The British journalist Simon Singh received excellent news yesterday when an appeals court ruled that he was not necessarily committing libel by describing chiropractic care as “bogus.” Singh’s should have been a completely uncontroversial observation, given the gaping distance between the (minimal-to-nonexistent) scientific evidence in favor of chiropractic efficacy and the elaborate claims made by chiropractors (e.g., most diseases are preventable and treatable via spinal “adjustments” that relieve mysterious vertebral “subluxations” and restore the body’s “innate intelligence.”)
Now, it must be a great disappointment for chiropractors to be reminded that their practice — like everything else in the goofy solar system of “alternative medicine” — is complete garbage. The perversity of British libel law, however, enabled the British Chiropractic Association to bring suit against Singh, claiming that he’d recklessly damaged the reputation of a profession that tries to make a virtue of pseudoscience. (Anyone familiar with the Lipstadt-Irving case will know how this all works.) The suit placed the burden of proof on Singh himself to demonstrate that the BCA was being “conspicuously dishonest” by promoting chiropractic woo as the solution to infant colic, asthma, breastfeeding problems, and an array of other disorders that chiropractic techniques do not actually help. An earlier ruling held that Singh was attempting to make a factual statement not simply about chiropractic treatment but about the motives of BCA officials; demonstrating that chiropractic theory and practice is a sham wouldn’t be difficult, of course, but proving the dishonesty (as opposed to the simple idiocy) of the BCA would have been a steeper hill to climb. Moreover, the professional and financial expense of the suit (which has already cost Singh 200,000 pounds while forcing him to suspend his career) would have had predictable and stifling consequences for other journalists who might feel compelled to call out sham science in print. Fortunately, the latest ruling overturns that previous holding and asserts that Singh’s remarks should indeed be considered “fair comment” — that is, informed opinion — a judgment that gives his statements greater legal protection and, barring any unforeseen twists, will likely mean the death of the case.
As an entertaining footnote to all this, the publicity over the Singh has caused some unanticipated difficulty for British chiropractors; when science bloggers realized that government regulations prohibited chiropractors from making the sorts of claims being made by the BCA in its complaint against Singh, they began looking closely at chiropractic advertisements and websites throughout the UK. As of a month ago, roughly a quarter of the nation’s chiropractors were under investigation for making garden-variety — that is to say, bogus — statements about the health benefits of chiropractic treatment.