Posts Tagged 'Science Journalism'

Update on Simon Singh’s Libel Case

I haven’t talked about Simon Singh’s Libel Case much on this blog, but in short, Singh is a science writer who wrote an article that was critical of Chiropractic in The Guardian in 2008. I’ll repost the article below the fold

Simon Singh and his lawyer are greeted by supporters outside of appeals court.

Simon Singh and his lawyer are greeted by supporters outside of appeals court.

(edited to remove the “libelous” word), but the important bit is this:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

He went on to call these treatments bogus, and rather than responding with evidence to back up their claims, the British Chiropractic Association sued Singh for libel. UK libel laws are crazy in that the burden of proof is put on the defendant, so suing someone for libel carries almost no risk. Usually these cases are settled out of court because of the tremendous stress and expenses put on the defendant. But Singh bravely decided to fight back, which is helping to bring attention to the unjust laws. After all, how can a country have free and open debate over issues such as alternative medicine if it’s so easy for practitioners of questionable methods to silence their critics?

Singh’s case started off with an unfortunate decision to define his use of the word bogus in a way that he didn’t mean it:

The judge held that by the mere use of the word “bogus” Simon Singh was stating that, as a matter of fact, the BCA were being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for those children’s ailments.

Using this definition of bogus, Singh would have to prove that the BCA were being dishonest in order to win his case. That’s pretty much an impossible task, so he appealed that decision and today I got an update from Sense About Science:

Simon said after the hearing: “First of all, thanks to everyone who came to the Court of Appeal today, and everyone who has been so supportive over the last two years. Without your goodwill, I probably would have caved in a long time ago.

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since the article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.

More important than my particular case is the case for libel reform and I know that you share my concern on this matter. My greatest desire is that journalists in future should not have to endure such an arduous and expensive libel process, which has already affected the careers of health journalists such as Ben Goldacre, and which is currently bearing down on the eminent cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst. If Peter loses his case then he will be bankrupted. Please continue to spread the word about libel reform.”

Simon’s solicitor Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave LLP said: “It was encouraging to see three such senior judges taking such an interest in the appeal, and the BCA’s counsel was given a thorough grilling by the court.

What was significant was that the Lord Chief Justice said he was surprised that the BCA had not taken the opportunity offered them back in 2008 to publish their side of the story in the Guardian, rather than insisting Simon apologise and beginning proceedings. He also said it was a waste of both parties’ time and effort. I hope that this is borne in mind by MPs when they grapple with the need for libel reform.”

There’s no decision yet, but it’s encouraging that these judges are taking Singh’s appeal seriously. Hopefully they’ll make the right ruling on what he actually meant when he used “bogus” in his article.

Unfortunately after the definition of “bogus” is determined he still has to defend his article, and he could still lose the case. To find out more about his case and how you can help click here.

(Don’t forget that you can read the article that he’s being sued over below the fold, but also please remember that I know very very little about law, so to read some more coherent and detailed information about this case Jack of Kent has a fantastic blog)

Continue reading ‘Update on Simon Singh’s Libel Case’

Rachel Maddow + Basketball + Bill Nye = Win

Yesterday’s Rachel Maddow Show provided me with yet another reason to love that woman. She uses footage of amazing 3-point shots in basketball to show how something out of the ordinary doesn’t disprove the ordinary. Washington has had some snowy weather recently, and the global warming deniers are loving it because they see that as proof that global warming isn’t real. They can’t tell the difference between weather and climate.

You can watch the video here, it’s fantastic and features an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. But her point can be summed up in this quote, which begins around 4 minutes:

If one person wins the lottery…it does not disprove the existence of the recession. When it rains in the desert, that does not disprove the existence of the desert…If you have smoked a cigarette in your life and you are not currently suffering from lung cancer or heart disease, your existence…does not disprove the fact that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. The evidence we have of flight (birds, bees, airplanes, what have you) does not disprove the existence of gravity. The existence of monkeys does not disprove evolution. The existence of tadpoles does not disprove the existence of frogs.

Full court shots are hard, evolution is real, gravity is real, the recession real, deserts dry, smoking bad, frogs exist, also so do storms.

The fact that it is snowing somewhere…does not tell you any useful thing about the overall climate.

This is why we get our information about climate change from scientists, not pundits.

Beware the Spinal Trap

The article pasted below was written by Simon Singh and published in The Guardian on April 19, 2008. Singh was pointing out the fact that chiropractors promote treatments that have no basis in evidence. After this article was published, rather than presenting any evidence, the British Chiropractic Association sued him for libel.

British libel laws are such that the burden of proof is on the defendant (in other words they are presumed guilty and have to prove their innocence), and that the plaintiff carries almost no risk. These cases are usually settled out of court because of the tremendous expense imposed upon the defendant, but in this case Singh has decided to fight the suit in order to bring attention to the unjust libel laws.

By suing Singh for libel, the BCA was attempting to silence their critics. But this case is an example of the Streisand Effect, in which the attempt to hide information results in the information being reproduced and brought further into the light. In a show of solidarity with Singh’s mission of championing evidence-based medicine and bringing attention to the ridiculous British libel laws, bloggers everywhere are reproducing the infamous article. I’m posting the version of the article that has had the libelous sentences removed, but for the unedited version, see Orac‘s blog.

One more thing before I let you read the article…please click below to sign a petition (if you agree) to keep libel laws out of science.

free debate

Beware the spinal trap

Simon Singh
The Guardian, Saturday April 19 2008

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Can Babies Understand Dogs?

Here’s a story I thought was kinda cute…

Babies Can Understand Dogs, Study Finds

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but babies might also really understand Fido.A new study found that 6-month-olds can match the sounds of an angry snarl or friendly yap with photos of dogs showing the corresponding body language.

The results, published in the July issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, suggest that babies can decipher emotions even before they learn how to talk.

“Emotion is one of the first things babies pick up on in their social world,” said lead researcher Ross Flom, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Barking dogs

The study involved 128 infants, with 32 from each of four age groups (6, 12, 18 and 24 months), who had little or no exposure to dogs.

The babies first looked at two images of the same fluffy canine, one showing the dog in an aggressive posture and facial expression while the other showed the dog in a friendly stance.

The researchers wanted to figure out whether infants had a preference for one expression over the other before including the dog barks. They didn’t.

Then, the researchers played a 2-second sound clip of either a friendly or threatening dog bark while the child viewed the two images. In the next trial, the other sound clip (aggressive or friendly) was played.

The 6-month-old babies spent most of their time staring at the matching photograph, so a mean bark would garner a stare at the dog with the vicious facial expression.

“The six-month-olds would look in that direction and kept looking in that direction,” Flom told LiveScience. “The older kids would glance at it and then kind of look away as if to say, ‘Oh yeah, I get it, it goes with that face. The task is ridiculous. I’m going to move on and look somewhere else around the room.’”

Baby smarts

The results suggest both 6-month-olds and babies up to 2 years old could distinguish a rowdy bark from a benign one. But the older babies just showed their correct responses differently than the 6-month-olds.

Interesting study, but I feel like this article might be sensationalizing the findings of the study a little bit…I wouldn’t be surprised.

The headline makes it seem like babies have some kind of intuition that puts them in tune with the dogs’ emotions. However I read it more as providing evidence that babies are able to perceive threats, which makes evolutionary sense to me!

Oprah Finally Getting the Criticism She Deserves

Oprah has had a platform for spreading woo for too long. She has had so many loyal viewers of her show, and she is good at telling a story. Every day she has the opportunity to present truth, to give useful information, and to make it entertaining. But so often Oprah does a disservice to her audience by providing a medium through which her guests can sell non-evidence-based,Oprah potentially very harmful quackery with virtually no criticism.

Last week this newsweek article got a lot of attention. I was happy to see such a high profile magazine with such a critical article of Oprah’s quack-peddling ways.

Here‘s Oprah’s response to the article:

For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors’ medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers. I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them.

I’m sure, Oprah…your guests such as Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers blather on about how you can’t trust the medical establishment and then you expect them to listen to the advice of their doctors? This CNBC show demonstrates the power that Oprah has over her viewers. It’s lazy and irresponsible of her to just brush off the criticisms raised by Newsweek.

I’m hoping Newsweek has inspired the media to do more critical reporting, and I’m hoping that it teaches at least some of Oprah’s followers to not take what she says at face value.

From what Oprah has said about the article it doesn’t look like she has any intentions of changing her ways, but maybe it will make her think twice about endorsing the likes of Jenny McCarthy.

On a related note, Skepchick posted a link to a site called OprahsVaJayJay.com. I like what Rebecca Watson says about it:

The word “vajayjay,” as used by Oprah and her ilk is indicative of the way Oprah addresses women’s health issues in general: dumbed down, wishy washy, cutesy, pseudoscientific. She is creating a world in which the word “vagina” is too dirty to utter but it’s totally okay to have Dr. Christiane Northrup go on at length about redirecting her “chi” in order to orgasm…I hope that the owner of OprahsVajayjay.com expands to include more clips of her mind-blowing vagina-related idiocy. There’s enough material out there, after all.

I concur, Rebecca.


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