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02 August 2010

TAM, Day One: Simon Singh

This is the seventh in a series of posts discussing The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, which took place at South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, 8–11 July 2010. You can find the previous post here. You can find the next post here.

About fifteen minutes before Simon Singh's presentation, Roy Zimmerman was welcomed to the stage to perform some old favourites. You can see many of them on YouTube.

After Zimmerman, there were some plugs for the upcoming TAM London, including a hilarious video from Richard Wiseman. It went something like this:

Simon Singh

It's time for a presentation by Simon Singh and his always audacious haircut. Singh has a PhD in particle physics (according to Bidlack, Singh used to study particles "smaller than Uri Geller's sense of ethics") but has more recently become an acclaimed science journalist.

I anticipated that we would be hearing about the suit leveled against him by the British Chiropractic Association (which I have mentioned in passing before). What I did not anticipate is how amusing the presentation would be: Simon Singh is a very funny man!

Simon begins by talking about a BBC 2 documentary called Alternative Medicine: the Evidence. Wow. You can read his take on it by visiting Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog, where Dr. Goldacre reproduces an email (with permission) that Simon had circulated regarding the myriad inaccuracies of the series. Singh goes on to discuss "anesthetic" acupuncture and how it is misleadingly portrayed in the media. For example, the series depicts acupuncture as being employed as an anesthetic for open-heart surgery, when there are in fact several powerful sedatives and local anesthetics swirling around in the patient's body as well.

Simon gives a quick plug for Trick or Treatment, a book that he wrote with Edzard Ernst (it's on my to-read list: it sounds fascinating!), before moving on to chiropractic.

He begins by talking about Palmer's original conception of chiropractic, in which disturbances in the flow of "innate intelligence" caused disease. Palmer claimed to be able to cure deafness (and just about everything else) by performing spinal adjustments which repaired the flow of this vitalistic energy.

When Simon published an article critical of chiropractic in The Guardian, the problems began (full text of the article, with annotations, here). The British Chiropractic association threatened to sue him for libel. The Guardian offered the BCA a right of reply, as well as an apology, but the BCA refused and took Simon to court.

A brief timeline of the incident:

18 April 2008: Article published.
May 2008: BCA threatens Singh personally with a libel suit.
May 2009: Preliminary hearing rules on the wording of the article. (This is bad.)
April 2010: Preliminary ruling overturned. (This is good.)
15 April 2010: BCA drops the suit.

Simon Singh is not the only proponent of science-based medicine who has been sued by a quack. It is incredibly common. (See, for example, Matthias Rath's suit of Ben Goldacre.)

The problems with English libel laws are legion: suits are unbelievably costly, libel tourism is common, and the accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Although it was a personal nightmare for Simon, his case really began the British Libel Reform Campaign. Singh played a very encouraging clip from the British House of Lords, demonstrating that the government is serious about libel reform.

Free speech is not for sale.

For more coverage of Simon Singh's victory, see Steven Novella's post on NeuroLogica.

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