Monday, June 08, 2009

Simon Singh and the English libel laws

Simon Singh is a British science writer who has been embroiled in a libel lawsuit for the last year. This case raises a few interesting issues and highlights something very wrong in the English legal system.

About a year ago (In April of 2008), Singh wrote an article in one of Britain's largest daily newspapers about chiropractic and its basis in one man's 19th century misunderstanding of medicine, science, and the cause of disease. In it, he criticized the British Chiropractic Association by saying (among other things):

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.

For American readers, this seems like a fairly tame criticism, and it is, given that chiropractic is more than bogus, it's a flat lie. It's based in nonsense, and has no place in the legitimate medical standard of care. Some subset of chiropractors have abandoned the crazy origins of their discipline and now largely provide a service which is similar to (though less rigorously regulated than) physical therapy, centered around the relief of back pain. Those chiropractors would be well-served to drop the name "chiropractic" and devote themselves to straight physical therapy, but these are not the men and women who are doing harm. It's the other chiropractors who are doing the harm. These are the chiropractors who still subscribe to the theory that there is a mysterious, unmeasurable energy that can make you totally healthy all the time but that is blocked by "subluxations" in your spine and only they, from the delusions of a 19th century beekeeper can properly re-align you.

There has been a long history of chiropractic with almost no evidence suggesting it has any efficacy at all. The pattern that has emerged is that the better you design your study, the less of an effect you have on someone's help by using chiropractic on them. The exception is lower back pain where manipulating a person's back with chiropractic techniques seems to be about as effective in treating their pain as traditional massage. This is fine as far as it goes, but the various chiropractic organizations, including the British Chiropractic Association, maintain that they can cure a wide variety of disease by manipulating your spine. This is what Singh called "bogus".

Now Singh has been sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. In the United States, we are innocent of libel until proven by the prosecution of having said something both false and reckless and harmful. In England (not strictly Britain), an assertion of libel places the burden of proof on the defendant. Singh, simply by being sued, must now prove that what he said is true. The problem, of course, is that he is forced to prove that the British Chiropractic Association "...happily prmotes bogus treatments."

Singh is doing what so many peoplw who are accused of libel in an English court do not do, he is fighting. This is costing him a great deal of money and may cost him quite a bit more. The problem of structuring libel in this way, backward from the American legal perspective, is that that the very structure of the laws of libel suppresses speech. It creates a chilling effect on journalism that even the threat of a lawsuit can result in being put in an expensive defensive position. In this case the British Chiropractic Association is suing Singh personally, and not The Guardian. Singh is on the hook for all of his defense expenses.

The latest setback for Singh is that an English judge has ruled that the use of the word "happily" means that Singh was arguing that the British Chiropractic Association knows that their treatments don't work. This, and the fact that the defendant must prove his case in England, means that Singh, to avoid losing the case, must prove that the British Chiropractic Association knew their treatments were ineffective.

Think that through... it means that in England it is essentially impossible to criticize someone who is honestly wrong about something.

I have not intorduced anything here that isn't covered in other venues, but I think it is incumbant upon concerned people to do what they can, and so I am putting out my own public call. We need to shine a light on this particular injustice and on England's misguided libel laws which have no place in a free society.


JimII said...

I wondered if he was going to get in trouble for saying that there was absolutely no evidence supporting their claims. However, his claim that they were happily misinforming people also puts him in a tight spot with the English system.

"Think that through... it means that in England it is essentially impossible to criticize someone who is honestly wrong about something."

I disagree with you about this. The English system requires that to criticize someone who is honestly wrong about something that you limit your criticism to what you actually know. (And, I suppose in this case you avoid hyperbole.)

I think our system is better. But it has its costs, and having to endure less than carefully chosen claims when criticizing others is one of them.

shadowfax said...

It still amazes me that those laws are still on the books. You'd think they'd have changed them (you'd think the media interests would ave seen to that so they can say what they want without fear of losing a libel suit).

JimII said...

BTW, a little Swift Boat effect, my younger brother is completely fine with this outcome. He says that if they guy is going to make broad claims like this in a newspaper he should have to prove them.

I wonder how the average American feels.

Matt Dick said...

That's so interesting. I think it's really, really clear that we need a marketplace of ideas, and that the chilling effect of making the speaker have to prove statements is ultimately damaging.

Plus, chiropractic is quackery.