Chiropractors sue Simon Singh over unpalatable truth

simon-singhSimon Singh, a British science writer, is being persecuted by the British Chiropractors’ Association. They are suing him for libel because he spoke out about the evidence that chiropractic treatment doesn’t do much good.

And we know that it has caused strokes and killed and crippled people.

Their response? Sue!

The article is no longer on the Guardian web site but is being mirrored on a Russian site.

But the best part is that Simon is not defending himself by saying that his words were his own opinion and thus “fair comment.” Instead, he’s going to argue that he was materially correct. In doing so, he is challenging the BCA to prove that chiropractic is an effective medical treatment. This should be fun. We might even end up with a legal decision that chiropractic is not evidence-based medicine.

You can read the offending article here: “Beware the Spinal Trap” by Simon Singh. And just so it doesn’t get lost, I’m pasting it here as well.

Beware the spinal trap

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let’s be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, 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 they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. 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.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus 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 Professor 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.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – 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 the co-author of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial

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Chimpanzee caches, and makes, throwing stones

A chimpanzee at the Furuvik Zoo has been observed collecting stones and leaving them in little piles to use later, for throwing at tourists. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has the story: “Chimpanzee collects ammo for ‘premeditated’ tourist-stoning.”

Even more interesting, when zookeepers removed the stones, the chimp, Santino, collected more and then began making them by breaking off chunks of concrete.

We already know that chimps were making stone tools 4,000 years ago.

“There are some things Man was not meant to know”

Such as, “What would it look like if I crossed a hairless dog with a gremlin?”

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Chris Clarke’s open letter

Chris Clarke’s open letter to the progressive blogosphere from 2007 seems just as apt today:

It’s a fine thing to slam someone for writing something you find offensive. It’s another thing to slam someone for not writing something they way you would have, or for writing about a subject other than the one you think they ought to have picked. It’s a fine thing to criticize someone moderating comments on their blog in a way you don’t agree with, but it’s another to slam someone for not moderating comments on their blog 24/7. It’s a fine thing to decide that your blog has a specific mission. It’s another to decide that your blog’s mission is the only mission any blog should have.

In short, it’s one thing for you to be disappointed in or angered by bloggers with whom you share some political viewpoints. It’s another to assume they owe you anything other than basic human respect because you’ve done them the favor of reading their work.

It reminds me of some people slamming others not for rejecting science and the scientific method, but for speculating that it’s possible there might be an Ultimate Cause behind it all. I’m looking at you, PZ! We keep saying that we’re separating Methodological Naturalism from Philosphical Naturalism. Let’s do it. Let people who feel the chill winds between the stars keep their metaphorical fig-leaf.

Chris’s whole letter is instructive. He makes quite a few points that I’d like to see added to the Guide to the Intertubes or, better yet, the Guide to Public Discourse:

balance between competing interests is important. Explaining that jokes are jokes will help the pathologically humorless avoid embarrassment, but it ruins the jokes for everyone else. Saying that every time one discusses a bad thing, one is obliged to point out that it is a bad thing, and that bad things are bad, and that failure to point this out every single time is an offense punishable by witch hunt, firing, ostracism and the like? Fuck that noise.

Heh. Reminds me of the furor over Randy Newman’s satirical song, “Short People.”

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