Thursday, February 23, 2012

The dark forces of skepticism: president of the BCA talks about the Simon Singh case

In 2009 the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued Simon Singh for libel.  Simon wrote a piece in the Guardian which included the following passage:

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.

He then went on to explain exactly why he was confident in calling these treatments “bogus”.

The BCA really didn’t like that word “bogus” and much of the trial centred on what it means.  Simon could have backed down.  The UK libel laws are such that even winning a case could incur very large costs to be paid by the defendant!  It was at considerable risk and with a great deal of bravery, then, that Simon chose to defend himself rather than retracting the “bogus” and apologising.

Simon eventually won the case and along the way generated a huge amount of global attention to the fact that UK libel laws are in such need of reform.  The Libel Reform Campaign has achieved significant success and reform seems to be underway.

Now the president of the BCA, Richard Brown, has spoken about the affair which is reported here.  He says some….astonishing things. For example, there’s this:

In a move largely unexpected by many, rather than sue the newspaper, the BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel.In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,reputationally and politically.

At first glance, this looks as though Brown is admitting that suing Simon rather than the Guardian was cowardly, hostile and a blatant attempt to silence a critic rather than writing a wrong.  It looks as though he regrets the decision and feels that the BCA is poorer for having made it.  But read on and it’s clear he’s not saying that at all.  The ‘dark period’ refers to the fact that they lost and the hullabaloo that surrounded the case.

The action galvanised the UK and world media. Never before had the
media focused its attention so much on the profession, nor had been given the opportunity to subject it to so much vitriol.

See how he considers himself and his profession the victims here? He’s barely getting started along that route.

With what they saw as one of their own being hauled over the legal coals amidst claims of an assault on free speech, an army of scientists, sceptics and comedians was mobilised to disgrace, degrade and demolish the chiropractic profession. Cabinet ministers, BB C journalists and erstwhile Members of Parliament also joined the fray, determined to pitch in and use the case to reform what they claimed were Britain’s draconian libel laws.

It’s curious, isn’t it, that believers always think that criticism is necessarily orchestrated and coordinated?  I have an alternative explanation: people were interested in it. Everyone suddenly realised how insane UK libel laws are, which is an interesting and outrageous thing to learn.  At the centre of the kerfuffle were medical claims which might be false, which is also interesting and outrageous. If the Daily Mail has taught us anything, it’s that people are interested in medical stories, Plus, of course, there was a freedom of speech issue: the reason the BCA sued Simon instead of the Guardian was that they (wrongly) thought they could scare him into capitulation, because they thought he wouldn’t have the resources to fight the case, even if he thought he’d win.  So the BCA was using the law strategically to shut down criticism of Chiropractic. If they’d won, would it mean that nobody could criticise bogus claims again? People are interested in that kind of stuff.  It really wasn’t a concerted attack on Chiropractic which, frankly, nobody really cares very much about.

In using the case as a powerful vehicle to promote his Sense About Science campaign, Singh’s crusade mobilised a dark force of UK sceptics who suddenly found their raison d’etre, shifting their
attention from the fairy tales of homeopathy to the cure-all claims of chiropractors.

We’re a dark force?  AWESOME.  We’d already found our raison d’etre, of course.  We’re skeptics.  We’re against bogus claims because we’re for reason and because we’re against people getting hurt by fantastical medical claims. I won’t say it wasn’t fun rattling Chiropractor’s cages, but it was a drop in the ocean of what we do every day.

Following a call to action, an army of PC pilots and laptop lizards began a war which was to lead to one in three UK chiropractors facing formal disciplinary proceedings from its regulator, the General Chiropractic Council.

It’s interesting that Brown seems to think a ‘call to action’ is a bad thing.  Is he blaming Simon specifically?  Simon certainly became the centre of a movement for libel reform and a lot of us wanted to help with his case.  He spoke at events like TAM London (standing ovation) and wrote about his case in various places.  I suppose this could be considered a call to action, although I don’t recall him actually asking anyone to take any specific action. It’s also interesting that he thinks we started the ‘war’.  But more distasteful to Brown seems to be the fact that those new-fangled computers were involved.  As well he might: someone (unfortunately I don’t remember who) wrote some software which searched Chiropractic websites for claims they are not allowed to make and reported violations to the General Chiropractic Council.

Brown seems to take particular outrage in this.  He sees those Chiropractors who were making illegal claims as somehow being the victims and appeals for sympathy toward those Chiropractors because of the stress they faced.

The GCC faced fitness to practice hearings on a scale previously unknown in the healthcare regulatory world.

Yes, because there were genuine complaints!

Chiropractors were under assault. As the process rumbled on, and Singh crowed from the rooftops following a favourable judgment in the Court of Appeal, one in three chiropractors was facing the misery of prolonged formal regulatory proceedings.

Brown really doesn’t seem to get the point that it is the purpose of a regulatory board to rule on complaints.  The complaints made were not (at least for the most part) trivial.  They were genuine complaints against illegal claims.

Following a robust legal defence mounted by the BCA on behalf of its
members, over 91% of the allegations against chiropractors were dismissed as being not proven.

Brown is being somewhat disingenuous here.  As the complaints began to arrive, the BCA sent out warning emails to its members, which were leaked.  They warned members to take down their sites immediately, remove the dodgy claims and any leaflets in their waiting rooms that might make sure claims.  So I’m sure that by the time the GCC came to rule on the matter, the sites would be clean.

Brown then reflects on the case’s impact on the profession.  He blames a schism between the ‘good’ Chiropractors who use science and evidence (who are they, exactly?) and the old-school woo-based ones.

It is no longer good enough in 2011 for us to expect chiropractic to survive on outdated dogma.

But it was good enough before?

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