Illiberalism in rational causes…

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.

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2 thoughts on “Illiberalism in rational causes…

  1. “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 ‘libelled’ party interprets what you have said.”

    I think I’d alter this to say it is how a relevant third party would interpret what has said, not the ‘libeled’ party. For the most part (criminal or malicious libel excepted), libel is meant to be assessed against the damage done to the ‘libeled’ parties reputation. It’s rarely possible to assess this by some directly calculable tangible financial impact (like loss of business), so it will be based on a judgment of the court on less tangible matters. However, it remains that it is the interpretation of a “reasonable person” that matters, and not the ‘libeled party’. Being libeled in law doesn’t mean that you personally feel hurt by what was written about you – it’s whether others reading it would result in some personal damage to your reputation.

    Of course it is the judge putting himself in the position of the “reasonable party” in this case in his interpretation of the wording. One would hope that there would be a more objective way of working out what an average “reasonable person” would think as I somehow doubt that judges, no matter how well educated, will always have that common view. Given that libel cases in the UK are judged by a jury (unusually for civil cases) then one wonders why there has to be a judge’s ruling at all.

    It’s worth noting that, as with many things, it is the legal profession that is the only winner out of all of this. The actual commercial damage caused or otherwise by Simon Singh using the word “bogus” rather than say “ineffectual” will have been minimal. Just how many people would have read it, how many will have assumed that members of the BCA would have been deliberately lying, and what real financial difference would have been made? Precious little I would have thought – however, the legal costs will be immense and these are likely to vastly outweigh any potential damages.

    Of course the court case has raised the stakes hugely – if Simon Singh is now unable to use the defense that “bogus” was to be interpreted as a “false” rather than “fake” then the consequences to the BCA of losing the case would be even worse (as will be the publicity from the case). The consequences for Simon are different again, but mostly in his case financial, and not reputation. In any case, this is a sorry, sorry story and is going to make people choose their words very carefully. It’s generally safe to call people fools, but implying they are lying – well that is a different matter.

    Of even more concern is that there are movements in some quarters of government to acquiesce to some religious groups who would wish to see the criteria governing acceptable criticisms governed purely by how it is perceived by individuals within those communities. These are often dressed up using the terms “insults” and are often related to proposed widening of the laws of blasphemy (a path down which Ireland is currently heading). That would be almost the direct parallel of the ‘libeled’ party being the adjudicator of what they thought was a libel against them. I’ve no doubt many “professional” groups would love to have that power too – we aren’t there yet, but who knows…

    1. Thanks for the fair point; altered accordingly 😉

      I would actually love to see some data on the public perception of this case, it would be very useful. As you say, the commercial damage to the BCA was likely to be minimal, but I’m sure reports of this hearing have certainly spread beyond the readership of Simon Singh’s books. Of all the CAM bodies, the BCA is the most flush and seemingly legit, and I can’t help but feel that in the non-skeptic public perception, Simon Singh’s loss in this hearing will be seen as a vindication of the BCA as an entity, and re-enforce the public attitude with regards their therapies. A quick canvas of some of my well educated friends revealed the shock discovery that they believed the BCA was, in some manner, another version of physical therapy akin to a legitimate therapy such as osteopathy(!), so perhaps the case presents an opportunity to better address these misconceptions.

      Alas, I haven’t had the time this weekend yet to trawl the popular media and comments on the subject.

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