May 31, 2009


Why are they trying to gag a top British science writer?: When chiropractors drag a top science writer into the libel courts, the country has lost its backbone ( Nick Cohen, 5/31/09 The Observer)

[Simon] Singh is a serious and amiable man, whose accounts of the solving of Fermat's last theorem and code breaking won high praise and provoked no controversy. Last year, he published Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst on the reliability of "alternative medicine", and devoted a chapter to the strange history of chiropractic treatments. One Daniel David Palmer invented the therapy in Davenport, Iowa, in 1895, when he convinced himself that he had cured a janitor's deafness by "racking" his back.

Inspired by this miracle, Palmer developed the theory that "95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae", rather than, say, the germs that so bothered conventional doctors of the time. Chiropractic therapy was a new religion, Palmer declared, and he was a successor to Christ, Muhammad and Martin Luther. At home, he practised vigorous racking on his children.

His son, Bartlett, described how he beat them with "straps until we carried welts, for which Father was often arrested and spent nights in jail". Bartlett bought the first car Davenport had seen and paid his father back by running him down on the day of the Palmer School of Chiropractic Homecoming Parade.

Palmer died of his injuries a few weeks later, but his ideas lived on. In 2008, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) announced that its members could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. Writing in the Guardian, Singh said the claim was "bogus". Chiropractic treatments may help relieve back pain, but Professor Ernst had examined 70 trials and found no evidence that they could relieve other conditions.

Singh is hardly a lone sceptic. A few weeks ago, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against a chiropractor who claimed he could treat children with colic and learning difficulties. Nevertheless, the BCA took Singh on and told me it had "numerous documents which demonstrate the efficacy of chiropractic" treatments.

Fair enough, you might think. Reputable medical authorities could test the evidence and decide whether the treatments work or not. Instead of arguing before the court of informed opinion, however, the BCA went to the libel courts and secured a ruling from Mr Justice Eady that made Singh's desire to test chiropractors' claims next to impossible. Because Singh used the word "bogus", the judge said he had to prove that chiropractors knew they were worthless but "dishonestly presented them to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public".

The learned judge did not seem to understand that the worst thing about the deluded is that they sincerely believe every word they say.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2009 7:16 AM
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