Workers Hammer No. 209

Winter 2009-2010


Spartacist League/Britain statement

Defend Simon Singh! Defend scientific medicine!

The statement below was issued on 14 December 2009 and distributed that evening at a lecture by Simon Singh entitled “Science and the Battle for Free Speech” held at Imperial College London. It was also published in Workers Vanguard no 949, 1 January 2010.

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We Marxists defend Simon Singh, the renowned science writer, against the outrageous libel action by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). At issue is an April 2008 article by Singh, titled “Beware the spinal trap” published in the Guardian which challenged a statement by the BCA that chiropractic could help treat a number of childhood ailments including colic, ear infections and asthma. Singh said “there is not a jot of evidence” for this claim and asserted that the BCA “promotes bogus treatments”. Libel suits against scientists and science journalists are becoming increasingly common. In 2007-08, the Guardian and journalist Ben Goldacre, author of the book Bad Science, fought a libel case against vitamin pill magnate Matthias Rath who published advertisements in South Africa denouncing AIDS drugs as ineffective while promoting his own supplements. Although Rath was forced to drop the case, the Guardian only recovered part of the whopping £500,000 legal fees it incurred.

In the reactionary political climate of today’s post-Soviet world, we Marxists find ourselves defending the basic principles of materialism, secularism and the rational humanism of the 18th century Enlightenment. Against this ideological background, snake-oil treatments, commonly referred to as alternative “medicine”, are growing in popularity and many are even being funded by the state. The British government spent £20 million of taxpayers’ money on the refurbishment of the Royal London Homeopathic “Hospital”, while accident and emergency units are being closed down.

Science-based medicine and quack therapies are irreconcilable. While some popular treatments may be relatively harmless and may sometimes have a placebo effect, more often they are dangerous both in themselves and because they divert patients from needed medical treatment. This is borne out in the book Singh co-authored with Edzard Ernst titled Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial (Corgi books, 2008) an authoritative study of acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic therapy and herbal medicine. The authors concluded that “In fact, not only are such treatments unproven, but over and over again we have seen that alternative medicine is also potentially dangerous.” Regarding chiropractic therapy, they said it “might offer some marginal benefit, but only for back pain — all its other claims are unsubstantiated”.

The libel writ from the BCA quickly followed the publication of Trick or Treatment? The Guardian had offered the BCA space for a response to Singh’s article. But the BCA declined, preferring instead to hide behind the English libel laws. The BCA writ has sparked a public campaign and over 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for reform of the libel laws because they “discourage argument and debate” and have no place in scientific disputes.

English libel laws, which are enforceable in other countries, are so favourable to the claimant that London has been dubbed “a town named sue”. The English libel system has no relationship to the question of truth. Indeed it is nothing more than a protection from the truth for the rich and well-born. Unlike in the US for example, where the accuser must prove that the statement in question is false, in England the burden of proof is on the defendant. With the costs of litigation 100 times higher than in most other European countries, more often than not cases are never taken to court but succeed in their dirty work simply by intimidating journalists, newspapers and other publishers. As Simon Singh says: “Any publisher has to make a calculation on whether to defend a writ not on whether they have a strong case but on whether they can afford the extraordinary costs of running a case to court” (Scotsman, 11 December 2009).

The British capitalist system is to blame for the inadequate education system that results in widespread ignorance of the principles of science among the population, and for failing to provide decent healthcare for the mass of the working people. In these circumstances many people turn to remedies that promise miracles.

It is scandalous that in the 21st century Prince Charles, heir to the throne of the mediaeval institution of the monarchy, received £900,000 from the Department of Health to promote “alternative therapies”, which are international multibillion-dollar businesses, while Simon Singh has had to fork out £100,000 (thus far) fighting the BCA libel suit. The libel laws are used to defend the interests of big business. We also defend Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, who criticised the research data used to promote a new heart implant and was sued by the manufacturer. He faces financial ruin as a result of a libel suit by US company, NMT Medical.

Marxism has as its foundation the gains of the Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutions which freed scientific and social development from the shackles of feudalism. The triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92 has ushered in a period of theoretical, political, social and not least sexual reaction. There has been a growing assault on science, including from Christian fundamentalists seeking to undermine the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Particularly in this context it has become necessary to reassert the basic premises of historical materialism and the corresponding programmatic principles of Marxism.

The libel laws in this country are part of a system, including the institution of Parliament, that exists to keep the working class “in its place”. We look forward to the day when the libel laws and the system of lies they uphold — including feudal relics such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and established churches — will be swept away by socialist revolution. A future international planned socialist economy will provide free, good quality healthcare for all and sweep away the material basis for the persistence of dangerous anti-scientific quackery. In a world communist society — where social classes and all forms of oppression are part of a distant, barbaric past — mankind will finally be able to put into place the power of science in the service of all humanity.