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Am I really a chiropractic's 'nemesis'? I'm flattered, but...

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Dr Richard Brown, the President of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), has presided over the infamous BCA’s libel action against Simon Singh. For those who don’t remember it: Simon had published an article in the Guardian about unsubstantiated claims on the BCA’s website. The BCA decided to sue him personally for it.

Brown recently gave a lecture in which he reviews this experience 'that was ultimately to cost [the BCA] financially, reputationally and politically'1. This lecture has been published and is well worth a thorough read. Here I can merely present a few quotes (all quotes below are from Brown’s article) and add my comments to them.

At the outset, Brown states that 'chiropractic in the UK had long faced criticism from its nemesis, Edzard Ernst'. According to Wikipedia, nemesis is the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris. I am flattered, but I don’t feel divine!

Brown continues: 'For reasons that still elude us, [Ernst] reserved his most poisonous venom for the chiropractic profession' – not divine then, after all? If, by that, Brown means that I have repeatedly criticised chiropractors, he is correct. But the reasons for my actions should not 'elude' him – in fact, he provides them himself later on: chiropractors have been shown to make 'claims… relating to everything from haemorrhoids to hair loss, chlamydia to cancer'. As it is my job to scientifically verify claims in alternative medicine, I had no choice but to criticise.

About the libel case Brown states that, after Simon had denounced similarly such claims by the BCA as 'bogus', they had 'to either meet the criticism with silence or confront the issue head on'. They asked Simon to apologise, which he refused. 'In a move largely unexpected by many, rather than sue the newspaper [The Guardian], the BCA sued Simon personally for libel'.

Here Brown seems to forget that the Guardian had offered the BCA to publish a rebuttal of Simon’s article. However, the BCA refused! Why? Presumably because 'the BCA took advice from a leading specialist London libel lawyer, and was told that it had a cast-iron case… the BCA also sought advice from… leading academics'. That lawyers' advice to sue might not surprise many Pulse readers. 'Leading academics' feeling that unsupported claims are defensible is, however, truly puzzling. Perhaps they were not so 'leading' after all?

The BCA, of course, ultimately dropped the libel action, which 'began one of the darkest periods in its history'. Not only they had to pay the huge amounts of legal fees but also 'an army of scientists, sceptics and comedians was mobilised to disgrace, degrade and demolish the chiropractic profession'. These people were 'shifting their attention from the fairy tales of homeopathy to the cure-all claims of chiropractors'.

Brown’s lecture contains many more noteworthy statements, some of which are not directly related to the libel action but reflect on the chiropractic profession more generally, for instance: 'It is unsurprising that new (and not-so new) graduates [of chiropractic colleges] are seeking innovative ways of making a living. Inevitably, however, innovation for some means sailing closer to the wind than ethics and professionalism permit'. Really? Inevitably? Only if ethics and professionalism of chiropractic are wanting, surely!

From my perspective, the libel case had an enormous and lasting impact.The true legacy of Simon Singh’s courageous stance is that all practitioners of alternative medicine received a wake-up call telling them that standards of medical ethics must not be corrupted – and that can only be good for the quality of healthcare in the UK.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

References

1 Brown R. After the storm - what have we learnt? The Chiropractic Report 2011; 25(6):1-3, 7-8.

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