Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The New York Times and “Cracking the Spine of Libel”

I thought I would diverge from discussing educational issues to look at a new article just posted in the New York Times, on the 16 September, 2009. The article, which is actually an entry in the blog by scientist Dr. Olivia Judson reports on efforts by the British Chiropractic Association to sue scientist and author Simon Singh for libel. You can read the full article here:

Singh is a co-author, along with Dr. Edzard Ernst of the University of Exeter, of a book entitled “Trick or treatment: alternative medicine on trial.” Singh is a particle physicist by training, and Ernst is a research scientist and also the editor for the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies (Disclosure: I am on the editorial board for that publication). The suit revolves around comments that Singh made about claims he found on the BCA website regarding chiropractic treatment for pediatric conditions. I think you can likely infer a potential bias after reading that title.

At issue is a statement that Singh made. He said this, in an article published in The Guardian, one of England’s most respected newspapers: “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments” The BCA complained about this comment to the Guardian, and asked that the comment be retracted. After this was refused, the Guardian offered the BCA a chance to publish a counterpoint to Singh's comments, which they turned down. The suit then ensued, under Britain’s libel laws, which differ from those here in the United States. The use of the word “bogus” seems to imply that the BCA knowingly lied to the public in its comments, and in fact, happily did so. Necessarily, people are looking to see how this case plays out, since it has implications related to the normal scientific criticism that is part of the world we live in; some feel it will have a chilling effect. I disagree.

I think the BCA was correct in not accepting the offer from the Guardian. From my perspective, all that would do is (a) keep the case in the public eye, similar to what we saw two weeks ago with Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie” to the President, and (b) confuse the public with a “he said, she said” argument that they cannot help but not completely understand. What is patently clear is that even though Singh says there “is not a jot of evidence,” that appears factually incorrect. I know; I was editor for the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics when it published articles examining the effectiveness of chiropractic manipulation for conditions such as otitis media, infantile colic, and other conditions. Now, this research might be criticized on methodological grounds- all research can be- but it does comprise evidence. Singh likely meant to be making a hyperbolic statement, but doing so in a public setting does not necessarily let him off on free speech grounds, not when he potentially damages an entire profession by his factually incorrect words- the ruling was that he was offering a statmement of fact, not an opinion. Or, to be clear, this is how I feel; I cannot speak to the legality of what he said as it might be interpreted by British law. I am offering only my opinion here.

It will also be illustrative to read the comments that follow. Initially, they start out generally negative toward chiropractic, but then switch to speak more in favor; however, the negative comments are really negative- one refers to “chiroquaxtery” and another to “chiropractry.” I commented under the screen name Dana5140, and others in our profession have added words as well. I would say “enjoy,” but that may be the wrong word here; however, please do read this and get a sense of the issues that arise.

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