Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The McTimoney Letter

Today Le Canard Noir introduced the bizarre McTimoney Letter to the international skeptic and science blogosphere.

It was a real scoop, and the document was quickly subjected to a first-rate but severe Blogging by diverse hands.

There is not a lot for me to add.

However, the importance of the McTimoney Letter should not be overstated for the ongoing libel case.

On the narrow legal ground of the ongoing libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association, the McTimoney Letter does not have any direct effect.

The McTimoney Chiropractic Association (MCA) are not the BCA, and so what the MCA can be shown to believe cannot be neatly projected onto the BCA.

That said, the indirect legal impact may be more significant.

No longer can the BCA pose in Court - or elsewhere - as the professional face of chiropractic in respect of promoting chiropractic for various ailments; instead it is now merely another face of the chiropractic association, one amongst others, and where different views are held by different groups.

So it is not a helpful dilution by their CAM colleagues.

And before the McTimoney Letter, the BCA faced Simon Singh, various experts and researchers, the scientific and journalistic communities, and - lately - the Advertising Standards Authority.

Now it is demonstrable that another - albeit smaller and less well-known - chiropractic association does not feel confident that certain claims can currently be substantiated by chiropractic research.

The views of other chiropractors on this particular point will be harder for the BCA to dismiss.

So, in the context of the libel case, the McTimoney Letter is bad news - though not a disaster - for the BCA.


Le Canard Noir said...

Whatever legal ramifications this letter may have, the more direct impact will be political and financial.

A significant part of the education at the McTimoney Chiropractic School in Abingdon is on 'business development'. Having to remove websites cannot be good for business.

This will start hitting the profession in the part of the body that really hurts - the wallet. Could we see pressure being put on the BCA to bring this to a rapid close?

JoK - as you asked many months ago in your post "The Ten Questions British Chiropractic Association Members Should Now Be Asking",

10. Most importantly, who (if anyone) is responsible for keeping the decision to continue with this case under review?

"a responsible claimant will keep the situation under constant review, taking account of the range of legal, reputational, and commercial/financial developments. "

Maybe some chiropractors may start asking the BCA your questions.

Chris K said...

I hope your right Le Canard Noir but I suspect this will be more a case of the BCA and it's supporters being quick to distance themselves from the MCA and to downplay it's significance as an organisation.

Of course the fact that it is the second biggest chiropractic association in the UK according to a GCC report from 2004 might make that argument a little less harder to swallow...

On top of this there are already several indications that the BCA are already in many ways at odds with the MCA. So I'm of the opinion that this will have a greater effect amongst the public perception than it will among the BCA's supporters and chiropractors in general.

Would like to be proved wrong though!

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

It would not surprise me if the BCA decided to withdraw its action.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jack. I saw this over at Pharyngula and followed the trail of bread crumbs back here because I had to know your thoughts on this. Suddenly, Mr. Singh's case doesn't seem so hopeless. It still won't be easy, but it helps when the other side own-goals itself.

Think Logic said...

I have read the original leaked letter, over at

From a legal perspective, what evidence is there that this letter actually came from McTimoney? Does anyone have a copy of the original email, along with the headers? I presume it's an email from the date, which is marked "EDT".

Anybody can type something into a blog and claim it came from a particular source. I would say that it is of the utmost importance to establish that the letter is genuine as soon as possible.

gimpyblog said...

Michael (and JoK your input on this would be appreciated),

If the BCA withdraw their action then surely that means they will have to accept Eady's interpretation of Simon Singh's words?

Wouldn't that mean that any future allegation of knowingly promoting bogus treatments would be legally allowed?

Tony Lloyd said...

Ok, if what follows is taken as coming from someone with any knowledge whatsoever, this is bogus legal advice. But...I can't see how the letter does not strengthen Simon Singh's case in two areas:
1. It helps establish that the remedies called bogus are bogus.
2. It helps establish that the bogus nature of the remedies was generally known, weakening any BCA claim that they acted innocently or naively.

A remedy is "Bogus", as defined by the judge, if it is promoted as having proven effectiveness without having proof of effectiveness. The BCA does not need to promote it as having proven effectiveness: it just has to be promoted as effective by someone. It's pretty clear that these treatments have been promoted as having proven effectiveness. They are, thus, bogus.

The judge stated that Simon Singh's words accused the BCA of guiltily promoting the treatments: they took the action without being either innocent or naive. If it is known within the profession that these treatments were being put forward by some as having proven effectiveness then the BCA would have to plea a staggering amount of incompetence in order to establish that they included these treatment in their promotional material without knowledge of the dishonest actions of some.

Twaza said...

The BCA's libel case and the McTimoney letter mean that from now on ignorantia testimonium non excusat (ignorance of the evidence is no excuse).

The Heresiarch said...

Another thing that has come up in the past few days is the archived contents of the BCA's official website. In particular, the controversial claims quoted by Simon Singh in his Guardian article were removed some time after the end of 2007 (for some reason, that's the last available date on WayBackMachine) - presumably in response to the article itself. The BCA, in that sense, no longer promotes these "bogus" treatments, happily or otherwise.

This could mean either one of two things - first, that Singh alerted them to facts of which they were previously innocently unaware, that there was "not a jot of evidence" to support these claims. In that case, they declare themselves to be negligent rather than fraudulent. I'm not sure if that is a better thing. Would it be possible for Singh to show that the BCA knew or ought to have known that there was no evidence? And if so, would this be sufficient, even after Eady's ruling?

The second possibility is that the BCA was fully aware of those claims, and promulgated them regardless. This is even worse from their point of view, especially since other statements on their website pointed (and still point) to research evidence "proving" the efficacy of chiropractic. All the research quoted on the website, however, applies to lower back pain, which is the one area which Simon Singh did conceed (in his book) might be alleviated by chiropractic therapy.

Yamato said...

Well, ThinkLogic, there are a lot (I am tempted to say "a plethora") of indirect evidences that confirm that the letter is genuine: as you can check, many chiropractic websites have been shutted down in the last 24 hours, the very first the MCA website. Many others have suffered heavy modifications following exactly the instructions in the letter.

Of course, as JoK says the MCA is not the BCA, but it's interesting to note that some of those chiropractors that removed or modified their websites are BCA associates, and some of them are not MCA associates. I don't know if the BCA has sent a similar recomendation to its affiliates (I think not, but they have showed so much awkwardness in this matter that it is conceivable), but in any case, as Tony Lloyd says, it is now absolutely clear that many if not all the chiropractors are aware of the "bogosity" of their treatments. I'm not very familiar with the English legal system and of course I accept JoK's opinions about this matter, but as a Spanish lawyer I think that this would seriously damage the juditial position of the BCA in a trial in my country.

Anonymous said...

Sorry guys, not to do with the website retraction, but was the point not that Simon said that there was not a jot of evidence to support these treatments and therefore they are bogus claims?

In searching pubmed/medline I found pages of studies from various authors supporting these claims. Which would back up the case that there is evidence to support these treatments.

Ginger Yellow said...

"The judge stated that Simon Singh's words accused the BCA of guiltily promoting the treatments: they took the action without being either innocent or naive. If it is known within the profession that these treatments were being put forward by some as having proven effectiveness then the BCA would have to plea a staggering amount of incompetence in order to establish that they included these treatment in their promotional material without knowledge of the dishonest actions of some."

Libel law doesn't work like that. They can profess ignorance all they like. It doesn't matter what someone else knows (or more accurately knew). It matters what the BCA knew.

There's no doubt that this letter will cause the BCA embarrassment, but it doesn't hurt their case directly at all.

TK said...

Er... is the advert at the bottom of this blog for Harley Street Chiropactic Clinic a joke?

marcusbailius said...

Hi all

Le Canard Noir is right - and a concern I have (although there are those that would not regard this as much of a concern!) is that other practitioners will start to receive similar attention. This will start to hit people quite hard in the wallets, indeed.

I had a quick chat to an osteopath acquaintance on the phone this evening - they are, shall we say, taking a keen interest. Probably, speaking as a skeptical old physicist, quite rightly...

It would be a good move on the BCA's part, I think, to bring things to a bit of a close fairly soon, as otherwise what we thought was getting "a bit tasty" might end up rather more than that. Whether they will or not, really depends on the strength of the legal and probably other advice they may be getting.

By the way: Met the real folks behind Le Canard Noir and indeed JoK on the SitP meeting in Oxford on Monday this week. What a fascinating evening that was, as well.

神経オタク said...

This makes an interesting precedent, it would seem. It is now harder for the BCA to defend a stance of innocent ignorance, given that a related association is effectively admitting the statement of fraudulent claims. Not that it directly harms the BCA, but it does shift both public opinion and the wiggle room allowed to the BCA.
(Someone correct me if I horribly misinterpreting this; a legal scholar I am certainly not.)

It also leads me to question, personally, to what extend the BCA really is the "reputable face" of Chiro within the UK. It would seem it is not as much as I initially thought, and the power they have, as an institution, to defend that face is diminished. Not that my personal opinion holds any legal standing, of course, but it's really just amusing.

In regards to "Would it be possible for Singh to show that the BCA knew or ought to have known that there was no evidence?"...

That would work in US fraud law, as far as I'm aware, allowing Singh to work with even the initial ruling of the word "bogus". Often given as an example is financial investment predictions; a baseless prediction, whether its truth conditions are later satisfied or not or whether the outcome is possible in theory, can be fraudulent if the initial prediction is based on an unreasonable analysis or lack of analysis. I'm not sure if there is a similar standard in the UK for defining fraud, though.