Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Science Writer in Trouble

Simon Singh is an author of popular science books. I remember I enjoyed Fermat’s Last Theorem over a decade ago and he has had success with various other books in the meantime. Recently, however, he has landed in hot water.

It started with an article in the Guardian to promote a book of his called Trick or Treatment. This is one of the attempts by well-meaning journalists to debunk alternative medicine – efforts which have no effect on its popularity whatsoever. In the Guardian article, Singh described as ‘bogus’ some of the claims made for a treatment called chiropracy. ‘Bogus’ is a label I would attach to almost all forms of alternative medicine, although I’m generally quite tolerant of people who choose to use it. I won’t bore you with what chiropractors do or what they think they can cure. The point is that Singh was sued for libel by an organisation called the British Chiropractic Association (“BCA”). The Guardian offered to settle out of court but Singh does not want to see science dictated to by the libel laws.

Singh and I probably don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. But his case is important for all of us who want to see science based on the free investigation of nature and not decided by judges. You’d hope that the BCA would be laughed out of court, but alas they have already won the first round. Mr Justice Eady (who last year decided the Mosley case against the News of the World) has ruled that the word ‘bogus’ suggests that chiropractors are deliberately dishonest rather than just wrong. This makes Singh’s case much harder to win.

I think this matters because if the BCA succeed, it would restrict valid criticism of people whom you think are wrong if they are acting in good faith. So, Singh deserves support and the fact that the neo atheists are on his side does not detract from that. My microscopic show of solidarity was to include the word ‘bogus’ in my own Guardian article. Perhaps if that became a meme then it might even help (while ruining a perfectly good word).

There is much more on Singh’s website and here’s a good article on the background from Nick Cohen.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


unkleE said...

Are you SURE chiropractors are bogus???

Anonymous said...

What exactly is the definition of libel? And should Singh be exempt from the libel laws that all other journalists must adhere to just because he is a science journalist? If he were simply saying that chiropractic doesn't work, I would support him; but if he says that individuals are being deceitful without backing it up, then I'm not sure how one can defend him.

James said...

I'm certainly not going to call chiropracy bogus given the current legal situation. You can read Nick Cohen's article and decide for yourself.

Jamie, if I say an idea is bogus I am not saying that it is being deceitfully spread. I am saying it is based on false premises and factually wrong. The idea is dodgy but it might be being spread in good faith.

jack perry said...

I'd like to agree with James, but as a speaker of American English I guess our understanding of the word won't count for a hill of beans in Her Majesty's court.