Pages

Friday, 9 October 2009

Simon Singh: The Background To The Next Hearing

The next round in Simon Singh's ongoing and heroic defence against the misconceived libel case brought by the (now discredited) British Chiropractic Association takes place on Wednesday next week (14 October 2009).

So this is as good a time as any for a round-up.

To start with I will explain just why I describe the BCA as discredited.

They are "discredited" - in my opinion - by reason of the great claims for their "plethora" of supposed evidence for the efficacy of chiropractic for the children's ailments.

For,when the plethora was placed it into the public domain, it turned out to be the most humiliating dud.

In effect, the BCA defamed itself and had no one to sue.

Even the British Medical Journal concluded in an editorial that all the references were "demolished completely".

And, of course, if something is demolished completely, not a jot remains.

(I now understand that the BMJ editorial had to go through several lengthy rounds of "lawyering" because of fears that the BCA would sue that august journal - or just the editorial writer personally. Such is the real effect of libel chill.)

And as for "misconceived", and insofar this really needs to be explained, see perhaps here - and, in picture terms, see here.

Whilst the BCA labour on with their case, Simon Singh, on the other hand, is receiving international acclaim for his steadfast and inspiring defence.

And, more widely, the support for Simon's predicament and the interest in this case have spawned two particular movements, both of which are becoming increasingly effective over time.

First, there is the important campaign to reform England's libel laws so as to allow free discussion on scientific topics.

This is being coordinated by the awesomely competent Tracey Brown and Síle Lane at Sense About Science.

Sense About Science deserve the greatest credit for all their work on this and for the achievements so far.

One recent highlight of this campaign, amongst many, was the address by Richard Dawkins at the Liberal Democrat party conference. And more useful activity is on the way.

Thanks to Sense About Science, practical libel reform to protect science discourse is now entirely possible.

Second, there is the tireless enterprise of skeptic and science activists to hold chiropractors to account and to ensure chiropractors comply properly with all their legal and regulatory obligations.

The most prominent of these are Simon Perry and Zeno.

Their success in this quest has so far been astonishing.

In particular, they - and others - have triggered interventions of the Advertising Standards Authority and local Trading Standards officials who are quite rightly ensuring that hundreds of misleading advertisements and communications are pulled or modified, including - astoundingly - information put out by the UK chiropractic regulator itself, the General Chiropractic Council.

These activists are forcing through nothing less than a thorough reformation of how British chiropractors are presenting themselves to the public.


Against this background comes the next hearing of the libel case.

This hearing will deal with Simon Singh's attempt to appeal the ruling on meaning by the High Court.

This will not, however, be a full appeal.

To appeal a High Court ruling on meaning requires permission: it is not an entitlement.

Here Simon Singh has already lost twice. At the High Court hearing, he applied for permission immediately, but this was refused and the judge remarked that it was a straightforward case.

There was then a paper application to the Court of Appeal - and this turned down. The reasons given by the Lord Justice of Appeal were:

"Despite the length of the applicant’s skeleton, the judge seems to me to have been right in both his decisions. His approach as a matter of principle to the two questions was in accordance with authority, and the absence of any express reference to certain matters of context does not mean that he did not take them into account. Just because it may be difficult to prove a negative such as there not being a “jot of evidence” for a proposition does not mean that it is not an assertion of fact. All in all, I cannot see any realistic prospect of a successful appeal."

The reference to "skeleton" is not of course to the subject matter of chiropractic treatment, but to Simon's skeleton argument; and the reference to "context" is to the point that later in the Guardian article the use of the word "bogus" is explained.

Following such a refusal an applicant can make an "oral renewal" of the application, to be heard in open court. This what Simon has opted to do.

Will Simon succeed in this application? The fact that this is his third bite of this cherry suggests, in general terms, that he will not. The Court of Appeal does not lightly reverse rulings by the High Court in preliminary hearings in any case.

Nonetheless there is some chance of success here, though in my view less than 50:50.

More importantly, for Simon to take this case to the European Court of Human Rights for a ruling on whether in his case the UK government has - by allowing libel law to exist in this illiberal state - failed to afford protection to his right of free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, he has to exhaust every domestic remedy.

If you happen to be in London on Wednesday, do come along to the Royal Courts of Justice to show support and solidarity. There is no steer on timings yet, but I will provide updates on Twitter (though from safely outside the court room).

And, given what has happened already, one does wonder what will happen in this case...

free debate


COMMENT MODERATION
Anonymous comments will not be published: always use a name, even if there is no link.

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jack,
Thanks for your excellent explanation. I'd love to come but I don't even know the hours between which the Court of Appeal operates - 9-5? 10-4? For the ignorant amongst us, that info might help us decide if there's any chance we can get there and show our support.
Thanks.
Suzanne

Jonathan Mitchell said...

Two comments:
(1) I don't think this is simply about "free discussion on scientific topics"; the libel laws endanger free expression more generally. Although I applaud what you say about this particular case, is it any different to the problems of free discussion of, for example, business or political affairs?
(2) I also wonder whether the problem isn't so much that of substantive law (although there are problems there) as of procedure and in particular costs. In my jurisdiction (Scotland) our substantive law of defamation is effectively identical to yours, but we don't in practice have any comparable problem of gagging and blackmailing actions. The central difference seems to be in practice as to costs.

Perhaps the most important part of the problem is the extent to which the English courts have allowed themselves to be advertised to the world as a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction, at enormous profit to plaintiff lawyers which can be passed on to defendants. While the recent PCMLP study seemed to me to be exaggerated, a jurisdiction in which plaintiff lawyers make a hundred and forty (or even ten) times as much from an ill-founded defamation claim as they would anywhere else is always going to be a jurisdiction with more such claims.

Zeno said...

It's important to emphasise that Simon has not lost and the BCA has not won their libel case yet: there are so many AltMeds out there who - through ignorance or otherwise - are saying that Simon has already lost.

They should read Jack's other excellent posts on this and make sure they know what they are talking about before spreading their ignorant smears.

Joe said...

Thanks for this update.

I appreciate what Zeno has said. In the USA, chiropractors sued the American Medical Association for banning collaboration between MDs and DCs (Wilk v AMA). In 1987, the court found that as a matter of commerce, the AMA was guilty of "restraint of trade" and ordered to stop. Ever since, chiros have pointed to that decision as meaning that there ministrations were found to be scientifically effective.

When one points out that the court decided on commerce law, alone (and the decision noted that the AMA had ample reason to shun chiro), the chiros respond that a judge is not qualified to make a scientific decision.

At the beginning of Singh's case I feared the judge would simply accept any published work as constituting a "jot" of evidence. I have heard some people suggest that the BCA's "plethora of evidence" must surely amount to something (to a scientist, it doesn't). I never imagined the case would turn on a bogus definition of "bogus".

To J. Mitchell, above, you are right that it is not just about scientific discourse; that is simply the matter at hand. However, science is a special case in that we deal with facts (to the extent possible) rather than opinions. When politicians disagree, the matter is settled by how many people are persuaded by each argument. When scientists disagree, it is (eventually) settled by new experimental data; not eloquence.

Alice said...

Grrr, my last comment got thrown out for no reason I could discover! >:-(

Interesting what you say about the cost difference, Jonathon. As for the science, my point of view is that science is all about evidence, not opinion, and therefore nothing should be stifled - to do that is to strangle it, and health science in particular, as that's about life and death. People often go the wrong way when genuinely trying to help, and criticism is essential, not personal. My hope is that once science gets a freer footing, other aspects will start doing better as well.

Wish I could be there for the appeal - could somebody make a cardboard cut out of me to take along? :-)

Jo said...

Brilliant, thanks. You're like a one man 'public engagement with law'! I'd have missed so much of the subtleties of this without your explanations :D

Are there going to be lots of "not a jot" or "plethora" t-shirts on display? Or is it smart dress hehe ;)

Also I take it Twittering from inside the Court is unlikely to be smiled upon?

McNulty said...

Two separate issues are being confused here.

There is no need to keep libel laws out of science. That was hard-wired into the scientific method at the outset.

"Good scientific writing is logical, clear, precise, direct, and concise. Its main scientific quality lies in precision, and all words should therefore be used in an exact sense. If the sense intended is different from that commonly understood or defined in dictionaries, the usage should be carefully explained." (American National Standards Institute, ANSI 1979b)

The founder of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon, put it more figuratively when he identified four 'Idols of the Mind' as major falsehoods 'which beset men's minds' and must be dispelled before the true hidden causes of things can be revealed. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/bacno.pdf

'Idols of the Market Place' arise from the misuse of language. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding ... and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

'Idols of the Cave' are personal prejudices and prejudgements which 'refract and discolor(s) the light of nature'. 'Idols of the Tribe' are the spells cast by received wisdom and the consensus. 'Idols of the Theatre' are the spells cast by figures of authority, 'from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration ... because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion.'

These are the reasons why scientific discourse must always be conducted in an objective, impersonal tone with all words clearly defined and all assertions clearly backed up by evidence untainted by Idols of the Mind.

In breaking the fundamental laws of science, popularisers of science trade in the protection the scientific method affords to become Idols of the Theatre themselves.

In using vulgar language of the Market Place like 'bogus', and raising an angry mob in his defence, Singh has moved out of the domain of science and into the arena of defamation and disinformation that both science and the libel laws are designed to protect us against.

There is little doubt in my mind, either that libel is the domain of the rich and powerful who wish to suppress inconvenient truths, or that Britain has become the libel capital of the world. But these are separate issues entirely and have nothing to do with science.

Ironically, it is these same corrupt libel laws that are now protecting science from the corruption of those who would raise Idols of the Mind in its place.

To my mind, and rather unfortunately, the Singh case is a powerful argument in favour of keeping the libel laws in place. Not for changing them to provide legal means by which that corruption can be allowed to infect the body of science itself.

If the Sense About Science campaign was aimed at keeping potentially libellous statements out of science I would support it. If it was aimed at keeping the political manipulations of the rich and powerful out of both science and the law I would support it even more. But there is no need to keep the libel laws out of science. Genuine science is already immune to them. Genuine science, like genuine law, rests on the merits of the evidence and the truth.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. McNulty,

We are talking here about a commentary piece in a newspaper, not a scientific discourse in a medical journal.

It was Chiropractic Week in the UK, and Simon Singh wrote an article that needed to be written. And he hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head.

In the vernacular, it is true that the BCA "happily" promote "bogus" treatments for which there is "not a jot" of evidence, as has been amply illustrated in the months since the article appeared.

Do you really expect to see scientific discourse in the popular press? Do you think that such an article would have any chance of registering with the general public?

We want John and Joan Public to understand what a load of crock Chiropractic really is when it wanders outside the treatment of anything other than the treatment of back pain (and even then.

And we ARE angry and legitmately so. Chiropractic Week! Good Grief! We SHOULD be angry!

regards,
BillyJoe

McNulty said...

Dear BillyJoe,

Thank you for your reply.

We are talking here about a commentary piece in a newspaper, not a scientific discourse in a medical journal.

No. We are talking here about finer points of principle in both science and law. My argument is that the Keep The Libel Laws Out of Science campaign is confounding two separate issues; is an unnecessary red herring and non sequitur and therefore ought to be dismissed.

It was Chiropractic Week in the UK, and Simon Singh wrote an article that needed to be written. And he hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head.

Chiropractic Week in the UK is a verifiable fact. The rest is an opinion which I have to respect, but not necessarily agree with.

In the vernacular, it is true that the BCA "happily" promote "bogus" treatments for which there is "not a jot" of evidence, as has been amply illustrated in the months since the article appeared.

In your vernacular that may be true, but in the vernacular of many other people it is not.

Do you really expect to see scientific discourse in the popular press? Do you think that such an article would have any chance of registering with the general public?

Yes I do. There are many exciting scientific stories the public would be very interested to know about and could easily make sensational front page headlines, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, these are stories that can not be told.

Instead the pages are filled with the very worst kind of gutter-press yellow journalism. The result is exactly as Francis Bacon described it, to "throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies." Which, as Bacon might have said, suits the authorities just fine.

We want John and Joan Public to understand what a load of crock Chiropractic really is when it wanders outside the treatment of anything other than the treatment of back pain (and even then.

Yes I understand that. And you have a right to campaign for that if you wish. The problem here is all the John and Joan Publics who have tried Chiropractic for things other than back pain and feel themselves that it works. Who then discover, when they try to testify to that fact, that they are buried under a bundle of incomprehensible statistics that tell them their own experiences are irrelevant and wrong. Who find themselves harried by a volley of contempt and abuse from the liberal intelligentsia and ultimately prevented from delivering their testimony in the court of evidence-based science. What we have here is a classic case of the Emperor's new clothes. The adults are too sophisticated to see what's wrong. Only naive and unsophisticated children can see that.

And we ARE angry and legitmately so. Chiropractic Week! Good Grief! We SHOULD be angry!

You may think so. Personally, I think there are many more important things we need to be angry about. Iraq might be one. The economy might be another. Politicians expenses might be another. So what if some people want to try Chiropractic? So what if they think it makes them feel better?
Raising anger against such inconsequential aggravations is at best a distraction we can't afford and at worst a kind of witch hunt which, as a scientist, I can not support.

From the evidence I've seen, there's at least as much justification for Chiropractors promoting their remedies as there is for Eli Lilly promoting Prozac or Pfizer promoting Viagra. If your anger towards Chiropractic was balanced by a similar level of anger towards Eli Lily or Pfizer I might be more sympathetic to your cause.

Regards,

McNulty

Jack of Kent said...

McNulty

I will not step into this interesting debate, but I am grateful to you for putting another point of view in such impressive terms.

Best wishes
Jack

McNulty said...

Jack of Kent.

Well, thank you kind sir. And I am grateful to you for allowing me the opportunity. There ain't a lot of it around these days, which is the major cause of my concern.

Best wishes to you too,

McNulty

Stephen Curry said...

Mc Nulty,

I would like to join JackofKent in thanking you for your interesting comments on this important subject but would also like to raise several objections to some of your assertions.

To characterise the campaign that has raised as a result of the BCA's libel case against Simon Singh as 'an angry mob' is grossly inaccurate. To be sure there are strong feelings aroused by this issue but, speaking for myself, they are grounded in reason and evidence.

And of course there are more important issues at large in the world today but the problem of chiropractic is not 'inconsequential'. Simon Singh may have gone out on a limb with his 'bogus' claim against the BCA but it is nevertheless true that members of the chiropractic profession have been making unsubstantiated claims for the power of their offered treatments. As we have seen in recent months, under the scrutiny of the Advertising Standards Authorities, some of these have had to be withdrawn. It is important to protect the general public from practitioners who charge for services that are not demonstrably effective.

I am not a lawyer and so ill-versed in the technicalities of this case but, as a scientist, I don't entirely agree with your analysis that the Singh issue is conflating two issues. In my view the BCA have been rather heavy handed in going after SIngh via the law courts, even if it was their legal right to do so. Singh drew attention to an important matter of public health - whether some chiropractic treatments were demonstrably effective. A scientifically responsible approach would have been to debate the evidence openly and frankly. We might wish for a fully objective code of conduct but science is inevitably a human enterprise. I have seen plenty of stand-up rows at conferences over this or that piece of data. But never recourse to the libel laws.

jdc325 said...

"The problem here is all the John and Joan Publics who have tried Chiropractic for things other than back pain and feel themselves that it works. Who then discover, when they try to testify to that fact, that they are buried under a bundle of incomprehensible statistics that tell them their own experiences are irrelevant and wrong. Who find themselves harried by a volley of contempt and abuse from the liberal intelligentsia and ultimately prevented from delivering their testimony in the court of evidence-based science."

This view of the way that chiropractic patients are treated surprised me. I hadn't picked up on the harrying of patients / clients - or the "volley of contempt and abuse" that has come their way from the liberal intelligentsia. I have read some fairly strong opinions on both sides of the debate over chiropractic, but cannot recall seeing any contempt or abuse aimed at patients / clients of chiropractirs.

As to their testimony being denied: in the "court of evidence-based science", anecdote is considered to be rather less important than properly-conducted trials that attempt to eliminate bias - and for good reason.

jdc325 said...

"The problem here is all the John and Joan Publics who have tried Chiropractic for things other than back pain and feel themselves that it works. Who then discover, when they try to testify to that fact, that they are buried under a bundle of incomprehensible statistics that tell them their own experiences are irrelevant and wrong. Who find themselves harried by a volley of contempt and abuse from the liberal intelligentsia and ultimately prevented from delivering their testimony in the court of evidence-based science."

This view of the way that chiropractic patients are treated surprised me. I hadn't picked up on the harrying of patients / clients - or the "volley of contempt and abuse" that has come their way from the liberal intelligentsia. I have read some fairly strong opinions on both sides of the debate over chiropractic, but cannot recall seeing any contempt or abuse aimed at patients / clients of chiropractirs.

As to their testimony being denied: in the "court of evidence-based science", anecdote is considered to be rather less important than properly-conducted trials that attempt to eliminate bias - and for good reason.

McNulty said...

Stephen Curry

In my view the BCA have been rather heavy handed in going after SIngh via the law courts ... A scientifically responsible approach would have been to debate the evidence openly and frankly.

OK. I'll try to answer your objections as openly and frankly as I can.

To characterise the campaign that has raised as a result of the BCA's libel case against Simon Singh as 'an angry mob' is grossly inaccurate. To be sure there are strong feelings aroused by this issue but, speaking for myself, they are grounded in reason and evidence.

The evidence shows that characterising this campaign as an 'angry mob' is not a grossly inaccurate assertion.

And we ARE angry and legitmately so. Chiropractic Week! Good Grief! We SHOULD be angry!

I accept you have reason and evidence to support your strong feelings. But, in both law and science, strong feelings must be put aside so that only reason and the evidence decides. But science differs from the law in one crucial respect. If it's a choice between reason and evidence, only the evidence decides.

And of course there are more important issues at large in the world today but the problem of chiropractic is not 'inconsequential'. Simon Singh may have gone out on a limb with his 'bogus' claim against the BCA but it is nevertheless true that members of the chiropractic profession have been making unsubstantiated claims for the power of their offered treatments.

It's a question of proportion. When the top man makes the claim, "no more boom or bust", and this is subsequently proved to be as unsubstantiated as it gets, we leave him in office and do not subject him to the scrutiny of the ASA. If it is so important to protect the public from those who charge for services that are not demonstrably effective, surely it would make more sense to start with the organ grinders rather than the monkeys?

I am not a lawyer and so ill-versed in the technicalities of this case but, as a scientist, I don't entirely agree with your analysis that the Singh issue is conflating two issues.

It depends what kind of scientist you are. Being a keen philatelist in my youth, I was so impressed by Rutherford's statement, "In science, there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting", I trained as a physicist instead. When Feynman identified cargo-cult science as pseudo-science which goes through the motions but neither addresses underlying causes nor delivers the goods, I knew what he meant. So when the Science Council redefined science in April to include "historical research and indeed some journalism" and not "demarcate something called science from the humanities", I could hardly be expected to agree with Prof David Edgerton when he said this was a "good and sensible thing."

Unfortunately, all those opinions are now defined by the liberal consensus as politically incorrect. As someone who was once proud call himself a liberal, this causes me considerable distress.

We might wish for a fully objective code of conduct but science is inevitably a human enterprise.

It is indeed. Only Allah makes things perfect. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for perfection. Only that that we can console ourselves with the knowledge that it can never be achieved.

I have seen plenty of stand-up rows at conferences over this or that piece of data. But never recourse to the libel laws.

Stand-up-rows over data only happen when their value is open to question and not clearly demonstrable in a practical way. This suggests the conferences you attend may have more to do with the humanities than the hard sciences. I would not wish to argue with you about which is the most eminent. I have no doubt you would win hands down. I am simply saying that in what used to be know as science, in the 400 years from Bacon to Feynman, no quarter was given to strong feelings or emotive language of any description.

McNulty said...

Erratum

Stephen Curry

I owe you an apology. When I wrote my reply last night I'd been working without a break for more than 15 hours and made the fundamental mistake of not doing the research and checking my facts.

I note that you are the principal investigator of a protein crystallography lab, which is about as hard science as it gets. I was right in concluding that there would be little doubt over who was most eminent. But my conclusions regarding the possible underlying causes of stand-up rows over data were clearly wrong.

But in a funny kind of way, this illustrates the importance of sticking to Bacon's principles and dispelling all Idols of the Mind before rushing to judgement.

My own personal Idols of the Cave obscured a much more fundamental truth. Emotive and abusive language hurled between scientists at scientific conferences is one thing. The same language printed on the pages of a national newspaper, and particular one which lays claim to the high ground of quality journalism, is something else entirely. In the former, a libel action would be entirely inappropriate. In the latter, not necessarily so.

McNulty said...

jdc325

This view of the way that chiropractic patients are treated surprised me. I hadn't picked up on the harrying of patients / clients - or the "volley of contempt and abuse" that has come their way from the liberal intelligentsia. I have read some fairly strong opinions on both sides of the debate over chiropractic, but cannot recall seeing any contempt or abuse aimed at patients / clients of chiropractirs.

I am addressing the specific issue of the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign. Chiropractic is just one example of a much wider case.

If this campaign was purely limited to Chiropractic and/or BCA v Singh it should have said so on the tin.

If the tin said 'Keep Libel Laws Out Of Populist Science Journalism' or 'Keep Libel Laws Out Of BCA v Singh' I would not object and would rest my case.

But it doesn't. It conflates the issues of Chiropractic and BCA v Singh with the much wider issues of the libel laws and science in general.

My concern is that standards which are now accepted as common practice in populist journalism, the humanities and certain branches of biological and medical sciences may be transferred to the main body of science itself. This concern is deepened by recent statements by the Minister of State for Science, Lord Drayson, who is on record as saying that sensationalist scientific journalism should be applauded and encouraged.

The contempt and abuse I refer to is not specific to Chiropractic. It is detectable in any area of science where scientists or members of the public try to present evidence that does not fit with the current consensus or follow party lines.

I could give you plenty of examples. But that is beside the point. The point is that raising strong emotions and Idols of the Mind to close down scientific speculation and inquiry is not science. Dispelling Idols of the Mind is.

As to their testimony being denied: in the "court of evidence-based science", anecdote is considered to be rather less important than properly-conducted trials that attempt to eliminate bias - and for good reason.

I'd agree that, in certain branches of science, anecdote is considered to be rather less important than properly-conducted trials. But here I would question the definitions of 'anecdote' and 'properly-conducted trials'. Those issues are not so cut-and-dried as they may first appear. According to Bacon, discussing them in the vulgar language of the Market Place can only confound, not clarify them.

I'd agree that the methodology of 'properly-conducted' trials does attempt to eliminate certain kinds of bias and for good reason. But I would want to examine more deeply exactly what kinds of bias we are talking about and what those good reasons were.

Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the foundations of modern science rest more on the careful use of language than on complex mathematics or reason. As the recent economic meltdown proved, reason and mathematics can just as easily result in castles in thin air.

As the founder of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, said in preface to his Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, a masterpiece of clear thinking, responsible for setting Chemistry on the path to success:

'We think only through the medium of words -The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged.'

Anonymous said...

My argument is that the Keep The Libel Laws Out of Science campaign is confounding two separate issues

No. That was the central thrust of your article. But my response was to your opinion that using words such as "happily", "bogus", and "not a jot" is uncalled for in a scientific discourse. To which I responded that he was writing a commentary piece in a newspaper, not a scientific discourse.

In your vernacular that may be true, but in the vernacular of many other people it is not.

Fair enough. But that means what? That Simon Singh should not have used those descriptive words, the meaning of which was clear enough to him and to most who read the article in its entirety, and that he deserved to be dragged through the courts for choosing those particular words?

Yes I do [expect to see scientific discourse in the popular press]. There are many exciting scientific stories the public would be very interested to know about and could easily make sensational front page headlines, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, these are stories that can not be told.

So do you or do you not? You can't have it both ways.

The problem here is all the John and Joan Publics who have tried Chiropractic for things other than back pain and feel themselves that it works. Who then discover, when they try to testify to that fact, that they are buried under a bundle of incomprehensible statistics that tell them their own experiences are irrelevant and wrong. Who find themselves harried by a volley of contempt and abuse from the liberal intelligentsia

Now you seem to be arguing against something Simon did not do: Not a single statistic, incomprehensible or otherwise, in his article. And neither did he attack Chiropractic patients. He was specifically attacking the British Chiropractic Association, who should have known better, for making unsubstantiated claims for chiropractic treatments other than for back pain.

...and ultimately prevented from delivering their testimony in the court of evidence-based science.

Unfortunately, personal experience doesn't count as evidence-based medicine. In fact, it is the realisation that personal experience is so unreliable that triggered the move towards objective science based medicine.

Personally, I think there are many more important things we need to be angry about.

If it is not, this should be a logical fallacy. Perhaps it has a name. Something along the lines of: "you can't ignore one wrong just because there is a greater wrong still to be righted". In any case, it takes special knowledge to fight for or against a particular cause. Simon Singh certainly qualifies where alternative medicine is concerned but perhaps not where pharmaceutical companies are concerned. Causes often choose you rather than the other way round.

Raising anger against such inconsequential aggravations is at best a distraction we can't afford and at worst a kind of witch hunt which, as a scientist, I can not support.

Americans spend 33 billion on unproven alternative medicine every year without (not all of it on Chiropractic of course). That's not inconsequential.
And it's not a "witch hunt", it's taking to task people who promote, to an unsuspecting public, treatments for which there is no evidence of effectiveness.

If your anger towards Chiropractic was balanced by a similar level of anger towards Eli Lily or Pfizer I might be more sympathetic to your cause.

But you don't even know my opinion about pharmaceutical companies. I might even give it if I thought it was relevant, but it isn't is it?

regards,
BillyJoe

McNulty said...

BillyJoe

... my response was to your opinion that using words such as "happily", "bogus", and "not a jot" is uncalled for in a scientific discourse.

I did mention "bogus" but not "happily or "not a jot". A discussion based on words I did not use would be misleading.

To which I responded that he was writing a commentary piece in a newspaper, not a scientific discourse.

If so then then the campaign ought to be called 'Keep Libel Laws Out of Newspaper Commentary Pieces'. To label it otherwise would be misleading.

Now you seem to be arguing against something Simon did not do

What Simon or the BCA did or not do is not the issue. The validity of using this specific case as a platform to launch a generalised campaign to Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science is.

Unfortunately, personal experience doesn't count as evidence-based medicine. In fact, it is the realisation that personal experience is so unreliable that triggered the move towards objective science based medicine.

I agree it is unfortunate. But I can not accept your assertion that it was the the "realisation that personal experience is so unreliable that triggered the move towards objective science based medicine."

For at least a century now, medicine has claimed to be science based. But 'objective science based medicine' is different from 'evidence-based medicine', which only appeared in the last 30 or 40 years.

'Objective science based medicine' is based on the scientific method as laid down by Bacon and the Enlightenment, where personal experience of the senses is all that counts. In contrast 'evidence based medicine' is now based on a methodology that specifically rules personal experiences of the senses out.

If you trace the history of DBRCTs and the appearance of evidence-based medicine in the literature you will see that the move was triggered more by concerns raised by the Thalidomide and similar tragedies than it was by anything to do with the unreliability of personal experience. The way the focus of that methodology has been turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to rule hugely expensive drug trials into the evidence and the experience of the senses of individuals out, is the major fulcrum of my concern.

Americans spend 33 billion on unproven alternative medicine every year without (not all of it on Chiropractic of course). That's not inconsequential.

That's America, not the UK. The proportion of the amount spent on alternative medicine v the total health budget would be a good measure of the proportion of concern alternative medicine deserves.

I don't have figures for chiropractic. But I have been able to find figures for another CAM, frequently critiqued in the liberal press in similar fashion to chiropractic.

In 2007, out of a total drug prescription budget of £5,350,000,000, only £321,000 or approximately 0.006% was spent on homeopathic prescriptions.

To my mind, the level of concern raised in the press over homeopathy in comparison with evidence-based medicine ought to be of a similar order. The fact that it is significantly larger could, under other circumstances, be seen as reasonable cause for further investigation.

If your anger towards Chiropractic was balanced by a similar level of anger towards Eli Lily or Pfizer I might be more sympathetic to your cause.

But you don't even know my opinion about pharmaceutical companies. I might even give it if I thought it was relevant, but it isn't is it?


Sorry. My fault. Imprecise use of language. I was speaking to you as someone who appeared on this page representing the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign. Of course your personal opinion about pharmaceutical companies isn't relevant. But the opinion of the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign might well be.

Regards,

McNulty

jdc325 said...

McNulty

"The contempt and abuse I refer to is not specific to Chiropractic. It is detectable in any area of science where scientists or members of the public try to present evidence that does not fit with the current consensus or follow party lines.

I could give you plenty of examples. But that is beside the point. The point is that raising strong emotions and Idols of the Mind to close down scientific speculation and inquiry is not science. Dispelling Idols of the Mind is."


I am somewhat confused by your widening the scope of the allegation of a "volley of contempt and abuse" to include all scientific debate, as I thought that you were originally quite specific in stating that people who tried chiropractic were the targets of this "volley of contempt and abuse" and it was this statement I took issue with.

I think we are in agreement that raising strong emotions and Idols of the Mind to close down scientific speculation and inquiry is not science. I would, however, be grateful if you could provide examples of the abuse and contempt that clients of chiropractors have been subject to. I have written 31 blog posts on the subject of chiropractic and most of these articles are directly related to the BCA and/or the GCC. If you can find any abuse or contempt aimed at chiropractic clients in my writings, I would be happy for you to point it out. Others, such as Simon Perry, Zeno, Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun, Martin Robbins, and Evidence Matters (to name but a few) have written about chiropractic and the Singh-BCA case. I would be surprised if you could find a single example of abuse or contempt aimed at your hypothetical John and Joan in any of their writings - let alone anything that could be said to constitute a "volley of contempt and abuse" - but, again, I would be grateful if you could point out any examples.

I don't think that examples are "beyond the point" at all. You have stated that clients of chiropractors have been subject to a volley of contempt and abuse. I have yet to see evidence of this and am somewhat sceptical that there has been any such thing - though I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong.

Regards,
James.

McNulty said...

James,

I am somewhat confused by your widening the scope of the allegation of a "volley of contempt and abuse" to include all scientific debate, as I thought that you were originally quite specific in stating that people who tried chiropractic were the targets of this "volley of contempt and abuse" and it was this statement I took issue with.

Yes. Quite right. Now you've pointed it out I can see how that confusion might have arisen.

My reference to a "volley of contempt and abuse" was made in the context of a reply to BillyJoe's statement, "We want John and Joan Public to understand what a load of crock Chiropractic really is..."

In the space of approx. 700 words allowed in the comments, it's difficult to develop complex, controversial ideas and cover all the bases with total rigour without making some mistakes . But now you've drawn my attention to it, I would wish to rephrase it thus:

The problem here is not just all the John and Joan Publics who have tried Chiropractic for things other than back pain, but also all those who have tried anything classed as 'crock' 'bullshit', 'gobbledegook' or 'woo' by the current liberal consensus, and have, through the experience of their own senses, reached the conclusion that it works.

I think we are in agreement that raising strong emotions and Idols of the Mind to close down scientific speculation and inquiry is not science.

Excellent. Now we have agreement on that issue, we can now move on to examine its corollary.

I would, however, be grateful if you could provide examples of the abuse and contempt that clients of chiropractors have been subject to....

I don't think that examples are "beyond the point" at all. You have stated that clients of chiropractors have been subject to a volley of contempt and abuse. I have yet to see evidence of this and am somewhat sceptical that there has been any such thing - though I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong.


I accept that examples you request may not be beyond your point, but they are way beyond mine.

Now I have cleared the misunderstanding and stated that everything I have written was not intended to apply only to Chiropractic, but to extend to anything that those of the skeptical/rationalist/atheist/liberal/bad science persuasion would classify as 'woo', it should be clear that examples you request are in plain sight for all to see.

On his blog on April 22, the eminent Richard Dawkins issued this advice:

I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt ...

I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven't really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.


http://richarddawkins.net/article,3767,Truckling-to-the-Faithful-A-Spoonful-of-Jesus-Helps-Darwin-Go-Down,Jerry-Coyne#368197

There is no confusion here. Dawkins is clearly recommending that those associated with what might loosely be described as 'woo' should become the butt of contempt.

In the same post, he includes examples of the kind of objective scientific language he finds acceptable:

"stumbling, droning inarticulacy, the abysmal lack of anything approaching wit or intelligence. Imagine this yammering fumblewit..."

Maybe I'm unduly sensitive, but that kind of humour sounds like abuse to me.

The headline of Ben Goldacre's influential critique of homeopathy, A kind of magic?, says it all

Magic = Witches

Magic = Woo

Woo hunters or witch hunters? Take your pick.

The case for the defence of those who want to believe in woo if it makes them happy: for the protection of their human rights of liberty, conscience, religion and expression under the European Convention and their reputations and dignity under the libel laws now rests yer honour.

Regards,
McNulty

Anonymous said...

I did mention "bogus" but not "happily or "not a jot". A discussion based on words I did not use would be misleading."

You said "words like "bogus"". For completeness, I added the other "words like "bogus"" in his article that have come under scrutiny ("happily" and "not a jot").
Nice evasion though. :)

If so then then the campaign ought to be called 'Keep Libel Laws Out of Newspaper Commentary Pieces'

Keep Libel Laws Out of Science Commentary in the Media. ;)
And this is exactly what the campaign is about: Scientists should be free to comment in the media on science topics of public interest.

What Simon or the BCA did or not do is not the issue.

If you were not referring to Simon Singh when you made those claims about abuse of patients of Chiropractors, who were you referring to exactly?

'Objective science based medicine' is based on the scientific method as laid down by Bacon and the Enlightenment, where personal experience of the senses is all that counts.

That, surely, must be a mistatement. He would have used word like "objective observation" as in "using objective observation in order to collect as many facts as possible from which general laws could then be abstracted". He was surely not talking about "personal experience", certainly not in the sense I used it.

In contrast 'evidence based medicine' is now based on a methodology that specifically rules personal experiences of the senses out.

Well, "objective observation", rather than "personal experience" still rules the roost in science.

The way the focus of that methodology (DBRCT) has been turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to rule hugely expensive drug trials into the evidence and the experience of the senses of individuals out, is the major fulcrum of my concern.

Your words would be sweet music, indeed, to the ears of alternative health practitioners who also believe that the "personal experience" of seeing patients improve after their treatment allows them to conclude that chiropractic/acupuncture/reiki works.
The "objective observations" of science, on the other hand, would suggest that factors like "regression to the mean", "the natural history of the condition to spontaneously improve", and "the placebo effect", have not been accounted for. Hence the need for an objective assessment via a clinical trial (DBRCT).

The proportion of the amount spent on alternative medicine v the total health budget would be a good measure of the proportion of concern alternative medicine deserves.

How do you figure? By this measure, we should be a whole lot more concerned about the non-alternative medicine portion of the total health budget.

Of course your personal opinion about pharmaceutical companies isn't relevant. But the opinion of the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign might well be.

Certainly they also want pharmaceutical companies to keep libel laws out of science. Indeed, criticism by certain individuals of clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies has, in the past, resulted in legal action. This is to be deplored.

BillyJoe

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. McNulty

On his blog on April 22, the eminent Richard Dawkins issued this advice:
I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt ...
I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven't really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.
There is no confusion here. Dawkins is clearly recommending that those associated with what might loosely be described as 'woo' should become the butt of contempt.
In the same post, he includes examples of the kind of objective scientific language he finds acceptable:
"stumbling, droning inarticulacy, the abysmal lack of anything approaching wit or intelligence. Imagine this yammering fumblewit..."
Maybe I'm unduly sensitive, but that kind of humour sounds like abuse to me.


In this post, Richard Dawkins is responding to an article by Jerry coyne criticising NAS and NCSE's cuddling up to religion. He is referring to relgious leaders who utter absolute nonsense in the evolution vs religion debate and how they should be most appropriately responded to in order to have the maximal effect in counteracting the spread of their nonsense regarding evolution.

He is specifically not saying that the actual churchgoers (analgous to the clients of Chiropractors as in our discussion) be treated in this way

Apart from that analogy, his comments have very little to do with this topic.

regards,
BillyJoe

Anonymous said...

Oops, missed this one:

The headline of Ben Goldacre's influential critique of homeopathy, A kind of magic?, says it all

You don't agree?
Here are a few quotes from that article:

" a 30C homeopathic preparation ... contains less than one part per million million million million million million million million million million of the original substance."

"At a homeopathic dilution of 100C, which they sell routinely, and which homeopaths claim is even more powerful than 30C, the treating substance is diluted by more than the total number of atoms in the universe."

"homeopaths also claim they can transmit homeopathic remedies over the internet, in CDs, down the telephone, through a computer, or in a piece of music."

"Peter Chappell, whose work featured at a conference organised by the Society of Homeopaths, makes dramatic claims about his ability to solve the Aids epidemic using his own homeopathic pills called "PC Aids", and his specially encoded music. "Right now," he says, "Aids in Africa could be significantly ameliorated by a simple tune played on the radio."

He could surely have used a much more derogatory headline.

regards,
BillyJoe

Veronica said...

I wonder whether McNulty is any sort of scientist, as he thinks that subjective evidence of John and Joan Public counts for more than a properly controlled clinical trial. Clinical trials look for two things: safety and efficacy. We are talking here about the efficacy of chiropractic. If it is not doing any good, then it would be simply a money-making scam that is fleecing John and Joan out of their hard earned cash. That's a dubious activity and if it isn't criminal, perhaps it ought to be. Pharma companies, Alt Med practitioners, whoever, should not be afraid of subjecting their treatments to clinical trial scrutiny. What other measure would McNulty advise to stop us all being scammed?
Alt. Meds are not currently subject to the regulatory process and therefore there is no objective evidence that they work, or indeed that they do no harm. Pharma companies have to subject their treatments to lengthy and expensive clinical trials to ensure that they do a lot more good than harm. That's why chiro's claims are "bogus".

Dr Aust said...

I think McNulty may be the same person who comments on the Grauniad CiF threads as "McNultyReloaded" - see the comments after Ben Goldacre's HPV vaccine piece here - and refers to him/herself at some stage as a physicist, though not all the commenters there seem convinced.

jdc325 said...

McNulty

I felt that your original statement regarding the "volley of contempt and abuse" was unfair. Thank you for clarifying your position.

I believe that the quotes you provide from Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins are not good examples of abuse and contempt levelled at believers in alternative medicine or the supernatural. It is my view that both men comment on those who give advice rather than on "consumers" of such advice.

That said, I have on occasion seen contemptuous comments on sceptical blogs and forums regarding consumers and I do not approve. Personally, I don't believe it is helpful to aim such criticism at consumers - I think it is more likely to lead to feelings of antagonism among consumers and an entrenchment of their (for example pro-alternative medicine) position than to persuasion or reflection.

I agree that people should be allowed to "believe in woo if it makes them happy" and that they should be allowed freedom of expression. I do think, though, that criticism of alternative medicine is important and should also be allowed. My criticism of alternative medicine does not infringe the rights of believers to use alternative medicine or to advocate for it. The right to express an opinion should never be confused with the right to hold opinions unchallenged.

Anonymous said...

Hang on a minute…

If I understand this (McNulty) correctly in summation:
In your statement you object to the use of ‘bogus’ in Mr. Singh’s article, as it doesn’t meet the language standards of a scientific discourse and therefore is libellous under British Law (because it has some element of emotion/opinion). It is always excellent to have such high standards agreed.

Think of a simplistic scenario: if I believe the moon is made of blue cheese, I start a club/business, charge subscriptions, make a lot of money and Mr. Prince writes my beliefs are ‘rubbish’ I can sue for libel. Although, I obviously would need to be deluded - no amount of evidence would help because Mr. Prince has to prove that these beliefs are knowingly false. This is plainly ridiculous.

The practical implication of this is that authors cannot risk speaking out freely making evidence based comments (in common language) without risking being taken to court. The legal process is prohibitively expensive to the vast majority of the population and the authors’ risk their homes (and much more). This is too much of a burden for an individual and this clearly favours the organisation at the expense of the public and individual.

In McNulty’s view there is no need to keep the libel laws out of science. Genuine science is already immune to them. Genuine science, like genuine law, rests on the merits of the evidence and the truth.

Again, it great to have such high standards and ideals, we all should, but we need to shout loudly when these ideals and standards are let down. The law is supposed to protect the individual and public at large… Go Figure

SVETLANA PERTSOVICH said...

Tomorrow 14 October already.
I wish Simon Singh GOOD LUCK!

McNulty said...

BillyJoe (Anonymous)

I have already answered most of the points you raise in my answer to James above, which leaves the following:

The proportion of the amount spent on alternative medicine v the total health budget would be a good measure of the proportion of concern alternative medicine deserves.

How do you figure?


I figure thus:

The proportion of the total NHS drug prescription budget spent on homeopathy in 2007 was 0.006%, or a ratio of 6 to 100,000.

Building in a wide safety-margin to allow for herbal and other non mainstream prescriptions which may also be classed as 'drugs' and multiplying by a factor of, say, 3, gives us a likely ratio of spend from the public purse on drugs not distributed by the mainstream pharmaceutical companies of 18 to 100,000.

Whilst total turnover can not be directly correlated with overall levels of activity, numbers of patients treated, profit margins, advertising, PR and marketing spend, political influence etc., it nevertheless gives a good back-of-the-envelope estimate of the likely relative proportions of all the above.

Assuming an extreme case that drugs not distributed by the the mainstream pharmaceutical companies and not validated by evidence-based medicine, were 10 times more dangerous, causing 10 times more damage and therefore causing 10 times more concern, then we would expect to see a ratio of column inches raising concern over alternative drug prescriptions of something of the order of 180 to 100,000.

This is clearly very far from the case, suggesting what Bacon might have called hidden causes may be at work.

The application of the scientific method to revealing what those hidden causes may be is blocked by the volley of contempt and abuse to which I have hitherto referred.

Certainly they also want pharmaceutical companies to keep libel laws out of science. Indeed, criticism by certain individuals of clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies has, in the past, resulted in legal action. This is to be deplored.

Yes, but it hasn't been deplored enough to motivate Sense About Science to create such a massive Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science PR campaign to protect those scientists from legal action by the pharmaceutical companies, has it?

In this post, Richard Dawkins is responding to an article by Jerry coyne criticising NAS and NCSE's cuddling up to religion. He is referring to relgious leaders who utter absolute nonsense ...

He is specifically not saying that the actual churchgoers (analgous to the clients of Chiropractors as in our discussion) be treated in this way.


Leaders are also members of the public. Witch-hunting the leaders or their followers, what's the difference? I can see how the KLLOOS campaign could make political and PR capital by first demanding we differentiate leaders from followers, then moving on to cast followers as victims who need to be protected by 'skeptical rationalism'. But in my opinion this would be splitting hairs: a red herring, a misdirection and a non sequitur.

Apart from that analogy, his comments have very little to do with this topic.

That is your own authoritative assertion. It is not supported by the evidence and is therefore is not a conclusion that could be supported by empirical science.

Regards,
McNulty

McNulty said...

Veronica

I wonder whether McNulty is any sort of scientist

I am an empirical scientist who graduated with a Masters from a Russell group university more than 30 years ago.

But those are honours bestowed by authorities, which Bacon would have considered more disqualifications than qualifications in the practice of the scientific method.

In terms of the more empirical kind of qualifications Bacon might have been more impressed with you may be interested to know that:

My mother always said my first word, spoken at the age of 18 months was 'bacteria'. I didn't take my first step 'till I was almost 3. I got my first chemistry set at 5, built my first electric motor out of bobbins, paper clips and copper wire at 6 and became the youngest member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle at the age of 10. I don't have any ground breaking discoveries to my name unfortunately, but then neither do Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh.

I was obliged to abandon my career as a physicist researching into laser generated thermonuclear fusion in the early 70s due to my growing conviction they were on the wrong track and could not produce significant results in my working lifetime. I have not been proved wrong.

Instead a pursued a career in scientific journalism, eventually becoming a producer at the BBC. I currently make my living writing computer software and troubleshooting IT systems.

... as he thinks that subjective evidence of John and Joan Public counts for more than a properly controlled clinical trial.

Yes, I most emphatically do.

Perhaps you could read some Bacon, Locke, Hume, Lavoisier, Einstein, Schrödinger and Feynman and we could take it from there.

We are talking here about the efficacy of chiropractic... That's a dubious activity and if it isn't criminal, perhaps it ought to be.

Perhaps it should. But there is no doubt that this certainly is >>>

Pfizer drug breach ends in biggest US crime fine

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/sep/02/pfizer-drugs-us-criminal-fine.

Please note that whilst most Guardian science forums dealing with alternative medicine are 'comment' pieces with a tenuous news peg where reader's comments are encouraged, this is hard news piece appearing under Business and reader's comments have been blocked from the outset.

What other measure would McNulty advise to stop us all being scammed?

An educational system, media and government protected from the sophistry, rhetoric and political manipulations of what has been identified in the the BMJ and Journal of the American Medical Association, amongst others, as the medical-industrial complex.

Alt. Meds are not currently subject to the regulatory process and therefore there is no objective evidence that they work,

This does not follow. 'Objective', 'empirical' and 'evidence-based' are entirely different things.

It all depends on now the tests are defined. I am a nerd. I fail tests defined by football jocks every time, just as they would fail mine.

Pharma companies have to subject their treatments to lengthy and expensive clinical trials to ensure that they do a lot more good than harm.

That's true. Because when they get it wrong they get it wrong big-time and the damage is immense. Chiropractors treat patients hands-on, one-on-one, so the potential damage is on a much smaller scale.

Show me headlines of damage from Chiropractic of anywhere near the same magnitude as those quoted above and I'll agree with you.

Until then, the conclusion that chiro's rather than the multinational pharmaceutical company's claims are "bogus" is entirely the wrong way round.

McNulty said...

Dr Aust

I think McNulty may be the same person who comments on the Grauniad CiF threads as "McNultyReloaded" - see the comments after Ben Goldacre's HPV vaccine piece here - and refers to him/herself at some stage as a physicist, though not all the commenters there seem convinced.

I am, and they certainly aren't.

I am not using a pseudonym and have made no attempt to conceal my identity. I stand by what I say.

I have included my bio above. You can make up your own mind.

McNulty said...

James

I believe that the quotes you provide from Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins are not good examples of abuse and contempt levelled at believers in alternative medicine or the supernatural. It is my view that both men comment on those who give advice rather than on "consumers" of such advice.

I do not accept that the differentiation between leaders and followers in this context is either pertinent or valid.

But I am one against six (and rising), in hostile territory, with Sense About Science at the top and bottom of the page.

Jack of Kent has been a fair chairman in allowing me to have my say. But what I'm saying is so radical it must eventually be brought down.

If that can not be done on fundamental principles of science and law, it must be done on loopholes. And this looks like the most likely one.

An argument falls on its weakest link. But in the context of a case dealing with fundamental principles of both science and law, the loophole you identify here is of no more significance than the minor difference between the rate of fall of a lead shot and a cannonball from the Tower of Pizza and needs to be discounted for the same reasons.

I agree that people should be allowed to "believe in woo if it makes them happy" and that they should be allowed freedom of expression. I do think, though, that criticism of alternative medicine is important and should also be allowed.

Agreed.

My criticism of alternative medicine does not infringe the rights of believers to use alternative medicine or to advocate for it. The right to express an opinion should never be confused with the right to hold opinions unchallenged.

Agreed. But look at it this way.

I'm currently reading Jeremy Clarkson's For Crying Out Loud.

This guy stands for almost everything I oppose. Yet, on every single page, I'm splitting my intercostal muscles so much I think I might die.

How he does it is fascinating. He sets up banana skins then slips on them in the ultimate prat-fall.

But that's not the point. The point is he gives me a belly-laugh which (providing I live through it, which is not so certain at my age) relieves all sorts of tensions and leaves me feeling good.

More to the point, he does not attempt do this under the auspices of being a scientist. He does not even attempt it under the auspices of being a scientific commentator. He makes no bones about being a complete prat. Therefore, even though I do not approve of any of Clarkson's principles, I would support Keep Libel Laws Out Of Clarkson to the death.

But Simon Singh does not make me laugh so much. If he does, it's a kind of thin-lipped, self-righteous, sanctimonious snigger that does not leave me feeling so good.

But, more to the point, he claims to be a scientist more than a comedian or a commentator. And it is on this erroneous and misleading conflation between Singh as scientist and Singh as commentator that the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science have launched their campaign.

If Singh writes as a scientist according to the principles laid down in ANSI 1979b (on which I opened my case) then he is immune from prosecution under the libel laws. If he writes as a commentator and does not respect those rules he ought to be subject to the same libel laws as Jeremy Clarkson.

My case began and ends with the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign. I am questioning its validity. I urge you to do the same.

BillyJoe said...

Dear Mr McNulty

Leaders are also members of the public. Witch-hunting the leaders or their followers, what's the difference?

Here's your reasoning:

1. Leaders are members of the public
2. Followers are members of the public, therefore...
3. There is no difference between leaders and followers.

I can see how the KLLOOS campaign could make political and PR capital by first demanding we differentiate leaders from followers...

They would not need to demand it. It is just obvious. A given.

...then moving on to cast followers as victims who need to be protected by 'skeptical rationalism'.

It is one and the same process. Take the leaders to task, thereby protecting the victims.

But in my opinion this would be splitting hairs: a red herring, a misdirection and a non sequitur.

If you say so. :|

That is your own authoritative assertion. It is not supported by the evidence and is therefore is not a conclusion that could be supported by empirical science.

No, actually, it's a fact.
There are leaders and there are followers. And there are also victims.
I'm not sure what world you come from where leaders, followers and victims are one and the same.

Yes, I most emphatically do [think that subjective evidence of John and Joan Public counts for more than a properly controlled clinical trial].
Perhaps you could read some Bacon, Locke, Hume, Lavoisier, Einstein, Schrödinger and Feynman and we could take it from there.


What? In your parallel universe or in this one? Show me where any of these gentlemen support "personal experience" above "objectively derived facts".

regards,
BillyJoe

McNulty said...

Anonymous

If I understand this (McNulty) correctly in summation:
In your statement you object to the use of ‘bogus’ in Mr. Singh’s article, as it doesn’t meet the language standards of a scientific discourse and therefore is libellous under British Law (because it has some element of emotion/opinion).


No. You do not understand me correctly. I would sum up thus:

The libel court ruled against Singh, therefore his use of 'bogus' has been judged libellous under British Law.

Mr. Singh’s article does not meet the language standards of scientific discourse, therefore it can not be defended under the auspices of science and must be defended under some other name.

My case in not against Simon Singh per se. It is against the way that the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign seeks to remove from scientists - and scientists alone - a defence against defamation currently enjoyed by all. Except the poor, obviously.

To be defamed is to have the health and well-being of one's honour, integrity or reputation weakened by the infection of a nasty stain.

At the moment, scientific discourse provides science with immunity from the diseases of sophistry, rhetoric and spin. Only if it is proved that any of the above have been employed to distort the evidence, can an empirical scientist be defamed.

But, remove the protection of the libel laws from a population where the plague of spin has not thrived much and inject a dose of journalism, where it has thrived the most, and what outcome can we expect? A vaccination of low doses of dead journalism organisms may well stimulate the immune system of science. But an injection of large doses of virulent journalism is most likely to stimulate catastrophic collapse.

Think of this simplistic scenario. In a roomful of people, all have acquired immunity deficiency syndrome, except one. That person has immunity built in. So what do we do? Investigate the source of that immunity and confer it on everyone else? Or push for means by which that person can acquire the same immune deficiency as the rest?

The scientific community ought to be avoiding the KLLOOS campaign like the plague. But Mr Singh's association with it enables journalism to dress in the garb of science, and the disease of spin to be transferred from a population where it is rife to one that is currently relatively disease free.

The outcome of this specific case are not my concern. The threat to the body of science posed by specious manipulations of the language of science by the KLLOOS campaign is.

The practical implication is that authors cannot risk ... making evidence based comments (in common language) without risking being taken to court.

Just because the tin says evidence-based doesn't prove that's what's inside. The tin is opened, the evidence presented in open court and judge and jury decide.

The legal process is prohibitively expensive ... this clearly favours the organisation at the expense of the public and individual.

That's a different matter entirely.

If we're talking Keep The Rich Out Of The Libel Laws I'd be first to sign up.

But that's not what SAS and KLLOOS are campaigning for, is it?

The law is supposed to protect the individual and public at large… Go Figure

Amen to that.

jdc325 said...

McNulty

"I do not accept that the differentiation between leaders and followers in this context is either pertinent or valid.

But I am one against six (and rising), in hostile territory, with Sense About Science at the top and bottom of the page.

Jack of Kent has been a fair chairman in allowing me to have my say. But what I'm saying is so radical it must eventually be brought down."


It seems we disagree regarding the differentiation between leaders and followers. I am happy to agree to disagree on this point.

I am sorry to see you describe this comment thread as "hostile territory" and hope that it reflects that you are commenting on a blog with which you disagree, rather than a feeling that comments that I (or others) have directed at you have been hostile.

I must disagree with your assertion that "what [you are] saying is so radical it must eventually be brought down" - while I disagree with much of what you say, I don't think it is necessary to suppress your views or to demolish your arguments (which seems to be what you imply here). I see nothing wrong with agreeing to disagree on certain points and our differing views both being allowed to stand, with visitors to the blog judging these comments on their merits.

jdc325 said...

The libel court ruled against Singh, therefore his use of 'bogus' has been judged libellous under British Law.

As far as I am aware, Singh's use of 'bogus' has not been judged libellous under English law. The case has not yet been heard. In fact, the court of appeal hearing on the meaning of the alleged libel will not take place for about six months according to JoK's latest post. Note that the libel is still "alleged" - Singh's article has not been "judged libellous", as you state above.

BillyJoe said...

Dear Mr. McNulty,

The libel court ruled against Singh, therefore his use of 'bogus' has been judged libellous under British Law.

Not so fast. One particular judge ruled thus. But Simon Singh has just been granted leave to appeal that judge's decision on the meaning of "bogus".

Mr. Singh’s article does not meet the language standards of scientific discourse

Which is because it is not a scientific discourse between scientists in a scientific journal. It's not even an article in the Science section of a newspaper explaining a scientific topic to the general public. It is, in fact, an opinion piece by a scientist in a newspaper on a topic of public interest.

therefore it can not be defended under the auspices of science and must be defended under some other name.

How about: a scientist commenting on an important health topic in the public interest.

My case in not against Simon Singh per se. It is against the way that the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign seeks to remove from scientists - and scientists alone - a defence against defamation currently enjoyed by all.

You don't understand the campaign then. Where a public interest can be demonstrated, laws of libel should not apply. But this exclusion principle would not apply only to scientists.

To be defamed is to have the health and well-being of one's honour, integrity or reputation weakened by the infection of a nasty stain.

Are you referring to the BCA?

Just because the tin says evidence-based doesn't prove that's what's inside.

I agree. For example, the Chiropactic tin contains "not a jot".

The tin is opened, the evidence presented in open court and judge and jury decide.

I hope you mean that figuratively, because, in science, it is the scientist's peers who decide through a process of peer review. The facts of science are not decided by the Law Courts.

regards,
BillyJoe

McNulty said...

Apologies for dropping out of this thread prematurely. Was called away on a job then got involved in this pub-brawl at Ben's place on the way back ... You don't want to know :(

Just wanted to round off by saying a big thanks to Jack for hosting this blog, setting a tone of calm, reasoned, debate and allowing me to butt in. Imho if Jack was running the Guardian the world would be a better place.

Also wanted to say thanks to all those who took the trouble to reply to my comments. It's helped clarify some thoughts that have been bugging me and stimulate a whole lot more. I'd like to debate those further, but things have moved on and this is no longer the time or the place.

In closing I just wanted to pick up on few points I left unanswered and do a quick summary of my case.

@James (jdc325) - No worries. When I referred to 'bringing arguments down' I DID mean demolish. I not only think this is necessary, but it's the purpose of adversarial debate and the primary means of testing validity in both science and the law. This is why it's so crucial that those arguments are conducted under strict rules of engagement in carefully defined language, rather than the vulgar and emotive language of market place or street.

When I said this blog was hostile territory I was referring to the Sense About Science logos at top and bottom of the page. I have made no bones about my hostility to this campaign. Indeed, this has been the central plank of my case.

I started by testing my gut feeling (i.e. personal prejudice) that there is no need to keep the libel laws out of science because science can take care of itself.

Yesterday I stumbled across this in a Nature editorial of 11 June:

"There is no reason to give a special privilege to science within libel law."

If I had known that a week ago I would have simply quoted it and quickly moved on to the corollary, that there was something fishy about the KLLOOS campaign.

This was confirmed for me by BillyJoe's last post:

"You don't understand the campaign then. Where a public interest can be demonstrated, laws of libel should not apply. But this exclusion principle would not apply only to scientists."

I don't know who BillyJoe is, but the authoritative tone gives me the feeling he/she may be central to the campaign. If not, in the absence of any disclaimers, I assume KLLOOS are happy for him/her to represent them and his/her understanding is correct.

I'm not a lawyer, so Jack will have to put me right here, but if the exclusion principle BillyJoe refers to is not specific to scientists, then isn't that an admission that the label on the KLLOOS tin is misleading?

Furthermore, isn't the public interest defence already written into the libel laws? If so, then isn't this an admission that the contents of the tin are even more misleading than the label?

So what is really inside the KLLOOS tin?

It was only half way through the debate on this thread that I started to get the feeling the KLLOOS campaign might not just be accidentally misleading, but may be more of a wolf in sheep's clothing or a trojan horse. And that instead of protecting scientific debate it's true purpose might to be to poison it with liberal injections of sophistry and spin.

I hope that isn't true. But if it is then it would prove my initial-gut feeling that KLLOOS is something that scientists ought to avoid like the plague.

But things have moved on and Simon will get his day in court as IMHO he should have had in the first place.

Meanwhile, the latest revelations in the Trafigura case have set me thinking again. Jack's hypothesis that this could be the most significant constitutional case case of the generation was not confirmed in that instance. But it occurred to me that, if Trafigura doesn't turn out to be that case, then BCA v Singh just might.

If Jack is amenable, I'd like the opportunity to put forward my arguments in support of that proposition and test it through adversarial debate on this blog.

BillyJoe said...

McNulty,

SAS stands for "Sense About Science". When Simon Singh was sued by the BCA after publishing an article in a newspaper critical of the BCA for promoting chiropractic for conditions for which they had no proof of effectiveness, "Sense About Science" commenced a campaign to change the libel laws so as to protect scientists from libel. However they weren't intending to exclude anyone else with a valid point to make. It's just that their focus, as their name suggests, is science and scientists.

These are quotes from their site regarding the campaign which make this clear.

"Simon Singh announces today that he is applying to appeal the judge’s ruling in the case of BCA v Singh in conjunction with the launch of a support campaign to defend the right of the public to read the views of scientists and writers."

“Everyone agrees that there is something fundamentally wrong with the English libel laws, which have a chilling effect on journalists, whether they write about science or anything else, whether they live in Britain or anywhere else"

"It is possible that the time is right for major libel reform in England, which will then allow scientists and journalists to write with less fear of being intimidated.

To be clear, I do not represent the SAS, and nor am I a member of it.
I can read though :|

McNulty said...

BillyJoe,

OK. I ged it.

So I buy a tin labelled Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science and when I open it I discover I've bought a tin full of Keep Libel Laws Out Of Journalism, Keep Libel Laws Out Of Writing and Keep Libel Laws Out Of Everything Else We Can Think Of But Haven't Told You About Yet, then what am I supposed to think? Ooh goody I've got loads of extras? Or, this is not what I was led to expect?

Which proves my case.

This is misrepresentation. A wolf in sheep's clothing. And worse. It's contamination with the toxin of imprecise language which, according to ANSI 1979b (above), has no scientific qualities at all.

If I tried selling cans of soya milk containing high levels of cow and goat milk, focusing on vegetarians with the word Vegetarian on the tin, the law would soon be on my tail. If I then tried to have the law changed under the banner Keep Laws Out Of Vegetarianism my motives would be obvious and I'd be laughed out of court.

So why not in this case? Just because the majority of the public can't tell the difference between science and skittles, doesn't mean everybody can't.

If you say you're not a member of SAS and don't represent it I'll take your word for it. But SAS isn't the issue here. Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science (KLLOOS) is. If you had said you were neither a member nor a representative of that organisation I would have taken your word for that too. But that's not what you said, is it?

I can read too :)

Jack of Kent said...

With reluctance, I now will bring the Billy Joe and McNulty corresponce on this Post to an end.

Best wishes, Jack

Silex said...

T

Silex said...

This debate has gotten to me, and has taken me away from work and deadlines. It has struck a cord. I share with you an email exchange between Myself and Simon Singh. It sums up my thoughts on this. I see that I'm the black sheep around these circles of blogs...I'm used to this however. Bruce Lee "To express yourself honestly my friend..now thats a hard thing to do". I give it a shot.


Silex:

Stupidity and Ignorance. note the capitals

Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say that there is plenty more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." Zappa

aaaaa haaa. found the source of this trouble. http://www.simonsingh.net. and what do I find..some guy who doesn't even know how to sit in a chair properly, on the front page saying how science and mathematics are the only things he has the faintest clue about. Crit Chiropractic? the body is a different animal all together my furry friend. Idiot. As if chiro's havn't had a bad enough time already. you know when you get attacked that your on to something. people don't like people that are onto things. the quest for everyone to be NOT ONIT seems rife

you sir are stupid and ignorant but clearly very intelligent. What's the problem here? such a simple notion such as subluxation. soooooooooooooooooooooo simple and you don't get it and simply want to cause a fuss. the way you sit in that chair on your website tells me you need some adjusting cause you clearly cant even hold yourself up straight. and to state that maths and science is the only subjects you know about on the front page and  for you to be the source of all this chiro attack?

ha. fit of giggles you put me in my furry friend.

I liked your cartoon. that one about 'you want proof?' cause id be able to demonstrate your subluxation riddled frame with organ compromise to boot, on the rubber mat. your a mathematician scientist not a bodywork artist. this much is clear. stick to what your good at stop being a stick in the mud of progress. those kiddies need healthy functional spines so they don't end up slouching in their chairs like you my furry friend.

WAKE UP!!!!!!!!

Simon:

Many thanks for your deeply insightful email. Unfortunately, I am currenly busy fighting the legal case, so I don't have time to respond in any detail, but I am sure that you will find lots about my views on various websites.
 
Thanks again for such a thoughtful contribution to the debate.
 
Best Wishes,
Simon.

Ps. I will try to slouch less. Thanks.

Silex said...

Silex:

Ps. I will try to slouch less. Thanks." Well if one thing good comes from this my friend, I'd be grateful for this. But grateful am I that you took the time to respond, this is more than i can say for many others.

You speak to a man who has been in pain, tension and trauma for many years on many fronts battling a diseased spine and had to self learn chiro techniques to sort it out. ever done self manipulation? thats chiropractic for ya. Once you discover that and slowly find that upon correction of vertebrae, that your stomach is able to take in  nutrients-those super foods doing nothing before having solved the neural compromise-your brain actually starts computing thoughts again, your heart starts doing its job properly, and slowly you claw your way out of the depths of fatigue. You will know my friend. You would know.

Lots of bad chiro's out there. Tell them to all update to non force neurological approach
like www.torquerelease.com. Forced manipulation is old school. You gota love those Subluxations straight. Release tension and release compression and the subluxations glide back into place. Gently, easily, no harm done

Go after all those bad chiro's doing bad forceful manipulations, cause no good comes from that, your right, no evidence.  And get funds for lots of research. throw funds at em to sort themselves out so that they don't need to sneaky. 

Just please my man, don't tear down a whole discipline in the name of fear and ignorance. Chiropractic is the only discipline that woke up to look at the spine and be intrigued. Before then, we were all ignorant and stupid. They need help, not more slander.

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Respect

Silex said...

You seem to be doin' pretty well :-) But I didn't need a reply.

Perhaps not fear...but ignorance..oh yes...and not all chiropractors? It looked look a crit of the whole of chiropractic to me. 

World authority on alternative therapies?...good for him. he must be healthy :-) Is he a world authority on the most advanced chiropractic techniques? Each different therapy holds a life time of exploration my man. Its like playing a musical instrument...you don't ever master one. Maybe you can get a feel for a couple but to really get close to mastering one...that takes time..lots of it. And even then..What style have you mastered it in? There being a big difference between upright acoustic bass in a new orleans jazz context and an electric bass in a funk/latino context.

I'm going to highlight 'Best available'...since if you were at the top of your game in chiropractic..your evidence would be under your finger tips with every client. But I suppose those cases that are solved are put down to anecdotes of healing if outside of a control lab...*sigh*
Independent thinker, award winning writer. Great stuff. All wonderful attributes. But like I said before..you ain't no chiropractor and you are certainly not aware of your body. Posture..thats very simple chiropractic.

No need to reply again my good man.

Fight the good fight, for knowledge....
 

Respect

i'm a big fan of yours by the way....You could perhaps consider this fan mail :-)

Rock on brother...

But you got me all wrong my man...I don't encourage you to stand up for your article. I do however, encourage you to fight for what you believe in, as it appears your case is about a lot more than crit of chiropractic and some kiddies.

 Ok. I'll spare you any more spam err..fan mail :-)

Respect

Silex said...

Next time..Understand it for yourself

Next time my man, you would do well to understand things for yourself. I see you justify your article's comments because you co-authored a book with some other guy who did some research.

The modality is only as good as the practitioner my friend.

And when it comes to the body sciences, one not only has to understand it in the mind, but one must understand it in one's own body as well. This is something that even top chiropractors are not hip to.

Rumi has wonderful things to say about falling:

The way of love is not a subtle argument. the door there is devastation. birds make great sky-circles of their freedom. how do they learn it? they fall & falling they're given wings." – Rumi.

You my friend, must fall...since there is no excuse for the ignorant stupidity that you so happily promoted.
And if you don't find love from this, perhaps you will at least find some understanding.

Lots of love sent your way my brother. Perhaps when its all over we exchange a few more lines, I have a technique or two to help make sitting up straight  a natural thing to do.

But good on you for fighting..I love a good fighter

subluxation-it should be so obvious as to not require all this evidence

Simon:

As i mentioned before, I don't have time to reply to your emails, but I did want to correct a couple of apparent misunderstandings.

1. "don't tear down a whole discipline in the name of fear and ignorance" - my article and the co-authored book do not level the same criticism at all chiropractors. Moreover, both were not based on fear/ignorance, but rather they were based on the best available evidence.
 
2. Although the book was co-authored with Prof Ernst, I am an independent thinker and the author of award-wnning books and films. Moreover, Prof Edzard is a world-authority on alternative therapies.
 
Thanks for encouraging me to stand up for my article.
 
Best Regards,
Simon.