5 June 2009

British science writer silenced in libel case

Cosmos Online
Renowned British science writer, Simon Singh, will appeal a libel ruling brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.
Simon Singh

Science writer Simon Singh has been silenced by English libel laws. Credit: Simon Singh

SYDNEY: Renowned British science writer, Simon Singh, will appeal a libel ruling brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.

“While there is still the slightest chance of defending my rights as a journalist then I am determined to continue with this legal battle. Indeed, I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the evidence for chiropractic in court,” said Singh, who announced his decision to fight on Wednesday.

Singh has published a number of best-selling popular science books, including Fermats’s Last Theorem and The Code Book. His latest, co-authored with the professor of complementary medicine Edzard Ernst is titled Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial.

The meaning of “bogus”

The controversy started in 2008, when Singh wrote an opinion piece for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper discussing the history of chiropractic and a claim by chiropractors that it could cure a variety of childhood illnesses. The article was timed to coincide with Chiropractic Awareness Week, an event organised by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

Chiropractic is an alternative health care treatment which involves manipulating the spine using short but forceful hand movements.

The BCA took the bait of the opinion piece. However, instead of engaging in a constructive scientific debate, and putting the evidence for their claims forward, they sued, claiming Singh had defamed them.

The offending passage of his article read: “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

A preliminary ruling by the Royal Courts of Justice in London stated that Singh’s article contains “the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them [the BCA] of thoroughly disreputable conduct.”

Bad news for Singh

Singh denies that he used “bogus” to mean that chiropractors know they are offering a sham treatment. Instead, he says, most believe the treatments to be genuine, even if studies show they offer little real benefit.

The ruling is bad news for Singh. Losing a future trial, based on this ruling, could cost him up to £1 million (A$2 million). The libel case has already cost him up to £100,000 (A$200,000) in legal fees. Instead of proceeding to trial, Singh announced on Wednesday that he has decided to appeal the ruling. If he loses his appeal, he says he will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“While this case is alive there is an opportunity to raise a whole series of arguably more important issues, particularly the appalling state of English libel laws,” he said in a statement.

Thousands of people have already signed an online petition backing Singh, which says “We, the undersigned, believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.”

Eminent signatories who have stepped up in support of Singh include a Nobel laureate; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; former science advisor to Tony Blair, David King; Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the British Royal Society; Philip Cambell, the editor-In-chief of the journal Nature and actor and comedian Stephen Fry.

“The English libel laws are an international laughing stock, and the effects are especially pernicious where science is concerned,” Dawkins told the The Independent.


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