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lawyers – DC's Improbable Science

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free debate. Sign at http://libelreform.org/

Freedom of speech in everyday life is a beautiful and hard-won fundamental liberty. I can say what I like about the prime minister and the royal family. There will be no knock on the door in the night.

Bur as a scientist, I cannot express an opinion on a scientific question freely. That is not, thank heavens, because of the government, the military or the police. It is because of a bunch of despicable lawyers who take advantage of an unjust law to make vast amounts of money. Do Carter-Ruck care if I’m made homeless and my son loses his education? They don’t give a damn.

The present libel law in the UK is a threat to journalists and, even more, to bloggers most of whom have little money. Still worse it endangers science itself. You cannot safely write an article in a scientific journal If your conclusions are unfavourable to a rich company, for fear that they will sue and you’ll end up sleeping in a tent.

The lie detector scandal

One good example concerns lie detectors. They don’t work and quite probably never will work. Nevertheless they sound like a very good idea to scientifically-illiterate government departments, police and military people. A recent report of the Lacerda case summarised the problem.

In 2007, Professor Lacerda and Anders Eriksson, of Gothenburg University, published an article entitled “Charlatanry in Forensic Speech Science” in the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law. It criticised the science behind analysis technologies that purport to identify stressed voices, which may indicate lying.

One VRA system, designed by Nemesysco, an Israeli company, is being evaluated in 24 pilot studies by the DWP [Department of Work and Pensions], as a means of highlighting potential benefit fraud. The DWP has spent £2.4 million on the pilots, which are due to report back soon. Nemesysco threatened the journal with a libel action over the article, which was withdrawn from its website.

The system was tested properly. Like all others of its sort it didn’t work. That, no doubt, is bad for the income of the people who make it, Nemesysco,as it should be. But instead of the company being convicted for selling devices that don’t work, the company hired lawyers and forced the journal to withdraw the paper, on threat of destitution.

The current case of Dr Peter Wilmshurst

Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. Like any good doctor he likes to ensure that the tools of his trade actually work as advertised. The Times reported thus.

Wilmshurst

Dr Wilmshurt’s case began with his involvement in a study of a medical device made by NMT called Starflex, designed to close a type of hole in the heart known as a patent foramen ovale (PFO). The study investigated Starflex as a potential treatment for migraine, which is significantly more common among people with a PFO, but failed to find benefits.

At a cardiology conference in Washington in 2007, Dr Wilmshurst criticised NMT Medical in relation to the research. His comments were reported by Heartwire, a website, prompting NMT to sue him.

This sort of behaviour by a medical company is utterly disgraceful. One would think that the fact that their actions had made the company name, NMT Medical, a laughing stock might have inhibited them, but far from that working, they recently launched a second legal action against Wllmshurst. The details are given by the Health Watch web site, and by legal blogger Jack of Kent.

It is small consolation to Dr Wilmshurst, as he faces destitution, that a Google search for "NMT medical" brings up on the first page a link to More news of NMT Medical MIST Trial – false declarations. This provides an excellent report on the technicalities. It is on the Scientic Misconduct blog, written by Aubrey Blumsohn, who has himself suffered for being honest in the face of corporate misconduct (in his case the villains were the University of Sheffield, in particular Prof Richard Eastell, and Proctor and Gamble. see also this blog),

Boob job cream

The latest case concerns Plastic surgeon threatened for comment on ‘Boob Job’ cream. She’s been sued for doing her job by saying that a cream costing £125 per jar cannot, as claimed, increase your bust size.

Not content with threatening the surgeon. The company, Rodial Ltd. also threatened Sense About Science if they publicised the case. They haven’t yielded to that threat.

The company should be prosecuted by Trading Standards for making illegal false health claims. But Trading Standards don’t do their job. Instead another honest clinician faces ruin

My own brushes with lawyers

I have experienced myself the cold terror of getting a letter from lawyers. In my case it came from the New Zealand Chiropractic Association after I’d written an editorial for the New Zealand Medical Journal, Doctor Who? Deception by chiropractors. It got to the stage of wondering whether the house could be put solely in my wife’s name, but in this case, thanks to a feisty response from the Journal editor, the chiroquacks backed off.

This blog itself was born as a result of legal threats against UCL by a couple of herbalists who were cross because I described the term "blood cleanser" as gobbledygook. The fact that this is true was irrelevant. Tnanks to lots of publicity the outcome for me was good, a vast increase in readership.

What you can do

The present libel law in the UK is notoriously the most iniquitous and expensive in the world. It is a national disgrace. It isn’t a new problem. One of my predecessors in the Chair of Pharmacology at UCL, A. J. Clark, was forced to apologise for a perfectly true statement made in his 1938 book on Patent Medicines.

The government has promised to change it but a huge amount of work to be done to make sure it is changed to something more civilised. There are a lot more lawyers in government than scientists (well, about one scientist). There is good reason to think that they will try to subvert the changes that are needed.

Support the campaign run jointly by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.

Get every friend to sign the petition. Ask your students to sign it. Write to your MP. And ask your friends from every country to sign it. Anyone in the world can be sued in UK courts. The present UK law doesn’t endanger only UK science, but it endangers science, and honesty itself, over the globe.

Keep up the pressure for a sensible reform..

free debate. Sign at http://libelreform.org/

 

Follow-up

The battle for freedom of speech is under way.

Simon Singh is a great science writer and communicator. He is author of The Big Bang, The Code Book, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and, with Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment. They are superb books (buy from Amazon). Simon Singh

When Singh had the temerity to express an honest opinion, based on the evidence, about that very curious branch of alternative medicine known as chiropractic, the British Chiropractic Association sued Singh for defamation.This was their substitute for producing evidence for their bizarre claims.

Chiropractors seem to be particularly fond of litigation, perhaps because they are so short of evidence. Having had legal threats from them myself, I know how scary it can be, Luckily I was saved by a feisty a journal editor.  Singh wasn’t so lucky.  The history is recounted here,

The legal aspects of the case are being described by the lawyer who writes under the name of Jack of Kent. He has regular updates on progress.

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

The iniquitous nature of England’s libel law has been described eloquently by Nick Cohen, in the Observer. It is used regularly by rogues and criminals from all over the world to silence their critics. All they need is money. Truth is irrelevant. It is a disgrace to a civilised country.

The cost of defamation cases in the UK is vastly greater than in any other country in Europe:: look at the graph.

With enormous courage, Simon Singh has decided to appeal against the ruling by Mr Justice Eady. Scientists and journalists everywhere should rally to support him, if they value the right to express an honest opinion without being bankrupted by a law court. Singh is taking a great risk on behalf of anyone who values freedom of speech.

free debate

The charity, Sense abour Science (SaS), has started a campaign to Keep the Libel Laws out of Science.

Read the statement about the campaign on the SaS site, and the current list of signatories. The list of supporters is already very impressive. It includes, for example, professor Lord (Martin) Rees, president of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, to Dr Philip Campbell Editor-in-Chief of Nature, David Starkey Historian, Stephen Fry Broadcaster and Author and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC Barrister.

You can sign the statement yourself there. Do it. Now!

You can also get code for the button (above) to link your own web site to the campaign.

In 1894, a local Iowa newspaper, The Davenport Leader, wrote of the founder of chripractic, D.D. Palmer, thus.

“A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion hat he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious, those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victim. His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack.” [quoted in Rose
Shapiro’s book, Suckers
]

Today, in the UK, no newspaper would dare to express an opinion like that.

We all hope that Singh will win the appeal.  But even if he doesn’t win in the law courts, he will have scored an enormous moral victory.  What’s more, chiropractic is now under scrutiny as never before.  There is going to be a chiro-fest that will make the British Chiropractic Association rue the day that it decided to use legal bullying in place of reason.

They may even have signed their own death warrant.

Follow up will be posted here regularly

Follow-up

There is a good roundup of activity up to June 3rd here.

The Wall Street Journal (June 4th) discusses the case under the title Britain Chills Free Speech.

British Medical Journal editorial by Evan Harris (Lib dem member of parliament and doctor), Science in Court

Bait and switch. Oh dear, oh dear. Just look at British Chiropractic Association tell their members to hide their sins from prying eyes.

Excellent round-up of the recent outburst of writing about “chiroquacktic” (Tut, tut, is there no respect?).

Dr Crippen writes “NICE recommends a cure for all known disease” [Ed some exaggeration, surely]

On 23rd May 2009, the Financial Times magazine published a six-page cover story about pseudo-scientific degrees by Richard Tomkins. The online version has the text but doesn’t do justice to the prominence that it was given. The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason. This article, which was some time in gestation, appeared shortly afte the last degree in homeopathy in the UK closed its doors. So perhaps it should have been called The Return of Reason. What’s interesting is that it has become commonplace for the mainstream newspapers to print articles like this and to dump some of their whackier lifestyle articles.

FT Magazine cover

The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason, with a two-page spread..

First 2 pages

They published the entire ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘ as a sidebar on page 4.

sidebar, page 4

To these has now been added, inspired by Jack of Kent,

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

One part of the article that I particularly enjoyed is this.

George Lewith, professor of health research at the University of Southampton’s medical school, is also director of the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine, a private practice with ­clinics in Southampton and London’s West End, so it is no surprise that he is ready to speak out in support of complementary therapies. In fact, Southampton University – a member of the elite Russell Group – does not offer degree courses in complementary medicine, but Lewith defends the idea of offering them in principle, on the basis that, done properly, they produce better-trained practitioners. “Without the new universities’ involvement we might be faced with the quackery we saw in the 1940s and 1950s, when these people were outside medicine and were practising in an alternative fringe culture,” he says.

Sorry George, you are still an “alternative fringe culture”. And universities are realising that, and shutting down courses all over the place.

A response in the Finacial Times

The FT published one response in its letter column, A bilious attack on complementary medicine.

“Sir, Like many journalists, Richard Tomkins has been over-impressed by the scientific credentials of Professors David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst as they carry on their absurdly over-stated, arrogant and irresponsible campaign against complementary medicine (“The retreat of reason”, May 23)”

and then the trump card

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

That’s the line used by quacks again and again and again (see, for example, integrative baloney @ Yale). I guess they have never heard of type 1 and type 2 errors. But that is a bit technical for homeopaths, so put it more simply. There is a quite remarkable absence of evidence for tooth fairies. So they must exist. Get it?

The letter is from Allen Parrott of Yeovil. Could that be the Allen Parrott of the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board? If so he is “is an adult educationist who was Dean of Adult and Community Education at Yeovil College and a lecturer in the School of Education at Exeter University. As well as his work for the Board, he is currently working as an educational adviser for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Deanery in the NHS.”. So no reason to worry about the standards of education in Yeovil, then.

Jump to follow-up

An editorial in today’s issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal prints in full a letter sent to the Journal by Paul Radich, a lawyer who acts for the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association Inc and its members. The letter alleges defamation by Andrew Gilbey’s article, and by my editorial which sets the wider context of his paper. The articles in question are here.

Here are some quotations from the Editorial by the Journal’s editor, Professor Frank A Frizelle, Department of Surgery, Christchurch Hospital, NZ. [Download the whole editorial].

In the article by Gilbey, data is provided about use of inappropriate titles by New Zealand practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, and osteopathy while the greater context is provided by Colquhoun.


The comments made by Paul Radich are entirely consistent with the response as expressed by Professor Edzard Ernst (Editor-in-Chief of Focus on Alternative and Complementary Medicine (FACT) and Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter) in his humorous article In praise of the data-free discussion. Towards a new paradigm5 when he states “data can be frightfully intimidating and non-egalitarian”.

. . .

The Journal has a responsibility to deal with all issues and not to steer clear of those issues that are difficult or contentious or carry legal threats. Let the debate continue in the evidence-based tone set by Colquhoun and others.

I encourage, as we have done previously, the chiropractors and others to join in, let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle.


My article said nothing that has not been said many times before. I regard it as fair scientific comment, and I believe that expression of those opinions is in the public interest, The reaction of the Journal is thoroughly admirable.

The outcome of legal bullying can be very counterproductive, as the UK’s Society of Homeopaths found recently to their cost.

The lawyers’ letter demanded a response by 11th August, but in the advice of a lawyer I have decided to ignore for now this rather crude attempt to stifle discussion.

For further developments, watch this space.

The story was picked up within hours, It seems that a storm may be brewing round the world for New Zealand Chiropractors. Here are some of them.

Silence Dissent Ben Goldacre’s badscience,net

HolfordWatch Professor Frizelle’s Instant Classic: Let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle

The first New Zealand site.

More Legal Chill -from spine-cracking chiropractors on jdc325’s blog

And A beginners guide to chiropractic, on the same site.

Andy Lewis’s Quackometer takes a sharp look too, in They are bone doctors aren’t they?

Support from a NZ blog, Evidence-based thought NZ Chiropractors vs NZ Medical Journal

And another New Zealand blog, Chiropractors attack NZ Medical Journal on SillyBeliefs.com

and another: Evidence should trump “legal muscle”, on “Open Parachute. The mind doesn’t work if it’s closed”

New Zealand Doctor magazine. “Kiwi-practors legal wrangle” in the Nature world news blog, The Great Beyond.

“Self-destructing chiropractors” on Jonathan Hearsay’s blog is particularly interesting because he is a (sceptical) osteopath. He says “Chiropractors are seemingly hell-bent on destroying themselves as a therapy”.

There are now so many allusions on the web to the behaviour of the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association Inc that I’ll give up trying to list all of them. Their action seems tp have done much to damage their own reputation.

Shortly after this came the news that the British Chiropractic Association is to sue one of out best science communicators, Simon Singh, because he had the temerity to inspect the evidence and give his opinion about it in the Guardian. His original article has gone (for now) from the Guardian web site, but as always happens with attempts at bullying and intimidation, it is more easily available then ever, For example here, and here.

Chiropractic in the UK is analysed by Andy Lewis on Quackometer,