30 July 2009

Simon Singh's article on chiropractic therapy

Leicester Secular Society joins dozens of other organisations in re-publishing portions of an article by Simon Singh on the scientific status of chiropractic therapy, for which he is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association.

The article, originally published in April 2008 by The Guardian newspaper, offered criticisms against claims made by, among others, the British Chiropractic Association on some of the alleged medical benefits of chiropractic therapy. Given his critical position on the scientific status of the BCA's claims, namely that they are not supported by the evidence, Singh's article argued that the British Chiropractic Association "happily promotes bogus treatments".

Rather than mounting a robust scientific defence against these claims, the British Chiropractic Association instead personally sued Simon Singh for libel.

On 7 May this year a preliminary hearing to determine the "meaning" of the piece, prior to a full trial, ruled that Singh was accusing the BCA of deliberate dishonesty. Singh has responded that "although I feel that chiropractors are deluded and reckless, I was not suggesting that they are dishonest". The preliminary finding means that in trial, Singh's case may now rest on a semantic point which he disowns, rather than on the scientific claims against chiropractic therapy which made up the great majority of his article.

In June many leading intellecuals, scientist, comedians joined many other organisations and public figures in signing a statement headed "The law has no place in scientific disputes". Among other things the statement asserts that:

Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the "libel capital" of the world.

In an effort coordinated by Sense about Science, Singh's article is re-published below, in a version which has been edited of alleged "libellous" remarks and distributed to a number of other concerned organisations, magazines, newspapers, and websites.

Simon Perry, a member of Leicester Secular Society and stalwart of Skeptics in the Pub, Leicester has been in the forefront of the battle to fight back against this action.

He found the British Chiropractic Association database of 1,029 members online, containing 400 website URLs. A computer program was quickly devised to automatically identify all the chiropractors in the UK claiming to treat colic, locate their local Trading Standards office, and report them (more than 500 in total) automatically, followed up with printed letters.

Chiropractic is also a profession regulated by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC), supervised by the Health Professional Council, which is obliged to investigate all complaints. So Simon reported these chiropractors to them, pointing out that they had made claims without adequate evidence. The GCC rejected his letter, saying it only takes individual complaints. A pile of individual complaint letters were quickly generated and delivered to their door. These 1,000 complaints are now being investigated.

This Guardian "Comment is Free" article "An intrepid, ragged band of bloggers" tells more of the story.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

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 some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense 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 Edzard 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.
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 a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

19 July 2009

Another Bishop Annoys

I listened to the Sunday Programme on Radio 4 today (I think I must be a repressed masochist) and was annoyed by a wimpish interview with the Bishop of Exeter who spouted a lot of nonsense that went unchallenged.

Would John Humphries let a politician off the hook with no questioning of illogical claims?

He had been invited on as he was one of the principal opponents, in the Lords debate, to Lord Faulkner's attempt to remove the threat of prosecution for assisting in suicide when people accompany friends or relations abroad, who wish to end their lives, where assisted suicide is legal.

He argued that the main motive for people wanting to commit assisted suicide was the loss of dignity, which he defined as an inability to contribute to life and society together with total dependency on others.

The Bishop then pointed out that this applied to babies. The analogy is ridiculous. The prospect for a baby is that it will grow and mature into an adult who can enjoy and contribute to life as an independent being. Babies are also intellectually undeveloped and so unaware of their situation and relatively easy to support.

The prospect for an adult with a terminal illness, or of advanced old age, is for a boring, uncomfortable and possibly painful life, while being fully aware of their situation and rationally wanting to put an end to it. Also a dependent adult is a much more difficult body to service and while a baby doesn't have any problem with someone changing their nappy, a mature adult does.

He then went on about how the right to life was innate and God given. "If life has no objective value why should any of us care for one another"?

How daft can you get. We look after each other on a reciprocal basis under the golden rule. Hence it is sensible that if a "compos mentis" adult, together with those who normally support him or her, have concluded that life is no longer worth living, then there can be no objection to ending that life.

To put this in perspective, a couple of theologians were discussing the "Just War" later in the programme and concluded that killing women and children as "collateral damage" could be justified so long as it is proportionate. So it would seem that it is perfectly OK to kill healthy people when it is convenient to the state, but not to allow people in poor health, who are already dying, to shorten their lives a little.

This Bishop then stated that psychologists had identified 5 stages that individuals go through when they know they have a terminal illness.

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance
He said that most people want to end their lives at the "depression" stage and advocated their passing through this to achieve "acceptance", presumably for the good of their soul. As a Humanist, who doesn't believe he has an eternal soul, I'm quite happy to skip the "acceptance" bit and what right has he to tell anyone when they can jump off this mortal coil?

For more on the Church and its position on assisted suicide see this letter from The Rev’d Canon Eric MacDonald to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

12 July 2009

Bishop Tim guilty of gross distortion

Bishop Tim (Leicester Mercury -First Person 11 July 2009) used his column to traduce Camp Quest, Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and all the "God Free" under this headline:

Anti-religious campaign close to intolerance
The Bishop of Leicester notes the latest idea in Richard Dawkins' drive against God - an Atheist Summer Camp
The full article can be read here.

The Bishop misrepresents almost everyone and everything he mentions in this piece and it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a gross distortion.

Several months ago Bendy-buses in London began to appear
with the slogan "There's probably no God". The atheist posters were the idea of the British Humanist Association and were supported by prominent atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.

In fact the Atheist Bus campaign was the idea of and created by comedy writer Ariane Sherine and launched on 21 October 2008, with official support from the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins.

This week, as schools close for the long summer break, the campaign to persuade the public that God does not exist took a step further forward when Prof Dawkins launched Britain's first summer camp for young atheists. The camp is called Camp Quest UK, and is for children aged for eight to 17. The motto of the camp is: "It's beyond belief."

Professor Dawkins had nothing to do with the launch of Camp Quest as he pointed out in this letter to the Sunday Times http://richarddawkins.net/article,4006,UPDATED-Therell-be-no-tent-for...

The Editor
The Sunday Times


The duplicity of Lois Rogers' title, "Dawkins Sets up Kids' Camp to Groom Atheists" (Sunday Times, June 28th), is exceeded only by its Jesuitical opening line, "Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week's summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life." I had nothing to do with the setting up of Camp Quest, and it is not, in any sense whatever, inspired by me, or influenced by me. The British version, run by Samantha Stein with no help from me, follows the admirable American model founded some years ago by Edwin and Helen Kagin, of Kentucky.

Lois Rogers asked me for a quotation, and she thanked me warmly for the following: "Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open-minded, while having fun." Isn't that about as far from Jesuitical grooming as you could imagine? One of my dominant motivations, passionately expressed in The God Delusion, is an abhorrence of childhood indoctrination, of atheism just as much as of religion. It is in this spirit that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made very modest contributions to Camp Quest.

Lois Rogers' traducing of both Camp Quest and me is, alas, par for the course for religiously motivated journalists. Fortunately, I am not the litigious type, but an apology would be nice.

Richard Dawkins


The aim of Camp Quest UK is to rival the many traditional faith-based breaks and holiday clubs run by the uniformed organisations and faith groups over the summer. The biggest organiser of children's camps is the Scout Association which has 500,000 members, who collectively spend two million nights camping out each year. All new Scouts - whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or from another religious background - are required to pledge to do their "duty" to their god or faith.

What the Bishop fails to make clear is that children not prepared to take an oath to "god and king/queen" cannot be become scouts unless they take the oft proffered advice of some of the leaders and pretend that it doesn't matter even though this automatically involves breaking two scout laws:

1. A Scout is to be trusted.
7. A Scout has self-respect and respect for others.

Also Camp Quest is not a uniformed organisation.

Is he suggesting that no provision is made for children who are not prepared to take an oath to a god when they are probably still too young to make any final decision as to his/her/its existence?

The stated purposes of Camp Quest are:

  • Promote a sense of belonging to a large freethought community among the youth participants
  • Encourage critical thinking in young people to enable them to draw their own conclusions
  • Promote respect for others with different viewpoints, values, and beliefs
  • Provide a safe and fun environment for personal and social development

For more details you can visit the website of Camp Quest.

What can the Bishop find so objectionable in this? The camp welcomes all children from any background. More details here.

Indeed the official Church of England policy for its "faith" schools as set out in the Dearing Report is to:

Nourish those of the faith;
Encourage those of other faiths;
Challenge those who have no faith.

At least Camp Quest aims to encourage critical thinking in all its children, not challenge only those who haven't fallen into line.

The camp is part of a wider campaign, backed by Dawkins and Professor AC Grayling, the philosopher and writer, designed to challenge Christian societies, collective worship and religious education. However, leading religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, are becoming concerned about the intolerance being shown by Dawkins and his supporters towards faith communities.

Perhaps the Bishop would like to be more specific about the intolerance shown by Dawkins, or is he protesting because religious privilege is being challenged? None of the people he mentions are suggesting the the right to religious worship be restricted nor that religious ideas be repressed. What they do advocate however is challenging daft ideas and beliefs. Is this intolerance?

Alongside churches and chapels, Leicester's skyline includes temples, mosques and synagogues. Tolerance is one of the key values which has enabled this skyline to flourish and help communities to live together in harmony.

This Bishop omitted to mention Leicester Secular Hall, which is the home of the oldest Secular Society in the world (formed in 1851) and has shared the skyline with churches and synagogues for considerably longer than with mosques and temples.

This harmony was very much in evidence earlier this week when 40 faith leaders of the city and county gathered together at Bishop's Lodge to share food and conversation about many aspects of our city and country life.

It is notable that the Bishop is inclusive of all who share a belief in the supernatural. Presumably this is so that they can avoid having anyone around to point at the elephant in the room in that what they believe is mutually exclusive at the fundamental level.

Indeed recently he claimed credit for his Church in taking the lead on "City of Sanctuary" when in fact much of the leading role has been played by members of Leicester Secular Society who have had free use of Secular Hall.

A C Grayling writes that an intolerant person is "one who wishes others to live as he thinks they ought and who seeks to impose his practices and beliefs upon them". It could be argues that Camp Quest is seeking to do just that. Grayling also writes that tolerance is "a rare and important virtue". At least this is something on which we can both agree!

The Bishop may agree that tolerance is a "rare and important virtue" but Church of England has little to boast about. Secular Hall was built so that free thinkers could have a meeting place in the 19th century. The Church made sure through strong arm tactics that no landlord would provide the Society with a meeting place. Members of the Secular Society have always stood for toleration, free speech and freedom of and from religion. However toleration of religion does not mean that you cannot express a profound dislike and contempt for some religious dogma. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it" is the mantra of the free thinker.