Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sense About Science

I'm still in a state of aaaaaaargh-ness (no, sadly nothing to do with the Castle Argh), but just a very quick entry here to encourage you all to read this excellent article by the Bad Astronomer. It seems that Simon Singh, a science journalist, dared to criticise the British Chiropractic Association for making unproven claims about their treatment - so they sued him.

Of course, if they had genuine confidence he was wrong, they would have ignored or answered him. However, as they haven't got any scientific evidence, they decided to attack him and try to gag him instead. What a mature response! Even more depressingly, the judge seems to agree with them. The unquestioned might of the corporation versus truth and science. Well, it's rebounded. There is now quite a campaign going, which I've signed. (For "profession" I put "unemployed amateur astronomer". I was tempted to put "starving artist-of-science", but I did feel this was a moment to attempt to be taken seriously.) If you sign, you're stating that libel laws should not come into science - i.e., in this case, businesses which claim to cure ailments have a responsibility to collect evidence to back up their claims, and citizens should not be bullied into silence when they know the claims are unproven.

If Simon Singh is successfully sued, the logical conclusion is that any old flashy corporation could sell poison and claim that it'll make your teeth shine, or your breath smell of roses, or you'll never get a common cold again - and anyone who discovered otherwise could be punished for saying so, and the general public not permitted to know anything.

I used to work in a hospital and every few days there'd be drug companies there, handing out corrosive coffee and leaflets and trying to persuade the doctors to buy their drugs rather than decide what was best for the patient. I have also heard of cases of them offering doctors thousands of pounds not to publish their research on the ill effects of drugs.

C'mon, folks, which matters more, people's health and scientific truth, or some business's money?

(To avoid getting sued myself: like Phil, and indeed like Singh, I am not claiming that all or any chiropracters are deliberately lying about their treatment. But whether the practicioners themselves have faith or not is immaterial: the effects on their patients will be the same.)

As an aside, this paragraph in Phil's article surprised me:
In the US that would be a dumb thing to do, as our libel laws put the burden of proof on the claimant (in this case, the BCA), as things should be. However, the UK is very different: when party A sues party B for libel, it’s up to party B to prove their innocence.
I thought it was worse in America, but perhaps that was just stereotypes creeping in, not to mention hundreds of stories about crazy lawsuits. In any case it sounds rather like the government's attitude to terrorism: the accused is guilty until they can prove themselves innocent - and it's quite all right to detain them, deny them access to a lawyer or even tell them what they're accused of or when they'll be free, and undermine their health and sanity, to prevent them having a chance to prove anything. (As an aside: If you accuse me of having stolen a box of chocolates when I was 13, I can't see any way I could prove that I didn't!)

It reminded me of a comment made about another recent article by Phil, on the subject of mass rapings of small girls. Somebody pointed out that it's traditional language for people to "admit" to having been raped, as if the victims are somehow guilty. That article too is worth a read, by the way.

I've gone off on a tangent, and am not sure now whether this post is about the respect for truth and the nasty consequences of a lack of this, or about the fashion for aggression and blame towards the victim or accused person, rather than the one who started the aggression or accusations. I guess they're all rather tied up together. In the meantime - back to work, and thanks to Pamela and Arfon for squishing lots of bugs on our forum and improving the place a LOT since a week ago!

Update: On the subject of the English libel laws, and for Singh's very restrained and well-thought-out take on what is happening, this is excellent. How embarrassing to learn that a learned lawyer considers that English libel laws are so badly out of sync with the rest of the world, and their automatic support of the accuser makes them so easy to get money out of whoever you like with little effort. I.e.:
As the lawyer David Allen Green wrote in New Scientist: "Once the claimant has established they have a reputation in England, and that there is a defamatory statement, they have an automatic right to bring legal proceedings without having to show any damage has been suffered. It then falls to the unfortunate defendant to prove before the court, often at considerable expense, that the statement was defensible. This is the notorious "reverse burden of proof" which, for many, discredits English libel law."


Edd Edmondson said...

Thanks for posting this Alice! I've been following this from quite early on and I know Simon appreciates all the support and this is of course a very important issue.

If other readers want to follow it up more I can only heartily recommend the blog of the most informative and insightful Jack of Kent as well as the others linked by Sense About Science.

Simon's an excellent science writer on many topics and I'd like to point out that a great way for many readers to support him and enjoy a nice bit of astronomy at the same time is to buy his book "Big Bang".

More pertinent to this case is of course look out for his book coauthored with Edzard Ernst - "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial".

Anonymous said...

Well done Alice!

I feel obligated to point out that even all too many scientists seem oblivious to the contributions of Karl Popper to the philosophy of science. In an nut shell, Popper argued that no hypothesis can ever be proven, regardless of the number of observations that appear to be consistent with said hypothesis. Rather, they can only be disproven, by even a single, valid observation that is inconsistent with said hypothesis.

These days, sound philosophy has yielded the battlefield to marketing hype--truth has surrendered to greed.

Best regards,