The BMJ has today published an exchange between the British Chiropractic Association and Professor Edzard Ernst examining the claims of the BCA that chiropractic is effective in treating childhood ailments such as asthma and colic. The editorial of the BMJ has come down firmly supporting the assessment of Ernst. The editorial says,
His demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete.
This would look like it is now the definitive assessment of these claims and buries any suggestion that the BCA can defend its claims on the strength of evidence.
Meanwhile, the BCA continues to pursue science writer Simon Singh through the courts for an alleged libel when Singh wrote in the Guardian that these treatments were ‘bogus’ and that the BCA were ‘happily promoting’ them. Despite the BMJ clearly showing that there is little evidence to support the BCA claims, they could still win against Singh as the trial judge, Eady, has ruled that the meaning of ‘bogus’ suggests that the BCA were being ‘deliberately dishonest’ in promoting these claims. Singh has since contended that what he meant was that the BCA were simply wrong in their assessment of evidence.
So, Richard Brown of the BCA kicks off by defending the chiropractors position. He starts by saying,
It is quite remarkable that scientists should expect themselves to become exempted from the laws of the land for publishing defamatory comments, be they about an individual or an organisation.
Brown shows his total misunderstanding of the situation in his first statement. It is not that scientists want to be seen as exceptions to the libel laws; rather, that science is hindered by the presence of English libel laws and their application in disputes of evidence is completely inappropriate.
The insidious thing about English libel law is that all you need to do to bring an action is to suggest that you have been defamed; that in some way your reputation has been lowered. But in science, by criticising ideas, it is inevitable that some degree of defamation will occur – that by showing someone’s ideas are unsubstantiated and unsupportable their reputation may well be diminished in the eyes of their peers. The rules of the game in science are that this ‘defamation’ takes place in the open – most often in journals and conferences and public debate – not in the courtroom. Science is a tough calling. It is full of knock-about and direct challenge. In scientific medicine, the ethical demand is that public health is more important than any particular reputation. The BCA’s reputation is completely disposable if it means that people get better medical advice and treatments.
Brown then goes on – “there is in fact substantial evidence for the BCA to have made claims that chiropractors can help various childhood conditions.” This claim is then totally demolished in the following BMJ article that looks at Brown’s references and pulls the weak evidence apart and shows it to be completely lacking. Damningly, the review shows that the BCA have cherry picked their evidence and ignored high quality trials that suggest chiropractic is not effective for treating the named conditions.
And then in a bombshell, Ernst suggests that.
The omissions are all the more curious as the Association apparently knew of these [ignored] articles.
And then goes on to explain why. This would suggest that the BCA were deliberately ignoring pertinent negative evidence in their justification of their stance. Ernst concluded that,
The association’s evidence is neither complete nor, in my view, “substantial.”
This allegation would suggest that even if Singh were unable to overturn Eady’s decision that he must defend his article on the basis that the BCA were deliberately misleading in their statement, that it might be possible to prove that this is indeed the case.
So, what should the BCA do next? A few months ago, they must have been feeling rather pleased with themselves that the trial was going their way and I am sure they would have thought that Simon Singh would have folded his cards. That is not so true now. Indeed, Simon is fighting on and looks like he is prepared to go all the way. It is now clear that the BCA cannot defend their position on the basis of scientific evidence. They must now hope that it cannot be proven that they have deliberately deceived. However, cracks are now appearing even in this defence. Even if they were to win, the only conclusion that someone like myself can come to is that they may not have been deceiving, but that they are incompetent in their assessment of evidence. There does not look like a way the BCA can now ‘win’ in any moral sense.
And what this means is that the chiropractic profession is taking a battering like it has never seen before.
What is ironic is that if the BCA had written this article a year ago, as the Guardian had offered them the space to do so, all this would have been now forgotten. Chiropractic would have continued to thrive under their cloak of intellectual obscurity. But to pursue Simon through legal means only was their own decision, despite their claim that “The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) neither wished nor intended this matter to end up in the courtroom.” That is clearly not the case as they had alternatives presented to them and, indeed, they have belatedly taken up the alternatives in the pages of the BMJ.
And so, after some thought, several weeks ago, I have made a complaint to the GCC about the officers of the BCA for presenting misleading information to the public about the effectiveness of chiropractic in children. If they had written this article a year ago, I would not have done so. But if they feel happy that they do not have to defend their evidence in court now, perhaps they might be less happy that they now have to defend their position to their professional regulator. Their code of conduct is quite clear:
If chiropractors, or others on their behalf, do publicise, the information used must be factual and verifiable. The information must not be misleading or inaccurate in any way. It must not, in any way, abuse the trust of members of the public nor exploit
their lack of experience or knowledge about either health or chiropractic matters.
If you want to be treated like a regulated profession, then expect to be held against high standards.