Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Simon Singh, the British Chiropractic Association and the High Court Ruling by Sir David Eady

Over the last day or two, reports have appeared on the Internet about the High Court Ruling on the legal action taken against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association by the Judge, Sir David Eady.

As usual, one of the most comprehensive descriptions and assessments in on Jack of Kent's Blog.

The passage in Singh's original article which caused most difficulty is:

“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.”

The judgement revolved around ruling whether the passage was a “comment” or “statement of fact”, Singh's lawyers arguing the former and the BCA's lawyers arguing the latter.

The Judge ruled that, although the passage in Singh's article was a comment piece and published on a comment page, it was a statement of fact.

Jack of Kent writes that this ruling did not even refer to the fact that Singh's use of the word bogus is actually set out in the following paragraph in the original article:

“I can confidently label these treatments as bogus 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 of 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.”

That is fair enough, if it is fully substantiated, though would still be better couched in less emotional terms, science is supposed to be objective after all. However, not finding evidence that chiropractors could treat such conditions is not proof of anything other than that inability to find evidence; it might suggest something else, it may be possible to tentatively infer something else, but it is not proof of anything else. It is certainly not proof of the treatments being bogus; they may be, they may not be but no evidence was brought to bear to prove that they were bogus.

In any case, I have read and wrote a review of Singh and Ernst's book, “Trick or Treatment” and it is certainly not a good science book; a populist book but not science book, certainly not in the textbook sense. Although, of course, many of Singh and Ernst's supporters laud it as science as it confirms their prejudices. “Trick or Treatment” contains no references and an extremely limited bibliography, while I would expect a book of science to have at least references, preferably references and bibliography; science is about providing evidence, after all, or at least it is supposed to be. “Trick or Treatment” is peppered with the word “lies”, in the “untruths”, “falsehoods” sense of the word, though I did not come across any proof that anyone was telling lies. The book has only one page on the knowledge, area, of “Spiritual Healing” and makes numerous errors in just a few hundred words, displaying a complete lack of understanding of the subject, wrongly describing the procedures involved and failing to give an accurate definitions of Spiritual Healing, quite an achievement for supposedly competent sceintists, let alone Ernst who has specialised as a Professor in a field that includes Spiritual Healing for fifteen years. I reviewed the Spiritual Healing section of “Trick or Treatment” separately as I practice it and, clearly, know more about it that either Ernst or Singh.

Then there is the matter of definitions. Although, as Jack of Kent wrote, the ruling did not refer to Singh's use of the word bogus being set out in another paragraph of his article, there seems no pressing reason that it should need to do so. Surely an intelligent man and experienced writer like Simon Singh is aware of language and tat it is wise to check definitions. There seems little point in having a language and dictionaries if anyone who wishes to can simply come up with their own definition. I am probably too pedantic but I tend to write on my word processor with dictionaries to hand, both usual and technical, with several browser windows open to check definitions, references, etc. No-one is perfect but it does reduce errors somewhat.

Bogus: counterfeit, not genuine, spurious
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

1. An apparatus for counterfeit coining
2. adj. Counterfeit, spurious, sham 1852
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

The statement made by Simon Singh seemed fairly definitive and the way I was brought up to learn and practice science, along with engineering, which uses science at times, as well as life in general, if you make a definitive statement you provide the evidence to back it up, or have the evidence to hand if asked for it. If there is not enough evidence to make a definitive statement, you make a qualified statement commensurate with the strength, weight and reliability of the evidence.

It is a matter of thoroughness, completeness and precision which seems to have gone out of science in recent years, decades, even to be replaced by a juvenile howling down and name calling. Never mind the quality of the evidence, if any at all for their positions, feel the juvenile bile and weight of numbers.

“Trick or Treatment” comes over as very much in that vein. So, recent utterings and writings by both Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst being even stronger in that sense have come as no great surprise.

It is not just the language that is juvenile, much, most, of the so-called science brought to bear is of a similar level.