Simon Singh, leaving job to deal with chiropractic legal case

By Grant Jacobs 13/03/2010 10

Science writer and journalist Simon Singh, who faces a libel suit from the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for writing that a number of chiropractic claims of treatment of disorders unrelated to the spinal cord such as asthma were ’bogus’ has written in his column that it will be the last. He is resigning his job in order to give the libel suit the BCA has served on him full attention.

Simon Singh (Source: wikipedia)
Simon Singh (Source: wikipedia)

I recently pointed out an extensive review of the evidence for and against chiropractic treatment that showed that the claims that Singh objected as unsupported, are unsupported.

Another survey of the research literature for chiropractic treatments, that of Ernst (available free from the British Medical Journal), has an extensive collection of follow-on letters. The author, replying to the early letters, points out that neither his article nor the libel case are about safety; in moving onto safety in his reply, he concludes: ’Applying the precautionary principle, one should therefore not recommend chiropractic but warn patients not to use this form of therapy.’

Surely any sincere business would respond by simply pointing to evidence backing their original claims. Not so the BCA. The BCA was offered an opportunity to write a rebuttal in the Guardian (the newspaper that published Singh’s original article), but declined, seemingly preferring to legally bludgeon the writer, rather than reaffirm readers of the accuracy of their claims and the validity of the particular chiropractic practices referred to. (Or withdraw them.)

I am not familiar with British libel law, but others indicate that companies there can choose to respond to claims that their product or service is unsound by sidestepping that the objections raised have an evidenced basis to make the focus on if the company (or association) had known of that evidence.

The trouble I have with this idea is that surely it amounts to not taking responsibility for their own specialist area? It’s as if the BCA wish to argue that ignorance of evidence contradicting their practices would make the practices sound and immune to objection. You’d think that medical associations would be responsible for knowing about the evidence for or against the practices they offer…

In any event, science ought to be settled on evidence, not legal muscle. As Sense About Science says in their slogan: ’Keep libel laws out of science.’

Still on the subject of chiropractors, and closer to home, a local chiropractor  who runs a weekly advertisement for his practice declares that most drugs don’t help (see page five, bottom right: use the ‘+’ button to zoom in to read the advertisement). Even if he were right and the examples not misrepresented, cherry-picking a few and presenting them as if they represent all drugs is a fallacy. Sigh. Maybe for another post… Never minding his claims maybe he ought to read Bronfort and colleagues’ paper (PDF file) and check his own backyard first.

Here’s hoping that Singh’s efforts will move all this (chiropractic and, separately, libel cases in the UK) to a more wholesome state. I’ll also hope that it extends to a wider sphere that takes note of ’lesser’ ’alternative’ remedies and their practitioners. And that other countries like New Zealand take note.

HT: ArsTechnica.


For those interested in the general issue of misleading claims about treatments and vaccines, Nikki Turner and Helen Petousis-Harris have written about misleading statements regarding New Zealand’s Gardacil vaccine program.

Other articles in Code for Life:

An horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer

Chiropractic libel suit snagged by its own ruling body?

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

The End of Chiropractic?

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

The inheritance of face recognition (should you blame your parents if you can’t recognise faces?)

10 Responses to “Simon Singh, leaving job to deal with chiropractic legal case”

  • True, chiropractors are remiss in much of the research that should have been done. But, for decades, our research wasn’t wanted by medical journals, and was rejected not on an intellectual basis, but a market-control economic basis. Currently, several chiropractic research journals are now on line receiving impressive chiropractic case studies in so many human maladies that any intellectually honest person without bias pro or con might conclude that chiropractic represents a tremendous breakthrough for the human race.

    In my own case, I had to plead with a relative of mine to let me give chiropractic care to their daughter with severe asthma that had recently presented itself. The six-year old girl was already on five asthma drugs, with little positive result. One chiropractic adjustment – she was asthma free for six months. A second adjustment at that time – asthma free for 2 years.

    Just last week, I got a video taped testimonial from another family explaining how their 3 year old son has never again been to the emergency room for asthma since his first adjustment under my care. He used to go nearly weekly.

    I don’t have time to write up these studies! And asthma’s old hat to me, as a chiropractor. It’s boring.

    I will take my share of responsibility for not minding my science’s research business as I should, but I would believe that the advancement of the human race would do better here with a little more benefit of the doubt from the public. Our skeptics do seem to be products that have direct and indirect financial ties to medical interests. . . .

  • Dr. Walls-Kaufman,

    Firstly, it would be good if chiropractors wouldn’t use the title ‘Dr’ on the WWW. The WWW is international. In many countries holders of chiropractic degrees are not entitled to use that title, or are not able to use it in plain fashion. (It’s always clearer to use the degree, e.g. Ch.B., M.D., Ph.D., etc., not the title, FWIW.)

    Leaving aside that the excuse offered evokes a conspiracy, your first paragraph is besides the point: whatever did or did not happen in the past will not change the evidence presented in (say) Bronfort et al., Ernst or the papers they cite.

    Citing case studies the way you do reminds me of overblown advertising: it deserves skepticism. You can’t conclude much from cases studies. To be brief, they are essentially flawed by their nature and are “leads,” not conclusions (e.g. they can be false leads, too).

    Regards your citing asthma cases: anecdotes are not evidence. It’s a common to see advertising present anecdotal cases as if they “prove” a treatment, when anecdotes do nothing of the sort. There is a reason for case-controlled, investigator-blinded studies with sufficient numbers of cases: they (attempt to!) control for bias, variables that might affect the outcome that are unrelated to the treatment, and so on.

    I don’t have time to write up these studies!

    You don’t have to write up studies. Studies of treatment of asthma using chiropractic methods have already been done; these conclude that the evidence is against chiropractic treatment of asthma providing benefit. (Check the references in Ernst or Bronfort et al.)

    Regards “asthma’s old hat to me”, you sound as if you wish to dismiss or not read what doesn’t suit you. I would encourage you to read the evidence and check that what you are offering in fact is beneficial to your patients. As I wrote earlier, the evidence cited is against your claim.

    The public shouldn’t give chiropractors “more benefit of the doubt”, they should give them more skepticism. What sound medical practice writes asking for people to cast a blind eye on evidence against their practice?

  • On the nail as usual, Grant. Dr Walls-Kaufma, as Grant’s said – the studies of chiropractic’s efficacy with regard to childhood asthma have been done, & they’ve found it wanting. As one would expect, given that there’s no plausible mechanism to explain how a spinal manipulation could affect the mast cells lining the bronchii of a child’s lungs.

  • Maybe I’m just tired, but this sentence:

    “I am not familiar with British libel law, but others indicate that companies there can choose to respond to claims that their product or service is unsound by sidestepping that the objections raised have an evidenced basis to make the focus on if the company (or association) had known of that evidence.”

    makes no sense to me at all.

    • John,

      Even later at night I’ll attempt a probably even less understandable response… I have every sympathy as the nature of the High Court ruling doesn’t follow commonsense to me either, but it is apparently the state of affairs over there. As I understand it, the key lies in the word I emphasised: know.

      You might be best to first read this explanation by a British freelance legal and policy writer who writes the “Jack of Kent” blog:

      His explanation is much more likely to be correct that mine. Yes, I’m passing the buck on… but like I wrote I’m not familiar with British law. As a British legal writer he will be more likely to be closer to the mark than me. That said, my reading of this is that it roughly reduces to either:

      That the “defamatory” statement is false

      (which you’d think is the common-sense objection)


      That the person (company, association) who claim to be “defamed” knew the statement to be false,

      i.e. that the person who claims to be defamed uttered a falsehood in their mind. This makes it not about if the statement was actually false or not but resting on if they knew it to be false. The latter was apparently the ruling that the High Court judge made that Singh recently appealed.

      A previous commenter (see James Jones’ comment in my earlier post) put this well:

      At an earlier ruling (Justice Eady) it was judged that the words (including bogus) meant that the BCA were knowingly and dishonestly promoting treatments that they knew to be ineffective. For reasons that I do not understand this meant that it did not matter if the treatments worked or not. No one will care. It will not be raised in court. All the BCA have to do is sit back and relax as Mr Singh tries to prove that the BCA was knowingly dishonest in the matter concerned. This is apparently regarded as more or less impossible, particularly since the BCA is a corporation and no one seems to know if a corporation can even know anything at all.

      [My emphasis added.]

      Jack of Kent’s commentary on the recent appeal towards the end cautioned:

      Nonetheless, Simon may still lose: the Court of Appeal could decide that even if the High Court ruling is incorrect, it is not so incorrect that they should disturb the judgment.

      I take this to mean that the Court of Appeal could basically accept the previous (High Court) ruling with a few tweaks, leaving it grounded on if the BCA knew it’s claims to be false or not, not if they were in fact false or not.

      My own reading of commentary at Jack of Kent and elsewhere is that the Court of Appeal judge seem to be more of the opinion that if the statement are false or not matters, which makes much more sense to me. Jack of Kent’s summary of the appeal includes this, for example:

      But it was another question which may prove devastating to the BCA.

      “What if Simon Singh had said there was no reliable evidence?”

      “We wouldn’t be here today.”

      But, responded the judge, isn’t that what “evidence” means, especially in a scientific context? Is that not how medicine and science develops? Is that not what a reader of the Guardian article would understood the statements to have meant?

      This seems to me to a (much) better position that the one I offered (based on care of duty and invalidity of “pleading ignorance”) to one simply based on what readers of the article would take “bogus” to mean in the context of science. This is, after all, the nub of the issue of “defamation”: what the readers thought. It seems obvious to me that readers would think Singh meant “unsound” in the sense of not backed by evidence. I suspect that’s why they’re judges and I’m not 😉

      Sorry this is a bit long, but I hope it helps. For those who are crazy enough to read it all (I’m not), there is a full transcript of the appeal on Jack of Kent’s blog.

  • Chiropractic treatment is one of the most suitable treatment method for everyone and every stage of age. It is really amazing that anyone would have a new life after applying chiropractic.

    [I don’t usually let spam messages through, but I found the second sentence funny enough that I thought I’d let this one past for laughs.]

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