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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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.