The Simon Singh meeting last night was strangely enjoyable. I say 'strangely' because while it obviously would have been far better if it hadn't been necessary the event was simultaneously informative, funny, heart-warming and energising. When a large crowd turns out for something like that, if nothing else, it confirms that you're not mad for thinking the way you do.
If you're interested there's a decent summary of the evening on the New Humanist website and the New Scientist piece ("there was a sense last night that we are at the start of something important") is good also. I was, inevitably, far and away the least informed of the speakers. Nick Cohen, Dr. Evan Harris MP. and Simon Singh were all fantastic in different ways. This really isn't about one case - Simon just happens to be the unfortunate soul at the centre of this particular whirlwind - there's a far wider issue at work and for freedom of speech to prevail both here and abroad it's obvious that Britain's libel laws need to be changed.
I'm tempted to write up everything I learned last night but it would turn into a 100,000 word dissertation if I'm not careful and there are bound to be far better sources of information out there for things like this. Suffice to say that when an Icelandic bank can bully a Danish newspaper into silence by using English courts something is clearly wrong with our system. Google the phrase 'libel tourism' if you really want to see how bad it is or read this article from the Times for a snapshot of the frankly embarrassing situation we're in.
Anyway... I don't think I expressed myself as clearly as I'd have liked last night and with the benefit of some sleep I thought it would be worth clarifying what I think about the situation in specific and general terms. (That said Jack of Kent remains the best source of information for this case - go and subscribe.)
Here's a thing. A couple of weeks ago I genuinely didn't know that chiropractic was a form of alternative medicine. I just thought it was another word for - or a distinct branch of - physiotherapy. I really did. I mean, they help your bad back by manipulating your bad back don't they? Don't they? If you've read America Unchained you'll know that my first director, Stef, was forced to leave the film because of a bad back. You'll also know that before her health forced her to leave, we were forced to take some not-really desirable detours so that she could visit a succession of chiropractors. Well at the time, I genuinely believed she was seeing what I would call 'proper-doctors.' I'm embarrassed by this gap in my knowledge.
Now I'm not suggesting that alternative therapy doesn't work at all. If it floats your boat that's great. My personal belief is that half an hour of kindness has a greater placebo effect than 7 minutes with your GP... and oddly, I reckon paying for it, increases the effect even more. But that's only really applicable to illnesses of the basic will-sort-themselves-out-eventually variety.
I think it's hugely concerning that the British Chiropractic Association produced a leaflet suggesting that chiropractic treatments were an appropriate way of dealing with colic or childhood asthma. I mean... if you're treating colic you're talking about treating babies. And if you're talking about manipulating the spine and/or joints of babies I think it's natural to be concerned. It makes me wince just thinking about the manipulation of a fully grown adult's, developed spine... but a baby's? Seriously? (Maybe there's some other chiropractic treatment that doesn't involve that sort of thing, in which case some clarification would be great. As would a new definition of chiropractic.)
Anyway, I only know about this leaflet having been produced (I believe it has since been withdrawn) because of this law suit and the attention it has brought to the case. If they hadn't sued Simon for libel, I wouldn't know anything about this. I'd still be under the more positive impression that they were 'proper-doctors-for-when-you-have-a-bad-back'. More fool them.
Of course there are other ways they could have reacted. Now, I'm not a doctor or a chiropractor or a baby so I don't know whether chiropractic offers a genuine treatment for these childhood complaints. I know what my gut instinct (and basic, layman's knowledge of how the body works) tells me... but putting that aside and entertaining both possibilities... here's how I think a reasonable organisation should behave:
1) If there is evidence for chiropractic being an effective treatment for colic and/or childhood asthma: Put the evidence forward and engage in a debate on the subject. No matter what side of the debate you fall on I can't honestly see an argument against this course of action. If you wholeheartedly believe that chiropractic offers an effective treatment how could you want less investigation of its efficacy? Who would possibly argue for less enquiry into something that involves manipulating babies' bones? More research = More information = Better treatment.
2) If the evidence suggests it isn't an effective treatment for colic and/or childhood asthma: Then surely you have to withdraw the leaflet and apologise. When a supermarket sells something that has the potential to be dangerous - say, a faulty kettle - they don't just stop selling it, they also make best efforts to ensure that anyone who's bought one returns it. This normally involves some pretty big adverts in national newspapers. If I was responsible for advertising a medical treatment that I later realised wasn't proven and could be dangerous I'd feel a huge responsibility to publicise and correct any misinformation that might be out there.
As far as I know, the BCA haven't taken either of these steps. (As I said above, I believe that the leaflet has been withdrawn but I have no idea if that is as a consequence of anything having been written about it or for some other reason.)
What they have done is sue a science writer who wrote an article offering his opinion on such practices. In doing so, they don't just intimidate one man, the message they send is that they do not welcome critical investigation of what they do. Which seems ridiculous to me because a) critical investigation of things is how science and medicine move forward and b) surely anything relating to medical treatment - especially treatment of children - should be open to scrutiny as a matter of public interest.
Who are chiropractors? What do you think they think? I imagine them to largely be of the caring, woolly, liberal type. (All adjectives I'd be happy to carry myself.) I think that's certainly the image they would choose to project. Which, to me, makes the BCA's decision to sue for defamation a mistake. It has changed the way I feel not just about what they do but also who they are.
No matter what you think about chiropractic, whether you dismiss the entirety of it as hogwash, believe it can sort out your bad back or believe it can cure 95% of illnesses in men, women and children alike, I simply can't see an argument for trying to silence its critics. It seems to me that an organisation that would best represent its members by encouraging debate has done them all a huge disservice by instead resorting to libel law; the blunt weapon of the bully.
EDIT: to add that Nick Cohen has since blogged on the subject also: