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libel – DC's Improbable Science

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libel

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 Nemesysco threatened the journal with a libel action over the article, which was withdrawn from its website.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

Chiropractors are getting very touchy indeed, all over the world. And no wonder, because their claims are being exposed as baseless as never before, in the wake of their attempts to stifle criticism by legal action..

In March, Shaun Holt appeared on Breakfast TV in New Zealand. Holt has done a lot of good work on TV in debunking some of the preposterous claims made by quacks. See him on YouTube.

This time he talked about chiropractic. Here is the video.

One could argue that he was over generous to chiropractic, especially when talking about their effectiveness in treating low back pain. He said, quite rightly, that chiropractors are no better than physiotherapists at treating low back pain.

But a recent trial suggests that neither are much good. “A randomised controlled trial of spinal manipulative therapy in acute low back pain” (Juni et al., 2009 in the BMJ; see also coverage in Pulse). This trial compared standard care with standard care plus spinal manipulative therapy (SMT). The results were negative, despite the fact that this sort of A + B vs B design is inherently biassed in favour of the treatment (see A trial design that generates only ”positive” results, Ernst & Lee 2008, Postgrad Med J.).

"SMT was performed by a specialist in manual medicine, chiropractice and rheumatology (GH), a specialist in physical medicine (DV) or an osteopath (RvB), all proficient in SMT."

"Conclusions: SMT is unlikely to result in relevant early pain reduction in patients with acute low back pain."

Admittedly, the trial was quite small (104 patients, 52 in each group) so it will need to be confirmed. but the result is entirely in line with what we knew already.

It also adds to the evidence that the recommendation by NICE of SMT by chiropractors constitutes their biggest failure ever to assess evidence properly. If NICE don’t amend this advice soon, they are in danger of damaging their hitherto excellent record.

Despite the moderate tone and accuracy of what Holt said on TV, the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association made a formal complaint. That is what they like to do, as I learned recently, to my cost. It is so much easier than producing evidence.

Quite absurdly the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has upheld some of the complaints. Their judgement can be read here.

The BSA consists of four people, two lawyers and two journalists. So not a trace of scientific expertise among them. Having people like that judging the claims of chiropractors makes as much sense as having them judged by Mr Justice Eady. They seem to be the sort of people who think that if there is a disagreement, the truth must lie half-way between the opposing views.

One of the BSA members, Tapu Misa, has used her newspaper column to quote approvingly the views of the notorious Dr Mercola web site on flu prevention “Your best defence, it says, is to eat right, get lots of sleep, avoid sugar and stress, load up on garlic, Vitamin D and krill oil”. (Snake oil is said to be good too.)    There are some odd attitudes to science in some of her other columns too (e.g. here and here). Not quite the person to be judging the evidence for and against chiropractic, I think.

In fact the TV show in question was more than fair to chiropractors. It adopted the media’s usual interpretation of fair and balanced: equal time for the flat earthers. A Chiropractor was invited to reply to Holt’s piece.  Here he is.

The chiropractor, Doug Blackbourn, started very plausibly, though a tendency to omit every third syllable made transcription hard work. He established that if you cut yourself you get better (without any help). He established that nerves run down the spinal cord. So far, so good. But then he quickly moved on to the usual flights of fancy.

"We have two premises. The body heals itself and the nervous system runs the body. Now the nervous system runs the body, travels down through the spinal cord so chiropractic is not based on the belief that, you know, energy flows, it’s based on the fact that your nervous system runs the body and [inaudible] affects the overall health of the body"

This statement is totally vague. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the main question, can chiropractors do anything useful. It is sheer flannel.

We’re seeing people, heck, diabetes. I had a quadriplegic come in one time for adjustment, we’ve got stroke people, we’ve got all sorts of conditions. We’re not treating the condition, We’re allowing, checking the spine to see if there’s any interference there that will slow the body down"

“Interference”? “slowing the body down”? These are utterly meaningless phrases that simply serve to distract from the only question that matters.

"Chiropractice is the most safest [sic] profession to go to to get your spine adjusted"

Hmm I thought it was the only job that uses the word ‘adjustment’.

Worst of all was his response to a question about asthma.

Presenter: "So chiropractors are not out there claiming they will cure asthma for example?". Chiropractor: "No"

This is simply untrue, both in New Zealand and in the UK. For a start, just look at what Blackbourn’s own web site says about asthma.

"The challenge, of course, with allergy and asthma medication is there is no end-point. There is no cure. Asthma and allergies, for the most part, are lifelong conditions requiring lifelong medication. Might there be a better way, an alternative solution?

“Alternative” is the key word. Medical treatment is designed to combat symptoms, and is successful to a certain extent with allergies and asthma. Underlying causes are not addressed, however, and symptoms continue year after year. What else might be done?

Enter chiropractic care. Chiropractic health care, with its unique comprehensive approach, is able to offer positive benefit to a variety of conditions and ailments. In the case of allergies and asthma, these “hypersensitivity conditions” may respond well to therapy designed to normalize the body’s flow of nerve signals. To use a metaphor, chiropractic treatment removes roadblocks to the body’s natural healing abilities. Restoring these imbalances may help reduce such hypersensitivity reactions."

Blackbourn’s web site describes him thus

"As a Doctor of Chiropractic, Dr. Doug Blackbourn . . ."

But the qualifications of “Dr” Blackbourn are B.App.Sc (Chiro) M.N.Z.C.A , the same as those of “Dr” Brian Kelly.

After a performance like this, perhaps someone should submit a complaint to the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority.

After all, I notice that they have dismissed complaints from one chiropractor, Sean Parker, after a TV programme looked at the business practices of his private chiropractic practice, The Spinal Health Foundation. Perhaps the BSA understands business better than it understands science.

Follow-up

Is chiropractic crumbling in New Zealand? The New Zealand College of Chiropractic featured in my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, and in the fallout from that article, It’s principle, “Dr” Brian Kelly (B App Sci (Chiro)) seems to be getting desperate. His college is now canvassing for recruits in Canada. They are promised all the woo.

  • Subluxation centered techniques – Gonstead, Toggle Recoil, Thompson, Diversified
  • Traditional philosophy featuring vitalism and innate healing – congruent curriculum

Perhaps Canada is a good place to recruit, gven the $500 million class action being brought against chiropractors in Canada, after Sandra Nette became tetraplegic immediately after a chiropractor manipulated her neck, Canadian chiropractors must be looking for somewhere to hide.

Stuff and Nonsense. jdc described this story at the time the complaint was lodged.

Shaun Holt’s own blog follows the action.

New Zealand Doctor covers the story.

Bay of Plenty TimesBay researcher slams television complaint ruling

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]

This was posted originally on the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page

UCL felled by a herbalist?

OK this isn’t really bad science, but it’s caused inconvenience to me and to readers. It still puzzles me that UCL has not got the resources to deal with a herbalist (the reason that I was given for the move). The herbalist in question, Ann Walker, got rather angry when I called her use of the term ‘blood cleanser’ as gobbledygook

On Friday 1 June, 2007, when it was announced that the IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page had been moved from the UCL server, several people sent letters to the provost. Here is one of them. I have never met Prof Shafer, but his letter, and other similar ones, lightened an otherwise bad day.

Dear Dr. Grant:I am very sorry to learn that you have requested Dr. Colquhoun to remove his “Improbable Science” web page from the computer system at University College London. It is particularly disheartening to learn that you made this request after receiving a complaint from a practitioner of nonscientific medicine.

I don’t know how many of your faculty publish in Nature (Colquhoun D. Science degrees without the science. Nature. 2007;446:373-4). However, based on my experience at Stanford, I would guess precious few. You now appear to be attempting to squelch his academic freedom, or at least disassociate UCL from his efforts to educate the public about quack science.

Perhaps you were put off by the “unprofessional appearance” of the web page. If so then you have misunderstood its purpose. The public is inundated by junk science, A large portion come from the Internet. There are almost no Internet resources where a lay reader can find a counterweight to the extensive claims of pseudoscientists. Dr. Colquhoun’s blog is a unique resource. The format may put off a scientific reader, but it is exactly the format required to get the message to the web surfer with a 10 second attention span. In my view the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London.

I don’t know the facts of your decision. Perhaps there are policies, procedures, and regulations that Dr. Colquhoun has violated in creating the Improbable Science web page. However, I do know that any request to remove the page that follows a complaint from an individual offended by the page is entirely inappropriate. Even were your request otherwise reasonable, the mere appearance of academic censorship should have been absolutely unacceptable to you. (Think of it like conflict of interest – there is a need to avoid not only true conflict of interest, but the mere appearance of
conflict of interest. Requesting removal of these pages may not represent censorship, but it certainly appears to be censorship, which is anathema to the academic credo.)

It is thus with shock, sadness, and disappointment that I have learned of this decision by the University College London. I hope that you will reconsider. The present course makes it appear that UCL has caved in to pseudoscientists and is engaged in academic censorship of possibly the most important public service offered by the UCL.

Sincerely,

Steve Shafer


Steven L. Shafer, MD
Editor-in-Chief, Anesthesia & Analgesia
Professor, Department of Anesthesia, Stanford University
Adjunct Professor, Biopharmaceutical Sciences, UCSF
Stanford University Medical Center
Stanford, CA 94305

No doubt it is an exaggeration to say “the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London”. But thanks anyway.

After an unrepentant response, Professor Shafer replied thus.

Dear Provost Grant:I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I’m sure that as provost you live on the receiving end of a firehose of correspondence, as do I as a professor and a journal Editor-in-Chief. I’m sorry to have added to the e-mail overload. I appreciate your finding time to respond.

It would be my hope that Stanford University would shoulder the responsibility of dealing with whatever harassment would come my way by virtue of my scientific and academic pursuits. Yes, when legal action is threatened, and staff are consumed with processing paperwork, I’m sure my Dean, Provost, and President would prefer to ransfer everything to me. However, the effect would be chilling. Universities are supposed to provide a haven to insulate scientists from harassment. I’ve looked at Dr.
Colquhoun’s publications via PubMed. He is a top drawer investigator. He is also a very public advocate for critical thinking.

You note that Dr. Colquhoun “accepts that he needs to be in a position where he shoulders directly the burden of responding to Dr Lakin.” I applaud his fortitude, but note that are only 24 hours in a day. If the administrative resources of University College London are inadequate to respond to Dr. Lakin, how is Dr. Colquhoun, on his own, without the resources of UCL, expected to survive the harassment, legal hallenges, and other pressures to silence him?

As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to “shoulder directly the burden”, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL
example, and ask me to “shoulder the burden.”

Again, I appreciate your responding to my e-mail. I hope that my perspective is a least thought provoking on the complex mutual responsibilities between a prestigious University and an equally prominent faculty member with outspoken views.

Thank you for your consideration,

Sincerely,

Steve Shafer

The Goldacre effect

Saturday 9 June 2007. The wires (and my hit counter) are melting after Ben Goldacre’s comments on the move of this web site from UCL’s servers. That’s understandable: his excellent badscience.net site gets 12,000 hits a day and 95,000 unique visitors per month.

Like all the other comments, his badscience column in today’s Guardian, was not solicited by me, but it’s wonderful to know that somebody cares. His badscience.net version (“The Mighty David Colquhoun” !) was even more over-the-top. I can’t say I’m feeling very “mighty” at the moment.

Goldacre’s piece starts “I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does.” A correspondent today enlarged on the theme “you have got me thinking and yes my kids would be far more interested in science if a playstation game was created whereby Prof. Colquhoun was zapping disgruntled alternative therapists”. The mind boggles. Making money out of selling mindless violence (in the news again today) must be even worse than making money out of selling useless pills. A university should be one of the few places left where one cannot be accused of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, I don’t enjoy rows. They keep me awake at night. But some things are just too important to duck out of them.

Read the provost’s reply.

Goldacre has posted the complete text of the provost’s reply to one of the many people who have written to him. You should read the other side of the story too (click here and search for “letter from provost”). Grant has a real problem. He shouldn’t have to spend time fending off herbalists. Yet if they aren’t fended off, more attacks will occur. Who’d be a provost? That is all sorted out now.