to chiropractors taking referrals from the NHS under contracts in which the NHS pays their fees and before you can say ‘vested interest’ you’ve got a whole bunch of chiropractors on what is effectively the public payroll. Little wonder then that just about the last thing that the BCA want right now is science journalists asking all sorts of awkward questions like ‘is there any evidence to show that it works?’ and ‘what kind of risks might patients face when referred for a course of woo?’. [Emphasis added.]"

All of which does sound plausible.

Jack of Kent said...

Hi Holfordwatch

Unity could be right. It may be that there is some grand strategy here, and the litigation tactic is serving some regulatory objective.

Or it could be that the left hand and right hand do not know what they are doing. (This suggests a skeletal disorder of some kind!)

A litigation tactic, however, is a high risk option, especially given (a) the costs of a case which presumably will require extensive expert evidence and (b) no court trial outcome is ever certain but the loser in Englaind pays both sides' costs.

Add to this the "Streisand" effect (that Guardian article is now set out at a number of webpages) and the reputational risk for Chiropractic generally, then going for litigation is either very clever, or very stupid, or very brave.

On Saturday I will set on this Blog ten questions BCA members should now be asking the BCA about launching this case.

Nothing controversial, just setting out what you would hope a responsible representative body would do before risking it's members money on what appears to me to be an incredibly unfortunate enterprise.

HolfordWatch said...

So, the strategy might be machiavelian or something considerably less competent than that - eh, it's difficult to know which would be preferable.

The questions will make interesting reading. Maybe they will attract the attention of BCA members who are in a position to lobby their leadership or to raise the issue at any upcoming meetings.

mats hansson said...

mats hansson
correct me if i am wrong but doesnt
medicine kill thousands each year due to side effects.not to mention the odd one or thousand perforations due to nsaid? lets say for argument sake i suffer indigestion, following rennies, gavascon and finally omaprazole, am i now cured from indigestion? my symptoms are gone - great, but why did i have indigestion in the first place? oops! it might be scientific evidence based practise to prescribe omaprazole but what is actually achieved? ppi or lack of hidrochloride acid production... what does the hidrochloride acid do? aha assist with protein digestion is that important for my body? soooo medical evidence based scientific practise sure has eleviated the symptoms of.... but what has it done to my protein digestion?
science is probably a good thing at times but not used incorrectly to support continued insult to the innate wisdom that actually MADE the body - an old man told me years ago that - the body knows better, we would be ignorant not to think so.....!
thank goodness for all natural therapies they have been around for donkeys years and believe me people are not stupid, only politicians believe that people are when they try their spin tactics. should these therapies not work they would be long gone!
allopathic practise is the new kid on the block and in 100 years of practise there are no signs that we are any healthier but quite the contrary - the health practitioner of the future will interest his patient in the function of the body
to allow a better expression of the inborn natural health - in my opinion to eleviate symptoms without understanding why the body produced the symptoms in the first place is a bit like when driving your car and you here a clonking noise from the back just turn up the radio and you wont hear it!!!
my car deserves better then that and so does your body - take care and look after yourselves and please dont turn up the radio!

Chiropractor said...

I have been following the story of Simon Singh for almost a month now. I am interested on what is going to happen on that case. I am happy that I found this site.

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