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Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Legal Scholarship of Dr Lionel Milgrom

Dr Lionel Milgrom is a well-known writer on homeopathy, especially in his ongoing efforts to use the outward form of academic writing (lists of qualifications, footnotes, etc) to promote homeopathy as having a scientific basis (in quantum physics) and as a useful intervention in primary health care.

I have previously been skeptical and mildly critical of Dr Milgrom in this enterprise, see my blogpost here.

However, as I am not a scientist (or "IANAS"), it was not for me to directly critique Dr Milgrom's rather ambitious claims or his credibility as a scientific scholar.

But Dr Milgrom has now ventured, it would seem, into legal scholarship.

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine has published an article by Lionel R. Milgrom PhD, MARH, MRHom, FRSC, entitled:

CAM, Free Speech, and the British Legal System: Overstepping the Mark?

The introduction to the article is here. I also have been provided with a pdf of the original article by two kind sources.

With this seeming venture into legal scholarship, Dr Milgrom has made it possible for one to assess his basic competence as a scholar.

By basic competence, I mean an ability to correctly state the relevant facts and materials, and an ability to properly use footnotes, sources, and evidence.

First, the title and the content of both the abstract and the article affirm this article is intended to be taken seriously as a contribution to the discussion of law.

(Indeed he expressly states in the abstract that he is examining defamation law and freedom of expression, and is exploring the ramifications of the tension between the two.)

However, one must quickly note even with the title that there is no such thing as a British legal system; what Dr Milgrom is seeking to discuss is the English law of libel (shared only with Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems).

Moving on from the title, we come to the initial sentence of the abstract:

"The British Chiropractic Association recently won a libel case against the science writer and CAM "skeptic" Dr Simon Singh for publishing an article in a British newspaper in which he accused them of promoting "bogus" treatments."

This is, of course, factually incorrect.

The BCA has not won a libel case.

However, sometimes abstracts can be hasty summaries, and so we should look at what the article actually says on this point.

After setting out (in a significantly incorrect way, as we will see below) the legal case of the BCA, Dr Milgrom writes:

"The judge agreed with this argument, awarding the BCA substantial damages."


This is more incorrect than the statement in the abstract, and it is wrong in that:
- there has not been an award of substantial damages;
- there has not been an award of any damages;
- there has not been the award of any legal remedy;
- there has not been a judgment of the court which would give rise to the award of any legal remedy;
- there has not even been a full trial of the case for which there can be a judgment;
- a full trial has not even been listed; and
- the case is still at the preliminary stage, which is adjourned pending the outcome of Simon Singh's appeal of the ruling on meaning.

As Dr Milgrom's factual assertion here is a basis of his article, then his error rather undermines the article as a whole.

However, Dr Milgrom did not just make this careless factual error, he rested it on the authority of a footnote.

The footnote purports to be a British Chiropractic Association online document and this URL is given.

As you will see, the URL does not lead to any particular press release, but the BCA's press release on the ruling in the preliminary hearing is here.

You will see that the BCA press release states that the case is ongoing, the the trial is yet to be concluded, and that the ruling was on meaning.

You will also note that there is no mention of damages, let alone substantial damages. Although the press release itself contains errors, it is either correct or silent on the points which relate to Dr Milgrom's assertion.

So Dr Milgrom's entirely incorrect factual statement is attributed in a (vague) footnote to a source which in turn does not support and actually counters the statement made.

And, in addition to this crucial error, the remainder of the article contains a number of mistakes.

One example is the supposed description of the BCA's case which precedes the howler about substantial damages.

Here Dr Milgrom writes:

"...the BCA went to court, arguing that the term "bogus" constituted a slur on the character of chiropractors, because it implies chiropractors are knowingly mendacious".

This is incorrect, for if the BCA had adopted this stance the libel claim could not have even been launched.

The BCA's case is (necessarily) that Simon Singh defamed the BCA itself. The BCA is a legal person as a corporation and, as such, has a reputation which can be protected by the English law of libel.

If Simon Singh was instead attacking chiropractic generally, and his "slur" was against unnamed and unidentifiable chiropractors, then the BCA would not actually have a case to bring.

Indeed, Dr Milgrom has (unwittingly) set out one part of Simon Singh's defence: that the meaning of the original Guardian article does not defame the BCA.

Dr Milgrom's other mistakes in this four page article include repeatedly confusing the law of defamation with the law of privacy; incorrectly stating that privacy law may lead a court to impose "severe financial penalties" - even though penalties are matters for criminal and regulatory law, and not the laws of privacy and libel; wrongly stating four senior barristers to be High Court judges (including Simon Singh's own QC); and even implying that the BCA case itself is a privacy case.

One can only speculate as to why Dr Milgrom wrote and submitted such a thoroughly inaccurate and unscholarly article purporting to be a scholarly discussion of the tension caused by defamation law and of its ramifications.

It is also disappointing and concerning that the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine allowed such an article to be published without basic fact checking or, it would seem, arranging adequate peer review by anyone familiar with the legal case being discussed or having an elementary understanding of English defamation law.

But, whatever the motives and practices which led to this article being placed into the public domain, it serves in my view to discredit the scholarly pretensions of Dr Lionel Milgrom and the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.


COMMENTS MODERATION

As always, please use a name; purely anonymous comments will not be published.

31 comments:

Stevemoss said...

Strongly suggest you submit this as a correspondence to JACM. It should be published and in turn give Dr Milgrom the opportunity to respond. Thus we may hope to arrive through an iterative process at the truth, with an open debate and review of the evidence in a manner that typifies scientific discourse.

Benjamin Gray said...

I know it's not happened here, but surely a libel case could result in severe financial penalties, particularly if the court decides to award exemplary damages?

gimpy said...

On reflection, the concern should be directed more at JACM than at Milgrom. Milgrom is perfectly entitled to write articles filled with nonsense, innuendo and mistake but JACM is under no obligation to publish them. By choosing to publish JACM are asserting that the article is of sufficient merit to contribute to an academic (as in high level evidence based - not of no consequence) debate on the implications of libel law and science reporting. That it is subject to such damning criticism is a reflection of the low standards and lax editing of JACM.

Another point worth considering is that Milgrom was a perfectly respectable biochemist until he got into homeopathy. The observation that intelligent credible people can be blinded by irrationality should always be in the back of ones mind before stating or receiving an opinion.

Bailey said...

"IANAS" - made me chuckle!

Dr Aust said...

I have posted my tuppence-worth on Milgrom's latest slice of Unreality over at my blog. While it does not have Jack's level of legal analysis, it has more ridicule, and possibly a clue or two as to how such thing make it into the pages of journals dedicated to Alternative Reality.

Chris Kavanagh said...

Milgrom is perfectly entitled to write these kind of articles but I think it's perfectly valid that we can draw conclusions about his scholarship from what he chose to write.

If I was going to write an article for a journal outside my field of expertise I would a) make my lack of expertise clear and b) double check that at very least the basic facts I was reporting are correct. Milgrom isn't even familiar enough with the case to know if it is finished or not!

So yeah gimpy's definitely correct that the journal should be ashamed but Milgrom IMO should be equally red-faced. Anyone think he will offer a retraction?

Dr Aust said...

I expect the journal may offer a minor factual correction, but overall I predict Milgrom will feel the criticism is simply validation.

Note that Milgrom is on the Editorial Board of the JACM. As is Harald Walach, another homeopathic apologist whose article appears beside Milgrom's.

I see JACM as basically a "hobby journal" for Alternative Reality enthusiasts. The wonder is how it ever got listed on PubMed. Some of the editors and authors probably are trying to do things properly, but a large part of the content - especially some of the editorial stuff - seems to me to be the embodiment of Cargo Cult Science.

Chris Kavanagh said...

Just an additional point of interest. It turns out Milgrom is on the editorial board of the JACM as spotted by Dr. Aust. So the failures of the article AND the journal are his responsibility... lucky him!

Adam said...

I would strongly urge Dr Milgrom to preface such articles in future with the acronym IANAL

;-)

William Satire (Jr.) said...

On a lighter note, all this litigation may have you all a bit stumped for cash, so see Money saving technique for free homeopathy for life!

Niklas said...

What a wonderful Fisking. Thank you, Jack of Kent! It certainly seems that some people are living in an alternative reality....

Stevemoss said...

Most journals publish material under different headings, e.g., Nature has Correspondence, Commentaries, Reviews, Letters etc. Perhaps JACM could have a section entitled 'Fiction'?

Alchemipedia said...

Thanks for the very interesting, and helpful, legal analysis of Lionel R. Milgrom's - CAM, Free Speech, and the British Legal System: Overstepping the Mark?

The acronym IANAL was new to me, so thanks also for that.

Perhaps he should have prefaced the article with TINLA - "This is not legal advice."

Jack of Kent said...

Thanks to William Merriam for pointing out a couple of typos, now corrected.

Dr Aust said...

The Section of the JACM in which Milgrom's latest opus appeared was entitled:

"Paradigms"

I'll leave that one to sink in.

Mojo said...

This isn't the first time Lionel has overstepped the mark regarding Eady's preliminary ruling. Here he is in the BMJ, stating that "the judge agreed [Simon Singh's article] was libellous".

Scott said...

@Stevemoss,

Or perhaps PUBMED could file JACM under a fiction category within its organization.

Perhaps we need to organize a project to have JACM excluded from PUBMED.

Scott

daedalus2u said...

Jack, a fine analysis as far as it goes, but you should have preceded it with IANAH, (I am not a homeopath). You see the thinking of homeopaths such as Dr. Milgrom conforms to the laws of homeopathy, and so he wrote an analysis according to homeopathic principles.

The first law of homeopathy is “like cures like”. When you have an illness characterized by certain symptoms, you use something that generates those symptoms to cure it.

In the case of the BCA lawsuit, Simon Singh said that chiropractic is a bunch of nonsense, so according to homeopathic principles the way to respond is with still more nonsense (like cures like). This is precisely what the BCA has done and (so far) to remarkably good effect. Dr Milgrom is trying to help them by throwing even more nonsense their way.

I think Dr Milgrom’s error may have been in not following the second law of homeopathy, the law of infinitesimals. He should have diluted his nonsense a bit more (perhaps to 100C or so), so that not a bit of the original nonsense remained. He didn’t do that, so you were able to readily identify the nonsense that he was using.

Sleepalot said...

Won't the judge have something to say about it?

Mr ME said...

Dr Milgrom isn't the only supporter of CAM to think that BCA v Singh is all over bar the shouting. David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, said in an adjournment debate on Wednesday 14 October:

"There are also serious problems in chiropractic, which one might call an assisted discipline to osteopathy. The General Chiropractic Council has been bombarded by complaints from bloggers—spurious complaints I would say—which it is obliged by law to investigate. I am very concerned that genuine complaints will not get through and that any practitioner, against whom a genuine complaint had been lodged, could continue to practise. Will the Minister look at this very unsatisfactory situation, which arose following an individual losing a court case against the British Chiropractic Association?"

Towards the end of the debate he also said:

"I have mentioned the problems of negative information, particularly in the context of the Royal London homeopathic hospital and homeopathy generally, and of what is effectively an attack on a statutorily regulated body dealing with chiropractic. Will the Minister offer to look into the position, and perhaps write to me about both the state of the Royal London and the disinformation that has been issued and the chiropractic regulatory council?"

The response to this last question from the Minister (Gillian Merron) was a model of a non-commital reply:

"I think that that intervention demonstrates why it is so important for the Government to take the position of not being for or against specific complementary and alternative medicine, and—as I said at the beginning of my speech—treating it in the same way as mainstream medicine. I am aware of the other matter that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but obviously neither I nor the Government can control what people put in blogs or letters. What we can do, I think, is rise above it, and I believe that that is what we have done by providing the information that we have provided."

BadlyShavedMonkey said...

OK, no one has said this yet so the duty falls to me;

2nd paragraph of the Introduction he describes them as "complimentary [sic] and alternative".

The numpties at the JCAM can't even spot a typo that involves a word that is in the title of their own fanzine.

Mojo said...

@Dr Aust:

"The Section of the JACM in which Milgrom's latest opus appeared was entitled:

"Paradigms""

Paradigms Lost?

6p01156e33e34c970c said...

The moment I saw the words "Milgrom" and "scholarship" together I could tell there was a trainwreck about to happen.

Keep up the good work, Jack.

Niklas said...

David Tredinnick MP seems to be equally unable to put together a sensible argument as Dr Milgrom. Have a look at this, from a parliamentary debate (my italics): http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2009-10-14b.412.0

"In 2001 I raised in the House the influence of the moon, on the basis of the evidence then that at certain phases of the moon there are more accidents. Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective and the police have to put more people on the street.

"I am arguing for more research. I have been criticised for raising the subject, but the criticism is generally based on a misunderstanding. It is based on the idea that I am talking about the stuff that we see in the newspapers about star sign astrology, but I am not. I am talking about a long-standing discipline—an art and a science—that has been with us since ancient Egyptian, Roman, Babylonian and Assyrian times. It is part of the Chinese, Muslim and Hindu cultures. Criticism is deeply offensive to those cultures, and I have a Muslim college in my constituency."

His argument seems to be that we must take theories about the moon influencing blood clotting seriously because those theories come from cultures that find criticism "deeply offensive" - i.e. NOT because they are necessarily true!

All I can say is that with the leading representatives of non-evidence-based medicine showing such a comical lack of basic logic and scholarship, those of us on the side of reason should not have much trouble defeating their arguments.

Dr Aust said...

As commenter Mojo points out elsewhere, Dr Milgrom has not been backward in insinuating that other people are guilty of shoddy scholarship.

The line I am tempted to borrow here is:

"You couldn't make it up".

I suspect various punchlines to follow it will occur to people.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

I hope you don't mind me posting this link to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science page: http://www.badscience.net/2006/12/the-quality-of-homeopathic-debate/

Milgrom seems to be rather accident prone when it comes to the facts.

euthyphro said...

The pulbishers of the Milgrom article say they will add a footnote highlighting the appeal. However, they seem to maintain that the article was true at the time of publication.

"In answer to your e-mail comment sent via our website, our editor says:

We have been given to understand that Dr. Singh was given leave to appeal the decisions against him on 14th October 2009, after this issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary.Medicine had gone to press, at which time, we understand that everything in Dr. Milgrom's article was factually correct. We will be adding a footnote to the article in the online Journal to alert the readership about the appeal."

BSM said...

As you say, even that modified assertion is false and one wonders who gave them to understand. Whoever it was actually gave them to misunderstand and I wonder whether the name of that someone nearly rhymes with "pilgrim".

Dr Aust said...

That "clarification" from JACM is completely feeble - as Jack has explained, the statements about the case are plain wrong regardless of Singh being granted leave to appeal.

I suspect BSM's last comment is correct and JACM have just phoned Lionel and asked him if what he said was OK.

The JACM doesn't seem to have much proof-reading either. Accompanying Milgrom's article in the "Paradigms" section is another bizarre pro-Unreality polemic from Dr Harald Walach. Walach talks about the recent acupuncture trials which have used "sham" acupuncture (with toothpicks) as a control. These trials show that "sham" acupuncture, with no needle piercing the skin, "works" as well as the real thing. Walach waxes rhetorical:

"What now? ... Should we just dole out loads of tooth picks to doctors and let them pinprick their patients gently, with nice rituals...?"

Or rather, he doesn't, because what actually appears in print is:

"...dole out loads of tooth pricks..."

Hmm... Wonder how that one slipped through?

Freudianly, perhaps?

Dan Weber said...

How much do judges in Britain care when people significantly misrepresent an ongoing court case?

Michaela said...

Not long to wait now

Appeal on Monday 22 February 2010