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Freedom of speech – DC's Improbable Science

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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

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]

One of the most extraordinary bits of journalism I’ve read for a long time appeared as an editorial in the Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, on Sunday January 11th 2009   It was reproduced in the Guardian on 13th January, and in The Times.  It was written by Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, and it was the last thing he wrote. Days after writing it he was assassinated.

It is a plea for freedom of speech. In particular, for the freedom of journalists to tell the truth,  It is deeply moving and it is also written in more beautiful English than many native speakers can manage. The second person to leave a comment in the Guardian said

“Extraordinary, humbling and deeply moving.

Cif Eds, please leave this at the top of the page for about a week, and then nail copies it to every available surface at Guardian HQ.”

Writing blogs like this one (and a thousand others) need some of the skills of investigative journalism.  Those skills are not so different from those you need in science, Curiosity, a willingness to look under stones, a preference for truth over myth, some skill with  Google and a good deal of tenacity.  You also need to be resilient to abuse and defamation by people who disagree with you.  But you do not risk your life. It does not take much courage.  That isn’t true in large parts of the world.

Read it all. Here are a few quotations to persuade you it’s worth the time.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces – and, in Sri
Lanka
, journalism. In the course of the last few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print institutions have been burned, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories, and now  especially the last.”

“The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print
are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.”

“The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future.”

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.

In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry.

But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most are now dead, imprisoned
without trial or exiled in far-off lands.”

“People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot,
whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. In his youth he was an antisemite and an admirer of Hitler. As nazism took hold of Germany, however, he saw nazism for what it was. It was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemöller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, let it be this: the Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

This man puts to shame the those who won’t speak out in the safety of the West, despite the fact that they have nothing to lose but their ministerial jobs or their knighthoods. Or running the risk of being sued by chiropractors.

How about some nominations for Western journalists who live up to these ideals?   I’d start with Seymour Hersh and Paul Krugman in the USA, and our own Ben Goldacre.   It’s interesting though, that two of these three are not full time journalists. Blogs do rather better than most newspapers. They have become an important force for freedom of speech. That more than counterbalances the use of the web for promoting junk. It is a lot harder to keep a secret than it used to be.

There is an obituary of Lasantha Wickrematunge in the Sunday Leader, and a report from Amnesty International.