Simon Singh: Let us now praise a bloody-minded hero

25 April 2013

9:59 AM

25 April 2013

9:59 AM

I don’t normally campaign. I’m not a joiner or a natural committee man. But the state of free speech in England pushed me into despair, and three years ago I started to do what little I could for the campaign for libel reform.

Britain was not a country where the natives could debate their grievances and foreigners could come to talk of oppression in their own lands. Our politicians and judges welcomed actions from corporations at home that were clearly designed to use the crushing power of money to intimidate critics into silence, and from Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, Hollywood paedophiles, Islamist fanatics and Saudi petro-billionaires. A Russian newspaper contesting Putin’s mafia state or a Scandinavian newspaper investigating the Icelandic bankers’ Ponzi scheme, would be hit with a biased law and huge costs by the London courts. Even after the death of Robert Maxwell in the early 1990s revealed that the old fraud had used the libel law to suppress criticism of his criminal business enterprises, the establishment did nothing.

Conservatives condemn “liberal judges”. But with the odd exception – the current Lord Chief Justice being the most glorious – there is nothing liberal about their attitudes to free debate. Although Article 10 of the Human Rights Act protects freedom of speech, every competent lawyer will tell you that the judges have not used it to extend rights, or indeed to protect rights we once had and are now losing.

I am afraid the judges reflect wider society. The national reflex is to demand bans whenever uncomfortable, unpleasant or unfamiliar speech is heard. Add to that depressing mix, the Leveson inquiry into the peeping Toms of the tabloids, and the chances that libel reform would pass seemed slim.


But last night, despite all of the above, Parliament reformed the law. Many people can claim credit for forcing change through. Lord Lester, who more than anyone else wrote the legislation, and Index on Censorship, English Pen and Sense About Science, who ran a model campaign. But Simon Singh deserves the most praise. His determination to fight an unjust law made reform possible.

He will hate me praising him, let alone calling him a hero. He is a diffident man, whose tone is ironic, except when he is talking about science. He wasn’t a celebrity or politician, but a successful author whose books on code breaking and the cracking of Fermat’s last theorem were joys to read. After writing them, he collaborated with Professor Edzard Ernst to produce Trick or Treatment, an investigation into whether “alternative” therapies work. (None does, except as placebos, with the partial exception of St John’s Wort.)

Chiropractic therapy – the pummelling of backs by mystic masseurs – was particularly pernicious. All alternative treatments are potentially dangerous. Credulous patients, who believe their quacks, may avoid seeking trustworthy advice from a qualified doctor, and suffer the consequences. But chiropractic falls into that small class of alternative therapies that are not only useless but dangerous. In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experienced temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. Patients put themselves in jeopardy when they allowed therapists to execute high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust on their necks – one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, as hangmen know.

Singh and Ernst went on to document cases of chiropractors killing patients, and published in 2008. Here is an account of what happened next from my You Can’t Read This Book.]

A few months later, the British Chiropractic Association held National Chiropractic Awareness Week. Singh noted that it offered its members’ services to the anxious parents of sick children, and wrote an article for the Guardian, ‘Beware the Spinal Trap’. He began by saying that readers would be surprised to learn that the therapy was the creation of a deranged man who thought that displaced vertebrae caused virtually all diseases. The British Chiropractic Association followed suit by claiming that its members could treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.

There was ‘not a jot of evidence’ that these treatments worked, said Singh. ‘This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.’ He went on to explain that he could label the treatment as ‘bogus’ because Ernst had examined seventy trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back, and found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat them.

By the standards of polemic, it was an even-tempered piece; far angrier articles have been written with less cause. Singh was warning that parents would be wasting their money if they took children to chiropractors, and could risk harming them too. He backed up his comments with reliable evidence, and concluded that ‘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.’ This unexceptionable thought was no more than a statement of the obvious.

The chiropractors did not sue the Guardian, but went for Singh personally, hoping that the threat of financial ruin would force him to grovel. The Guardian withdrew his article from their website, thus lessening any ‘offence’ caused, and offered the chiropractors the right of reply, so they could tell their side of the story and convince readers by argument rather than by threats that Singh was in the wrong.

The chiropractors carried on suing Singh, and demanded that he pay them damages and apologise. Singh did not see why he should, considering he was reporting reputable evidence that chiropractic therapy was the invention of a faith healer, whose claims that his mystical method could cure sicknesses that had nothing to do with backache were nonsense. At a preliminary hearing to determine the ‘meaning’ of Singh’s article, the judiciary soon showed why English law was feared and despised across the free world. Determined to draw him into the law’s clutches, the judge [Mr Justice Eady] put the worst possible construction on Singh’s words.

He ruled that because Singh had said ‘there is not a jot of evidence’ that chiropractic therapists could cure colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, the courts would at enormous expense see if they could find one piece of evidence, however small, to support the chiropractors. Maybe if a child stood up in court and breathlessly announced that a chiropractor had cured her, that would be a jot. Maybe if the judge could find a smidgeon of doubt in one of the studies, Singh would have to pay for a phrase that may have been ever so slightly inaccurate.

If Singh could prove that no such doubt existed, he would still not be free of the law. The judge ruled that when Singh said of the British Chiropractic Association, ‘This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments,’ he was accusing it of dishonesty. It seemed clear to those of us who did not have the benefit of a legal training that he was doing no such thing. In his article, Singh said that chiropractic therapists had ‘wacky ideas’, and accused the hard-line among them of being ‘fundamentalists’. In normal English usage, to describe someone as a fundamentalist who holds wacky ideas is to accuse him of folly, not of mendacity.

Not according to the judge. He ruled that when Singh wrote ‘happily promotes’, he did not mean that chiropractors ‘carelessly’ promoted bogus therapies without a thought for the available evidence, or ‘stupidly’ promoted them because they did not understand the findings of clinical trials. No. Singh was accusing therapists of deliberately and fraudulently promoting quack remedies they knew to be worthless. ‘That is in my judgement the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct,’ the judge told Singh.

Proving whether a believer in magical medicine, the ‘faked’ moon landings, the ‘truth’ about Obama’s birth certificate or any other mystical or paranoid theory is a fool or a liar is a next to impossible task. The most disturbing thing about fantasists is that they are often sincere. Yet on the ruling of the English courts, a writer who described a neo-Nazi or an Islamist as ‘happily promoting bogus conspiracy theories’ about the global reach of the Elders of Zion, for which there is ‘not a jot of evidence’, could be sued for libel in London. And unless the writer could prove that the object of the critique was a liar instead of a fool, the writer would lose.

After hearing the judge’s ruling, Singh’s friends, his lawyers and everyone else who had his best interests at heart advised him to get out of the madhouse of the law while he still could. He had already risked £100,000 of his own money. If he fought the case, it would obsess his every waking moment for a year, possibly longer, and he could lose ten times that amount if the verdict went against him. Even if he won, he would still lose, because another peculiarity of the English law is that the victor cannot recoup his full costs. It was as if the judiciary had put Singh in a devil’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Singh’s wife, the BBC journalist Anita Anand, understood the principle at stake, and backed her husband. Whatever happened, she said, the case would not divide them. But the question remained for Singh, how far could he go before deciding that the risk to his family’s finances was too great? To cap it all, the judge had come up with a reading of Singh’s words that made a defence impossible.

No one would have blamed him for backing down. There would have been no dishonour in withdrawing from the fray. Thousands of publishers and writers in England and beyond have looked at the cost and biases of the English law and thought surrender the only option. Singh said that if he were a twenty-five-year-old with no money he would have apologised. But his bestselling books had given him financial independence. He resolved to refuse to put his name to a lie by authorising an apology. He knew what his enemies would do with it. Ernst and Singh had spent years investigating alternative medicine. No potential patient would spend more than a few days doing the same. If he apologised, chiropractic therapists would wave his retraction at potential patients, and say that Singh had admitted that their philosophy was not gibberish, and their claims to treat children were not bogus. As shamefully, an apology would also make Singh complicit in silencing other journalists, scientists and editors, who would think hard before challenging alternative therapists after seeing how the law had forced him to retract.

From Stalin in his show trials to oligarchs suing investigative journalists, censors want recantations as well as exemplary punishments. I have seen billionaires, including convicted criminals, extract admissions of guilt from British newspapers too poor or too frightened to fight, and use them to convince journalists and politicians around the world that legitimate criticisms of their actions were groundless. Singh did not wish to join such sorry company.

So he fought. The diffident man turned out to be a superb public speaker: funny; precise; and even-tempered. His lawyers overturned Eady’s judgement on appeal, and Singh gave up his life, and the chance of earning a large amount of money, for the campaign. He attended every meeting, however small. His example swayed doubters, and convinced politicians from all parties to tackle an abuse they had allowed to fester for decades. For how could you argue that it was right for the law to threaten writers discussing urgent issues of public health, even if they were in the wrong – which Singh was not.

Few did in the end, and the legal establishment had to retreat. The Singh case illustrates an important point about liberty. People imagine that freedom comes in revolutions and bills of rights. But sometimes revolutions turn authoritarian and bills of rights turn out not to be worth the paper they are written on – as article 10 of the Human Rights Act shows. More often, change comes when bloody-minded individuals refuse to accept the commonsense advice to “move on and let it be,” square their shoulders and fight back.

If you meet Simon Singh, tell him what a great guy he is. His embarrassment will be wonderful to behold.

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Show comments
  • @blisswords

    Rarely is someone in real life in a position to challenge a Kafka-esque trial. Even more rarely do they have the courage, energy and stamina to take it on and see it through. It helps when the world gets a bit better for so many others.

  • chump23

    why was the college of chiropractors granted a royal charter?:


  • nicholasi

    Can’t Taki get a non-Jew to write about Singh. It’s obscene that a Jew like Cohen gets to add his Jew-spin, considering how much Jews have conspired to attack the Aryan’s God-given right to free speech.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Splendid piece, Nick

  • stevie

    As much as I am with Singh on the issue of alternative therapies etc, I can’t help but look closely at the exact phrase the judge had an issue with. ‘This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments’. It really does seem through that sentence that Singh is indeed accusing the organisation of peddling things which they know do not work. It really IS an accusation of dishonesty. The fact that you claim quickly that ‘nobody could have interpreted it like this’, the fact that you don’t actually take issue with the judge’s claim aside form offering other words Singh could have used (which, incidentally, carry far less weight than the words he actually used, as you surely know full well) before moving on to some hypothetical protocols-invoker indicates that your case here is far from clear cut.

    I do not support their libel suit against Singh whatsoever. But what this case demonstrates above all is that writers need to be very careful with their words – especially when indulging in overblown rhetoric. As you yourself say, ‘Proving whether a believer in magical medicine, the ‘faked’ moon
    landings, the ‘truth’ about Obama’s birth certificate or any other
    mystical or paranoid theory is a fool or a liar is a next to impossible
    task’ – so journalists need to avoid making this kind of unproveable accusation wherever possible – it is not in their remit and beyond their powers. Instead, for many writers such as Singh and yourself, it is a default mode of writing, and this is a real problem with British journalism

    • Tzctplus –

      It isn’t accusing them of dishonesty. The sentence only says what it says, ascribing any further meaning to it would be an indication of obvious bias.

      • loverat

        The problem with many of these libel cases is the tendency of a judge to over analyse words and end up with disorted meanings and interpretations. Appeal judges have warned of this tendency when overuling the lower court. That has happened rather alot over the years but the best judgements are those where the judge has taken a step back and has looked at the whole picture and context. Ones where the judge has got to grips with the crux of the matter rather than hold pointless hearings on meanings. The fact of the matter is the case should never have gone near a courtroom.

      • stevie

        The sentence says what it says – and what it says is that the organisation are knowingly dishonest.

        Again, not enough, for me, to be worth even a consideration in the libel courts, and that is, I think, the point Nick Cohen is trying to make by extending things outwards. But the meaning of the sentence singled out by Justice Eady is unambiguous – it IS an accusation of wilful dishonesty. Singh might believe them dishonest, but he cannot prove it, so they were within their rights to complain.

        The campaign to reform libel laws is a good one, no doubt, and the changes to the law are also good – but they’re not actually what Nick Cohen wanted (he effectively wanted NO libel laws at all), and Singh could probably still have been pinged with the new laws. The problem for cohen’s campaigning on this front, both in his own work and in Private Eye under the name ‘Ratbiter’, is that most of his examples just weren’t very good – hence his ‘book on free speech’ being full of stuff that’s not about free speech at all.

        • loverat

          I have often wondered whether we would be better off not having libel laws at all.

          The main advantage is we would not have to agonise endlessly and waste time over words, meanings and the writers motives. Think about it – we are in 2013 and still hold these ridiculous hearings – the latest being Sally Bercow over a stray tweet which in the context of tiny involvement has been blown out of all proportion. Does anyone else think that case will probably be dragged out as long as possible with pleadings about meaning and then finally get dismissed because the claimant has been vindicated and compensated already?

          As far as I recall the Simon Singh article was not treated as particularly controversial until he was sued. It was really an expression of opinion. The case against him was a non starter for so many other reasons.

          It might seem logical that a judge should examine meaning first and then consider defences, abuse of process and damages later. However I feel it should be a requirement for judges in all cases to consider first whether the case has any hope whatsover in any event. If it is obvious the case has no hope or there is a serious obstacle to the claim (such as over-compensation risk, trivia etc) the judge should be forced to address this first.

          • Elaine Decoulos

            You raise a few good points, though not the one on having no libel laws. We all have the right to a reputation and not to be libeled, even in the US, though if you are a public figure there has to be malice. Many wonder why the US has fewer libel cases than the UK. It’s essentially because the US press is more responsible, verifies facts and offers rights of reply. This is obviously not so in the UK, where publish and be damned is the tabloid motto. But I believe there is an increase in libel claims in the US with the Internet.

            LEts not forget that In a democracy everyone is suppose to have access to the courts and be able to sue for a wrong or to defend themselves if necessary.

            • loverat

              Hi Elaine

              I agree that people have the right to reputation and there have been some cases where people and press have acted completely irresponsibly and with malice and caused damage. However, libel law is so descredited that I would probably favour doing away completely with it but introducing something completely new that deals with the worst cases where someone has for example made deliberate and damaging lies up against others.

              However, I have studied many libel cases and I think most brought in the last 10 years would not fall within this bracket. The Simon Singh case is simply a non starter. Godfrey V Demon (internet libel) would be another. Any case also where you find yourself debating endlessly the meaning of words should also be dismissed (Waterson V Lloyd) by giving the benefit of interpretation to the defendant.

              Political disagreements and election campaign disputes should be excluded (Waterson V Lloyd again) Multiple defendant claims (Smith V ADVFN and McAlpine V Bercow) would not only have to show serious harm but the issue of over-compensation should be looked at before any hearings on meaning take place. We need to move away yet further from the traditional way libel cases are dealt with and cut the extravagence and profligacy.

              As for the rest of the cases this last 5 years, I could probably only name a few where more than one hearing should have been needed. In 2010 around 85% of reported libel cases were won by the defendant and that was under the old law. To me that indicates that there is a wholesale abuse of this law and legal process which needs to be addressed. The new law will help but there needs to be an inititive to get the judiciary to improve case management further and change the way some cases are dealt with. Smith V ADVFN had around 15 or more hearings over 4 years. However it was described at an early stage as ‘totally without merit’ and ‘simply nonsense’ and later ‘wholly without merit’. Yet after Justice Eady sensibly and robustly tried to put an end to it, that case was appealed and bounced from one court to another until the judiciary finally decided it had to be addressed and was booted out.

              The general point about access to justice, I do not agree. Not when the legal process is abused on such a scale in order to gain unfair advantage over an opponent and the courts are brought to a standstill and into disrepute with useless litigation.

              .Access to justice needs to be earned and that means a libel case needs to be shown to have been brought for proper reasons.

              This is what a judge said not long back. People sometimes forget that courts should be a place of last resort.

              “An abuse of process is of concern not merely to the parties but to the court. It is no longer the role of the court simply to provide a level playing-field and to referee whatever game the parties choose to play upon it. The court is concerned to ensure that judicial and court resources are appropriately and proportionately used in accordance with the requirements of justice”.

              • Elaine Decoulos

                Loverat, It is tiring not knowing your identity. You have obviously been a keen study of the on goings in Courts 13 & 14 at The Royal Courts of Injustice. I have doubts about your statistics, but in any event, in a democracy people have a right to seek redress for wrongs against them, such as libel. It’s called a tort. I have sat in those courts many times over the years and have rarely heard cases without merit.

                I have however seen aggressive defendant lawyers on many occasions do whatever they can to destroy a claimant’s case. In the UK, there are many ways to do this that don’t exist in other democracies. The most effective way is to get draconian costs orders. It is mad that in this day and age a claimant has to pay the defendant their costs to continue with their case, irrespective of merit. Mr. Justice Eady is rather found of these orders. I’ve had my share of them. It’s outrageous and usually done to stop a claim in its tracks for another purpose. Nothing to do about justice. It’s actually quite the opposite. Just ask the now infamous Loverson barrister, David Sherborne, what he did to my libel claim. He’s certainly not the victim’s advocate he portrays himself to be.

                • loverat


                  Thanks – I enjoy our debates. Regrettably it seems Inforrm blog, the site our paths crossed now block out posts it does not like and some of my replies have not been published. Perhaps I was too critical of some solictors or perhaps Hugh Tomlinson is just ‘hacked off’. Anyway, when a credible legal site like that is censorsing quite reasonable posts you know there is still work to do. That is where I got my statistics from and there is an article summarising the cases for 2010 where 85% of defendants won their cases. I might read up on your case when I get a moment. Generally I have been in favour of early strike outs or measures to prevent libel claimants trying to pursue claims without spending money. I also know of many situations where defendants have been required to pay money into the court to defend themselves against crazy claims. That said, I do accept that costs should not be used to prevent clearly legitimate actions.

                • loverat


                  Following on perhaps one day soon we can exchange e-mails and discuss more. I am not connected to the legal profession so you won’t know or heard of me. I just have a few friends who have been on the receiving end of claims and researched alot of appalling cases.

                • Elaine Decoulos

                  Greetings Loverat, You can send me a direct message via Twitter or Facebook.

    • Elaine Decoulos

      You explain it perfectly! Free Speech and libel are difficult subjects, more difficult than most people realise. Many thanks.

  • ganef_returns

    I had a friend who had a small pharmacy that relied on one range for profitability – homeopathy. And he once told me how he produced his “medicines”.

    He bought a small bottle of concentrate and into a Winchester one gallon bottle of pure water, put one drop of concentrate. After mixing it up he took a second Winchester of pure water and added one drop from the first bottle and, hey presto, the second bottle can now be decanted into small bottles for sale at a high price for, effectively, almost 100% pure water.

    I suggested to him that I could go into business on ebay with no expertise. I would buy one of his bottle and decant one drop into my own Winchester of pure water. He refrained from commenting.

    He retired from business as a young man and has hardly done a day’s work since.

    Yes there those who claim, quite rightly, that they got better after taking these homeopathic cures, but I venture to suggest they would have got better anyway, without taking anything. And, yes, I know there are doctors who sing the praises of homeopathic cures…… rich doctors. I think it was the comedienne Belle Barth, fifty years ago, who talked of doctors who specialised in “diseases of the rich”.

  • loverat

    Very thought provoking argument. It shows that no matter how hard we strive to get things right, faults will always remain in a system. In the case of libel law it was like a boil that then turned into a cancer. It needed someone brave enough to cut it out for good. But the operation to do this was expensive and risky. A few people included Simon Singh had the courage to do so. All this also shows that you have got to watch out for the shy and modest types! They are usually the most intellegent and able of people. Don’t make assumptions about people because they are not outwardly confident. Make an effort to listen and try to learn from all people than a select circle. In this case it was the doubters who were the ones playing catch up all along.

  • Luke Visocnik

    libel laws are ridiculous and they are trying to pass laws in england that curb criticism of religion so next time some idiot kills his kid we cant say anything bad about it or the next time a priest abuses a child we have to stay quite

  • Daniel Maris

    Whilst I deplore the legal persecution of Simon Singh, the real problem is on the other side. If you listened to the pro-vaccine propaganda about Wakefield you would think there was never any link between autism and gut bacteria.

    So how to explain the following:


    You won’t find in our mainstream media anything that queries the medical profession’s (lucrative) vaccine mania. For instance nothing about the curious fact that autism is hardly to be found in Amish communities (who tend to vaccinate minimally or not at all). Nothing about legal cases settled in and out of court regarding vaccine damage.

    • Elaine Decoulos

      I’m sure Simon Singh and Sense About Science want to keep it that way. They are pro-pharma and want to censor criticism about them. That’s what’s so scary. I was shocked to see GE Healthcare funding Sense About Science when they sued a Danish scientist for libel. And no mention of Simon’s ‘Treat or Treatment’ book in his bio on their website. It’s all smoke and mirrors and trick or treat!

      • Daniel Maris

        Yes, there needs to be free speech on both sides. Big Pharma kills loads of people directly every year. Thousands of people die or are harmed during operations and procedures of dubious value.

        If homeopathy is a fraud it seems just about the most harmless one imaginable. Leave hompeopaths and their clients alone would be my view.

        I will declare an interest. I had (proper) homeopathic treatment once and found it was very effective, though I was somewhat sceptical about it to begin with. Although it was supposed to be nothing more than water it actually had quite a significant physical effect. Simon Singh doesn’t have to believe that and I don’t have to believe him.

        • Elaine Decoulos

          Well said! Homeopathy often works for ailments when nothing else will. We should all be free to choose our treatments. Thanks for the backup!

          • kyalami

            Why should we be free to choose stupidity that may risk our health?

            • Elaine Decoulos

              Maybe you should pay for some peer reviewed independent studies if that’s what you believe. Just to highlight how ‘safe’ big pharma meds are, there are currently ads on US cable TV warning women that statins can give them diabetes. Sounds like those ‘evidence based’ studies all the libel reform campaigners are so fond of were wrong. What does Simon say?

              • kyalami

                Care to mention some peer reviewed, statistically valid, double blind independent studies that show the efficacy of homeopathic medicine?

          • Tzctplus –

            Homoeopathy doesn’t work, unless you consider the placebo effect and regression to the norm the most we can hope to achieve from any medication.

            • Viorel Mihai

              if homeopathy is pure placebo, how come it works on newborns and animals?

              • Tzctplus –

                Regression to the mean. It would be interesting to know which studies uncovered this response to homoeopathy from the subjects you mention.

        • kyalami

          Big Pharma spend staggering amounts of money testing each new medicine they bring to market. Even so, they occasionally get it wrong. I somehow doubt that Big Homeopathy make any such effort to prove the safety of their “treatments”. But then they don’t have to: water has been safe for a l-o-n-g time. And water cures things to, like thirst and dirtiness.

      • Tzctplus –

        This is ridiculous.

        Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and many other brave journalists that call the shenanigans of the quacks in the alternative medicine industry ( in which curiously big pharma has some money invested) have also very hard words against big pharmaceutical companies and how they massage the numbers in order to bring drugs to market.

        You are building a straw man without a jolt of evidence, or go on, probe what you are saying.

    • Ian Walker

      Austism is a developmental neurological disorder cause by a combination of genetics and environmental factors in the womb.
      The medical establishment reacted very poorly to Wakefield’s bogus study, and could have handled it much better at the time, but it was wrong then, it’s wrong now, and kids are dying of measles…in Britain in 2013.

      • Daniel Maris

        No “kid” has died of measles in the recent outbreak.

        Do you know how many children die from asthma each year? Many scientists think lack of exposure to pathogens is one of the reasons for the huge rise in asthma.

        You have to explain the huge rise in autism. It is not plausible to put it all down to better diagnosis.

        • Ian Walker

          No problem. The prenatal environmental factors that are strongly suspected to act as ‘triggers’ for the autism genes are: high air pollution, low maternal folic acid intake, maternal obesity and diabetes, and any infection causing a high fever during pregnancy. Increased parental age is also a factor, especially for the father.

          Most of those have been increasing over the same period of time. As a parent of an ASD child I’d absolutely love some “Big Pharma” conspiracy to be able to sue to make his life easier. But it ain’t gonna happen because it’s just a combination of genes, environment and plain bad luck. Nothing else.

          • Daniel Maris

            My point is not so much that you are wrong but that there is no free debate in the mainstream media about these matters.

            I very much doubt the average age of parents is much older than in the Victorian era. I very much doubt air pollution was worse in 1970 than in 1950.

            It doesn’t have to be a Big Pharma “conspiracy” but it can be a coming together of interests to the disadvantage of the health of the community at large.

            Do you really dismiss out of hand the possibility for instance that lower exposure to pathogens generally might increase asthma – a deadly in children, a disease that kills many children each year?

            • Daniel Maris

              Just to underline what we are talking about here:

              There were 1,143 deaths from asthma in the UK
              in 2010.

              That is a terrible toll. Far, far worse than measles deaths.

            • Ian Walker

              You asked me to explain the rise in autism, which I did.

              And science doesn’t work on free debate. It works on hypothesis, experiment and conclusion – the scientific method.

              As for the asthma, I think there are several studies which show the link between pathogen exposure and asthma, including one last year looking at incidences of the disease in the children of farmers. Perhaps you could commission some research into a similar link with autism? I’m sure some universtity somewhere will happily take your cash.

              • Daniel Maris

                You’re just choosing to ignore all the studies that shows links between vaccine and asthma, such as the Manitoba 2008 study. Why you choose to do that is for you to explain.

    • kyalami

      IF it’s true, there could be several reasons why there is little autism in Amish communities and these reasons would have little or nothing to so with vaccination.

      Certainly in Western populations as a whole, there is no correlation between autism and MMR vaccinations. As we are seeing in Wales, there is significant risk in NOT vaccinating.

    • Tzctplus –

      This is really tiring.

      The benefits of vaccination outweigh the known demonstrable, as far as we know much smaller dangers.

      Demonstrating any serious side effects of vaccination requires much more than pure anecdotal evidence or “research” (not totally discredited) that is so badly formulated an statistics college student would be embarrased to present it as his homework.

      You cite the Amish for example, conveniently omitting that being an isolated community they are isolated from a big deal of external factors, and lest not forget, their gene pool may mercifully not include any possible precursors of autism.

      But that is all speculation. If you think there is something to investigate then organize properly conducted studies. Oh wait, no, you are not Simon Singh, not everybody has the drive to cut to the meat of the matters by at least understanding what they are talking about.

      • Daniel Maris

        So now you are admitting there are dangers to vaccination.

        When did you last hear a medical practictioner from the vaccine lobby on TV admit there were dangers? Never.

        When have they ever admitted that most deaths from diseases like measles are in children whose immune system is already severely compromised e.g. when they have leukemia?

        Why is there no discussion of whether there is a safe upper limit on the numebr of vaccines?

        Why has there been an explosion in the number of asthma cases (which lead to something like 40 child deaths a year and countless admissions), that tracked the rise in vaccine application?

        Did you support the use of mercury (thimerosal) in vaccine for all those years before they (only a few years back) decided to take it out?

        There is no doubt of the health benefits of basic vaccination in countries with poor santitation, bad housing, malnutrition ,widespread diseases and so on. But none of those apply in the UK.

        There is a sensible debate to be had about vaccination but people like you don’t want it. Instead you throw out meaningless “challenges”.

        • Elaine Decoulos

          Great discussion. What do the science libel campaigners have to say about the vaccination debate or do they want it censored? In the public interest, we have a right to know.
          They lobbied Parliament to change the libel laws. Sense About Science, what do you have to say?

          • Tzctplus –

            I have no idea what they have to say, but I have never heard anybody fighting unjust libel laws wanting to censor anything.

            So unless you have proof that anybody of that group of people has advocated censorship I really think you should let that dead horse in peace.


            • Daniel Maris

              You don’t need censorship when you have politically motivated proceedings like that against Wakefield.

              • Tzctplus –

                This is utter nonsense.

                Wakefield “studies” have been so badly discredited as to be baffling how somebody can claim that such backslash is politically motivated. The blunders in procedure and the conflicts of interest were so glaring as to be incomprehensible somebody can still be defending him.

                It is like to say attacking people that believe that the earth is flat is done for political reasons.

            • Elaine Decoulos

              I have proof. Simon tried to censor the WDDTY magazine. He wanted it removed from news agents!!! There’s a story about it in The Guardian last October.

        • Tzctplus –

          Every time any substance enters your body there is the potential danger of something bad happening, anybody that tells you any medicine is 100% safe is not fully conversant with how science works, which is why I mention probable risks *which are so small* that you need an extraordinary level of proof to overthrown the current established view about how vaccines work. You can’t make shoddy studies, which lack statistical rigour, and then claim that vaccines are harmful in general terms: uncountable studies, common practice and millions of healthy people show otherwise.

          The scaremongering about vaccines from people that chose to ignore the overwhelming evidence about their effectiveness by contrasting a few cases here and there of negative side effects, which are claimed without much proof that are caused by vaccines, defies logic, and when those badly done studies are thoroughly debunking such people start claiming all kind of conspiracy theories: they won’t let it rest because have so much emotional investment in an idea, which unfortunately for them lacks scientific support.

          Millions and millions of human beings benefit from vaccination, but here you are, talking about 40 or so cases that you think may probably be related to vaccination side effects and introducing poverty as a probable cause like if viruses cared much about such things when infecting a person,

          • Daniel Maris

            So far we’ve jhad no child deaths from measles in South Wales, despite the salivating anticipation of the pro-vaccine lobby. I would call that a pretty low risk – no deaths.

            Your use of the word “effectiveness” is typical of the pro-vaccine lobby. What you mean by “effective”.

            No one – well I am not – is denying that millions of humans have benefited from vaccines. The issues are (a) to what extent they are necessary in a modern developed society (b) whether should be any upper limit at all on the number of vaccines and (c) whether they are causing ill effects (you at least accept the theoretical possibility that they cause harm as well offering protection) that outweigh the benefits.

            • Viorel Mihai

              I would add the proper age of vaccination: why are we so aggressive on newborns? Why do we put aluminium, formaldehide and mercury in their veins at the age when their neuronal development is just starting???

        • Abtalyon

          I append a study from 2011 which addresses the issue you raised concerning an alleged increase in asthma among vaccinated children. As you will see, no such association was found.

          I’m afraid, too, that your belief that infectious disease preventable by immunization is confined to the poor and under-privileged is equally unfounded. Wherever vaccination rates have fallen, the pool of susceptible individuals has grown so that outbreaks of disease are inevitable. The current South Wales measles epidemic is a classic instance of this phenomenon, but there are many other examples reported in both medical journals and in the popular press.


          • Daniel Maris

            We could trade studies all night. But there are plenty that point to a link with asthma and anyone who knows the drug companies knows how they operate through funded charities and paid propagandists to distort trials.

            Here’s one study for you to look establishing a very clear link between vaccination and asthma.


            No one is denying that there are childhood diseases – the issue is whether in households with good sanitation, clean water, proper heating and venitlation where children are well fed and get plenty of exercise, whether they are really at any significant risk from many of these diseases. The issue is also whether the risk from possible other complications of vaccine such as asthma and autism.

            • Abtalyon

              I couldn’t use your link so am unable to comment on the content. However, I’m fully familiar with the ncbi site and from a cursory review of the many papers published there, some available as more than the abstracts, no causal link has been demonstrated between vaccinations and asthma. Indeed, certain immunizations has proved beneficial, for example BCG given in infancy.

              I agree that there is not much point continuing the debate if you take the position that such research- and so much of it over the years- is tailored to find favour with drug companies, an attitude that maligns the doctors who have authored the papers, the patients who participated and the bodies who funded the research, many of whom were not part of the pharmaceutical industry.

            • Viorel Mihai

              How come all your links are disabled while others speakers are not??

  • Elaine Decoulos

    I find it very odd indeed that ‘hero’ Simon gave up years of his life for this fight w/ nothing to gain. He’s a bit like the Boston bomber who said he and his brother acted alone. Really? Just what is a physicist doing writing about alternative medicine? Surely he has and had more important things to do, unless he has a secret agenda.

    Lets hope he doesn’t get injured or suffer from a chronic illness, with nothing on offer from the pharmaceutical industry to treat him, that he finds himself secretly visiting a chiropractor or homeopath for relief. For the record, as an American (yes, from the land of free speech) and libel victim ignored by the Libel Reform Campaign, this is my HONEST OPINION!

    • mdoc

      Oh for goodness sakes, why in the world would you think he has an agenda? He isn’t going to visit a homeopath because homeopathic remedies have no active ingredients. He isn’t going to visit a chiropractor, he can visit a physical therapist instead. Just because it is your honest opinion doesn’t mean that you opinion is informed by the facts.

      • Elaine Decoulos

        It’s obvious he has an agenda. Just look at the title of his book: Trick or Treatment. If a treatment works for me and I write about it, that will be my honest opinion. Simon wants to regulate alternative medicine into oblivion. He knows he can’t do that, so he seeks to libel them at every opportunity instead in the hope of censoring any info about their treatments. He wants the WDDTY magazine of the shelves of newsagents. I’d call that an agenda.

        • kyalami

          “If a treatment works for me …”

          “A common cold can last for seven whole days. But take this marvellous Snake Oil-eo alternative medication to banish the cold in just one week!”

          • Elaine Decoulos

            If you believe what is available is dangerous, you need to campaign for regulation, not libel reform.

            • mdoc

              You should want libel reform given how you libel Singh. And yes, we should have regulation to. Regulation that prohibits products which claim to work but are not at all effective.

            • Tzctplus –

              You simply don’t understand the issues.

              The way Libel Reform in the UK was Simon Sngh could have sued you for libel and made you regret every single insinuation you have made here about him, he being a man of means would have quashed you if you would not have similar means to defend yourself, irrespective of the merits of your arguments (which so far are minimal, but I digress),.

              The problem has nothing to do with regulation , but with the likes of alternative medicine practitioners, Russian Oligarchs, African Dictators and several other people of that calibre using their wealth to silence critics.

              You either want free speech or you don’t, specially in matters of public concern, whatever point of view Simon Singh spouses about the quackery of alternative medicine the fact is that the law as it stood was an obstacle to freely discuss any matters of public interest.

              • Elaine Decoulos

                With all due respect to you and mdoc, I have not libeled Simon. I have expressed my honest opinion about his tactics and agenda as the driving force of libel reform. That is also a matter of public interest. He has been seeking to change the law and I, as one with significant experience in the libel courts, has only rightly sought to critique it.

                You obviously do not like what I have to say, but that is my free speech, the same free speech Simon wanted when he criticised the British Chiropractic Association. You cannot only have free speech for yourselves and no one else. You may think what I have said about Simon is defamatory, but it is not legally actionable, which is when it becomes libelous. It is not actionable with the current law or with the new Defamation Act.

                If you carefully read the new Defamation Act, you will see that it only offers minimal changes that mostly benefit the press. There is nothing in the Act to address the biggest problem in libel litigation, the legal costs. There iis little in this Act to stop the wealthy continuing to use Britain’s libel courts to silence critics. It will still be the case that whoever has the most money will continue to have a huge advantage, be they the claimant or the defendant. This is obviously unjust and an obstacle to access to justice, a human right. As far as I am aware, this draconian costs situation does not exist in any other western democracy.

  • David G Anderson

    Trick or Treatment is a brilliant book which “cured” my attachment to homeopathy and acupuncture (although my wife still feels good wasting money on those bogus remedies…)

    • Daniel Maris

      Yes, the Queen and her mother did very badly on all that homeopathic nonsense.

      • Elaine Decoulos

        I wonder if the Queen needed some homeopathy for nausea after reading about how Simon Singh is now being labeled a hero for his tireless campaign on libel reform after manufacturing a libel claim to present himself as a ‘victim’. Little does he know homeopathy has some of the best remedies for nausea. There’s nothing on offer from the pharma industry.

        • Ian Walker

          Here’s a simple experiment. Take a homeopathic cure for some common ailment. Pour it in the ocean. Wait a suitable amount of time for it to get really, really, really dilute (and thus by homeopathy’s own logic, incredibly ‘powerful’) and then test to see if anyone in the world ever suffers from that ailment again.

          • Daniel Maris

            You forgot sussuration.

        • kyalami

          Possibly the pharma industry would like proof that a treatment works before putting it on the market?

        • mdoc

          Evidence please. Oh, wait. There isn’t any.

        • Hungary4change

          I agree with Elaine. And perhaps I have missed something, but exactly what is the new law? And what was it before? Is it now illegal to practice chiropody in the UK?

          And why do less orthodox and conservative forms of treating maladies get lumped into one big “bogus” category?

          I have not experienced chiropody, but regularly need help for my back from an osteopath and there is nothing bogus about what he does, just straightforward manipulation of bones, cricking them back into place, which doctors haven’t a clue aboutt how to fix.

          I have been carrried into hospital in a friend’s arms, because I was twisted and bent over and unable to walk and in great pain, only to be told by doctors to go home, lie down (I couldn’t) and take pain killers for two weeks.
          Instead, I found an osteopath who had me walking within two hours.

          As for homoeopathy, although I am in no way fanatical about it, and not a practitioner myself and do indeed scoff at a lot of alternative things, such as home births (to me just a trendy self-indulgent nonsense), it is very narrow-minded to write it off as useless.

          Those who think that users recover simply because of the “power of suggestion” would think again if they saw the miraculous way it can work on infants and children, literally within minutes if not seconds of administering it! Babies do not have power of suggestion. And when their symptoms are real physical signs, they cannot recover so instantly simply because the parents are confident about using the remedies. It just is not possible.

          Doctors are brilliant at understanding how the body parts fit together, and if I were in a road accident (God forbid), I would want the best possible surgeons and equipment to stitch me up. They are sophisticated craftsmen and women excellent at wielding the scalpel (thank goodness), and we should all be grateful to them for their skills.

          But diagnosing illenss, particularly chronic illness, is not the same as a physical understanidng of bones and muscles, and there is most certainly a need for practitioners who view illness and recovery from a different angle.

          We should also remember that in allopathic medicine, today’s orthodoxy is tomorrow’s barbarism, when people will look back, as we do now, in horror at what doctors thought was the way to treat illnesses.

      • Phil

        or perhaps “despite all that homeopathic nonsense”? Given that there is very unlikely to be any ‘active’ ingredient in the product it is unlikely to directly harm (potential to harm does exist indirectly by stopping or slowing the seeking of appropriate medical advice). By the same logic my grandfather who smoked enthusiastically but lived to 98 surely proves the lie to the anti-tobacco lobby, no? Also the Royals do not eschew evidence-based medicine (indeed have access to the best available), remain active and are by no means poor; I can’t help but feel that these factors are more likely to have a greater baring on their longevity than the occasional consumption of something that could produce similar symptoms if taken in excess, diluted almost to infinity but with added magical stirring and tapping. What do you THINK?

        • Daniel Maris

          The fact that the Japanese smoke about two and half times more than we do but live much longer is certainly a puzzle for the anti-smoking lobby, given that Japanese live much longer than we do.

          I doubt smoking is good for you, but it’s probably not quite the

          health disaster the anti-smoking lobby like to claim, especially if you keep it to a minmum and if it helps you keep your weight down.

    • Viorel Mihai

      Acupuncture – a bogus therapy? Well, cand you tell me which country has the biggest and healthiest population on Earth? By any chance, is it China? Traditional Chinese Medicine is the best barefoot medical system on earth, prooved simply by the largest population on this planet today. So, tell one billion people that their medical system is a bogus…

      • chump23

        It is not the healthiest population on the planet.

    • Jacy28

      Both homeopathy and acupuncture work, see the truth at to know why homeopathy works and is not a placebo.

  • David Lindsay

    You should do a complete Now Let Us Praise Famous Men for our own time and place. Each of the Speccie bloggers should.

  • Tim Toddles

    Just googled Simon Singh, turns out I’ve read half of one of his books, not worth finishing lol!

  • Gita Sahgal

    Thank you Nick for a wonderful piece on Simon Singh. Congratulations to all who fought for reform of the libel law.

    On another issue where debate has been shut down due to the threat of libel, I want to draw the attention of your readers to the case of Chowdhury Muenuddin who lately held a senior position in an NGO advising the NHS as head of ‘spiritual care’. A tribunal in Bangladesh has charged him with war crimes Twenty years ago, I produced a film called The War Crimes File, which first aired these allegations.

    The victims families are still fighting for justice and their supporters will be defying the threats of religious fundamentalists and rallying in Altab Ali Park in the East End of London from 3pm on Sunday 28th April.

    Gita Sahgal Centre for Secular Space

    • Elaine Decoulos

      Not to disappoint you, but I don’t think Simon would be interested in this. The real problem with libel, and what is desperately needed yet ignored by the Libel Reform Campaign, is legal costs. To quote Nick Cohen above, they “use the crushing power of money to intimidate critics into silence”. Nothing in this libel reform will do anything about this. The real hero will be the person who manages to get access to justice for claimants and defendants alike. That person is not Simon Singh.

      Once again, just to clarify, this is my HONEST OPINION!

  • Steven Clark

    Here here

    • David G Anderson

      Hear! Hear!

  • Dave Farmer

    Well said! Simon Singh is a hero for us all, whether he likes it or not 😉