Keep the Libel Laws out of Science

Keep the Libel Laws out of Science

Keep the Libel Laws out of Science

I’ve just added my name to the campaign launched by  Sense about Science to keep the libel laws out of science and bunged them some cash too.

Sense about Science are raising the profile of the libel case against author Simon Singh.  Singh manages to make science accessable with honour and skill. However he is being sued for libel by the decidedly non-scientific Society of Chiropractors. With libel laws, you are guilty unless proven innocent, which is fair enough when you have to prove that, yes indeedie such-and-such MP committed acts of criminal fraud on their expenses claims. But a libel court is not an appropriate place to evaluate the effectiveness of a medical treatment. (Singh is financing his own defence but Sense about Science support other journalists sued in the same way. It happens too: Ben Goldacre was supported by the Guardian, but not all publishers are that honourable.)

The question is not whether or not you ‘believe in’ Chiropractic, which is a bit of a category error anyway: it isn’t a religion.

The question is about appropriate methods of finding the truth.

In the bad old days  our only tool was human rationality, which is deeply flawed in the first place. So there was only one racecourse in town whatever horse you wanted to run with.  The only tools you had were logic and rhetoric:  whether you wanted to discover the length of the hypotenuse (Euclid), who dunnit (Aristotle), how eyes work (Plato), all you could do was ask questions, drink wine with your mates and think beautiful thoughts until you arrived at an answer. And most of the answers were barking: think of Zeno’s paradox, where Achilles never ever outruns the tortoise. Yeah, right.

These days we have more racecourses and we have a duty to use them wisely. We know instinctively that the legal system has its limits: and Luigi Cascioli‘s suit against the Catholic Church for misrepresentation made international headlines because it was mischievious.

Even in Galileo’s day it was unreasonable for the court to use judicial inquiry t o evaluate scientific facts. Had the Inquisition chosen to follow Galileo’s experiments they would have been forced to conclude that the earth does indeed go round the sun. It was a profound injustice that Galileo’s scientific horse was forced to run on a quasi-judicial course.

The courts have case law and precedent to guide them about human behaviours, and a woeful track record of messing it up when they bring in expert witnesses and worry their pretty little wigs about things they haven’t been trained to understand. Let’s face it, science IS difficult. It’s complicated, counter-intuitive and tells us truths that are frequently unpalatable. Which is why we have experimental methodologies, complex rules about selecting valid samples and correcting for chance, and peer review.  And as a result we have the internet, anti-viral medication, infant mortality rates of 20 in 1000, and the ability to fly to the ends of the earth.

So let’s be clear about it:  if we wish to assess whether or not using a particular treatment on a particular condition is more or less effective than doing nothing, then we do have a course for that particular horse, and it ain’t the libel laws.

Hopefully this explains why the Campaign to Keep Libel out of Science has my wholehearted support. It is important we fight medievalism wherever it creeps up on us.

For the record, I’ve never been to a chiropracter. However I’ve found osteopathy superb for muscle spasm but an expensive waste of time for migraine.


One response to “Keep the Libel Laws out of Science

  1. SonofRojBlake

    Sign me up.

    Anyone who’s had back pain will tell you that you’ll do anything, anything at all to make it stop, or even to be a little less, just for a little bit. It is that vulnerability that osteopaths, chiropractors and the rest prey on.

    I compressed my spine doing PT in the dark at 5.30am on a wet field in January with the Territorial Army in my early twenties. I aggravated it with a hard landing from far too high off a ramp in snowboard park about ten years later.

    The pain was indescribable. And only three things had any effect on it at all:
    1. Drugs, injected locally.
    2. Sandrine, the physiotherapist in the medical centre in Tignes, who between cigarettes pushed one of my knees and one of my shoulders and made my back make a deafening popping sound which made 90% of the pain just disappear. I’d have married her at that moment.
    3. Time.

    I tried osteopathy. My experience consisted of lying on my back while a woman slid her hands underneath and apparently did nothing at all for 20 minutes, apart from talking about what she could feel with her clearly motionless hands. She then recommended a number of homeopathic remedies, which put me off somewhat.

    I tried McTimoney chiropractic. It’s pure snake oil. I’d seen people on the TV getting chiro, and assumed (as a layperson defensibly would) that it was a proper branch of physiotherapy. It did absolutely nothing at all. Yes, my condition improved – but it improved at precisely the rate you’d expect it to improve given that I was taking it easy and not going parachuting or whatever.

    Chiropractors exists to take money off people who are in pain, and in exchange they provide an experience a bit like going to the doctor. What they don’t provide is any medicine that actually works.

    The Singh case hinges on whether their provision of this snake oil is delusion or knowing fraud, and whether Singh’s use of the word “bogus” implies the latter. I’m frankly appalled it’s come to this.

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