Illiberalism in rational causes…

by Jim Caryl

The blogdom of skeptics has been in uproar over the ruling of Mr Justice Eady in the libel case Simon Singh vs British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The case has already been covered extensively, by The Lay Scientist (background | verdict) and Jack-of-Kent (background | verdict).

In Simon Singh’s book, ‘Trick or treatment: alternative medicine on trial’ (review by The Times here), he systematically addresses the pseudoscience of numerous alternative healthcare measures, including Chiropractry, about whom he said:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The ruling hinged on Simon Singh’s use of the word ‘bogus’, which means counterfeit or fake, spurious, or bad. Unfortunately, when you start thinking about it meaning ‘counterfeit’ then this infers some degree of fraudulent use, or deliberate misuse, which is how the judge chose to rule in this case. Mr Justice Eady decided (evidently prior to the hearing had commenced) that the definition would be taken as consciously and deliberately dishonest. In this case it rules in the favour of the BCA where, by the judge’s own reasoning, Simon Singh has libelled them by labelling them deliberately dishonest. It seems strange that a judge can make any objective ruling on the definition of such a word in this case; Mr Justice Eady has effectively ‘cherry-picked’ the evidence by looking at the word ‘bogus’ within a paragraph, without including the evidential support of context from the chapter as a whole.

As I have discovered through word battles myself, different people lean towards different definitions of words when multiple definitions are available. An example might be ‘tautology’, which in one vein can be a rhetorical definition of ‘using different words to say the same thing twice’, yet can also have a meaning in logic of ‘a statement that is necessarily true’. What distinguishes the uses is the context in which they are used, and this seemed to be apparent in this case.

After all, we can’t possibly know or understand how Mr Justice Eady has used or viewed the word ‘bogus’ throughout his life, if at all, but it seems logically incorrect that he would make an assumption that his subjective view of the definition is in any way fair, logical or accurate; he is not a lexicographer, thus can not make an objective evaluation of its definition, though he is afforded this right by dint of being judge in this case. As it is, I think he has taken a narrow and pernicious view of its definition; I have no lexicographic modal average data to back up my own definition, but I for one have only ever used the word ‘bogus’ in the sense of it meaning, simple, ‘false’ or ‘fake’. Of course, if you’re Bill & Ted, it can also be taken to mean ‘cool’.

What counts is the over all context, and this is the major failing in the ruling. In libel law it doesn’t really matter what it is you intended to say, it is all about how the ‘libeled’ party a relevant third party would interpret what you have said. It is all the more sad in this case as the BCA may feel that it is vindicated in such a manner that this ruling gives credence to their theories being correct, when all it really says is that they were not being ‘consciously dishonest’ in their practise of chiropractry, i.e. they were delusional or ignorant of the the scientific and evidential invalidity of their information.

The thing is, most skeptics would accept that an association such as the BCA would wholly believe in their methods hook, line and sinker, and are certainly not knowingly selling mis-information. This was never the position of Simon Singh’s book, yet it is the ruling that Mr Justice Eady gave.

As a result of this hearing, the odds are stacked with the BCA in any subsequent trial and Simon Singh would have to show that the BCA are deliberately dishonest in their practises, which would effectively be impossible to demonstrate, thus would be unable to mount a defence. Simon Singh now faces several difficult options, and in the interests of him not being bankrupted by this whole sub-standard affair, I believe he must withdraw from this particular battle and live to fight another battle another day, perhaps when the justice system appreciates the greater intellectual ramifications of such rulings.

In the meanwhile, the definition of the word ‘bogus’ has a new connotation, of which anti-pseudoscience skeptics had best be aware in their writing.