Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Simon Singh's Bogus Journey

I was lucky enough to get along to the Simon Singh love in at Penderel's Oak last night. Simon, for the uninitiated, is a science journalist and co-author of Trick or Treatment, an excellent look at the evidence, or lack there-of, behind the claims of alternative medicince. Around the time this book was published, he wrote an article addressing some worrying claims being made about chiropractic and its use in the treatment of colic, along with feeding and sleeping problems. In it he suggested that the British Chiropractic Association promotes these "bogus treatments". The BCA felt such claims were damaging, and so decided, rather than to rebutt Singh's claims in the press, to simply silence Singh and other critics by bringing a libel suit against him.

The court case seemed, until recently, simple enough. The BCA simply cannot provide robust evidence for the claims made of chiropractic, and the court should note that Singh's article was correct inasmuch as he lays out exactly that claim in print. However, things took a rather unexpected turn when the Judge in the case, Sir David Eady, decided that what Singh had meant by "bogus" was that the BCA was knowingly and dishonestly promoting treatments that do not work. This placed Singh in a difficult position - if he were to continue with the trial it would be by defending a meaning he had not intended, and was much harder to prove, because it may well be that only the high-ups at the BCA really know their own mind when it comes to whether or not they believe in the powers of subluxation.

What the skeptic movement want to see happen is for Singh to appeal against Eady's ruling, to have the meaning returned to Singh's original sentiment, but, and quite rightly, this will only happen if Singh and his advisors feel that particular game is worth the candle. Last night's gathering was an opportunity for Singh to keep us posted as much as he is legally able, and for people following the trial to show their support.

Dave Gorman, TV humourist and professional geek, was the first to speak and rasied an interesting point, that in the eyes of the public Chiropractic isn't considered alternative medicine at all. It has taken people like Singh to bring to a wider audience the fact that Chiropractic has very little going for it in terms of evidence - some weak evidence that it may help with back pain; something slightly more intuitive than claims that it can cure deafness or heart disease.

And parallel to this, thanks to David Cohen's speech, it is becoming very clear to a widening audience that there is something dreadfully wrong with the English Libel laws. England's laws favour the plaintiff so much that we have become a destination for Libel tourism - where someone from Iceland sues someone from the Ukraine in an English court for something that was never even published in the English language.

It was clear from the mood in the room that there is a growing need for action, both against the pseudo-respectable claims made about Chiropractic and that drastic reforms are required for libel law in this country. What seems immediately clear is that the skeptic blogosphere is going to be scrutinising Chiropractic and Chiropractics very closely for the foreseeable future. I for my part will be writing to the BCA to ask if they have disciplined any bad advertisers and to request what evidence they had for the withdrawn pamphlet that Singh's article originated from. All in the interests of open discourse, of course.

Probably the best place to follow the Singh trial is the excellent legal blog Jack of Kent. And below is a post that, it seems, never made it to the Beacon proper, covering the origins of Chiropractic and some unusual parallels with a certain well known cult. During the seventies Chiropractics were considered ideal targets for recruitment for the Church.

Chiropractic was invented by D D Palmer, who believed that manipulation of the spine could cure all manner of ills, such as measles and deafness. Palmer believed that "innate intelligence" channeled through the spine and became blocked by misaligned vertebrae, and that reseating these vertebrae would bring the innate intelligence back into balance. Typical of much complimentary and alternative medicine, having had early initial successes in curing deafness in one individual and heart problems in another, Palmer went on to claim that Chiropractic could cure pretty much anything, despite seemingly never doing any proper research on it.

His "science" was so groundbreaking to him that he considered his discovery religious, likening himself to "Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs Eddy, Martin Luther and other[s] who have founded religions." Palmer was repeatedly arrested for practicing medicine without a license, but this martyrdom only led to a strengthening of the cause of Chiropractic.

D D Palmer was killed after being run over by his son, B J Palmer, also a Chiropractor, and it is claimed that this may have been deliberate, as the two did not see eye to eye on a lot of things.

BJ went on to "invent," in 1924, a device called a neurocalometer that was said to be able to detect the blocks or "subluxations" in the innate intelligence. These devices were just thermocouples, a standard piece of lab equipment designed to detect temperature. That didn't stop BJ selling the devices for the price of a house.

As time went on, and as many earnest chiropractors became disillusioned with Palmer's initial claims for his treatment, the world of chiropractic became divided into the "straights" who stuck to Palmer's guns, and the "mixers" who recognised that chiropractic treatment could work towards easing back pain, but very little else. The straights accuse the mixers of never having been chiropractics to begin with. The mixers accuse the straights of being self-delusional.

So, a pseudo-scientific treatment offering medical claims with quasi-religious aspirations, an expensive device that is really just a simple bit of kit heavily overpriced, intergenerational rivalry leading to automobile-related death and a following fragmented into a body of fundementalists and a defamed bunch of open-minded and relatively more skeptical practitioners.

This, as a member of the Co€ pointed out to me in recent conversation, is true of many such organisations. What makes it moderately tastier, though, is that the e-meter's inventor, Volney Mathison, was a practicing chiropractor, and many chiropractors used e-meters in their treatments. This is conjecture, of course, but I can't help wonder as to whether or not Hubbard was familiar with Palmer's story as he set about creating Dianetics and Scientology.

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