On April 19, 2008, The Guardian published a piece by Simon Singh, called “Beware the Spinal Trap”.  (It was subsequently pulled, although I found it archived on the internet. He gives a brief overview of the procedures and claims of chiropractic, as well as statistics about the number of people who have been seriously harmed or killed by chiropractic treatment). In the article, he said:

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) 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. (emphasis added)


Last summer, Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine was published.  Dr. Singh co-authored the book with Dr. Edzard Ernst, who is the world's first professor of complementary medicine and who was trained in a homeopathic hospital in Munich.  Although I know a few physicians who criticized the book for not being critical enough on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the writers attempted to present a neutral evaluation of the research and studies in several aspects of CAM, including chiropractic.  After a careful discussion of the studies, they concluded that the evidence for the efficacy of chiropractic did not exist outside of placebo and possibly some mild benefits for the relief of lower back pain, but advised that a trained physical therapist could provide the same benefits with a lower possibility of potential harm from injury.   I read the book, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in medicine, CAM, or skepticism. (Or fans of Randi: his 1988 testing of Jacques Benveniste‘s claims is covered in the chapter on homeopathy.)

The BCA asked Dr. Singh to retract his remarks about chiropractic being bogus treatment and potentially harmful, as being factually wrong, defamatory, and damaging to their repuation.  Dr. Singh refused.  In June 2008, the BCA issed libel proceedingss against Dr. Singh for the remarks in his Guardian article.  Not being familiar with British law (or much US law, for that matter), my research indicates that in English libel law, the claimant (BCA) must show they have been defamed and that their reputation has suffered, and that the defamation is in a permanent form. The BCA is claiming this.  In contrast to U.S. law, the defendant then has the burden of proof to show that he did NOT cause the injury.  The loser must pay for the court fees, which can be considerable, and this aspect tends to keep most parties from fighting the legal actions.

Yesterday, the English High Cout rejected Dr. Singh’s claims that his remark was not defamatory and that it was a fair comment.  Mr. Justic Eady held that the remark was defamatory of the BCA in exactly the way that they had claimed, and that the remark was not a ‘comment’ but rather a “serious defamatory allegation of fact against the BCA”.  He was ordered to pay the costs of this preliminary hearing within 28 days (approximately US$35,000), and his initial application for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal was refused.  At this point, Singh can now challenge that decision to the Court of Appeal or go to trial, where he must prove that the BCA was not harmed.

One aspect of this outcome, that the defendant must bear the burden of proof, is a bit strange to most Americans, who are used to the claimant proving injury.  However, the more chilling aspect is the specter of censorship on anyone who wishes to dispute the claims of the pseudoscientific therapies, presumably including acupuncture, herbal medicines, psychic healing, or any other quack profession.  As opined in the Telegraph: “No doubt, the case will be followed closely by the practioners of other much-maligned branches of alternative medicine, such as homeopathy, which has been trumpeted by the Prince of Wales.”  No doubt, indeed.

(Note:  Any mistakes in my post about the British legal system are mine alone)

Naomi Baker is a chemical engineer and Technical Director of an energy technologies company.