Today the Australian magazine Cosmos, along with a vast number of other blogs and publications, reprinted an article by Simon Singh, in slightly tweaked form, in an act of solidarity. The British Chiropractic Association has been suing Singh personally for the past 15 months, over a piece in the Guardian where he criticised the BCA for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines.
An international petition against the BCA has been signed by professors, journalists, celebrities and more, with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry alongside the previous head of the Medical Research Council and the last government chief scientific adviser. There have been public meetings, with stickers and badges. But it is a ragged band of science bloggers who has done the most detailed work. Fifteen months after the case began, the BCA finally released the academic evidence it was using to support specific claims. Within 24 hours this was taken apart meticulously by bloggers, referencing primary research papers, and looking in every corner.
Professor David Colquhoun of UCL pointed out, on infant colic, that the BCA cited weak evidence in its favour, while ignoring strong evidence contradicting its claims. He posted the evidence and explained it. LayScience flagged up the BCA selectively quoting a Cochrane review. Every stone was turned by Quackometer, APGaylard, Gimpyblog, EvidenceMatters, Dr Petra Boynton, MinistryofTruth, Holfordwatch, legal blogger Jack of Kent, and many more. At every turn they have taken the opportunity to explain a different principle of evidence based medicine – the sin of cherry-picking results, the ways a clinical trial can be unfair by design – to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger.
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We could go on, but there are lessons from this debacle – beyond the ethical concerns over suing in the field of science and medicine – and they are clear. First, if you have reputation and superficial plausibility more than evidence to support your activities, then it may be wise to keep under the radar, rather than start expensive fights. But more interestingly than that, a ragged band of bloggers from all walks of life has, to my mind, done a better job of subjecting an entire industry’s claims to meaningful, public, scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself, and even its own regulator. It’s strange this task has fallen to them, but I’m glad someone is doing it, and they do it very, very well indeed.