This week, Simon Singh, one of Britain's best science writers, will decide whether to carry on playing a devilish version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He has already lost £100,000 defending his right to speak frankly.
Last year, Singh published Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst on the reliability of alternative medicine , and devoted a chapter to the strange history of chiropractic treatments.
In 2008, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) announced that its members could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. Writing in the Guardian, Singh said the claim
was bogus. Chiropractic treatments may help relieve back pain, but Professor Ernst had examined 70 trials and found no evidence that they could relieve other conditions.
Singh is hardly a lone sceptic. A few weeks ago, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against a chiropractor who claimed he could treat children with colic and learning difficulties. Nevertheless, the BCA took Singh on and told
me it had numerous documents which demonstrate the efficacy of chiropractic treatments.
Fair enough, you might think. Reputable medical authorities could test the evidence and decide whether the treatments work or not. Instead of arguing before the court of informed opinion, however, the BCA went to the libel courts.
If he goes ahead with an appeal this week, bloggers, academics and the massed ranks of the scientific great and good are ready to join him. They have grasped what too many still fail to realise: the greatest threat to freedom of speech in Britain
is not the state or the security services or the press barons, but a fusty and illiberal legal system, which has become a public menace.
A galaxy of luminaries from the disparate worlds of science, comedy, the arts and humanities, from Ricky Gervais to the president of the Royal Society, have come out in support of a science writer who is being sued by chiropractors for saying they
practise bogus treatments.
Dr Simon Singh announced yesterday that he intends to appeal against the ruling, which has already cost him about £100,000 in legal fees but won him the backing of more than 100 prominent figures, including a Nobel laureate.
The signatories to the statement in support of Dr Singh include Gervais, the actor Stephen Fry, the scientist Richard Dawkins, Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the Royal Society, former government chief scientist Sir David King, the novelist
Martin Amis and the comedian and doctor Harry Hill. We, the undersigned, believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence, the statement reads.
Dr Singh's supporters spoke out against the BCA's decision to launch legal action against an individual with no financial support. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh's reputation [he was made an MBE in 2003 for
services to science] then anyone who believes in science, fairness and truth should rise in indignation, Fry said.
Professor Dawkins added: The English libel laws are ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks, and the effects are especially pernicious where science is concerned. While Sir David said: It is ridiculous that a
legal and outmoded definition of a word has been used to hinder and discourage scientific debate. We must be able to fairly and reasonably challenge ideas without fear of legal intimidation. This sort of thing only brings the law into disrepute.
The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children's ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed
medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.
Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions
robustly and the public should have access to these views.
English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other
things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the "libel capital" of
Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the
libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage
argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.
The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English
libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.
Thanks to all your efforts, we are sending that statement again to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but now with 10,000 signatures! And still they are pouring in. We've also had great comments, examples of similar
cases, offers of help, and urgently needed donations for the campaign. Please keep them coming. We're working through offers of help and ideas as quickly as we can.
You can now buy Keep the Libel Laws out of Science T-shirts, mugs, bags, badges and caps online from Spreadshirt. The lovely logo is thanks to Hamish Symington, and thanks also to everyone else who offered design ideas. If you send us photos of
you wearing them outside the Royal Courts of Justice, or similarly relevant venue, we'll put them up!
On the issue of chiropractic claims, some of you will have seen the cumulative effect of interest in the case on the blogosphere over this past weekend;
hundreds of chiropractic websites were taken down
following questions by bloggers and urgent instructions from chiropractic organisations to avoid breaking the rules on medical claims for chiropractic.
A note from Simon Singh: I've met so many passionate, supportive people at talks I've given, most recently Skeptics in the Pub in Oxford and Cheltenham. The responses, with all the blogs and comments too, suggest this is a campaign gathering
the momentum necessary to reform the libel laws. Please continue your support in any way you can, and tell others about it.
Today the Australian magazine Cosmos, along with a vast number of other blogs and publications, reprinted an article by Simon Singh, in slightly tweaked form, in an act of solidarity. The British Chiropractic Association has been suing Singh
personally for the past 15 months, over a piece in the Guardian where he criticised the BCA for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating
The BCA maintains that the efficacy of these treatments is well documented. Singh said that claims were made without sufficient evidence, described the treatments as "bogus", and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them.
At a preliminary hearing in May, to decide the meaning of this article, Mr Justice Eady ruled that Singh's wording implied the BCA was being deliberately dishonest. Singh has repeatedly been clear that he never intended this meaning, but has been
forced to defend this single utterance, out of his own pocket, at a cost that has run to six figures.
Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial . This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally
sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.
Beware the spinal trap
Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.
You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that '99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae'. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine
was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.
In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by
correcting a displaced vertebra.
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping
and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.
I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used
them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no
evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.
But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any
consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.
In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the
frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.
More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force.
Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.
Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is
usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation
has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.
Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates
at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a
coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: 'Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.'
This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be
a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would
almost certainly have been taken off the market.
Simon Singh announced today that he will continue the fight in his libel case with the British Chiropractic Association after his application to appeal the preliminary ruling was rejected last week. He has now has the option to try and overturn that
decision at an oral appeal. If this fails his case will be tried on a meaning of a phrase he did not intend and is indefensible. This highlights the problem of narrow defences that, along with high costs and wide jurisdiction, make the English libel laws
so restrictive to free speech.
Simon said today: I can confirm today that I have applied for a hearing to ask the Court of Appeal to reconsider its recent denial of permission. A great deal has happened since my original article was published back in April 2008
and I suspect that the libel case will continue for many more months (or maybe years). While my case is ongoing, it continues to raise a whole series of arguably more important issues, particularly the appalling state of English libel laws. I am pleased
that the Culture Secretary has agreed to meet with signatories of the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign statement to hear how the laws affect writers. We are also pursuing a meeting at the Ministry of Justice and with front benchers in other
departments to lobby for a change in the law.
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, has called for Britain's libel laws to be reformed following a string of cases in which science researchers and writers have been sued for criticising health therapies they felt to be unreliable.
Among those currently facing writs is Simon Singh, the broadcaster and author, who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article criticising the use of chiropractic techniques for some childhood illnesses. He has spent
£100,000 defending the action.
Another is Peter Wilmshurst, a heart specialist at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, who is being sued by NMT Medical, an American company, for suggesting that medical trials into one of its devices had been described inaccurately to other scientists.
Wilmshurst made his remarks in America to a US journalist who published it on an American website. However, the company was still able to issue its writ in Britain, where libel laws are regarded as among the most draconian in the world.
Dawkins told the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth that the UK's libel laws are having a chilling effect on public debate about science and medicine: England's libel law is being ridiculed as an international charter for the litigious. I urge
politicians to support the call for reform so we can get cross-party support on this vital issue.
The campaign to change Britain's libel laws has won widespread support. Sile Lane of Sense About Science, which is co-ordinating the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign, said the same plea would be made to the upcoming Labour and Conservative
Simon Singh's libel case v the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) was heard at the Court of Appeal in front of
three of the most senior judges in England and Wales: Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley.
They heard arguments from both barristers on the meaning of Simon's article and on whether it was fact or comment and their judgment is expected in 6 - 8 weeks. A crowd of supporters greeted Simon as he arrived at the court.
Simon said after the hearing: First of all, thanks to everyone who came to the Court of Appeal today, and everyone who has been so supportive over the last two years. Without your goodwill, I probably would have caved in a long time ago.
I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal.
However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since the article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my
article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.
More important than my particular case is the case for libel reform and I know that you share my concern on this matter. My greatest desire is that journalists in future should not have to endure such an arduous and expensive libel process, which
has already affected the careers of health journalists such as Ben Goldacre, and which is currently bearing down on the eminent cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst. If Peter loses his case then he will be bankrupted. Please continue to spread the word
about libel reform.
Simon's solicitor Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave LLP said: It was encouraging to see three such senior judges taking such an interest in the appeal, and the BCA's counsel was given a thorough grilling by the court. What was significant was that
the Lord Chief Justice said he was surprised that the BCA had not taken the opportunity offered them back in 2008 to publish their side of the story in the Guardian, rather than insisting Simon apologise and beginning proceedings. He also said it
was a waste of both parties' time and effort. I hope that this is borne in mind by MPs when they grapple with the need for libel reform.
The science writer Simon Singh has won the right to use the defence of fair comment, in a landmark ruling at the Court of Appeal.
The strongly worded judgment by three of Britain's most senior judges brings Dr Singh significantly closer to defeating the action brought against him by a group of chiropractors. The ruling also sets a precedent that could, in practice, make
scientific criticism and debate exempt from claims of defamation by companies or organisations.
Dr Singh was accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an opinion piece he wrote for The Guardian in April 2008, suggesting that there was a lack of evidence for the claims some chiropractors make on treating certain
childhood conditions, including colic and asthma. The BCA alleged that Dr Singh had, in effect, accused its leaders of knowingly supporting bogus treatments.
In May last year, Mr Justice Eady, in a preliminary High Court ruling in the dispute, held that Dr Singh's comments were factual assertions rather than expressions of opinion, which meant that he could not use the defence of fair comment.
However, Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Neuberger, Master of the Rolls, and Lord Justice Sedley ruled that Mr Justice Eady had erred in his approach last May and upheld Dr Singh's appeal. Dr Singh described the ruling as brilliant
, but said the action had cost £200,000 and two years of his time just to define the meaning of a few words . He added: At last we've got a good decision. So instead of battling uphill we're fighting with the wind behind us.
The written judgment said that the original decision threatened to silence scientists or science journalists wishing to question claims made by companies or organisations. It said: This litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on
public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic. Asking judges to rule on matters of scientific controversy would be to invite the court to become an
Orwellian ministry of truth , the judgment said.
In a statement issued after the ruling, the BCA expressed disappointment and said it was considering whether to appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. This is not the end of the road ... Our original argument remains that our
reputation has been damaged, it said. The BCA can now either appeal to the Supreme Court, proceed to trial and challenge Dr Singh's defence of fair comment, or withdraw its case. A BCA spokesman said that board members would decide in the
The BCA have served a Notice of Discontinuance bringing to an end its ill-fated libel claim against Dr Simon Singh arising out of
criticisms he made of its promotion of treatments for childhood ailments.
Dr Singh's predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper, became a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate.
It still staggers me that the British Chiropractic Association and half the chiropractors in the UK were making unsubstantiated claims. It still baffles me that the BCA then dared to sue me for libel and put me through two
years of hell before I was vindicated. And it still makes me angry that our libel laws not only tolerate but also encourage such ludicrous libel suits. My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay, because I won despite the libel laws.
We still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world.
And other news, the Libel Reform Campaign petition
has just hit the 50,000 signature mark!