A Modest Ambition

April 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm (anonymous, blogosphere, censorship, Max Dunbar)

The glorious moment of spring so far has been Simon Singh’s victory against Mr Justice Eady’s ruling in the chiropractic libel case. You know the story. Singh wrote an article for the Guardian that claimed, rightly, that the British Chiropractic Association promoted bogus treatments. The practice itself was invented by a disgraced nineteenth-century magnet therapist who was convinced that back massage could treat 95% of illnesses. Singh showed that the association promoted spinal manipulation as a cure for a range of childhood ailments including ‘colic, sleeping and feeding problems, ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying’. (Ben Goldacre has analysed the evidence – such as it is.)

The BCA was offered a right to reply but instead it sued for libel. Eady ruled that it wasn’t enough for Singh to back up his assertions with hard fact. He had to prove that the chiropractors were deliberately lying rather than just delusional. As Amie realised, that ruling took the case into ‘deep philosophical waters’ – Singh couldn’t win the case unless he developed an ability to actually read his opponents’ thoughts.

Like the girl in the Millennium trilogy, Singh had kicked the hornet’s nest. His case sparked a popular fury and turned an obscure liberal campaign into a public movement. The victory has been so quick and decisive it’s astonishing. The three main political parties have had to pledge a commitment to libel reform, and although it can’t happen until after the election, at the moment change seems inevitable. Senior judges at the Court of Appeal agreed that litigation had ‘a chilling effect on public debate’ and, realising it couldn’t win, the BCA dropped its case.

Of course the battle is not over – to quote Dr Evan Harris: ‘For every Simon Singh who wins there are hundreds of writers who never dare publish or who give up their legal battle because they cannot risk the cost of losing.’ There’s an NHS cardiologist, Dr Peter Wilmshurst, who’s being sued by an American company under English law after he raised concerns about a heart implant device the company made.

Still, even at this early stage Singh’s win sends a message. His case generated huge media coverage with petitions, public meetings, merchandise, celebrity involvement and the offending article reprinted all over the blogosphere. His online supporters hunted down every chiropractor in the UK offering expertise that they could not back up with evidence and reported them to regulatory authorities. The impact caused the McTimoney Chiropractic Association to send out a panicky email to its members. Quackometer got hold of it.

REMOVE all the blue MCA patient information leaflets, or any patient information leaflets of your own that state you treat whiplash, colic or other childhood problems in your clinic or at any other site where they might be displayed with your contact details on them. DO NOT USE them until further notice… If you use business cards or other stationery using the ‘doctor’ title and it does not clearly state that you are a doctor of chiropractic or that you are not a registered medical practitioner, STOP USING THEM immediately… IF YOU DO NOT FOLLOW THIS ADVICE, YOU MAY BE AT RISK FROM PROSECUTION… Finally, we strongly suggest you do NOT discuss this with others, especially patients[.]

Too late. Currently a quarter of UK chiropractors are under investigation.

Singh’s victory sends out a clear message to bullies and exploiters of all kinds. It is this. If you try to use the law to silence debate, you are going to have a fight on your hands. You will be challenged and scrutinised at every turn, you will become famous in ways you do not want and even if you win, you will come away damaged, perhaps mortally.

Nick Cohen makes a fine point about contemporary free speech activists:

There is an overlap with the more assertive atheism which followed 9/11. Like atheists, skeptics treat as patronising and contemptible the cynical modern belief that you should not examine religion or alternative medicines because the simple-minded and uninformed find comfort in them. But you do not have to be an atheist to be a skeptic, merely commit to the free examination of evidence. This modest ambition is surprisingly potent.

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