Thursday, 11 June 2009

Breaking my silence to support free speech

It's no surprise to those who read this blog that I'm kind of in favour of free speech - you know, just a bit. It's one of the many reasons I've taken an interest in the ongoing legal battle between Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association. It's also why I'm here to promote the Sense About Science campaign to keep libel laws out of science. I've added the badge to the side bar and I recommend you click on it. If you're just too damn lazy to scroll down (and who could blame you?) here it is:

And with that, I leave you again. I apologise for my long silences of late, but we still have no internet access in the flat and with my new job I have a lot less free time than I used to when I was unemployed. Hopefully the former situation will resolve soon, and I'll be back with you, boring your eyes out as usual.

All the best, dear hypothetical reader. Until next time.


Vincent said...

Where do I sign to support the opposite point of view - to express support for the libel laws which fortunately still apply in the case of Singh v chiropractors?

It seems to me that your "free speech" would impose a science dictatorship against which there is no redress. There is already a vicious campaign in the name of "evidence-based medicine" which attempts to suppress every medical practice which deviates from the designated orthodoxy.

Example: my physiotherapist is to appear before a tribunal for not filling all boxes on an 8-page questionnaire after treating an NHS-referred patient. The accusation? Putting a patient at risk. The sentence if found guilty? Having "fitness to practise" revoked. The underlying issue? Practising in a different way from that demanded by NHS. The background? Many physiotherapists with decades of experience in private practice are able to diagnose and treat without asking the hundreds of questions devised by a defensive NHS.

Darkwinter said...

I'm not sure that your physiotherapist case has anything to do with freedom of speech. The NHS regulations you mention may well be too restrictive and mindlessly bureaucratic; but I'm not familiar with that particular discussion, so I couldn't comment one way or another.

The point of the Singh Vs BCA case is that journalists should be allowed to criticise people promoting treatment without evidence without fear of being sued. If the BCA had evidence, the logical step would have been to produce it, rather than leaping into an incredibly unfair and expensive legal dispute to silence Singh.

Why is it you are against free speech - if that is indeed the position you are taking? If not, please clarify for me.

Vincent said...

I'm in favour of the existing libel laws in England!

It seems to me that if a journalist disputes the professionalism, never mind the ethical stance of a professional or profession, then he has to provide evidence of his "bogus" accusation in court, if challenged by the one accused.

Otherwise any prejudiced critic could accused anyone of being bogus, putting the onus on the accused to defend their non-bogusness. Which of course would be intolerable.

The physiotherapist case indeed has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It is evidence of a hardening of attitude by the scientific orthodoxy within the NHS, now that they have discovered "evidence-based" medicine; and a persecution of those who operate in other ways.

Darkwinter said...

Perhaps that is because evidence is the best means by which to judge a treatment's efficacy.

I'm not sure I follow your assertion that the reversing of the onus for libel laws would lead to an "intolerable" situation. Other countries seem to cope just fine. And I'm sure it wouldn't be that intolerable for people to produce their evidence when challenged to do so.

Vincent said...

I refer you to my comment on a similar post by Mark Liberman in Language Log, which for convenience I reproduce below:

Well, the judge may have taken the view that the defendant, without advancing evidence of the plaintiff's bogosity, might have published a statement intended to destroy the credibility of a branch of medicine, namely chiropractic.

Those who see the judge as being in the wrong here seem to have prejudged the issue themselves, on the basis that Singh is a sceptical hero who can say what he likes because he's so heroic, whilst the chiropractors had it coming and deserve to be publicly shamed.

The judge's critics, or in this case the critics of the English legal system, appear to think that it's up to the BCA to provide evidence that their treatments are effective.

But the concept of "evidence-based medicine" has a very short history indeed. It's not my specialisation, but the Wikipedia article traces it back to 1972, with the term first used in 1990.

I've no vested interest in any form of medicine, orthodox or otherwise, but the key phrase here seems to me "even though there is not a jot of evidence". It appears to imply an unwritten rule that no medical practitioner can offer any treatment whatever unless a Cochrane systematic review has been undertaken; and that therefore any treatment offered in the whole of history or indeed prehistory is bogus unless this type of review is undertaken.