Friday, 15 May 2009

Simon Singh Update

Some developments in the Simon Singh case. Singh, you may remember, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association over his claim that they were "happily promoting bogus treatments", and is in something of a pickle after Mr Justice Eady ruled that the word "bogus" implied conscious deception (rather than, say, recklessness or mere stupidity) on the part of the organisation.

The legal blogger Jack of Kent reveals that Singh will announce whether or not he intends to appeal the preliminary ruling at a public meeting on Monday at the Penderels Oak, Holborn, the usual meeting place of London Skeptics. 6.30pm if you can make it - as well as Simon, the journalist Nick Cohen will also be speaking. We're also told that a fighting-fund may be established, either for this case or as "a distinct legacy fund to support the ongoing scrutiny of the promotion of CAM [complementary/alternative medicine]." A dedicated website is also being set up, which I'll link to when I find out about it.

JoK relates that all options have been considered, including what he gratifyingly dubs the "Heresiarch manoeuvre". This was my suggestion that Simon might exploit Eady's over-definition of "bogus" by way of limiting the damage (if not the damages). Since the judge ruled that the libel consisted in an imputation of conscious fraud on the part of the BCA, and since Singh intended no such slur, it should be possible for him to settle the case without retracting the central point that at least some chiropractic claims do not stand up to scientific scrutiny - and even, perhaps, the subsidiary point that the BCA ought to take the evidence more seriously than they do.

This was my suggested "apology":

1) My intention in the article was not to impugn the honesty or integrity of the BCA, but merely to raise questions as to the scientific validity of some well-publicised chiropractic claims.

2) The judge has concluded that the words used suggested that the BCA was knowingly dishonest. Since this was never my intention, I am of course happy to withdraw those remarks in the sense in which they have been interpreted by the judge.

3) I reiterate, however, my belief that notwithstanding the bona fides of the BCA, chiropractic is scientifically worthless.

The "Heresiarch manoeuvre" sounds like a subtle chess tactic, which in a sense it is. The analogy I actually had in mind was from judo, where the skill lies in using your opponent's strength against him. In this instance, Eady's ruling serves to remove from the dispute any question of evidence. Simon Singh no longer faces the high hurdle of trying to prove, to the standards required of the libel laws, that chiropractic techniques are "bogus". That said, that was of course what he hoped to do, and if he had succeeded he would have scored a major victory for science. Instead, surrendering now leaves him with a hefty legal bill (though not as crippling as it would have been had he lost a full trial); it enshrines Eady's bizarre definition of "bogus" in English law, with long-term effects for writers and journalists that are difficult to predict; and worst of all, perhaps, it will enable the BCA to boast that "a high court judge ruled that chiropractic treatments could not be described as 'bogus'".

The whole affair has now been blogged to within an inch of its life. Among notable contributions are an item on Pharyngula (which compares and contrasts this case with the Californian case of the science teacher found to have violated the constitution by calling creationism "superstitious nonsense"); a contribution from comedian Dave Gorman; and a fascinating discussion on Language Log of the history and semantics of the word "bogus". It amusingly suggests a new standard of "bogosity", the unit to be dubbed a "BCA". For myself, I think bogosity ought to be measured out in "Eadies".

The story has also begun to make inroads into more traditional news sources, including The Economist. The solicitor and blogger David Allen Green has a piece in the New Scientist. It was no surprise to find it mentioned in this week's Private Eye, where Ratbiter uses it as more ammunition in his long-running campaign against Justice Eady. He also draws attention to the UNHRC's 2008 complaint that English libel judges (mainly Eady) were discouraging "critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest".

JoK's latest post attracted a comment from the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris - perhaps the Commons' best-known humanist - who warns:


I met Simon earlier this week. It is vital that this case is not lost because it will chill scientists, journalists, writers and even comedians from criticising the work of others - which is vital component of the scientific method. It will embolden the non-evidence-based (so called "alterntive") health care industry to threaten any critic of their apporoach, work or claims. It will also add credibility to the claims of these organisations.


On the other hand, and more optimistically, the case has ensured that the evidence against chiropractic, and the scientifically dubious nature of the claims made on its behalf, have been given a wider public airing. Even if he loses the battle, Simon Singh could still win the war. With any luck, it will also help his book sales. As a small gesture of solidarity, I popped into Waterstones at the weekend and bought a copy of Trick or Treatment, Singh and Ernst's detailed exposé of chiropractic and other bogus (there, I said it) alternative treatments. And very good it is too. The frontispiece carries a cheeky dedication to Prince Charles, but he wouldn't like it at all. Let me share with you the penultimate paragraph:

We argue that it is now the time for the tricks to stop, and for real treatments to take priority. In the name of honesty, progress and good healthcare, we call for scientific standards, evaluation and regulation to be applied to all types of medicine so that patients can be confident that they are receiving treatments that demonstrably generate more good than harm.


Surely even Mr Justice Eady couldn't disagree with that.

19 comments:

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I agree, please buy this book to show solidarity with sanity. Also the David Aaronovitch book Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History.

Sean said...

Is this the same Justice Eady you so praised after Max's spanking case?

If so he has once again got it right.

We all know that the Lisbon treaty is the EU constitution, but some politicos believe that it is not. Now they might be liars (which most are) but if they sincerely believe that it is different than they are sincere idiots.

This is the trouble with materialist philosophy you find it hard to understand that the world is not rational and that the irrationality is very important to us as a civilisation, that's why I would describe myself as a conservative.

You should have a whip round for Simon who is a wonderful guy and pay off his bills he does not deserve this, but lose he will if he takes this further.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you have got Eady's argument correct. Just take the phrase:
"happily promoting bogus treatments"

and replace "bogus" with a word of your choice, like fake, false, worthless. It is the "happily promoting" treatments that are worthless/fake/false/bogus that makes the sting of conscious deception.


Why not blog about how simon got it wrong, and asking for him to apologise ?

per

The Heresiarch said...

Not having been in court, I have to rely on reports of the ruling, but they all suggest that Eady did rule that "bogus" implied deliberate fakery. Of course, the words "happily promote" may be taken to strengthen the sense, but in any case, in an earlier case (involving Paul McKenna's doctorate from a "bogus" university) Eady ruled that the word libelled McKenna by implying that he knew the qualification was worthless. So he has form. For what it's worth, my interpretation of the phrase "happily promoting" is that it suggests the BCA was reckless, not undertaking proper care to substantiate claims before making them. There is no necessary suggestion of deliberate dishonesty; I don't think so, anyway.

Yes, Sean, I did praise Eady over the MM case. He was right then, he's wrong now. Nobody's perfect. But he's only half to blame; the principle of libel law that the burden of proof is on the defendant is the real problem, in this as in other cases.

Matt said...

"This is the trouble with materialist philosophy you find it hard to understand that the world is not rational and that the irrationality is very important to us as a civilisation"

You don't need to be a materialist to understand that the majority of these "alternative" medical practices are unscientific, bogus, and yes, often willfully faked in order to extract cash from a ignorant public.

I'm no materialist. I know these treatments CAN work, but understand that when they do so it's because of the placebo effect, which is evidence of non-physical (mental) causation, and therefore a good philosophical argument for non-materialism.

However, the placebo effect can be utilized for free in any number of ways. Thus, building business models around using by exploiting an ignorant public - and often just as ignorant practitioners - is the epitome of bogusness.

As for consequences; freedom of speech and the truth always trumps what the law says. The guy should stick to his guns and refuse to pay a penny.

doesnotexist said...

Apparently "bogus" comes from an American slang word for counterfeit (initially as a noun meaning a counterfeit coin or possibly the apparatus for making such). But according to Judge Eady's logic, a counterfeit coin would only be "bogus" if the person paying with it knew it to be a fake. And apparently it would matter if they were happy - perhaps if they had just found it lying about and though it was their lucky day.

valdemar squelch said...

Matt, since the world is not rational, the next time someone beats the crap out of you and takes your wallet, don't ask the police to catch the mugger on the basis of an accurate description, DNA evidence, or eyewitnesses. You would be better off getting a witch doctor to put a curse on him if he won't return your credit cards.

The world (as opposed to the people in it) may not be entirely rational, but it's always the way to bet.

Matt said...

I'm not sure what your point is. I'm arguing that Singh is right, and CAM is bogus, nothing more than a dressed-up placebo effect. And as much as many practitioners are ignorant of that fact, and believe their treatments are beneficial in themselves, most of the businesses out there are well aware the whole thing's a sham.

Chris Kavanagh said...

@Matt

The placebo effect doesn't contradict materialism. Materialism doesn't make any claim that mental faculties can exert no influence over the body. In fact I would consider it rather straightforward that our brains and the emerging mental properties have a very large influence over our bodies.

Defining the mental as non-physical is a bit misleading methinks.

Anyway, it's a bit of a side issue. I hope Simon appeals and I also heartily recommend his book.

Matt said...

@Chris

You're right that it's a side issue, so I won't get into a philosophical debate, but again, like some of the other issues I've commented on, it's a completely open subject; there are no facts as yet to support either the conclusion that mental events (qualia and the like) can be reduced to emergent physical properties, or whether they are in fact intrinsic in nature.

That is why I said that the placebo effect provides "a good philosophical argument for non-materialism", rather than "proves non-materialism".

For every Dennett there's a Chalmers or a Nagel, and a whole host of other Philosophers of Mind in between.

Anonymous said...

"There is no necessary suggestion of deliberate dishonesty..."So let us try this. The XXX is;
"happily promoting worthless treatments"
"happily promoting false treatments"
"happily promoting treatments where there is no evidence that the treatment can treat the ailment"

what definition of the word "bogus" would you use, that removes the meaning that the XXX is "happily promoting" a treatment that it knows to be worthless ?

I disagree with you on the issue of libel law. If you do not think we should have a libel law, then anyone can write completely bogus allegations in the press, and you cannot complain. You should separate the issue of whether simon said something unfortunate, and whether we need libel law.

per

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I don't know, or indeed much care, what sort of philosophical argument for crazy superstitious twaddle that the placebo effect provides. The important thing is that it provides absolutely no scientific reason to question materialism.

Matt said...

Woolly, I wonder if we actually mean two different things in our use of the term "materialism".

If you mean it in a simple sense of science vs religion, then I probably agree with you.

However, if you mean it in the proper metaphysical sense under which it's a entails a variety of positions one can hold in the philosophy of Mind (detailing with whether mental properties such as qualia are reductive, intrinsic, or exist at all,- for example), then I'd be interested to know how you think science in any way proves it, since virtually all philosophers - whatever their position on the matter - would probably disagree with you.

If you're interested, I'd suggest the following paper as a good read. Even ignoring the bias of the author, it offers good summaries of the various positions.

http://consc.net/papers/nature.pdf

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

What mere philosophers think is of no interest to any sensible person. What scientists have discovered or proven on the other hand is terribly interesting. What these same well-informed and learned scientists think, or speculate, to put it more accurately can also be interesting.

The writings of philosophers are only of any actual interest when they explain what they think the science is and means, Whether they agree or disagree with the science is up to them. Why would I care one way or the other? Its only reality that I'm interested in.

Matt said...

The question of whether reality consists of just material properties, or whether it consists of both material and mental properties, and if so, how those may relate to each other, IS a philosophical one, at least within the current limitations of our scientific understanding, and I'm sure most scientists would agree with that, especially theoretical particle physicists, who are the only ones who count on this subject (since they are dealing with base reality as we currently understand it).

You can venture an opinion, but if you stray into declaring those opinions to be factual, when clearly neither particle physics, nor consciousness are fully understood, and you are not interested in centuries of logical philosophical discourse on the matter, then you are peddling quasi-philosophy, and of no more standing than those non-scientists who peddle quasi-science.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Tell you what, lets have a race to Mars. Scientists can build a rocket and fly probes there while the philosophers can sit around and talk about what they mean by Mars. I doubt that many scientists are particularly bothered what the philosophers think or say and why would they be?

We don't fully understand the solar system and probably never will but even with our partial and tentative models despite your grandiose claims we can in fact safely venture scientific statements such as that the Earth & Sun orbit a common centre of gravity with reasonable certainty. Only rather silly obscurantists who are too lazy to engage with science because it requires a modicum of work wave their hands around and declare that we can say nothing. You have fun with that Matt, in the meantime we'll just get on with mostly ignoring you mixed in with occasional bouts of ridicule at your expense.

Matt said...

It's obvious that you wish to understand neither philosophy nor science, or indeed the relationship between the two. Oh well, your loss.

Anonymous said...

Would it help the case at all if Eady understood the normal standard of proof for a medical treatment? In which case Simon Singh should call upon expert witnesses from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the Institute of Clinical Research. These are the relevant bodies which would testify to the correct procedures for verifying the safety and effectiveness of a therapy. It is NOT a subjective test, and if the BCA has not met it, their therapies are pretty much bogus by definition. I note that Duchy Originals got into trouble last week for making unwarranted medical claims for their "alternative medicines". What's good enough for Prince Charles ought to be good enough for the BCA.

harebell said...

Anon at 21:09
This is easily where Mr Singh could in fact show that the Chiro`s are happily ignoring sound science and I believe have a great foundation of claiming a defence of Truth.
Chiro has repeatedly been shown to have no effect beyond that of the effects of manipulation much along the lines of a physio or athletic therapist.
The claims to channel energy etc have all been shown to be twaddle. If the BCA chooses to promote these other claims in the face of solid evidence to the contrary, then it must be claiming something that has been shown to be incorrect. As it is doing it because its members demand it of them, then they must be doing it deliberately.
By all means that are usually used to test the efficacy of a treatment Chiropracty has been found wanting in most of its claims.
The BCA know that, but continue to make outrageous claims on behalf of its members.
Mr Singh`s phraseology seems pretty spot on to me.