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The Media Censorship United Kingdom Science

In Britain, Better Not Call It Bogus Science 754

Posted by timothy
from the oh-nothing-just-dowsing-for-magnetic-vitamins dept.
Geoffrey.landis writes 'In Britain, libel laws are censoring the ability of journalists to write stories about bogus science. Simon Singh, a Ph.D. physicist and author of several best-selling popular-science books, is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for saying that there is no evidence for claims that visiting a chiropractor has health benefits. A year earlier, writer Ben Goldacre faced a libel suit for an article critical of Matthias Rath, who claimed that vitamin supplements can treat HIV and AIDS in place of conventional drugs like anti-retrovirals. In Britain, libel laws don't have any presumption of innocence — any statement made is assumed to be false unless you prove it's true. Journalists are running scared.'
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In Britain, Better Not Call It Bogus Science

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  • by leromarinvit (1462031) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:31PM (#29446649)

    In Britain, libel laws don't have any presumption of innocence

    Isn't Britain otherwise pretty anal about the presumption of innocence, to the point that accusations sometimes can't be even talked about in the press? Why the huge difference for libel?

  • by jonbryce (703250) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:31PM (#29446651) Homepage

    McDonalds used to sue people who claimed that their food wasn't very healthy, until the McLibel two took them one, and won on most of the points. McDonalds won on a few minor points but decided not to enforce the judgement as that would just give them even worse publicity.

  • by Philip K Dickhead (906971) <folderol@fancypants.org> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:47PM (#29446835) Journal

    Good thing they aren't queers, having it off with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Or aging pre-Raphaelite art critics, with a morbid phobia of female genitalia.

    There is a Santayana quote that is lurking just below the surface of my consciousness...

    Ahhh. The slings and arrows suffered by persons of insurmountable genius.

  • by smellsofbikes (890263) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:48PM (#29446855) Journal
    If I were to write that Sean Connery kicks cats, that'd be libel. But if Sean Connery were to write a book about how kicking cats cures baldness, and I were to write that kicking cats *doesn't* cure baldness and anyone who says it does is a swindler, that can't be libel, can it? I can see how writing that Sean Connery is a swindler for making the claim, would be libel. But I wonder if it takes defaming a specific person to get a libel charge to stick, or if merely defaming an idea that a person is identified with is sufficient cause for a libel suit to be likely successful.
  • by 0racle (667029) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:49PM (#29446873)
    So only write about real science. Don't give the snake oil salesmen any time or print.
  • by explosivejared (1186049) * <hagan.jared@g m a i l .com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:50PM (#29446889)
    While it may be good science, it is probably a very bad for the journalism business, and really would make things terribly inconvenient. A large enough section of the population is not at all interested in reading articles that take the time to painstakingly prove each assertion made in an article, and for the most part this is for good reason. Good journalism is about taking complex ideas from many disciplines and distilling them into consumable, simpler ideas for the masses. There are many who would describe this as "dumbing things down" and hate the impurity of it. The fact of the matter is that we can't all be purists about everything. The point of journalism is not to make everyone experts about everything that gets reported on, but rather just to offer primers and spark interest. Holding journalists to such high expectations is idealistic, and ultimately unfeasible. Sometimes they have to deal in broad strokes. As for the situation with libel law in Great Britain, as long as it's true in my book it's not libel. If your business or reputation can't stand up to the facts, then you need to change business or remake your repuation.
  • Re:Proof of absence (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dbet (1607261) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:51PM (#29446909)
    That's not what the BCA is arguing. What they're saying is that "bogus" is defined as "intentionally deceitful", and are arguing that the author can't prove intent.

    Basically everyone is calling everyone else a liar, and somehow a judge is going to make some very interesting decisions.
  • Re:bah humbug! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Alistar (900738) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:57PM (#29446981)

    I don't agree,

    I had back problems and leg problems for about 12 years, so bad I could barely walk longer than 5 or so minutes at a time and standing longer than 1 or minutes was excruciating. Sometimes if I just forced it anyway, my bottom half would start going numb and I would collapse, not that I was paralyzed just in too much pain to stand or walk.
    I went to 9 doctors, a couple specialists, 4 foot doctors (I forget the specific name of them off the top of my head) and 12 physiotherapists.
    I had the physical therapy, various braces, stretches to do several times a day every day, a couple different insoles for my feet. Nothing helped.
    None of them ever referred to a chiropractor.

    So I finally just figured I'd try it myself, after over a decade of nothing.
    Went twice a week for 2 weeks than once a week for 2, then once a month for a bit. I'm at twice a year at the moment.
    I was really sore and suffering the first few weeks, almost stopped it. But I figured I would see it through for at least a month.
    After about a month, I felt some improvement from the soreness and aching of the initial treatment, so I decided to stick with it. Within 3 months I could walk several kilometers. I helped build a fence one weekend after about 5 months, on my feet the whole time carrying stuff, had no problems. Today, I can jog 8-10 kilometers without back problems (can't really do that on hard surfaces yet, a treadmill or grass is great though). I play golf again, and got back into soccer. I can do crunches and yoga without issue. 12 years of pain and not being able to do really physical activity and a chiropractor changed all that.

    I can only say about my experience, but they are more than a masseuse with a diploma and an ego. Mine was very courteous and listened to what I was willing and not willing let her work on and has helped me immensely. I wish you wouldn't stereotype.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @04:59PM (#29447003)

    Wow, what arrogance. Who the fuck are you to say that those people did not heal anyone?

    I can't speak for the parent, but maybe he's someone who is more interested in actual proven medical facts as opposed to anecdotes?

    When you are going to die in horrible pain, you stop giving a shit about "truth" and "science", and start looking for anything that works.

    That's very true. That's what the snakeoil salesmen are counting on. I don't blame people and their families who are dying for doing disproven ineffective treatments like, say, homeopathy or reiki or acupunture. But I do detest the people who profit off them.

    We still don't know which one of those "absurd lying pieces of worthless trash" delayed his death this much.

    According to every well controlled test on the vast majority of alternative medicines, none of them. Sorry if you believe, but that's all it is, a belief. Until you have actual proof, well controled and repeatable proof, that's all it will ever be.

    When you live with someone who should've been dead for 3 years already, you tend to look a bit differently at medical science.

    You're coming from an emotional point here. That's scientifically absurd. I saw in the news the other day about someone surving a 20 something story fall and surviving. Does that cast doubt on the entire field of physics?

  • by Renevith (1556657) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:00PM (#29447025)

    "[...] is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for saying that there is no evidence for claims that visiting a chiropractor has health benefits."

    That alone is not why Mr. Singh is being sued. The issue is specifically driven by his use of the word "bogus." The judge has taken it to mean "consciously dishonest." Not just peddling an ineffective treatment, but knowing that it's ineffective and still claiming otherwise. If Singh just claimed it was an ineffective treatment, he would not be criticizing the BCA directly, so it wouldn't be actionable... However, the judge and the BCA took him to be saying that the BCA are knowingly and intentionally dishonest in their promotion of the treatment.

    I wouldn't think to interpret "bogus" in this way, but that seems to be the original meaning. I hope the judge realizes Singh was using it in a more modern sense, but if it's interpreted as the BCA claims, then it certainly explains how far this lawsuit has gone, and invalidates many of the comments here so far including the inflammatory summary. Singh can criticize the effectiveness of the treatments to his heart's content, as long as he doesn't accuse the BCA of fraud! You can read some more linguistic analysis of this lawsuit and the evolving meaning of "bogus" over at the Language Log [upenn.edu].

  • by Roger W Moore (538166) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:03PM (#29447067) Journal

    Why the huge difference for libel?

    There is not a "huge difference". IANAL but my understanding is that the plaintiff first has to prove that they have been damaged (otherwise there is no libel) but that a defence against this is that it is the truth. It is hard to argue that it is not a writer's responsibility to ensure that what they write is the truth if they are passing it off as fact. If they are not sure that they can prove it then they can always qualify statements with things like: "it is my opinion that this is bogus science". If it makes journalists more careful write accurately and differentiate between their opinions and fact then isn't that a good thing? Sure a few idiots may cause trouble like this but it is hard to imagine that they will win and I'd rather have that than give journalists free reign to write what they like and only get sued if you can prove they were lying.

    Having said that I certainly think that Chiropractic treatments are bogus and I hope Singh wins - especially since we both got our PhDs from the same research group, though his was a few years before mine. However that is my opinion and not based on careful research.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Jurily (900488) <jurily@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:04PM (#29447077)

    I'll go easy on you because you clearly have some emotional attachment to the notion that those con artists can do what you describe they do.

    I don't know if any of them helped. Maybe it was the act of not giving up that triggered the placebo effect. Fact is, I don't care. He proved the official story wrong. We should strive to understand how these things work when they do work, not write them off because we can prove they're lying.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:05PM (#29447095)

    Why do people keep thinking anecdotal evidence has any particular value at all? Science long ago abandoned the idea that reliable and useful data could be gained by "After I did X, Y happened".

    People think it because it often does. Survival of this species has partially depended upon the ability to reocgnize patterns and make decisions with limited information.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:06PM (#29447101) Journal

    People are often very polite about Pauling because in other areas he was quite brilliant, but unfortunately he became sort of a Louis Leakey figure in the later areas, and said some rather absurd things.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Cyberax (705495) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:07PM (#29447109)

    Chiropractice is just a massage. It can have beneficial effects if you have muscle pain or joint pain. Has nothing to do with subluxations, of course.

    I had a horrible back pain once (strained a muscle). It was cured after two sessions of massage (with a professional massager).

  • Re:Well Then (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:21PM (#29447317)

    Chiropractors have lots of evidence to support their claims. It's also pretty self evident that alleviating pain from something being out of place is often as simple as putting it back into place. I started going on the recommendation of a full fledged MD because misalignment in my neck. It works with no voodoo chants or sacrifices, just a crack as out of place things get forced back. And no, science has never given up on the idea of cause and effect, only people who try to selectively eliminate it because it undermines their point.

  • Premature judgement (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AlecC (512609) <aleccawley@gmail.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:27PM (#29447405)

    Note that Goldacre won against Rust. To me, and to most of /., I am sure that the case is obvious. But anybody is entitled to their day in court: you sould not be able to say that someone's claim is "obviously" false, no matter how much you respect the person being claimed against, as I respect Goldacre.

    And the Singh/Chiropractors case is still in the courts: the chiropractors have not won.

    I am afraid this is an example of the cost of Free Speech: the Black hats have as much freedom as the White Hats - and so it must be.

    The case here is for a common defence fund for the White Hats. Private Eye, when it was fighting Sir James Goldsmith, had such a fund, known as the Goldenballs fund. Lots of people chucked in a tenner or so to support the defence costs of the good guys. And if anybody is running such a fund for Singh, or for any future complants against Goldacre, I will chip in. It would be good if their attackers knew that the defence was well funded.

  • by RIAAShill (1599481) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:46PM (#29447683)

    In Britain, the truth is an affirmative defense. That means that you're allowed to prove that you told the truth, but it might not be enough to save you. British law considers statements to be slander or libel if they are harmful and/or defamatory regardless of the truth of the statements.

    As someone else pointed out, proving the truth of the statement is a defense [guardian.co.uk]. But I wonder why there is any need to prove that the treatments are "bogus" to avoid liability. The treatments are not people. There is no harm if they are exposed to "hatred or ridicule." Singh did not say "I think that these treatments are bogus, and that BCA members should be subject to hatred and ridicule for promoting such treatements."

    Members of (the now-defunct) Flat Earth Society [wikipedia.org] do no harm to those who believe the world to be spherical, even though such members are saying that the common belief is erroneous. Nor are such members harmed by the millions of science books printed that proclaim the world to be spherical, even though those books say that the members have erroneous beliefs.

    In separating the message from the messenger, one says "I think you are mistaken, but I do hold that others should hate or ridicule you for it (I just think they should not adopt your position)." And really, unless there is evidence that the messenger was attacked, simply saying "I think you are mistaken" implies the rest.

    Of course, the law in Britain may allow a sensitive messenger to recover, even when the message, not the messenger, was attacked. Britain's libel laws have previously come under attack [guardian.co.uk] before for "discouraging coverage of matters of major public interest."

  • by BlaisePascal (50039) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:56PM (#29447771)

    Maybe I missed something. Isn't this just a perfectly sensible extension of "innocent until proven guilty"? If I call you a thief and you sue me for libel, why should the burden of proof be on *you*, exactly?

    If you are accusing me of libel, why should the burden of proof be on me? You are the one making the legal accusation, not me. If you were accusing me of anything else, the burden of proof would be on you to prove that you have legal redress and that I did what I was accused of. The burden of proof is on you, not me. Why should it be different for libel?

    In the US, libel typically has several elements which must be proven, including (a) it was published, (b) it was defamatory, and (c) it is false. Where the whole "defendant has the burden of proof" bit comes in is that if the defendant can show the truth of the supposedly libelous statement, then the plaintiff's case fails on (c), and it is often easier to rebut the accusation of falsehood than the rest of the case.

    In the UK, the "falsehood" element is missing; a true statement can be considered libelous. This makes life much harder for the defendant.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:02PM (#29447831) Homepage
    I've checked further since posting that. In England, the truth is considered an allowable defense, and it is, in fact, an affirmative defense because the statements are presumed false until proven true. Even then, you can still lose your case because in England, libel and slander are about defamation, and if you've defamed somebody be telling the truth, it's still defamation.
  • by mister_dave (1613441) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:15PM (#29447969)

    I think Mr Singh may find that evidence is against him.

    Bupa (UK private medical insurer) say on their website [bupa.co.uk] that:

    The scientific evidence for some of the claims of chiropractic is of variable quality.

    Some studies show that chiropractic can limit acute low back pain and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends chiropractic for this condition. Back pain is pain that comes from the muscles, nerves, bones, joints and other parts of the back. If the pain lasts for less than three months, it's called acute back pain. If the problem goes on for longer, it's known as sub-acute or chronic back pain. The medical terms acute and chronic refer to how long the symptom lasts for, rather than how severe it is.

    The Department of Health's report, 'The Musculoskeletal Services Framework for England' refers to chiropractic as a treatment option for musculoskeletal conditions (conditions that affect the muscles, bones and joints).

    Whether chiropractic is useful for other conditions, such as migraine or tension headache, is uncertain - the evidence is limited. The research is often conflicting and while symptoms of some illnesses improve, the best evidence generally fails to prove that chiropractic cures illnesses. While there is anecdotal evidence and chiropractic treatment is accepted by many conventional medical practitioners, there is little scientific evidence to prove that it's effective. More research is needed.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:17PM (#29447977) Homepage
    No, I'm not a lawyer and haven't been to Britain. However, I have read up on the subject before pontificating about it, unlike you. If what I've posted is a mere slashdot meme, the writers and editors of the Wikipedia article on defamation seem to have bought into it, as well as the authors of every, single reference I've checked.
  • Re:Well Then (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:52PM (#29448365)

    Perhaps it could be conceived how relaxing a muscle in the hand could cause some other muscle, which had been working to balance the cramped one in your hand, to relax as well. Perhaps another few muscles as well. At some point a nerve that didn't sit in your hand could be affected by this in the form of reduced pressure, removing some pain, also not in your hand.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Blakey Rat (99501) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:33PM (#29448723)

    I have a good friend who is a licensed Chiropractor, and also licensed as a family-practice M.D. He fully understands the limitations of Chiropractic techniques and won't hesitate to advise patients go to a medical specialist for any condition he might detect. Additionally, he would never make any claims he knows to be false, for example, that chiropractic adjustments can help conditions like ulcers, or whatever other ridiculous things fraud Chiropractors claim. He advises companies on ergonomics, and frequently attends health fairs.

    Are there fraud Chiropractors? Yes. Are all Chiropractors frauds? Of course not.

    Guess what? There are also fraud M.D.s. And fraud lawyers, and fraud plumbers and...

  • Re:Well Then (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:42PM (#29448797) Homepage Journal

    My own anecdote:

    I was helping a friend move, and wrenched my lower back carrying an old, heavy washing machine. I went through hell for about 3 months afterward. I'm not talking about "my back got stiff", or "I had to take 3 Advil instead of 2!" I'm talking about going to sleep at 10PM on a cocktail of naproxen, Flexeril, and codeine, then waking up at 2AM sobbing in agony as someone shoved a rusty icepick into my spine and pried it open.

    I saw my family doctor, an osteopath, and two orthopedic surgeons. They were all very nice and sympathetic, but their treatments never got me more than 4 hours of sleep. By the end of the 3 months, I understood why people kill themselves to escape the pain.

    My dad suggested that I go to his chiropractor. Dad was a healthy skeptic, but he'd had good luck with the guy and argued that in the worst case I'd be out $20. At that point, I'd have tried just about anything. I went to Dr. Palmer (coincidental; no relation to the quack) and he ran one of those debunked spinal alignment meter things up my back. I rolled my eyes when he told me he found the problem, then told me to relax so he could pop my back.

    I don't remember if I screamed or not, but I might've.

    Within 20 minutes, the rusty icepick had turned into a toothpick. That night, I got 12 hours of uninterrupted, drug-free sleep, and by the next morning I was completely pain free.

    Go ahead and write that off with a smug "correlation isn't causation!" I know that. I also know that one nearly-retired chiropractor probably saved me from killing myself with one single $20 adjustment. Again, if I wasn't clear, this wasn't some subjective case of "it kind of hurts when I do this", but a grown man waking up crying tears of pain after a few hours of tortured sleep. Say what you will about chiropractors in general, but that one specific practitioner knew exactly how to fix what was wrong with me when a lot of other doctors had failed.

    I love traditional medicine. I'm an ex-Navy surgery tech, and my wife's a surgeon. My college degrees are in science and I'm about as skeptical of pseudoscience as you can get. The scientist in me tells the naysayers to kiss my butt, because my empirical data from the outcome of that experiment holds more weight with me than the sophistic claims that it couldn't possibly have worked.

    No, chiropractors can't cure deafness or appendicitis or pneumonia, and the practitioners who claim otherwise are unmitigated quacks. Still, I'd be the first to testify that at least some of them are very skilled in treating certain very specific musculoskeletal conditions.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nedlohs (1335013) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:01PM (#29448963)

    Or maybe the doctor made a horrible mistake and he didn't actually have cancer at all, but those alternative treatments gave him cancer and hence killed him.?

    When the doctor says "you have 3 years to live" he doesn't mean "you will drop dead at this minute on this date in 3 years time" he means "95% of people with what you have die within 3 years, 4.98% die in 3-10 years time, 0.01% drop dead while I am saying this and 0.01% live for another 50 years." (with less made up numbers hopefully...

  • Re:Well Then (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Techman83 (949264) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:52PM (#29450195)
    Personally I use Chiropractics, and because of a birth defect, I get pretty extreme pain when I'm out of alignment. You do get some bad eggs (like any industry, bad doctors, bad mechanics etc etc) but the one I see completed a full examination, including X-rays. He was able to point out and it was very obvious why I was in pain. Prior to an adjustment (especially if I have left it too long), I'm looking at the world on an angle, one shoulder is lower than the other, I'm favouring my left leg, I feel depressed for no apparent reason (that's when I've left it far too long), I have interrupted sleep, I'm irritable.. I could go on, but at the end of the day, when I'm back in alignment, my mood changes, I'm not in pain and generally go back to being my happy go lucky usual self.

    I couldn't give a rats arse about the science, it works for me. But I have been priviledged enough to have benefited from the knowledge divulged from my father's Chrio back home and you know what, a lot of it makes sense. At the end of the day, the human body is a very complex machine. If your back is out of alignment and you go through life with undue pressure on certain nerves because of the misalignment, one would imagine that the signals could be interrupted and cause problems. Now I'm not going to say that it's the answer for anyone, I'm just going to say it works for me and it's a whole lot more then a bit of "bone crunching".
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:54PM (#29450207)

    In the US, it suffices that you believe your statements to be true.

    I will add the mass of speculation and contradictory statements that constitute Slashdot legal advice by saying that, in my very limited understanding, this statement only applies to public figures accusing others of slandering them. I've been told that for private citizens, certain statements (especially about professional competence), have a much lower hurdle--they need to be false, but not malicious or intentionally misleading.

    This seems broadly consistent with some private litigation I've heard about, plus HR paranoia about references, but I really am not sure. It falls into that category of legal advice ("don't bad-mouth people, especially if you don't know all the facts") which gibes very well with maternal wisdom.

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