As many of you may know, there is a libel cases in Britain that has been followed very closely by those of us supportive of evidence-based medicine, that of Simon Singh versus the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Dr. Singh is a science journalist and author, and with Edzard Ernst he wrote Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, which I have previously reviewed. The lawsuit stems from an article Dr. Singh wrote in the Guardian newspaper criticizing the BCA for promoting chiropractic treatment for clearly inappropriate conditions despite clear evidence against doing so. In the article, Dr. Singh says:
“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 organization is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”
The BCA alleges that “happily promotes bogus treatments” implies deliberate fraud or deception, despite the fact that Dr. Singh has clearly stated his opinion that the organization and its members quite likely believe in the bogus therapy they practice. In Britain, libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, and it can be very difficult to prove that one did not mean what the plaintiff alleges one meant. This practice makes scientists and others who criticize CAM practices on the basis of sound evidence against them vulnerable to expensive and demoralizing lawsuits intended to intimidate them, and the media which might otherwise publish their critique.
Initially, Dr. Singh faced a significant setback in the lawsuit when a judge ruled his comments were factual assertions, not expressions of opinion, which meant that unless he could prove to a high degree of certainty that the BCA intentionally promoted therapies it knew were ineffective, he would be guilty of libel. An appeals court has now reversed that ruling, declaring Dr. Singh’s statements as opinions, which carries a much lower burden of proof for defending against libel claims.
What is encouraging about this ruling is the language of the opinion, which suggests the higher court recognizes that libel laws are structured in a way to make them easy to abuse in attempts to intimidate legitimate critics of unfounded medical practices. The justice wrote:
“The opinion [expressed in an article like Singh’s] may be mistaken, but to allow the party which has been denounced on the basis of it to compel its author to prove in court what he has asserted by way of argument is to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth…[those claiming they had been libelled] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests.
Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”
Of course, the court has no authority to alter the law. However, there is an active movement in Britain to reform libel laws so as to allow open scientific debate and the kind of vigorous criticism based on logic and evidence needed to ensure good ideas in medicine prosper and bad ideas are cast aside. It is shameful that Dr. Singh has spent £200,000 and two years of his life battling this clear attempt at intimidation, and his battle is not yet over. But perhaps his case will be the stone that starts an avalanche of real libel reform.