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Science & Libel

There's been quite a lot of talk in the media recently about the relationship between Science, Libel Law, Alternative Medicine and Evidence.  It's mostly in relation to the experiences of Simon Singh and others who have been sued in the UK for saying things like:
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.
The Chiropractic Association in the UK took great offence at this for reasons I can't comprehend and decided to sue Dr Singh for rather a large sum of money.

Now, here's what I think about this. First there really is little or no evidence that chiropractic is any better than physiotherapy for treating back pain.  In fact, there appears to be real evidence that it's less effective (and in some rare cases, dangerous).  Further, many unscrupulous chiropractors claim that their treatments can be used for those with asthma, and for this there is zero evidence.  Simon Singh was only stating this as fact (which it is) and for him to be sued seems shameful.

Libel laws in the UK (and other countries) should not be used as a forum for settling scientific matters.  When this sort of claim is made is the media, the truth of the claim should be taken into account. If shown to be baseless accusation, then libel action may be appropriate.  But in cases where the claim made holds water, no libel case should be possible.

Anyway - chiropractic is basically ineffective.

I've had several experiences here in NZ where people have recommended to my partner that she should try it : "Oh, it worked for me" and "My friend had fabulous success with it" and yada yada like that.

Remember : personal experience is not evidence. Scientists call this anecdotal or testimonial evidence, and although it can be compelling, it has little value for showing the effectiveness of a medical treatment.

For example - if someone has a very sore back for some reason and saw a chiropractor, how would they know that it was the chiropractic treatment that made them feel better?  How could they know for sure that they wouldn't have got better anyway? Perhaps the 20 minute walk to the office was more helpful?  Or the physiotherapy they received? Or the type of milk they were drinking?  Or the weather? There are so many variables when looking at a single person, that individual experience is never used when testing medical treatment.

When testing treatments, scientists use Double Blind studies, where as much as possible, these sorts of unknown entities are statistically removed.  When we double blind test chiropractic, we find that it barely work at all, and certainly doesn't help with any non-back related issues.

I suggest you read the Wikipedia article on Chiropractic.  It shows the evidence for what it's actually good for (actually very little).  I also suggest you check out the Skepdic page on the subject.

While you're at it, add your support to the Libel Reform campaign.  It doesn't matter if you're not based in the UK.


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