Simon Singh, Chriopractics, Libel Reform and the Canadian Situation

April 28, 2010

The following is from a statement drafted by colleague Iain Martel at CFI's Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism:


Scientists, skeptics, and free speech activists around the world are breathing a sigh of relief now that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel suit against renowned science journalist Simon Singh, who had criticized the Association for promoting “bogus” remedies. The BCA’s decision last week followed a scathing appeals court ruling two weeks earlier, which would have made it much easier for Singh to defeat the BCA’s suit. Although this case is now over, the two-year, £200,000 battle Singh had to fight has galvanised efforts to reform archaic English libel laws. Meanwhile, the message that got Singh into such trouble in the first place remains an important one: that many of the claims made by chiropractors have been thoroughly debunked by modern science and have no place in contemporary medicine.

At issue in the case is a 2008 opinion article in The Guardian, in which Singh criticised the BCA for claims that its members could cure children suffering from a variety of illnesses, from colic to asthma, solely through manipulation of the spine. Arguing that there was “not a jot of evidence” for them, Singh criticised the BCA for “happily promoting these bogus claims. The BCA sued Singh, arguing that his words amounted to a factual claim that the BCA was promoting treatments it knew to be fraudulent. In an early ruling in the case, a high court judge agreed that this was the meaning of Singh’s words, leaving him with an uphill battle to win his case. The appeal court ruling, which led the BCA to drop its case, reversed this, correctly treating all of Singh’s comments as statements of opinion, not fact; thus allowing a defence of “fair comment”.

The wider significance of Singh’s victory may perhaps be found in a passage in the appeals court ruling, endorsing a key principle first adopted in an American libel case by a Judge Easterbrook. Easterbrook wrote that “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science, rather than by the methods of litigation.” If this principle is applied in other cases, it will do much to remove the chilling effect English libel law is currently having on scientific research in the United Kingdom, where scientists are often afraid to publish the results of their research for fear of being sued. More generally, the appeals court recognised that there is a serious problem when a law intended to protect honest reputations has come to be used as a stifle on public debate.

Despite the discontinuation of the case by the BCA, and the positive effect the appeals court ruling may have, the case for a fundamental reform of English libel law remains very strong. Unlike in almost any aspect of law, English libel law (as in Canada) places much of the burden of proof on the accused. If a defamatory statement is deemed “fact” and not “opinion”, the defendant has to prove that it was true; in most of the rest of the world, it is the claimant who must prove the statement false. In addition, English law often allows authors anywhere in the world to be sued, even if a publication has little connection to Britain. For this reason, London has become known as the capital of “libel tourism.” It is good news, then, that all three major political parties have committed to libel reform in their manifestos for the upcoming general election.

A review of libel law in England would likely bring it in line with the greater protection of public discourse created when the Canadian Supreme Court, at the end of last year, recognised a new defence against libel suits of “responsible communication.” While libel laws were originally created to protect the reputations of individuals from the malicious smears of others, they have increasingly come to be used as a tool, by corporations as by individuals, for suppressing any kind of critical scrutiny. What the Canadian Supreme Court recognised, and what the British Parliament is slowly learning, is that a free society requires that open debates on matters of public interest must not be impeded by fears that an unwelcome criticism, however honestly made, will be met by a crushing lawsuit.

The British Chiropractic Association must surely be regretting that it ever took on this case. Not only is it probably on the hook for most of the costs of the case. Its reputation has also been thoroughly wrecked, not by Singh’s article, but by the mass of attention this ill-advised case has brought on the chiropractic profession. As a direct result of its lawsuit, over a quarter of all chiropractors in Britain are under investigation for making misleading claims in advertising – that is, for making the very claims that Singh described as bogus.

So what of these “bogus” claims? Setting aside the scientific absurdity of the core chiropractic “subluxation theory” that most illnesses are the result of spinal misalignments – a theory that many chiropractors still believe – is there any evidence that their treatments work? For ailments unrelated to the back, such as asthma, colic, ear infections, and many others, there is, not surprisingly, no plausible evidence that chiropractic treatments do any good. A thorough review of this (lack of) evidence is provided in Singh’s own book with co-author Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment. The British chiropractic regulator, the General Chiropractic Council, agrees and instructs chiropractors to make no claims regarding such ailments. And, to its credit, the BCA’s Canadian equivalent, the Canadian Chiropractic Association, is careful to restrict its claims to “neuro-musculoskeletal” ailments. Even here, however, the evidence is mixed. Only treatment for acute lower back pain has been shown with any reliability to be effective, and yet even in this best case scenario, chiropractic treatment has not been shown to be any better than cheaper and safer conventional alternatives, like physiotherapy. (Some will recall the case of Saskatoon woman Laurie Mathiason, who died as a direct result of chiropractic manipulations.)

In sum, chiropractic treatment is based on an implausible 19th century theory, it has repeatedly failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny, and it raises serious safety concerns.   Let us applaud Simon Singh, then, for his courageous fight, both to raise awareness of the bogus claims of chiropractors, and to change the libel laws that challenged his right to do so.