Tuesday, 11 August 2009

"In the court of public opinion", Simon Singh has already won - as have "an intrepid, ragged band of bloggers"

As I'm sure those following the Simon Singh case already know, he has been refused permission to appeal against Eady's preliminary ruling. But he's not going to give up. Nor are his many supporters - many of whom, like me, I am sure, had never heard of him before the BCA sued him. Today, Jack of Kent tweeted an "important" article at Heresy Corner on Simon's options now, and also about the wider picture: that the fight he has raised, and the campaigning that has begun for a much-needed change in the embarrassing libel laws, is going to be vastly important.

Simon has just added a PS: his oral appeal, although it has a less than 50% chance of success, is set for 14th October. He sounds optimistic. "At the heart of the case," he writes, "is whether or not chiropractic can help children with serious ailments. More broadly, there is the issue of how freely a journalist can speak out on a matter of public interest."

Earlier in the same post, he writes, more specifically: "Moreover, there have already been many positive outcomes emerging from the case. For instance, the legal battle has shone a light on chiropractors and their claims; there have been major articles in magazines such as ‘New Scientist’ and the ‘British Medical Journal,’ and, of course, bloggers have been writing extensively about the lack of evidence for some chiropractic claims."

It wasn't until the BMJ landed on the doorstep of my medic-filled house that I learnt about a delicious article written in the Guardian by Ben Goldacre. Back on 29th July, Goldacre remarked that the positive outcomes of the fight that has ensued between the BCA and free speech will far outweigh the negatives if Simon loses the case. With glee-raising hilarity, he mocks the "cherry-picking" approach to science by the BCA, and their pathetic appearance next to other medical bodies. "Neither the General Medical Council nor the British Medical Association have ever sued anyone for saying that their members are up to no good. I asked them. The idea is laughable."

He states that it is scientifically and ethically wrong to try and settle disagreements by suing, rather than by proper healthy scepticism and seeing if claims can stand up to evidence. "To stand in the way of ideas and practices being improved through critical appraisal is not just dangerous," he writes, "it is disrespectful to patients, and even if someone has been technically defamatory in their wording, it is plainly undesirable for all critical discourse in healthcare to be conducted in a stifling climate of fear." Scientists and real doctors can take criticism, because they're actually trying to cure people. Apparently, the BCA is too weak for such harsh realities.

But those who really come out in full glory - apart from Simon, of course - are the bloggers. The BMJ article, whose whole is unavailable online (and asks to be cited as BMJ 2009; 339:b3166), clearly supports the fact that the law is not the same as scientific reason, approvingly quotes many statements made by Sense About Science, and concludes by quoting Goldacre as crediting them with doing "a better job of subjecting an entire industry's claims to meaningful, public scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself and even its own regulators".

I'd say that was the case. It was the Quackometer plus bloggers who revealed the highly telling McTimoney letter, which certainly reveals the fear and ethics by which chiropracters are asked to work with (even if the BCA said no such thing, it now can agree with McTimoney and look silly, or disagree with them and look divided). Bloggers in swarms reproduced the original article containing the criticised thus immortal words, ". . . happily promotes bogus treatments" - whose edited whole plus removed sentences you can find with Jack of Kent plus others. It was bloggers who took the trouble to go through all the "evidence" presented by the BCA and tear it apart; to keep everybody updated; to cry out for "free speech"; to devote more time to the case than a newspaper or magazine might choose to pay for, "to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger". (Not, I might add, that newspapers and magazines have neglected the issue. It's gone all over the world, especially the issue of free speech. The Guardian article has a lovely long list of them.) Also, it was such bloggers who made the formal complaints, to bodies such as the Trading Standards Office. Simon Perry has a wonderful blog post about his Adventures in Nonsense on this front . . .

As Galaxy Zoo demonstrates, citizen scientists are a unique strength to science; and as Clay Shirky writes in my favourite ever article, ordinary people who write for websites such as Wikipedia are a huge new social force. "Never doubt that a small, thoughtful group of people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever does," is an oft-repeated quote of Margaret Mead.

I hope that what the people do can lead to a change in the law. "It's strange this task has fallen to them," concludes Ben Goldacre, "but I'm glad someone is doing it, and they do it very, very well indeed."

Personally it has been an invigorating experience getting - in my own tiny way - involved with this campaign. I had never heard of Simon Singh or even really of chiropractic before this business began. I did vaguely know that libel laws were ridiculous and too easy to use for quick money. I didn't know how quite how flimsy the science of alternative medicine could be (though I had an intuitive scepticism, admittedly strengthened by coming from a medical family), and the nonsense they seem to be getting away with compared to the rigorous standards expected of food and chemicals, for example.

I seriously hope Simon wins his case - though I won't be surprised if he has to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. I expect it to be very long and costly for him, and an unpleasant experience. I am really delighted and encouraged to feel optimistic about human beings by the amount of support he's getting. I intend to buy his books as well. Hopefully, there'll eventually be a change in the law, which will doubtless be of benefit to me as well as millions of other writers and people interested in science. Personally, I've learnt a lot more about public science, the media, and the law - and also encountered great people such as Jack of Kent. If some people are behaving like greedy unscientific idiots, others are being brave, devoting their time, and demanding better of responsible bodies. Hats off to them!

free debate

1 comment:

Zeno said...

Good to see this still generating coverage all over the world!

It's going to be a long, slow haul, but we'll get there eventually.