A characteristically amateurish and socially inappropriate approach to pitching an article

May 8th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, legal chill, libel | 21 Comments »

Hi there. I’m going to write 800 words on the British Chiropractic Association suing Simon Singh, and the early adjudication on meanings. I’m assuming the Guardian don’t want it, since they apologised over the original piece (let me know if you do, natch, wld love to). If you are some kind of editor, and you want to print it on paper, let me know, or I’ll give it to Padraig at Index on Censorship, who I love, but they are a bit little, and this issue deserves a wide readership as well.

I will say things like:

1. I like Simon, but what he wrote was technically a bit wrong, in my view. he said that there was “not a jot of evidence” for chiropractic, when there’s some weak evidence for some things.

2. even so, an organiastion suing an individual in a situation like this really does not look good.

3. this is a recurring theme in the global multi-billion dollar alternative therapy movement (many more examples than that one, many many many), who perhaps recognise that their income relies more on plausibility and reputation than on evidence.

4. technically there is a reading of simon’s piece that suggests he thinks the BCA deliberately and knowingly peddle quackery.

5. simon doesn’t think that they deliberately and knowingly peddle quackery, nor do I, I’d say we both think it’s a bit more complicated than that, and frankly there should be an easy way for him to simply say so, so that everyone can move on, without everyone spending a lot of time and money in the Royal Courts of Justice.

6. britain’s libel laws suck the big one.

sorry to be scatty, i’m sat on a bit of grass next to my bike surrounded by hoodies on the way from a to b.

as always anyone can get me on ben@badscience.net, it goes straight to my phone/brain etc

alternatively if you are a commentatory person and think this is even slightly useful then do lift bits of it. i am a pretty procrastinatory campaigning hobbyist journalist so what other people regard as plagiarism often feels like a massively positive outcome to me.

this post will self destruct when i write a proper one


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

21 Responses



  1. HolfordWatch said,

    May 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    As Prof. Frizelle remarked so eloquently about a different group of chiropractors, “Let’s see your evidence, not your legal muscle“.

    This interpretation really does put the sued into pseudo-science.

  2. peterd102 said,

    May 8, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    I think simons argument that there “was not a jot of evidence” related to certain claims the the BCA made for Chiropratic – Not Chiropratic as a whole. The fact that he mentioned some of the symptoms that it has an effect for in ‘Trick or Treatment’ leads me to belive that he does share your veiw.

  3. stever said,

    May 8, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    There is something deeply pathetic, childish and anti-science about the way the BCA have dealt with this.

    They will now have to learn the lesson the hard way – that perusing this sort of case, attempting to stifle a critique of the scientific basis for their practice, will ultimately lead to increased critical scrutiny, far more bad PR than it averts, and is a much bigger threat to their profits in the long term, even if they win this round.

    I for one am raising a toast to the imminent avalanche of critical media and blog engagement with this story.

  4. SteveGJ said,

    May 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    This has got the potential to be rather bad, and not just for Simon. If it is now ruled that the only interpretation of bogus is one involving deliberate misleading (which is certainly one of the implied meanings, if not the only one) then where does that leave any wording which might also have a meaning that could be construed as applying dishonesty. As an example, the word quack – there is definitely the more than a hint of implied dishonesty in that word. Here’s one such definition from an online dictionary; “A charlatan; a mountebank”.

    So where would that leave quackwatch? The requirement to prove dishonesty rather than mere incompetence is frankly worrying for all. Perhaps we need a new lexicon with an ample choice of picturesque words for such concepts as “incompetent fool”, “ignoramus”, “self delusional” and words like charlatan can then be kept for the true villains.

    The real problem here is the nature of UK libel laws, and the real penalty isn’t going to be damages. It is the enormous sums of money that are spent on the lawyers involved. Perhaps there ought to be a rule in this country, that costs awarded cannot exceed damages. That might limit cases like this – although don’t expect the lawyers or judges to agree (or for that matter many politicians as they are disproportionately lawyers) – too much to lose.

  5. used to be jdc said,

    May 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    I’ve emailed my MP with my thoughts on our libel laws and have now written about the BCA’s “Research” page: here.

  6. zeno said,

    May 8, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Stever said: “I for one am raising a toast to the imminent avalanche of critical media and blog engagement with this story.”

    Absolutely! Every aspect of the BCA will now be critically examined by those best placed to tear their nonsense apart.

    I’ve commented on their 2007 accounts on the forum.

  7. Michael Gray said,

    May 9, 2009 at 9:29 am

    P-sued-oh-Science!

  8. pv said,

    May 9, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Is it legitimate to ask if the Judge in the case was a user of, or a client of, a chiropractor?
    It would be nice to know.

  9. Twm said,

    May 9, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    My I refer the honourable Judge to Bill & Ted vs Evil Bill & Ted [1991].

  10. Beermonkey said,

    May 11, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I’ll see if I can get an article or two published – it’s only student press stuff, but the more the merrier.

  11. Squander Two said,

    May 11, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    > 4. technically there is a reading of simon’s piece that suggests he thinks the BCA deliberately and knowingly peddle quackery.

    Well, when I read it, that comes across quite strongly as exactly what he means. I like Singh as well, so I approached the actionable paragraph wanting him to be, if not right, at least not suable. But every time I re-read it, it still comes across as saying exactly what Justice Eady says it says. If that’s not what Singh thinks, then he has made quite a serious mistake in wording.

    We could probably do with a law which takes scientific claims out of the realm of libel. (Although, even then, this one isn’t about the scientific claims so much as the implication of dishonesty, so would probably still be happening. Anyway.) However, absent such a law, and given that this case has been brought, I’m not convinced Justice Eady made a wrong decision here — though he is wrong to place such emphasis on the single word “bogus”, when I’d say the meaning was across the whole sentence — I think following “respectable face of the chiropractic profession” with “and yet” is what does it: that clearly implies that what follows is the opposite of respectability. I’m also unconvinced by Singh’s defense that the next paragraph demonstrates that his use of the word bogus does not imply dishonesty: it really does no such thing.

    > frankly there should be an easy way for him to simply say so, so that everyone can move on, without everyone spending a lot of time and money in the Royal Courts of Justice.

    Absolutely. There should be a simple apology get-out for libel cases: apologise and retract with at least as much prominence as the original statement, within a certain reasonable timeframe, and the case is dropped. Seems fair to me.

    Stever,

    > They will now have to learn the lesson the hard way – that perusing this sort of case, attempting to stifle a critique of the scientific basis for their practice, will ultimately lead to increased critical scrutiny, far more bad PR than it averts, and is a much bigger threat to their profits in the long term, even if they win this round.

    A noble ideal, but I think you’re overestimating the influence of a few bloggers. There’s a reason intelligent and successful people use libel law, and that reason is that it works.

  12. Indy said,

    May 12, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Does any one else wonder why this law didn’t seem to apply to Jeni Barnett re: MMR? The CAM can say what they want, but science must bite it’s tongue?

  13. Squander Two said,

    May 12, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Indy,

    Libel law requires someone to actually bring a case for there to be a case. Perhaps if some MMR scientists considered bringing a libel case against Barnett, they’d win. Considering some of the things she said — again, as in this case, making implications about not only the science but the motivations of the practitioners — perhaps they should.

  14. lenny law said,

    May 12, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I did feel that Simon’s chapter on chiropractic in Trick or Treatment rather displayed his personal bias regarding the subject and contained too much anecdotal reportage in an attempt to lend weight to his argument – a technique used by the CAM brigade and not one which we the Enlightened would like to see too much being used on our side of things. I suspect, like previous posters, that a half-decent libel lawyer would pull him to pieces and it might be wiser for him to place a large order at www.humblepie.com and uncork the sauce-bottle before this reaches court.

  15. stever said,

    May 14, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    squander – media coverage begins in earnest…

    its in the economist today:
    www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13643973

    and new scientist:
    www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227083.000-chiropractic-critic-loses-first-round-in-libel-fight.html

    both highly critical of the BCA

  16. Squander Two said,

    May 19, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Oh, well, The Economist and The New Scientist. I take it all back. The BCA are fucked.

  17. used to be jdc said,

    May 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I take it no-one has yet taken you up on your offer Ben? Shame – I’ve been looking forward to reading this article.

  18. pulsetoday said,

    June 5, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Prof Edzard Ernst, Simon Singh’s co-author on Trick or Treatment, has blogged on the subject of chiropractic and the libel case, asking whether chiropractors are destroying their own reputation by making claims about what conditions it can be used to treat which are not backed by good evidence.

  19. stringph said,

    June 14, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    “…there should be an easy way for him to simply say so, so that everyone can move on, without everyone spending a lot of time and money in the Royal Courts of Justice…”

    Well, there is a very simple way that people could have moved on without fighting any court case, and that is if Singh had retracted the one sentence:

    “This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

    and apologized for the apparent insinuation that the chiropractors are dishonest or negligent in promoting their treatments.

    The point is not what Singh claims to have meant or intended to say, it’s what he *did* say, and what an average reasonable reader could take it to mean.
    It seems quite reasonable to interpret this “happily promote bogus treatments” as meaning “are happy to promote the treatments, despite their being bogus” – which strongly implies that they *know* the treatments are bogus. Else why would Singh specifically complain that they did so ‘happily’?

    Singh is not much of a writer if he doesn’t understand the difference between ‘they promote treatments that are in fact bogus’ and ‘they happily promote bogus treatments’.

    If he wants to defend his statements, it is entirely possible that Singh will succeed in proving in court that the chiropractors were dishonest or negligent. I am confident that a British jury will reach the correct decision (although I would agree that the process is absurdly costly).

  20. wayscj said,

    November 21, 2009 at 6:04 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy shop ed hardy shop
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy cheap ed hardy cheap
    ed hardy outlet ed hardy outlet
    ed hardy sale ed hardy sale
    ed hardy store ed hardy store
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids

  21. kimekime said,

    April 1, 2010 at 5:53 am

    cheap wedding invitations
    cheap prom dresses
    hairstyles
    cheap bridesmaid dresses
    lace wigs

You must be logged in to post a comment.