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BMJ defends freedom of speech (but censors my comment)

July 15th, 2009 · 14 Comments

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It’s good to see the BMJ joining the campaign for free speech (only a month or two behind the blogs). The suing of Simon Singh for defamation by the British Chiropractic Association has stirred up a hornet’s nest that could (one hopes) change the law of the land, and destroy chiropractic altogether. The BMJ’s editor, Fiona Godlee, has a fine editorial, Keep the libel laws out of science. She starts “I hope all readers of the BMJ are signed up to organised scepticism” and says

“Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine. Singh is determined to fight the lawsuit rather than apologise for an article he believes to be sound. He and his supporters have in their sights not only the defence of this case but the reform of England’s libel laws.”

Godlee refers to equally fine articles by the BMJ’s Deputy Editor, Tony Delamothe, Thinking about Charles II“, and by Editor in Chief, Harvey Marcovitch, “Libel law in the UK“.

free debate

The comments on Godlee’s editorial, show strong support, (apart from one from the infamous quantum fantasist, Lionel Milgrom). But there was one that slighlty surprised me, from Tricia Greenhalgh, author of the superb book, “How to read a paper”. She comments

“the use of the term ‘bogus’ seems both unprofessional and unscholarly. The argument would be stronger if expressed in more reserved terms”

That set me thinking, not for the first time, about the difference between journalism and scholarship. I can’t imagine ever using a word like ‘bogus’ in a paper about single ion channels. But Singh was writing in a newspaper, not in a scientific paper. Even more to the point, his comments were aimed at people who are not scholars and who, quite explicitly reject the normal standards of science and evidence. The scholarly approach has been tried for centuries, and it just doesn’t work with such people. I’d defend Singh’s language. It is the only way to have any effect. That is why I sent the following comment.

The ultimate irony is that the comment was held up by the BMJ’s lawyers, and has still to appear.

Thanks for an excellent editorial.

I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.

First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. We are dealing with fantasists. Worse still, we are dealing with fantasists whose income depends on defending their fantasies. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn. They aren’t interested in what’s true and what isn’t.

Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect.   What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism.  When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy“, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.

Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context and the question of truth. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals. At the heart of the problem is the sort of stifling political correctness that has resulted in quacks being referred to as “professions” rather than fantasists and fraudsters [of course I use the word fraudster with no implication that it necessarily implies conscious lying].

At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘, as featured in the Financial Times.

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

It is, perhaps, misplaced political correctness that lies at the heart of the problem. Who can forget the letter from Lord Hunt, while he was at the Department of Health, in which he described “psychic surgery” (one of the best known fraudulent conjuring tricks) as a “profession”.

Follow-up

Two days later, the comment has appeared in the BMJ at last. But it has been altered a bit.

Unprofessional language is appropriate when dealing with unprofessional people

Thanks for an excellent editorial.

I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.

First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not seem to accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn.

Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect. What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism. When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy”, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.

Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals.

At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine’, as featured in the Financial Times.

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

Here are the changes that were made. Hmm.very interesting.

changes made by lawyers

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Tags: blogosphere · BMJ · British Chiropractic Association · defamation · General Chiropractic Council · Geoffrey Petts · Simon Singh · Westminster university

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr Aust // Jul 15, 2009 at 10:44

    Welcome back, David. Here’s hoping your comment makes it past the BMJ’s lawyers.

  • 2 Harry Palmer // Jul 15, 2009 at 10:55

    Er, well, yes, of course. They don’t want to be sued for libel themselves for publishing your comment do they?

  • 3 David Colquhoun // Jul 15, 2009 at 11:51

    Harry Palmer
    It beats me which bit they think is defamatory. The only individuals named are Milgrom and Petts, and both have had plenty of attention on blogs already without any lawsuits. I guess the lawyers will eventually say what’s worrying them (they are rather slow).

  • 4 Dr Aust // Jul 15, 2009 at 15:17

    Perhaps they are worried about being cited for Contempt of Court, David…

  • 5 davidp // Jul 16, 2009 at 06:15

    G’day David,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that Trisha Greenhalgh is off target. She seems to be treating Simon Singh’s article like a journal article, when it is a media article an attempting to interest, communicate with, and educate the public. She is wrong to think calling the article unscholarly is a criticism of it.

    But I disagree with your second paragraph. Simon was not writing for “fantasists whose income depends on defending their fantasies” he was writing for the potential victims of those fantasists. I think we agree that his language was good for communicating with them.

    Thank you for your contributions, such as the high yin amethysts ‘leak’. I wish we had more people like you over here in Melbourne, Australia, where we are apparently extending an uncontrolled ‘trial’ of emergency room acupuncture :-( http://www.smh.com.au/national/acupuncture-gets-trial-in-casualty-20090625-cya5.html

    At least we don’t pay too much attention to Prince Charles, even though he is heir to our throne too.

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Jul 16, 2009 at 08:04

    davidp

    In the end, of course you are right. It is all about defending the victims.

    A couple of people have noticed with approval the bit about “we are dealing with fantasists whose income depends on defending their fantasies.”. It’s fascinating that this was removed by the lawyers. despite the fact that it wasn’t aimed at any particular person or organisation.

  • 7 Harry Palmer // Jul 16, 2009 at 09:32

    It’s not fascinating at all that it’s been removed. It’s defamatory and libellous. It’s clear who you are talking about otherwise you wouldn’t have written it and the piece wouldn’t make sense if it were not aimed at anyone in particular. In the very next sentence, you mention chiropractors. I can’t see why you’re so upset that the BMJ is protecting itself from a law suit.

  • 8 David Colquhoun // Jul 16, 2009 at 11:07

    Harry Palmer

    The remarks were aimed quite gernerally at any form of quack medicine. They represent my opinion. And they are not nearly as defamatory as some of the things that have been said about me by various advocates of magic medicine.

    It seems that you do not agree with my opinions and you are quite free to have your own opinion. But defamation has nothing to do with science. It is a legal trick used to silence scientific debate. It has no place in the discussion and is used only by people who are unable to defend themselves on the basis of evidence (and by criminals who wish to avoid exposure).

  • 9 Dr Aust // Jul 16, 2009 at 14:39

    I don’t think David’s remark as originally phrased was defamatory of any specific person or group – or in the legal phrase “of any entity able to sue”.

    “Chiropractic” as a whole cannot sue you for saying “chiropractors are fantasists”. And a chiropractic association or individual chiropractor would be very hard-put to sue David on the basis of the statement, as they would have to convince the court that it was reasonable to claim that their reputation, specifically, was likely to be damaged by what David had said. Not impossible, I think, but highly unlikely to fly.

    I think it is far more likely the the BMJ deleted the bit about “fantasists” since they felt it was “polemic flourish” and they are trying to stick to reasoned language.

    Interestingly, in this context, Lionel Milgrom’s comment:

    “Dr Singh and Prof Ernst are well known for their views on CAM, most of which they excoriate as unscientific; unproven; even dangerous and downright deadly. These are demonstrably false claims…”

    Looks, to my amateur legally-interested eye, almost certainly defamatory and directly actionable. It is surely defamatory to say that a well known Professor, whose career is based on assessing evidence dispassionately, makes
    “demonstrably false claims”.

    Perhaps if Jack of Kent is passing he could clarify both points?

    Now, even if Milgrom’s statement is defamatory, I somehow doubt that Edzard Ernst is reaching for the phone to call Messrs Sue Grabbit & Runne, or even Matthias Rath’s lawyers Eversheds.

    Which highlights another thing the Alt.Reality fraternity do not wish people to see clearly – namely, that they routinely fire off statements impugning other people’s honesty and competence, but will reach for M’Learned Friends if anyone says anything remotely mean about them.

    Even if it is true, or an honest and reasonable opinon based on the available facts.

    Er… which is where we came in

  • 10 Moochie // Jul 17, 2009 at 23:20

    Good going, David. As a some-time participant in a sceptic’s forum, I note how often the complaint is raised about the language one uses when exposing lies. It seems the bigger the lie, the more “outraged” the liar is when called out on the lie. It’s as though one can somehow turn a lie into something resembling truth by describing it in pretty, “civil” language.

    It reminds me of the politicians’ gambit whenever they wish to avoid the truth.They have an army of spin doctors whose only job is to dress up lies as not-lies. I cannot recall the number of times I’ve heard a politian state that people don’t “understand” a policy of theirs, so the obvious answer is to put it into language that people can understand, ie, it’s not that the policy reeks to high heaven, but that the message announcing the policy is worded wrongly.

    This pernicious practice and the laws that support it must be excised from the books, both in the UK and probably here in Australia, too.

  • 11 Harry Palmer // Jul 23, 2009 at 09:06

    >And they are not nearly as defamatory as
    >some of the things that have been said
    >about me by various advocates of magic
    >medicine.

    Then you should sue them.

    >It seems that you do not agree with my
    >opinions.

    On the contrary, I do agree with you.

    >But defamation has nothing to do with
    >science. It is a legal trick used to silence
    >scientific debate.

    It’s nothing to do with that. UK libel laws weren’t formed to protect quacks and to stifle scientific debate. While they are still in place, publishers have to protect themselves. In the meantime, we can all fight to get them changed.

  • 12 David Colquhoun // Jul 23, 2009 at 09:35

    Harry Palmer
    Fair enough. The main thing is to get this iniquitous law changed.

    It never occuured to me for a moment to the people who have defamed me. That isn’t how it works. Many of their allegations are so easily disproved that I regard them more as a minor irritation than a serious threat. Unlike them. I get no income from my activities so I have little to lose.

  • 13 Dr Aust // Jul 23, 2009 at 13:41

    “Then you should sue them”

    Surely the point is that DC, like Edzard Ernst (see my earlier comment, or check out the BMJ comments thread and see Ernst reponding to Lionel Milgrom) prefers one or other of the following responses to defamatory garbage:

    (i) ignore it

    (ii) point out precisely why it is not true

    (iii) note that this is a typicaly tactic of those who have lost the argument, or have something to hide.

  • 14 Beware the spinal trap « Zygoma // Jul 29, 2009 at 07:50

    […] subsequently dragged into the light of the British Medical Journal by a variety of scientists (see DC’s improbable science), and a “quacklash” by members of the sceptical community (in particular by the efforts […]

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