From time to time there is a popular (or unpopular) science book on my reading list. In this category I enjoyed very much the books written by Simon Singh. To my surprise early in 2009 I read this man was sued in a libel case.
The first time I heard of Simon Singh was when the BBC documentary "Fermat's Last Theorem" was showed on Belgian television. Both the documentary and the book with the same title I enjoyed an awful lot. The book gives an insight into the history of mathematics based on the search for proof of this theorem.
His next two books "The Code Book" and "Big Bang" were also a lot of fun. They are following the same design. "The Code Book” describes the history of cryptology or the history of the race between the makers and breakers of secret codes and cipher. "Big Bang” describes the history of cosmology around the theme of the big bang and people playing a role in the development of this theory. Of course the Russian Alexander Friedman and the Belgian Georges Lemaître are extensively discussed.
I can also recommend his website. In my opinion it is one of the most brilliant with a wealth of opportunities and information. And it is not necessary to have read his books to enjoy it.
Why Simon Singh was accused of defamation
In 2008 the book "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial" written by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, a professor of medicine with specialization in alternative and complementary medicine, was published. This book covers – among other items - extensively acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine and chiropractic. It concludes that scientific evidence for these alternative treatments is generally lacking. Homeopathy is completely ineffective. Acupuncture, chiropractic and herbal preparations can be limited beneficial in some cases. But the risks of these treatments do not outweigh the potential benefits. The potential risks are infection or an unexpected interaction between the ingredients in the case of herbal medicine, the risk of infection in the case of acupuncture and the possibility that chiropractic manipulation of the neck causes a stroke.
This book was followed by an column in the British quality newspaper The Guardian on April 19, 2008, written by Simon Singh. It was this column that caused the consequent problems.
The text of this column on the website of "The Guardian"
This article was not to the liking of the BCA (British Chiropractic Association). They said that their reputation was defamed and threatened to sue for libel.
Peculiarities of English law concerning libel
This law is specific for England and Wales and not valid elsewhere in Britain or the United Kingdom. Three points makes it exceptionally:
- The burden of proof is not with the plaintiff (in this case the BCA), which has to prove libel, but with the defending party, which has to prove that its comment was "reasonable" or that the facts – that caused the complaint – are true.
- Though the jurisdiction applies only to England and Wales, this law threatens anyone who writes in the English language anywhere on the world. Indeed, this law applies to everything that is published and can be seen in England and Wales, only by one reader. In the age of the Internet, this means in practice everything that appears in English.
- The complexity and especially the astronomical costs of the trial. Sometimes it looks like a poker game where the richest party will win. Moreover, there is no (financial) assistance provided for those not having access to the necessary resources. The result is that many writers and publishers settle out of court, even though there's nothing wrong with their publication.
The combination of this cocktail with the easy access of the claimant to the procedure and the large amounts which are possible to obtain as compensation constitutes a real threat to free speech, not only in Britain but across the world. Examples can be easily found on the Internet, for instance here: http://www.libelreform.org/the-report?start=6
This law is an ideal tool for people with enough financial resources to safeguard their interests. England is the “libel paradise” for oligarchs, organized crime figures and rich businessmen. This law was therefore criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN says that the practical application of this law discouraged critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work(1)(2).
Good examples to demonstrate that this law suppresses freedom of the press in countries, other than the United Kingdom, are the two cases brought by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov of Ukraine.
In the first case, he sued the newspaper "Kyiv Post" regarding an article published in October 2007 entitled "Appalling Kyiv City Council Land Grab”, about fraudulent real estate transactions and corruption in Kiev. The newspaper has about 100 subscribers in the United Kingdom. The newspaper apologized as part of a secret settlement out of court in February 2008 (3).
In the other case the - only in Ukrainian publishing - Internet news site Obozrevatl is the victim. This case was in relation to a series of four articles about Akhmetov’s youth, published in January and February of 2007. Default judgment in Akhmetov’s favour was obtained, along with damages of £50,000 and costs, in June 2008 (3).
The effect of these verdicts on the free press in Ukraine is of course chilling. And what to say about powerful men that need foreign courts to settle their internal problems? (But this is entirely aside).
The most famous case in this category is likely the prosecution by "Kaupthing, Investment Bank” in Iceland of a Danish newspaper.
Pernicious influence on scientific and medical debate
Regrettably, not only the case against Simon Singh, but many other cases were attempts to prevent normal scientific debate by the use of this legal procedure. Here we concentrate only on the case against Simon Singh, where there was an attempt to avoid a debate about sense or nonsense of a specific treatment.
In a first reaction to the threat of BCA "The Guardian" tried to settle the matter out of court by offering the BCA the possibility to write a 500 words response to the article by Simon Singh. BCA should also have the opportunity to publish the evidence supporting their treatment of children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying (4). BCA, however, refused this offer and demanded the personal apology from Simon Singh. So they avoided scientific debate by changing the debate in a personal matter. I guess for many people this was the signal that BCA has no substantial evidence supporting their claims and was unable to enter the scientific debate. BCA probably hoped that Simon Singh would like to avoid the costs and the burden of a lengthy legal dispute and would offer his apologies and forget the matter.
But Simon thought there was nothing to apologize for. He bravely decided to face up to the challenge. The price he had to pay for this decision was two years of intensive work and about £ 200 000 of costs.
The decision of Simon Singh received the necessary attention. Scientists and journalists expressed their concern. Both legislation and chiropractic came under fire. The demand for evidence from the site of BCA concerning the beneficial effect of chiropractic treatment for aforementioned child ailments grew louder and louder. Finally they presented their “evidence” on June 17, 2009, 15 months after the article by Simon Singh and after immense pressure from the outside world.
That evidence consisted of a series of 29 references to other studies. Even for a layman it was immediately clear that this was a very poor piece of work. The scientific community criticized it violently (5).
Meanwhile, it was raining complaints against chiropractors. There were successes at the Advertising Standards Authority, which oversees the fairness of advertising. One of the conclusions of this agency was that the claim that chiropractic can treat intestinal problems is in violation of the standards of honest advertising because this claim is not truthful or substantial (6). Interesting statement: Simon Singh is engaged in a complicated trial because he put the same claims as an official government body (7). In panic another chiropractic organization sent a circular to its members asking them to destroy certain folders and to delete or change their websites (8).
The actual legal process
May 7, 2009: At a first hearing it will be decided what Simon Singh actually said and what he will have to prove. This sounds a bit Orwellian, but I can't describe this otherwise without falling in details. Anyhow the ruling was the worst possible. Simon has to demonstrate before a jury that the BCA intentionally deceives (for more details see (9)). Moreover, the court ruled that appeal against this decision is impossible. However, Simon has the option to appeal against the verdict that he was not allowed to appeal. (Sorry, sounds weird but that's how things are).
Most observers think that Simon will throw in the towel now and that that is the wisest thing to do. However, Simon decided to go on (here he explains why).
July 30, 2009: a first (written) request to appeal is dismissed. Simon can do this again orally.
October 14: At the oral hearing the appeal is allowed.
April 1, 2010: verdict of the appeal: The previous verdict is changed. Simon will now only have to show that he proclaimed a reasonable opinion. The BCA says that it doesn’t give up the struggle and that it considers appealing this decision.
April 15: BCA throws in the towel and withdraw its complaint.
The commotion surrounding this case seems to have caused a political consensus in Britain to change the legislation which makes all this possible. Let us hope that parliamentarians will work on that as soon as possible. This would be the only real victory not only for Simon Singh and the people who supported him, but also for the freedom of speech, the freedom of scientific debate and democracy in general.
About BCA vs. Simon Singh
I learned a lot about this case and its background by reading the following sites on the Internet:
- The blog of Jack of Kent (or David Allen Green): an English lawyer following this matter from day to day. He also has the talent to translate this rather complicated issue in plain language.. Click here to view his entries about this case. So you can read the state of affairs from the beginning.
- Sense About Science looks at the matter from a more action oriented and scientific angle A search on "Simon Singh” will give you a nice overview. Some articles are written by Simon, himself.
- The site of the "Label Reform Campaign" action considers the English libel law in general and gives some striking examples of its impacts.
- For Simon Singh and Free Speech - Against the BCA Libel Claim on Facebook
- Simon Singh entries on the site of New Humanist
Simon Singh’s Bogus Journey: Jack of Kent in The Lawyer
There is also interesting information on Hadr0n's Channel on YouTube Since this channel doesn't exist anymore, here is another video about "BCA vs. Simon Singh":
BCA site of this story
I think this are all their press statements on this case:
7 May 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/Press%20Statement%2007%2005%2009.pdf
26 May 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/FURTHER%20UPDATE%20ON%20BCA%20v%20SIMON%20SINGH%20-%20090526FVFV.pdf
4 June 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/newsdetails.aspx?ref=52&m=5&mi=22&ms=0 - link doesn't refer to the right place anymore
17 June 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/BCA%20Statement%20170609.pdf
31 July 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/BCA%20Statement%2031st%20July%202009.pdf
15 October 2009: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/BCA%20Statement%2015%2010%2009.pdf
1 April 2010: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/BCA%20statement%201st%20April%202010.pdf
15 April 2010: http://www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk/gfx/uploads/textbox/Singh/BCA%20Statement%2015th%20April%202010.pdf
More about the libel law
A Comparative Study of Costs in Defamation Proceedings Across Europe by the "Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy" of the "Centre for Socio-Legal Studies" at the University of Oxford
Free speech restrictions
Why are they trying to gag a top British science writer - Nick Cohen on 31 May 2009 in The Observer
Libel law in the UK - Scientific disputes should take place in the pages of journals, not in court in BMJ (British Medical Journal)
Libel stories on Sense About Science
Victory for Singh, again Simon Singh in The Guardian 17 May 2010 pleading for reform and remembering us of some other cases.
More about chiropractic
The chiropractors of the Weston Chiropractic Clinic (Somerset) claim in their Happy Families folder that chiropractic is even a cure against bedwetting. Better to read first chiropractic a bogus treatment for bedwetting on the blog A canna’ change the laws of physics of apgaylard about, I should think.
About the next link: Though the Skepticat blog still seems to be intact, the referred post disappeared. I witnessed the aggressiveness of the director of the clinic in the comments after the post, so we have an indication why this post had to disappear....
What do you get if you visit a chiropractor? An interesting article of Skepticat about the way of working of the profession in England. They are even touting in shopping centres there. The director of the above mentioned clinic participated in the discussion appending this article. Really widening one's horizon, and... not a jot of evidence, of course
(4) http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/340 This link doesn't point to the right place anymore, but the fact are confirmed here: http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media/61907/james_hamerton-stove__57_.pdf