A defence of scientific inquiry

Simon Singh wins leave to appeal in libel case against the British Chiropractic Association

After the Guardian's victory over Carter-Ruck yesterday, there's more good news for the cause of free expression today. The distinguished scientist Simon Singh has been given leave to appeal in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.

Singh, who has contributed to the NS in the past, was sued by the BCA after he wrote a piece for the Guardian describing the BCA's claim that spinal manipulation could be used to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding conditions as "bogus". Surprisingly, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the use of the word "bogus" did not merely imply that the BCA supported ineffective treatments, but that it had been deliberately deceptive.

In fact, the next paragraph of Singh's article made it clear that he was using "bogus" in the former sense:

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.

Nevertheless, Singh was left with the Sisyphean task of proving a point he'd never made: that the BCA had been consciously dishonest.

Today's ruling means he is now free to convince the court of his own intepretation of the piece. In an explicit rebuttal of Eady, Mr Justice Laws described his ruling as "legally erroneous".

A defeat for Singh would set a dangerous legal precedent and could deter others from forcefully exposing pseudoscience. In a speech last month, Richard Dawkins urged the BCA to submit to the "higher court of scientific test". We must hope that it is now forced to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.