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14 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:28am

A defence of scientific inquiry

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.

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