I love FACTS. Not the Federation Against Copyright Theft (though I don’t dislike it, apart from its irritatingly obtrusive and unavoidable adverts on my legally acquired DVDs) but actual facts. I love the presentation of information that is clearly, unavoidably and sometimes interestingly true.
Part of this I might put down to the headmaster I had at a formative age, and the hurt and misery oft caused by his fantasised, evidence-free declarations of reality. But most of it is just who I am. It’s why I like quizzes. It’s why I have been known to play Trivial Pursuit. It’s why I’m not a Creationist and believe in democracy and freedom of speech and have always preferred working in some form of scientific publishing. Science is the ultimate playground of fact. If something is true then scientific method and experimentation will show it to be so. It’s inevitable. It can’t help it.
Hold that thought.
I can personally testify to the purely physical benefits of chiropractic treatment, i.e. adjustment to the spine, curing backache, aiding posture etc. If however my chiropractor told me it could also cure my asthma, I’d demand proof. Okay, I don’t have asthma anyway. Hayfever? Yes. So if someone made the same claim about hayfever, I might ask why I’ve been having the treatment for over 7 years now and, while my back is fine, I still get the odd itchy sniffle. Does my back need adjusting in a different way? Surely a reasonable question to ask.
Hold that thought too, and combine it with the first one.
So when journalist Simon Singh cast doubt on the ability of chiropractic treatment to cure childhood diseases such as asthma, the British Chiropractic Association surely just had to wheel out the results of a few double blind trials to prove him wrong. No?
No. They took him to court for libel, and it’s still rumbling on.
Read Singh’s account here. Read much more authoritative accounts than I can give here and here. None of it is happy reading.
Why? Well, reading this lot, I’ve learnt interesting things about English libel law. Libel is the only kind of court case where the burden of proof is reversed – the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. The plaintiff has to convince the court they have a reputation to defend in the UK, but then simply say that X has sullied that reputation. X then has to prove that no, he hasn’t. Further, preliminary hearings can define the scope of the actual trial way beyond the original cause. In this case, the preliminary hearing by Mr Justice Eady has decided Singh was maliciously accusing the BCA of deliberate falsehood – which he wasn’t, but suddenly that is what he has to prove he wasn’t doing, rather than stand by his simple original assertion that there is no direct evidence for the BCA’s claims. To use a complex legal term coined by one of my godsons, Mr Eady is a poo-poo head (capitus excretus excretus).
I’ve also learnt from today’s reading that “chiropractic” is an anagram of “critic – oh, crap”.
I confess I’m still not entirely certain why the case can’t simply run as follows: chairman of BCA put on the stand; given copy of article to read out with instructions to put his hand up when he gets to the bit where he’s called a liar; gets to the end without putting his hand up; judge throws the case out. It’s all more complex than that. Apparently.
But that is grounds for a separate rant. Grounds for this one are as follows. Facts are facts. Dogma is dogma. The two are irreconcilable. When a fact contradicts dogma it is the dogma that is at fault. There is no reputation at stake. There is no libel to be had. And libel laws should not be used to suppress science.
Sense About Science has published a statement to this effect, to which all sorts of famous and non-famous (like me) people have added their signatures. Go thou and do likewise.
Let’s give the last word to Stephen Fry, another signatory:
“It may seem like a small thing to some when claims are made without evidence, but there are those of us who take this kind of thing very seriously because we believe that repeatable evidence-based science is the very foundation of our civilisation. Freedom in politics, in thought and in speech followed the rise of empirical science which refused to take anything on trust, on faith, on hope or even on reason. The simplicity and purity of evidence is all that stands between us and the wildest kinds of tyranny, superstition and fraudulent nonsense. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh’s reputation then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation. All we ask for is proof. Reasoned proof according to the established protocols of medicine and science everywhere. It is not science that is arrogant: science can be defined as ‘humility before the facts’ – it is those who refuse to submit to testing and make unsubstantiated claims that are arrogant. Arrogant and unjust.”