Putting my back into it

Anyone remember the case of British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh? The former were suing the latter because they alleged his critique of the claims they made for chiropractic had crossed the line into defamation. Personally I was for Simon Singh, on the grounds that (a) the plaintiffs were big enough to take it and (b) science is not determined by running to the courts boo-hooing because the nasty man said something rude. If you’re rich enough to hire enough lawyers to sue the other guy into the ground, that’s probably a good sign that you don’t actually need to.

Let me be clear that I also dismiss some of chiropractic’s more outlandish claims,and I’m not alone. But in so far as the clear and obvious benefit of having your internal support structure correctly positioned so that all the wear and tear on your body is distributed evenly goes, I’ve no doubt about it at all, and I speak from experience.

This weekend was a significant anniversary for me. On 17 March 2002 I took the train down to London to visit the London Book Fair at Olympia. I only remember the exact date because it was a friend’s birthday. I took the Tube from Paddington to Earls Court and then Earls Court to Olympia. We came to a halt, the doors opened, I stood up.

I felt something snap painlessly at the base of my spine – it was as if someone had twanged my belt for a laugh. And then – oh dear Lord, then the pain struck.

I’d had bad backs before, on and off, always set off by small things, usually picking something up. They would last no more than a day, maybe two, and I could get through them. This was worse than any of those, but precisely because I’d got through them before, I did the worst thing possible – I went on with my intended business at the book fair. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have just got into a decent stride for a decent time to stretch those twanging muscles. At the London Book fair, one does not stride. And so it got worse and worse and worse.

By the end of the day, when I was back at Paddington and asking the assistant in the health shop there if she had anything that could possibly help – any kind of ointment to rub on – I was almost in tears. I came even closer to tears when she admitted that no, she didn’t. On the train back home I found that if I screwed my coat up into a ball, wedged it into the small of my back and leaned against, it, it gave me a modicum of support that made life a little more bearable. Somehow I got home and lay as flat as I could for the next few days. Costing myself money, because at the time I was freelancing and being paid by the hour.

Finally I went to a chiropractor. He prodded, poked, massaged and jumped up and down on me to make things go creak and crack. He xrayed me and I could barely believe what I saw. My whole pelvis was visibly out of alignment, and had been for years. Thank you so bloody much, ten years of playing compulsory rugby every winter term. Thank you so much, second row. Thank you so much, everyone who didn’t believe me when I told them about my aches and pains!

I’ve been going back at regular intervals ever since and life is so much better. There have been recurrences of back ache, though never quite so bad as the Big One and usually when I really should have known better – picking something up at an awkward angle and twisting at the same time, or (most embarrassingly) within thirty seconds of starting a game of squash with my stepson-to-be. At 10a.m. one Saturday morning, thus writing off the entire weekend at Center Parcs. Other aches and pains, though, seem to have been banished forever. One that I frequently got throughout my teens was a grinding feeling in one hip or another, like something was slicing into the joint whenever I walked. Maybe something was. That’s gone, and I’ve never again got backache simply by standing around, which also had always been a problem.

No, chiropractic won’t cure my hayfever, grant me the power of telekinesis or enable me to time travel, and anyone who finds those harsh facts offensive is welcome to sue. Fortunately my chiropractor is one of the sane ones who makes no such claims, and when faced with something beyond his expertise – e.g. the strained muscle in my arm that just won’t get better – he has no hesitation in telling me to talk to a GP. But I owe him 10 considerably less painful years than I might otherwise have had and I look forward to plenty more.

This is NOT how to campaign for sense in science

I’ve blogged previously about Simon Singh being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel, in a case that debases both science and the libel laws of our glorious land. So far, so good.

An update email from the campaign today asks me to sign a fresh online petition. “Sense About Science has joined forces with Index on Censorship and English PEN and their goal is to reach 100,000 or more signatories in order to help politicians appreciate the level of public support for libel reform.” Brill! Point me at it!

It’s at www.libelreform.org. Fired with enthusiasm I go there and hit the “Sign the petition” button. I fill in my details and hit the “Sign now” button to record my total opposition to the ludicrous law that lets dogma triumph over facts.

… And rather than feel a smug glow of righteousness, I get presented with a pre-filled in letter to my MP (his identity presumably gleaned from my post code). There is a note at the top saying “[Please put your address here – MPs often do not respond otherwise]”, and a button at the end saying “Send the message”. Nothing about the petition that I thought I was signing.

Hang on, hang on. This is not what I signed up for. (a) I don’t believe MPs pay any attention to a form letter, even if it has been individualised with the addresses of their constituents. And (b) how do they know I haven’t already written to Dr Harris? Maybe I don’t want to spam the poor man with duplicate messages. But actually signing the petition (if I haven’t already: there is nothing to say either way) seems to lie beyond that “Send the message” button.

So, no, I won’t, sorry. This is completely the wrong way to do it. This is a petition about transparency, for Pete’s sake. So be transparent! Have a button marked “sign the petition”, and have it sign the effing petition. Don’t lower yourself to the level of the opposition. Stop trying to be clever. Don’t try to orchestrate our campaigning for us.

The email also asked us to “please spread the word by blogging, twittering, Facebooking and emailing”. Glad to oblige.

Fulminate Against Chiropractic Twaddle

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.”