In other words I am skeptical about the skeptics. I will try and explain why
(Aside: if you are unfamiliar with Simon Singh case read about it here and here)
First, let me say that I am no fan of chiropractic, nor any other form of CAM; but I am a fan of Simon Singh, owning two of his books, hearing him speak several times. I hope that he will win his case.
Having said that, here are the three things about the Bandwagon the case has attracted that worry me
1 It's really not about the Science
The bandwagon presents this case as being a noble one about the science: about the evidence for and against chiropractic, and about a scientist's right to question and criticise evidence, all exalted and privileged matters which do not belong in a libel court.
I do not agree. I don't think this case is really about the science - I think the heart of this libel case is Singh's ill-worded comment about the conduct of the BCA and the implication that they have been behaving dishonestly; and an allegation of dishonesty (if indeed that is what it amounts to) is an entirely proper subject for a libel trial.
This is what Singh said: the offending sentences are in blue, the rest is for context
"You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. 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.You will observe that Singh is using unscientific and quite immoderate language - whacky, bogus, fundamentalists - not at all the measured language of the scientific debate that the Bandwagon like to present him as conducting.
I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions."
In my opinion it's clear that
- a bogus treatment is different from an ineffective treatment. A bogus treatment is one that has been prepared or applied in some way dishonestly
- anyone happily promoting bogus treatments is behaving dishonestly.
- so it's quite a serious thing to say
- the arguments in the comments here
- Justice Eady's very well written summary (see 12 and 13) of what he took the words to mean
2 That's not what he said / that's not what he meant to say / even if he did say it, he didn't mean it.
My first reaction on hearing about the case, and reading the words was: of course the treatments are bogus, and of course the BCA happily promote them. Keep strong, Simon.
What concerns me about the Bandwagon is that so much effort is spent trying to shy away from that firm and clear position - instead it is concerned with weaselling: while it might look bad at first glance, what Singh wrote doesn't really mean what it seems to mean. Argument proceeds on several lines
- bogus doesn't really mean dishonest, it simply means ineffective
- even if bogus does imply dishonest, 'happily' doesn't mean that the BCA know that the treatments are bogus
- not a jot of evidence doesn't mean literally 'not a jot' - of COURSE there are 'jots' of evidence, what Singh meant that the jots are unconvincing and overwhelmed by the balance of of other evidence to the contrary
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 no reliable evidence to support this. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it promotes ineffective treatments.
The bandwagon will have it that this IS what Singh said, or at the very least that's what he meant.
But he didn't write like that. If he had written the sentence above I don't think he would have been sued. He went further. In particular I suspect it was the conjunction of 'happily' and 'bogus' that prompted the BCA to sue.
3 The Bandwagon has been a bad day for the Twittersphere
The Appeal Court expressed astonishment that this foolish case hasn't settled already.
I wonder if a big part of that was the twsunami that engulfed both sides on Twitter and the blogosphere when the case started. It made it hard for either side - but especially the BCA - to quickly back down.
Yes the twitter chat provided valuable moral support for Singh - and that has been good. But I do wonder if it has helped to keep the whole case alive.