Free Speech? Quack.

In 1910, when a group of pranksters (including Virginia Woolf) (in a beard)  “inspected” a Royal Navy dreadnought in the guise of Abyssinian royals, they would have been exposed very quickly if their hosts had done a quick Gooogle look-up on the subject. And you’d think that in the modern world, flooded with easily-accessible information, it would be difficult to maintain a hoax.

But sadly, that’s not the case. Even in the face of ample evidence, some people still get away with outrageous claims, and even make a comfortable living out of them.

In the latter half of the 1800s, there was still some faith in “magnetic healing”, even though its inventor, Franz Mesmer, had abandoned it in favour of “animal magnetism” or hypnosis over a century before. One American practitioner of magnetic healing was Daniel David Palmer (medically unqualified) who claimed to have recieved information on a new technique of spinal manipulation from a Dr. Jim Atkinson. He said that Atkinson had been a genuine medical doctor, but was inconveniently dead. Still, he was able to give instruction “from the other side” to Palmer at the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Camp Meeting.

Palmer applied his new knowledge by curing a case of deafness using spinal manipulations. (So he claimed.) Folowing on from the achievement, he founded a School of Chiropractic, where he taught such facts as “A subluxated vertebra is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases. The other five percent is caused by displaced joints other than those of the vertebral column.”

They weren’t all gullible in that century. His local paper, the Davenport Leader, reported in 1894 that “A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion that he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious, those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method…he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victims…His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack.”

Simon SinghUnfortunately, you could still say almost exactly the same thing in 2008. But when Dr. Simon Singh did, he was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. You might have seen Singh on television, or read one of his books. He’s a very respected and effective science author, getting an MBE in 2003 for “services to Science, Technology and Engineering in Education and Science Communication.” In a Guardian article, he pointed out that even after a hundred years of medical progress, the BCA, the official body representing the British chiropractic industry, still claimed that manipulation of the spine was good for treating aliments as diverse as asthma and ear infections, without any evidence whatsoever to back it up.

It was a case that highlighted the inadequacy of British libel law, in that a well-funded industry body could sue a private citizen for putting his reasoned opinion in print. Actually, it came at a time when those laws were already under scrutiny, because it had become apparent that British courts had become subject to “libel tourism” where suits were brought by foreigners, against foreigners. There are two reasons: first, the law is much more favourable to the claimant than in other countries, and second, the payouts received are a factor of about a hundred bigger.

One specific and peculiar problem is that all large libel cases have been heard by one particular High Court judge, who seems to have been waging a private war against the press, and so has made it a matter of policy always to support the claimant’s point of view. In 2006, when he ruled in favour of a libel tourism case brought by a Saudi against the author of the American book ‘Funding Evil’, the New York State Legislature passed a law that “offers New Yorkers greater protection against libel judgments in countries whose laws are inconsistent with the freedom of speech granted by the United States Constitution.”

It was no surprise that in a preliminary hearing, this judge decided that the wording of Singh’s article was to be interpreted in the most damaging way possible. More recently, Singh has been granted leave to appeal this interpretation, but even if the appeal is granted, he will still have to defend the libel suit (although weakened).

There have been some results in the mean time. First, a charity, Sense About Science, has started to campaign to stop libel law being used in matters of scientific discourse. And secondly, many individuals (over 500) have made official complaints for false advertising against chiropractic claims. I’m not sure if chiro is supposed to cure shooting yourself in the foot.


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