“I’m a Lib Dem, so you’ll have to forgive me but this is the biggest crowd I’ve seen…” said Dr Evan Harris, MP, to an audience of fired-up skeptics in the Penderel’s Oak pub in London last night. He was joking but the turn-out to the meeting in support of Simon Singh was impressive, nevertheless.
The pub’s huge cellar bar was packed to the gills with “brothers and sisters in nerdiness”, as Ben Goldacre described us in his message of support, who were disgusted at the outcome of the preliminary hearing of BCA v Simon Singh, where Justice Eady had ruled that in saying the BCA “happily promotes bogus therapies”, Singh was alleging that they deliberately and dishonestly promote false treatments. (See my previous post.)
Since then, there’s been speculation and spirited discussion in the blogosphere and at Bad Science about what Simon should do next and last night he stood before us and said, to rapturous applause, that if his lawyers could see any chance that an appeal might work, he would go for it. For one thing, he wants his “day in court” in order to be able to talk about the article and why he said what he did. More important, however, are the broader issues. “I should be able to discuss scientific issues without fear of intimidation,” he said. In short, the libel laws need reform, a point echoed by virtually all the speakers.
Another point that has been made repeatedly by several commenters, in particular by solicitor Jack of Kent, who organised last night’s support meeting, is that scientific disputes cannot be settled by legal means. Evan Harris spoke of the need “for free scientific discourse”, not just in science journals but in the mainstream media. Dr Harris also condemned the MHRA registration of arnica and spoke of the “creeping exploitation of vulnerable consumers”.
The reform of the libel laws was the theme of journalist Nick Cohen‘s address. Nick recounted several appalling instances to illustrate how “time and again criminals use English libel law to silence critics”. One example is Roman Polanski, who’d pleaded guilty in the US to having sex with a 13-year-old girl but who then fled to Paris and has since been considered to be a fugitive from justice who risks arrest should he return to the US and who risks extradition to the US should he visit the UK. Polanski was able to sue the American Magazine, Vanity Fair, under English Libel Law, without having to set foot on English soil never mind enter an English courtroom because Justice Eady obligingly allowed him to give evidence by video link from Paris. As Nick himself commented, “How does someone on the run for child abuse have a reputation to lose?” More to the point was the Vanity Fair editor’s comment at the time: “I find it amazing that a man who lives in France can sue a magazine that is published in America in a British courtroom.”
Don’t we all?
The legendary David Colquhoun also spoke at the meeting. He lamented the elevation of chiropractors to the status of medics, lending them “an air of respectability that is entirely spurious”. He said the basic problem lay with the Department of Health, which has failed to grasp the nettle when it comes to dealing with alternative therapies. David read a brilliantly amusing extract from a newspaper exposing chiropractic as the nonsense it is. Unfortunately the newspaper, which was local to the Iowa town whence came Daniel Palmer, inventor of chiropractic, was dated 1894.
Comedian Dave Gorman, who was actually the first speaker last night — a great warm-up act — said that until two weeks ago he hadn’t realised that chiropractic wasn’t part of mainstream medicine. As a result of this case, he is now more informed about it. He commented on the irony that complementary therapists have a reputation of being woolly and liberal yet have chosen the least woolly and liberal means possible to silence their critics.
It was also good to see D:Ream keyboard player, Brian Cox, who these days is better known as Professor Brian Cox, among the invited speakers. Brian said what most of us were probably thinking i.e. that few of us would be prepared to take the personal risk that Simon Singh is taking in combatting “alleged charlatans, quacks and witch-doctors.”
A question from the floor about setting up a fighting fund drew from Simon a response indicating that he could finance this case himself but adding that, as many people have said they want to donate to this great cause, any such donations could be put to good use supporting others who find themselves waging similar battles.
Clearly there is huge support for Simon Singh and there is a strong feeling abroad that the BCA may have shot themselves in the foot by bringing this action. For one thing, it has alerted many more people who, like Dave Gorman, hadn’t realised the lack of scientific support for chiropractic. The words ‘chiropractic’ and ‘bogus’ will now be forever linked in the minds of many such people who hadn’t read the article and wouldn’t otherwise have known about it.
For an organisation to take on an individual critic in this way comes across as a breathtakingly vindictive ploy intended to intimidate anyone else who dares to expose bogus therapies for what they are. There is also the feeling that this case has a ‘last straw’ quality about it. Dr Simon Singh is an accomplished science journalist who knows what he’s talking about. If he can’t even say that bogus therapies are bogus without getting sued, what the hell can he say? What can any of us say?
As Jack of Kent said to Simon last night, “We’ll settle for you settling, but appealing is extraordinarily appealing.” Anyone who wants to get involved in supporting Simon Singh can find join the facebook group here or just keep an eye on Jack of Kent’s blog.
A video showing extracts from last night’s meeting is now available to view at The Lay Scientist blog. The same blog carries a definitive review of the science and (lack of) evidence behind claims made by chiropractors here.