Archive for Simon Singh

Beginning Again

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on August 19, 2009 by telescoper

I keep finding old forgotten bits and pieces – especially book reviews – on my computer. This one is about five years old but I thought I might as well put it on here to save having to think of anything else for today. It’s also a little bit topical because the author, Simon Singh, has recently been the subject of much discussion on this blog (here and here).

This piece was eventually published in an edited form as as Nature 432, 953-954 (23 December 2004) | doi:10.1038/432953b; Published online 22 December 2004.

BOOK REVIEWEDBig Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It

by Simon Singh
Fourth Estate: 2004. 544 pp. £20, $27.95

When the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle coined the phrase ‘Big Bang’ to describe the rival to his beloved ‘steady state’ theory of the Universe, he meant it to be disparaging. It was bad enough for Hoyle that his pet theory turned out to disagree with astronomical observations, but it must have been especially galling that his cosmological adversaries embraced his derisive name. The tag has since spread into the wider cultural domain — nowadays even politicians have heard of the Big Bang.

But what is the Big Bang? In a nutshell, it is the idea that our Universe — space, time and all its matter content — was born in a primordial fireball, from which the whole caboodle has been expanding and cooling ever since. Pioneering theorists such as Aleksander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître derived mathematical solutions of Einstein’s field equations that could be used to describe the evolution of a Big Bang Universe. These models involve a creation event, in which space-time and matter-energy sprang into existence to form our Universe. We are still in the dark about how this happened, but we think it took place about 14 billion years ago.

Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the recession of distant galaxies gave support to the idea that the Universe was expanding, but the notion that it might be evolving from a hot beginning was rejected by many theorists, including Hoyle. He favoured a model in which the origin of matter was not a single event but a continuous process in which atoms were created to fill in the gaps created by cosmic expansion. The battle between these competing views of creation raged until the accidental discovery in 1965 of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which marked the beginning of the end for the steady-state theory.

This conflict between the two theories plays a central role in Simon Singh’s book Big Bang. His previous books, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book, succeeded admirably in bringing difficult mathematical subjects to a popular readership, using a combination of accessible prose, a liberal sprinkling of jokes and a strong flavouring of biographical anecdotes. The recipe for his new book is similar.

In Big Bang, Singh uses the historical development of modern cosmological theory as a case study for how scientific theories are conceived, and how they win or lose acceptance. He rightly points out that science rarely proceeds in an objective, linear fashion. Correct theories are often favoured for the wrong reasons; observations and experiments are frequently misinterpreted; and sometimes force of personality holds sway over analytic reason. Because cosmology has such ambitious goals — to find a coherent explanation for the entire system of things and how it has evolved — these peculiarities are often exaggerated. In particular, cosmology has more than its fair share of eccentric characters, providing ample illustration of the role of personal creativity in scientific progress.

This very well written book conveys the ideas underpinning cosmological theory with great clarity. Taking nothing for granted of his readership, Singh delves into the background of every key scientific idea he discusses. This involves going into the history of astronomical observation, as well as explaining in non-technical language the principles of basic nuclear physics and relativity. The numerous snippets of biographical information are illuminating as well as amusing, and the narrative is driven along by the author’s own engaging personality.

However, even as a fan of Singh’s previous books, I have to admit that, although this one has many strengths, I found it ultimately rather disappointing. For one thing, there isn’t anything in this book that could be described as new. The book follows a roughly historical thread from pre-classical mythology to the middle of the twentieth century. This is a well-worn path for popular cosmology, and the whole thing is rather formulaic. Each chapter I read gave me the impression that I had read most of it somewhere before. It certainly lacks the ground-breaking character of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The past ten years in cosmology have witnessed a revolution in observation that has, among many other things, convinced us of the existence of dark energy in the Universe. Theory has also changed radically over this period, largely through the introduction of ideas from high-energy physics, such as superstring theory. Indeed, some contemporary Big Bang models bear a remarkable resemblance to the steady-state universe, involving the continuous creation not of mere atoms, but of entire universes.

Frustratingly, virtually all the exciting recent developments are missing from this book, which leaves off just when things started to get interesting, with the COBE satellite in 1992. Readers who want to know what is going on now in this field should definitely look elsewhere. The processes of cosmic discovery and controversy are ongoing, not just relics of the past.

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Singh Along

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on August 4, 2009 by telescoper

One of the nice things about the blog interface at  WordPress  is the way it flags up posts from other blogs that might be related to those on your own site. A good example is an item at a site which is quite new to me called Cubik’s Rube. This particular one alerted me to an update about the Simon Singh libel action which I’ve blogged about before, in a post that generated a great deal of debate and discussion.

If you recall, Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA)  for damages after he labelled some of their treatments bogus in an article written in The Guardian. The newspaper settled and withdrew the piece from its website but Singh decided to fight the action. At a pre-trial hearing the judge ruled that his use of the word bogus would be interpreted as meaning that the therapies being offered by the BCA were not only worthless, but that the BCA  knew they were worthless. To win his case Singh would have to prove both these claims were true. Simon Singh claimed he never intended that meaning and vowed to appeal. That was the situation in June 2009, at the time of my previous post.

Things moved on a bit while I was away last week. In an order sealed on 30 July 2009 the Court of Appeal has refused Singh leave to appeal, thus piling the pressure even further on him to settle the action and restricting his options even further. For a clearer explanation of the legal issues involved than I could ever manage, see the article by famous legal blogger Jack of Kent.

One side issue is worth mentioning, however, which is that it is apparently unclear from a legal point of view whether the BCA has standing to sue for defamation at all since it is a corporation without shareholders. It seems strange that such a basic issue would be unresolved. Surely there must be relevant precedents?

Meanwhile the BCA has issued a conciliatory statement, implying that it would prefer for the case to be settled out of court. This seems a bit surprising given that they would appear to hold all the cards, but the answer probably lies in the appalling public relations gaffe it has made over its presentation of alleged evidence for its therapies.

Challenged (largely by bloggers) to present evidence for the effectiveness of its therapies for certain paediatric conditions (such as asthma, infantile colic and even bed-wetting), the BCA produced a report containing a “plethora” of evidence, dated 17th June 2009. This dossier – cobbled together from 19 research papers, most of which don’t really support their case at all – turns out to have been the epitome of dodginess and over the last few weeks it has been comprehensively dissected, discredited, debunked and demolished all over the blogosphere. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal described its own refutation of the BCA’s claims to be “complete”.

I doubt if the BCA wants to see its credibility further undermined by having its so-called evidence savaged again in open court, which probably explains why they might prefer to settle than carry on the case. Nothing said in court can be subject to the libel laws.

But it’s an amazing blunder by the BCA to have presented such a shaky collection of evidence in the first place. All it has achieved is to make them look like fools.

Anyway, it’s now a peculiar situation. It still looks like Singh can’t win the case unless he can prove the BCA are dishonest rather than merely inept. And the BCA stands to fall even lower in public esteem if it goes to trial. If Singh can afford it he could fight on regardless and hope that if he loses the damages will be bearable. Morally, though, he will have won.

But the really impressive thing to me is the way that expert bloggers have forced the BCA into a corner. I think this is probably a sign of the way science is changing through use of the internet’s ability to communicate complex things so rapidly.

Simon Singh and the “Bogus” Issue

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by telescoper

This is an issue that I’ve been meaning to comment about for some time, but hadn’t done so because I really didn’t have a clear view on what opinion to express! I’ve now decided to chip in precisely for that reason, i.e. because I don’t think the matter is as clear as others appear to think.

The story will be familiar to many readers of the blog, so I’ll only give a quick recap of the salient points. Simon Singh is a popular science writer – a very good one, in fact – who recently  co-authored a book on alternative medicine called Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University. In that book they produced evidence showing that many “alternative” medical therapies including homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractice  were, in fact, useless for the control of many conditions for which they are prescribed by the relevant specialists. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Singh wrote a piece in the Comment pages of the Guardian newspaper in which he specifically criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described these treatments as “bogus” and criticised the  BCA for “happily promoting” them.

The BCA decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. The Guardian removed the article from its web pages and encouraged Singh to settle out of court, offering to pay his legal expenses if he agreed to do so. He refused and decided to defend the libel action in court. At a preliminary hearing in May, the Judge, Mr Justice Eady,  ruled that the wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning.

This ruling – which is currently under appeal – effectively means that Singh has to prove that the BCA are consciously dishonest in order to win the libel case. That looks like a very tall order. He also has to pay the costs of the preliminary hearing, which amount to £23,000. If the matter goes to a full trial then he will be out of pocket to a much greater extent than this: a conservative estimate is that his legal costs alone will exceed £100,000, and there will be damages to pay on top of that.

This has become something of a cause célèbre owing, it is alleged, to the intrusion of the courts into matters of scientific debate. The organization Sense About Science has organized a petition (“to keep libel laws out of science”) which has attracted over 10,000 signatures. The issue that signatories are worried about is that the open cut-and-thrust of rational scientific debate will be stifled if a precedent is set that involves one party taking another to court. As they put it

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The case has also revived calls to reform Britain’s  laws on defamation, which make the defence of a libel action in the UK very difficult from a legal perspective compared to other jurisdictions because, roughly speaking, they place the burden of proof on the defendant not the plaintiff. It is also so expensive to pursue such an action through the courts that the system clearly favours the rich and powerful versus ordinary citizens.

The ruling by Sir David Eady has been singled out for disapproval in the print media and across the blogosphere as an example of how  British law stifles free speech.

So why am I unclear about this? Shouldn’t we keep libel laws out of science? Doesn’t the British law of libel need changing?

Of course I say “yes” to both of those. But it seems to me that the Simon Singh case isn’t really about those questions.

For a start, there is no way that you can regard a Comment article in a national newspaper as the proper place for scientific debate between qualified specialists. Such arguments can and do take place at scientific conferences, seminars and through the pages of learned journals. Simon Singh was not participating in this process when he wrote his article. He was doing something quite different: publicising his book.

Secondly, it is true that Simon Singh is a qualified scientist. He has a PhD in particle physics, in fact. But that does not in itself qualify him as competent to pronounce on issues relating to medical practice. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone stating their opinion about things that they’re interested in. It’s just that he doesn’t get a special ticket because he happened to get a science PhD. My point is that his article was not part of the cut-and-thrust of informed scientific debate between experts, merely an individual commenting on something. The fact that he’s a scientist should not give him a blanket exemption from having to obey the laws that apply to others, especially when he is talking about things outside his speciality. It’s also worth stating here that if what he’d said had clearly just been an opinion it would not have been subject to a libel case. The problem is that it appears to be a statement of fact from an authority on the matter.

Third, note that the original book – which is a proper scientific work in which arguments are presented with accompanying evidence – is not the subject of the libel action, just the newspaper article. The BCA is not using the libel laws to suppress or contest scientific evidence.

Now we come to the crux. Does Mr Justice Eady’s ruling really “defy logic” as many commentators have alleged? What does the word “bogus” actually mean? It seems sensible to turn to an authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Doing so, I find that the word “bogus” is actually of American origin. The first usage found in the OED is from 1827 where it appears as a noun, meaning “an apparatus used for making counterfeit coins”. Later on it is found as an adjective, with current meanings

Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham: ‘originally applied to counterfeit coin’ (Webster).

It seems to me that since the preliminary hearing was specifically intended to give a ruling on the meaning of the words that had been used in the allegedly libellous document, Mr Justic Eady actually had no choice at all in deciding that the word meant what it did. Clearly “counterfeit” implies a deliberate misrepresentation. Effectively the ruling means that Singh’s words mean that the BCA are no better than Snake Oil salesmen, a defamatory statement if ever I heard one.

Singh has claimed that this was not what he meant by “bogus” and what he intended was something more like “unproved” but I don’t see how it can be an acceptable defence to claim that one’s words mean what you think and not what everyone else thinks. It didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty and it won’t work for Simon Singh. If I write that “Jones the Dentist is incompetent” then that will be libelous (if untrue) even if I later claim I thought that the word incompetent meant something different to what it everyone else thinks.

Truth is of course an acceptable defence against libel, but the “truth” at issue has now become not whether chiropractice is effective or ineffective (a scientific issue) but whether chiropractioners are consciously fraudulent. I’d be wholeheartedly against trying to settle the first question in the courts, but nobody is trying to suggest that. The second question seems to me one that has to be settled that way.

Now let me say that I don’t know anything at all about chiropractice. I don’t know whether it works or doesn’t work, but it does seem to me that Simon Singh was very unwise to use the word “bogus” and even unwiser still to defend the action after he did.

For me, the only really significant issue in this saga is a general one: the overall matter of freedom of speech. In general, I believe strongly in freedom of speech but because we don’t have a written constitution the right to it is not stated as clearly here in the United Kingdom as it is, for example, in the United States. However, don’t forget that there are defamation laws (including libel) in America too. Among those statements considered defamatory per se under US law are statements “injurious to another in their trade, business, or profession”, which certainly would cover chiropractors. The US system is much less plaintiff-friendly than ours, in that it provides for a wider range of potential defences, and it also largely reverses the burden of proof unless there is an affirmative defence. It does not seem obvious to me, though, that Singh would have any more success in defending his case in America rather than here. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Even in countries like the United States where Freedom of Speech is enshrined as a constitutional right, it is necessary that it should tempered by wider considerations. It should not be legal for someone to damage another person’s reputation and livelihood by making intentionally false and defamatory assertions. Neither should it be possible to abuse and/or threaten another in such a way as to cause harassment or intimidation. There have to be laws covering such things. The real question is how to make them work in a more impartial way than they do now. To argue that one should be exempted simply by declaring oneself to be a scientist seems to me to be dangerously simplistic. The best way to keep the libel laws out of science is to for scientists not to make potentially libelous statements if they don’t possess the evidence to back them up.

I realise that many of you may think that, in not fully supporting Simon Singh, I am being overtly pro-BCA. I certainly don’t intend to be so. I think there’s blame on both sides. I think that the BCA was unnecessarily aggressive in suing him for libel. Given that they did so, though, Singh seems to me to have made an error of judgement in continuing an action he is very unlikely to win. If he continues with the case now his only hope is that he can produce enough evidence in court that damages the BCA that they drop the action. In the long run, what will probably happen is that he loses the case and the BCA wins damages, but suffers a big dent in its reputation for rather heavy-handed tactics. Along the way it might even happen that there is intense scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of chiropractics, and that might do the BCA more harm than good. Bear in mind that anything said in court under oath is privileged can’t be subject to libel actions…