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.”

How would I feel being outed (as a blogger)?

Well, first of all I would congratulate the outer on their hard work. My name is embedded in the URL of this blog, I never fail to plug my books where the possibility arises, and the column on the left contains a link to www.benjeapes.com, which itself has a headline feed from this blog. So, it would be good to know the art of investigative journalism wasn’t completely dead.

If I was Detective Constable Richard Horton of the Lancashire Constabulary, I might feel differently. He anonymously created the Night Jack blogger, giving an insider’s view of the workings of Her Majesty’s Northern Plod. It garnered awards and has been turned into a series. He took the Times to court to try and stop them revealing his identity, and failed. Now identified, he has been given a written warning, the blog has been deleted and no further action will be taken. I surprise myself to find my sympathies are with the police, in this instance.

Yes, bloggers should have a right to be anonymous, if that is their choice. If they commit libel, or the public interest or national security are adversely affected, a court should then be able to order their identity to be revealed. (Public interest and national security <> sparing the blushes of the powers that be or catering to the public taste for titillation – but that too is for the courts to decide.) It’s also up to them to make a reasonable effort, however. Horton wasn’t so much leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind him as several unsliced loaves. For instance, mentioning his jiu-jitsu activities, when the Lancashire Constabulary jiu-jitsu club only one lists member who is a detective. I have my suspicions as to why, after 17 years on the force, he’s still only a constable.

Under those circumstances, pleading a right to anonymity is just silly. Note that in this case it wasn’t the repressive forces of law and order that tracked Horton down – it was the Times, following a perfectly reasonable line of enquiry now that his blog had made the big time. I would guess Lancashire Constabulary was quietly ignoring the matter, until it became unavoidable.

So, why the reprimand? It’s a question of balance. I rarely name my friends or even family, though it’s no secret I live in Abingdon. I don’t deliver the juicy gossip from work or reveal stories about my colleagues – but I don’t hide the nature of my employer’s business or its geographical location, so Woodward & Bernstein would track it down in about 30 seconds (the Abingdon Herald, maybe a minute). Horton, apparently, was not only giving hints on how to act when arrested (not such a bad thing) but giving out information that could affect cases in progress (very bad indeed). Your work is your work, it’s not your hobby or your life; but even then, an employer can reasonably assume a reasonable degree of loyalty from its staff. 17 years on the force, remember – it’s not as if he was suffering in a hellhole with his blog the only outlet for his righteous resentment.

How could he have played it safer? Easy. Make up names for everything, including Lancashire. Leave out the links to the jiu-jitsu and anything else associated with him. Make it impossible to pinpoint himself or his activities. As long as the made-up names were consistent, the truth of his posts would be unaffected. Has Belle du Jour been positively identified? (No, she’s not Billie Piper.) I don’t think so. Does her discreet use of pseudonyms affect her veracity? Not at all. See, easy.

Little Brother

Recently I drove home from Northampton to Abingdon. The most logical course for the final stage of the journey would have been to come down the A34 to the south Abingdon exit, then drive towards the town centre and home. A reasonable variant on this would have been to take the north Abingdon exit off the A34 and come anticlockwise round the ringroad. A most unusual and unpredictable variant – and the one I actually used – was to come off at the north exit, drive clockwise around the ringroad to the town centre, head due north again back towards the north exit and this time come anticlockwise round the other half of the ringroad. Essentially, I did a big sideways figure 8 (or an infinity sign, of course). Why? Well, if you must know I was listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and I wanted to get to the end. It’s designed to be listened to in one piece. I’ve done similar in the past for the William Tell Overture and other pieces of music.

And, well, why not? I’m a free responsible adult. I can take any route I like.

Now, supposing there was a number plate tracking system in place programmed to detect unusual traffic variations, and alert the cops who would subsequently turn up and ask me to prove I hadn’t been doing anything suspicious?

Thoughts brought to mind by reading Cory Doctorow‘s Little Brother. A book not without its flaws but still one that everyone should read.

About five minutes into the future, a terrorist atrocity in San Francisco kills thousands and the Department of Homeland Security (henceforth the DHS, always making me think of sofas) swings into action with a programme it has obviously had long prepared, just waiting for the right opportunity. A security clampdown begins on absolutely everyone except the right people, i.e. the terrorists. Caught up in this, purely by dint of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is 17 year old Marcus, a techno-savvy geek without (frankly) many redeeming features. Justifiably angered at the illegal treatment he has received at the DHS’s mini-Guantanamo in San Francisco Bay, he decides to fight back.

The point isn’t to bring down the government or to encourage terrorism. The point is that the DHS has completely missed the point, mistaking looking busy and ideological enforcement for actual results. There is no evidence that terrorists are even in San Francisco at all after the attack, yet the crackdown continues. Meanwhile, with a bit of technical wizardry that anyone can pick up off the web, a kid without a political thought in his head can pull the wool over the DHS’s eyes. How much more likely are the real terrorists to get clean away with it?

The situation is not really a thousand miles from what actually happened after 9/11 and continues to happen today. Posters like this one are serious. (Posters like this one, however, are not – mostly.) Have you tried taking any photographs in public lately?

First, things I didn’t like.

Marcus is not a sympathetic character, though others will find him so – even some of my friends. He is a cocky techy geek who is heavily into games. Not my kinda guy. He can be bratty and immature. I assume this is characterisation rather than Doctorow’s own personality showing through, as Marcus makes mistakes and gets it wrong. He is in love with his own cleverness and can never see in advance that every victory he scores over the DHS will simply make them up the game a little more, thus cracking down even harder. After all, the DHS is run by humans too and they don’t like getting it wrong either. Thankfully, Marcus grows up.

There were times that the great cause Marcus et al were fighting for becomes distinctly cloudy. Sometimes it just seems they want to fight for the right to party and be selfish little brats. If Marcus is immature, the self-important rebellion-for-rebellion’s sake yoof movement that grows up around him is downright pathetic. There is a fine line to draw between responsible use of freedom and anarchy just because you can. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and I really don’t care who argues otherwise.

In Denver back in August, I witnessed an exciting confrontation between an American gent who called the Democrats socialists and an American lady who called the Republicans fascists. As the native of a continent with plenty of experience of both, I was thinking “rank amateurs, the lot of them”, but Americans get like that when they talk politics (okay, okay, Doctorow is Canadian). Someone in the novel who I’m pretty sure we’re meant to take seriously refers to “Gulag America” and that really annoys me. America at its worst under the current administration doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the Gulag. Name calling is just babyish.

“Don’t trust anyone under 25!” becomes a major rallying call. What, and I’m expected to put the major decisions into the hands of children with 24 years or less life experience? Feel free to let the door handle hit you on the way out and leave a nice bruise. For the record, according to Wikipedia Doctorow is 37.

But let’s talk about where Little Brother, and Doctorow, and Marcus get it right. The technology – well, I take his word for it on the technology. At least I recognise the words he uses (Xbox, Microsoft, Linux) so I presume it’s sound. The minimum lesson to take home from this is that the younger generation will always be ahead of the older in finding new and clever ways to utilise technology. What impresses us is already old hat to the teenagers.

Above all I can’t fault the logic of Marcus’s critique of the system. He does the maths for us. Suppose, he says, you have a means of detecting terrorists that is 99% accurate? And you apply this to, say, a city like New York with a population of 20 million, to find a terrorist cell that will have only a handful of members? At 99% accuracy you are still going to accuse 200,000 people wrongly. And the DHS does not have a system anything like 99% accurate. No one does.

Thankfully, what carries the book past posturing and preaching to the converted is that the ending, mostly happy, is brought about by the actions of Marcus but ultimately is attributable to forces he has no control over. The rule of law is brought back to San Francisco’s streets but this time it is open, attributable, accountable law by grown-ups (yes, even those over 25) who know what they’re doing. And not even Marcus is exempt. As it should be.

I quite enjoy not being blown up by Al Quaeda and I’m very glad there are people out there whose job it is to see that I’m not. I accept that they may from time to time find it convenient to read my email without letting me know, or track my car’s movements by CCTV that read my licence plate. Let ’em.

Little Brother says that the old security maxim “those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear” is a lie. Actually, it’s technically true. However, everyone has a lot to fear if all that power, all that surveillance data is put into the hands of morons and empire builders. Ian Huntley and the 21/7 bombers were found out by surveillance and studying old records. I’m not against the concept. But what is needed isn’t more surveillance of absolutely everything, it’s intelligent surveillance of what we have available.

Here are the basic ground rules for using our astonishing technological abilities to keep ourselves safe and safeguard our liberties. First and foremost, there has to be the simple recognition that dissent and disagreement <> terrorism or treason. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians are unable to make this connection and they’re the ones meant to be in charge. In another context, I believe statistics show that teenagers from families which openly discuss sex matters are much more likely to go on to have responsible sex lives. Same thing. Just talking about something should never be a crime and school is where it should start.

Politicians and law enforcement officials must realise that the best way to radicalise people against you is to piss them off. You counter insurgency by winning hearts and minds. There has never been a revolution in a happy country. I’m referring here to the hearts and minds of the people, not the headline writers of the Daily Mail or the US equivalent. They may safely be excluded from any decision making process.
I require anyone with this kind of power over me to know and understand considerably more than I do. If someone can’t understand why I would add twenty minutes to my journey just to catch the end of a Pink Floyd album then that person should not be put in charge of surveilling me.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected. The people entrusted with power that could ruin lives must get it absolutely right, or else. One of Marcus’s friends is detained for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and kept there simply because it reaches the point where his release would be embarrassing. Now look me in the eye and tell me that isn’t the reason a lot of people are still held at Guantanamo. Or, indeed, just cast an eye over reports on the Menezes inquest. The public interest is not the same as saving the blushes of a red-faced politico. If you get it wrong, you are out.

But, they might cry, how can we possibly recruit people into the security services with that hanging over their heads? Well, it’s not that different to recruiting people into the armed forces on the understanding that someone might shoot them dead. It happens. Maximise your efforts to make sure that it doesn’t happen; but once it has, live with it. They expect us to put up with all kinds of crap for the privilege of not being bombed by terrorists. They might even expect us to lay down our lives ourselves, or at least not raise a fuss if they happen to gun down the wrong person. Expecting them in return to put their career on the line doesn’t seem such a hard thing to ask. It’s not as if they’re left in the library with a revolver and a glass of brandy any more.

I’ll close as I started, with a driving-related anecdote. I once gave Cory Doctorow a lift from the centre of Oxford down Botley Road to the train station. En route, a traffic camera snapped me and I got my first ever speeding ticket …

(For reference, see Farah Mendlesohn’s review.)