Simon Singh v the BCA – What next?

A spectre is haunting London, and it is the spectre of unreason. The doubters have huddled underground in a crowded tavern, purveying dangerous ideas and thoughts. They are hardy souls, men and women, nursing their drinks, plotting to overthrow blind faith, within yards of the courts of justice where a bewigged man interprets the Queen’s edict in a way so narrow as to protect the fair name of good people and evil, silencing the ones who dare to speak truth to power, chilling those who have not yet thought subversive thoughts. A hushed silence prevails, clamping down reason and argument. The rest is silence.

Except that we are in the London of the 21st century, the global city, and the tavern is a pub in central London, where the courageous journalist and author, Simon Singh and his supporters are debating what to do next, after Mr Justice Eady’s reading in the case filed against him by the British Chiropractors’ Association (BCA), allowing the association to proceed in its libel claim against Singh.

Singh wrote an article over a year ago in the Guardian, in which he challenged the BCA’s promotion of chiropractic treatment for asthma and ear infections among children. The chiropractors decided to sue. He had two options –– to apologise and give in, or to fight. He chose to fight.

Singh is a distinguished science writer. His books include Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, and appropriately enough, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. Science rests on testing hypotheses; claims are challenged; and if those challenged claims are not refuted, the theory falls. If not, we learn new ways of understanding our world. Instead of challenging Singh with arguments, the British Chiropractic Association went to court, as if courts can determine the effectiveness of treatments, or the harms they pose.

As the meeting organised by blogger Jack of Kent and hosted by the Skeptics in London revealed, the matter got more complicated when Mr Justice Eady made an “astonishing and illiberal” ruling, defining the meaning that should be given to the passage the chiropractors found offensive. Singh had described claims made for chiropracti as “bogus”. He ruled that even if what Singh had written was an opinion piece in his interpretation it was a statement of fact. And by using that word which he explained, meant “deliberate and targeted dishonesty,” Singh was asserting that the association was being dishonest.

That’s not what Singh was getting at. But that’s how the judge interpreted it, leaving Singh three options: to go to trial, to settle or to appeal. Last night, Singh was unable to declare what he would do, but his instinct – and the overwhelming view in the pub – was that he should appeal. And he was not alone.

The scientific skeptic James Randi called for support for the quest for justice, saying the case has the chilling effect on the ability to question claims of anyone, including pseudoscientists. Dave Morris, the co-defendant in the famous McLibel trial said in a message read, that the law must be opposed because it unfairly protects against fair criticism.

Ben Goldacre, who knows a thing or two about bad science, said in a message read out to his “brothers and sisters in nerdiness”, that ideas and practices are proved only when they are challenged. He criticised the alternative medicine community’s intolerance of criticism. The comedian Dave Gorman said that to question ideas is the basis of the human condition. “This affects all of us,” he said to loud cheers.

Nick Cohen gave a fascinating exposure of Britain’s restrictive libel laws, which prevent criticism because the onus is placed on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. He added that libel is mean to protect good character; the people who have exploited English law to defend themselves include Russian oligarchs, people accused of having aided and abetted Al Qaeda, and fugitive film-makers. Making a fervent plea for US-style freedom of expression, where the plaintiff has to prove malice, he pointed out how shameful it is that the United States is enacting legislation specifically protecting American authors from British libel laws. “English law is claiming global jurisdiction through the Internet; people on the edge of respectability are using the law to silence their critics. Those with money and vindictiveness are filing suits. Britain should not be liberty’s enemy,” he added.

Dr Evan Harris MP
, seriously questioned the NHS accepting certain homoeopathic claims, and called for evidence-based science, to prevent “the creeping exploitation of vulnerable population”.

Singh feels hugely uplifted by the enthusiastic support he has received. Last night, there were queues of people –– readers, bloggers, science writers, and campaigners for free expression –– willing to help. They want to raise funds, they want to write to their MPs to change Britain’s restrictive law, and they want to post letters. A child sent two pounds with her love.

Singh needs, and deserves, the support of all of us, who wish to reclaim the space for free thought; who want to wrest reason from the clutches of faith; who want to expand the notion of freedom on this sceptred isle; who would like those who have a grievance to prove their case and not force those who have said something to have to establish their innocence. And why? So that we are guided by chemistry and not alchemy; astronomy and not astrology; healing through science and not faith.

Science may not have all the answers yet. But rational minds ask the right questions. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in Lebden des Galile (The Life of Galileo). “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”

Defending Singh is another step in the ongoing battle to change our libel laws.