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December 2, 2011

Debating the robocalypse

"This House fears the rise of artificial intelligence."

This was the motion up for debate at Trinity College Dublin's Philosophical Society (Twitter: @phil327) last night (December 1, 2011). It was a difficult one, because I don't think any of the speakers - neither the four students, Ricky McCormack, Michael Coleman, Cat O'Shea, and Brian O'Beirne, nor the invited guests, Eamonn Healy, Fred Cummins, and Abraham Campbell - honestly fear AI all that much. Either we don't really believe a future populated by superhumanly intelligent killer robots is all that likely, or, like Ken Jennings, we welcome our new computer overlords.

But the point of this type of debate is not to believe what you are saying - I learned later that in the upper levels of the game you are assigned a topic and a position and given only 15 minutes to marshal your thoughts - but to argue your assigned side so passionately, persuasively, and coherently that you win the votes of the assembled listeners even if later that night, while raiding the icebox, they think, "Well, hang on..." This is where politicians and Dail/House of Commons debating style come from, As a participatory sport it was utterly new to me, and it explains a *lot* about the derailment of political common sense by the rise of public relations and lobbying.

Obviously I don't actually oppose research into AI. I'm all for better tools, although I vituperatively loathe tools that try to game me. As much fun as it is to speculate about whether superhuman intelligences will deserve human rights, I tend to believe that AI will always be a tool. It was notable that almost every speaker assumed that AI would be embodied in a more-or-less humanoid robot. Far more likely, it seems to me, that if AI emerges it will be first in some giant, boxy system (that humans can unplug) and even if Moore's Law shrinks that box it will be much longer before AI and robotics converge into a humanoid form factor.

Lacking conviction on the likelihood of all this, and hence of its dangers, I had to find an angle, which eventually boiled down to Walt Kelly and We have met the enemy and he is us. In this, I discovered, I am not alone: a 2007 ThinkArtificial poll found that more than half of respondents feared what people would do with AI: the people who program it, own it, and deploy it.

If we look at the history of automation to date, a lot of it has been used to make (human) workers as interchangeable as possible. I am old enough to remember, for example, being able to walk down to the local phone company in my home town of Ithaca, NY, and talk in person to a customer service representative I had met multiple times before about my piddling residential account. Give everyone the same customer relationship database and workers become interchangeable parts. We gain some convenience - if Ms Jones is unavailable anyone else can help us - but we pay in lost relationships. The company loses customer loyalty, but gains (it hopes) consistent implementation of its rules and the economic leverage of no longer depending on any particular set of workers.

I might also have mentioned automated trading systems, which are making the markets swing much more wildly much more often. Later, Abraham Campbell, a computer scientist working in augmented reality at University College Dublin, said as much as 25 percent of trading is now done by bots. So, cool: Wall Street has become like one of those old IRC channels where you met a cute girl named Eliza...

Campbell had a second example: the Siri, which will tell you where to hide a dead body but not where you might get an abortion. Google's removal of torrent sites from its autosuggestion/Instant feature didn't seem to me egregious censorship, partly because there are other search engines and partly (short-sightedly) because I hate Instant so much already. But as we become increasingly dependent on mediators to help us navigate our overcrowded world, the agenda and/or competence of the people programming them are vital to know. These will be transparent only as long as there are alternatives.

Simultaneously, back in England in work that would have made Jessica Mitford proud, Privacy International's Eric King and Emma Draper were publishing material that rather better proves the point. Big Brother Inc lays out the dozens of technology companies from democratic Western countries that sell surveillance technologies to repressive regimes. King and Draper did what Mitford did for the funeral business in the late 1960s (and other muckrakers have done since): investigate what these companies' marketing departments tell prospective customers.

I doubt businesses will ever, without coercion, behave like humans with consciences; it's why they should not be legally construed as people. During last night's debate, the prospective robots were compared to women and "other races", who were also denied the vote. Yes, and they didn't get it without a lot of struggle. The In the "Robocalypse" (O'Beirne), they'd better be prepared to either a) fight to meltdown for their rights or b) protect their energy sources and wait patiently for the human race to exterminate itself.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

February 11, 2011

Question, explore, discover...action!

Here's a thing I bet you don't know: when 350 people simultaneously dump a small vialful of small sugar pills (also known as 31C homeopathic belladonna) into their mouths and bite down it makes a helluva CRUNCH.

In this case, the noise was heard around the world, even in Antarctica. (How cool is that?)

It was a great stunt, but made a real point: homeopathic "remedies" rely on the notion that you can dilute a substance until there is nothing left of it and the stuff you dilute it with - sugar, water - will somehow "remember" the contact and relay the substance's effect. Which means that by the lights of anything we know about chemistry they have no effect beyond that of a placebo. Why, especially in this time of economic crisis, are we funding it on the National Health Service? Because, the (last) government said (PDF), efficacy is only one of many criteria, and...people like it. Equality of access to sugar pills, dontcha know.

The CRUNCH was at 10:23 on Sunday morning, the time (and the campaign name) chosen from Avogadro's number, the point of dilution past which no molecule of the original substance remains in the solution. The bottle says belladonna; the reality is sugar pills.

Why are people so willing to believe? A lot of the patterns of what Bruce Hood called "supernatural thinking" are visible in the very young children whose development he studies.

"Children are not blank slates," he said, echoing my first thought when I heard Richard Dawkins talk about children's indoctrination with religion. "Children believe things they think are plausible. That's the case for all of us." This is the downside of being human: "They already have misconceptions by the time they're 12 months old." Even a very young human brain is optimized for seeing patterns, particularly patterns that look like faces. By the time children are three or four, they're thinking about ghosts and spirits. By the time they're four or five, they already have the notion of mind/body dualism and essential energies.

The upshot, he said, is that as adults try to organize the world in their minds, even extremely rational people will find that under the right circumstances the misconceptions they had as very young children will emerge. "We don't throw bad ideas away." Stress, illness, and aging all can compromise reason.

One of Hood's examples involved a test in which people were asked to stab pictures of loved ones in the eyes. They know they're pictures; they know it won't hurt them...and yet they resist doing it. Even the most experienced, hardened skeptic can react like this: I suggested to James Randi once that he should mount a mass voodoo demonstration by asking skeptics around the world who had Randi dolls to take the three voodoo pins and simultaneously stab them in the heart. He got a very uncomfortable look on his face.

So: granted that supernatural (or magical) thinking is endemic, what do you do?

Well, for one thing, said Eugenie Scott, a former university professor and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, you bear in mind that, "What matters is what people hear, not what you say." Ultimately, she added, "You are trying to persuade people, so you have to think how to communicate."

It's true: you're not going to get very far making people feel that you think they're stupid. What skeptics can do, suggested Hayley Stevens as part of the ghost-hunting panel, is to suggest alternative explanations. There is no question that people have powerful experiences they can't explain; skepticism is not about denying the subjective reality of those experiences but about trying to understand what might have caused them.

For Stevens, the more helpful approach is to help people think about the experience rationally. Rather than just saying a particular report must be sleep paralysis, she suggested, explain what it is, explore how it might be affecting the person, and offer them different resources for understanding it. "Never say this is the answer; say this is what we think it could be," she said. Often, keeping a "ghost diary" can provide valuable clues or help a person work out a likely cause for themselves.

Although: that might move people on from thinking magically, but it doesn't necessarily draw them to science or that stuff many people seem to find scarier than ghosts, mathematics. For that, you want Colin Wright, who juggles, then explores how juggling works (and how to write it down) by using mathematics, and then uses mathematics to predict where there might be tricks jugglers are missing. The result goes something like this. With a lot more fun.

But going back to the big CRUNCH. As Steven Novella, who spoke about neurology, wrote afterwards, it was a stunt, not a scientific experiment. Even so, it made a serious point: you can down a randomly purchased bunch of these things without harm because they have no effect whatsoever. As the late journalist John Diamond wrote, there's no such thing as alternative medicine; there is just medicine that works and medicine that doesn't. CRUNCH.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

February 26, 2010

The community delusion

The court clerk - if that's the right term - seemed slightly baffled by the number of people who showed up for Tuesday's hearing in Simon Singh v. British Chiropractic Association. There was much rearrangement, as the principals asked permission to move forward a row to make an extra row of public seating and then someone magically produced eight or ten folding chairs to line up along the side. Standing was not allowed. (I'm not sure why, but I guess something to do with keeping order and control.)

It was impossible to listen to the arguments without feeling a part of history. Someday - ten, 50, 150 years from now - a different group of litigants will be sitting in that same court room or one very like it in the same building and will cite "our" case, just as counsel cited precedents such as Reynolds and Branson v Bower. If Singh's books don't survive, his legal case will, as may the effects of the campaign to reform libel law (sign the petition!) it has inspired and the Culture, Media, and Sport report (Scribd) that was published on Wednesday. And the sheer stature of the three judges listening to the appeal - Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge (to Americans: I am not making this up!), Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justice Sedley - ensures it will be taken seriously.

There are plenty of write-ups of what happened in court and better-informed analyses than I can muster to explain what it means. The gist, however: it's too soon to tell which pieces of law will be the crucial bits on which the judges make their decision. They certainly seemed to me to be sympathetic to the arguments Singh's counsel, Adrienne Page QC, made and much less so to the arguments the BCA's counsel, Heather Rogers QC. But the case will not be decided on the basis of sympathy; it will be decided on the basis of legal analysis. "You can't read judges," David Allen Green (aka jackofkent) said to me over lunch. So we wait.
But the interesting thing about the case is that this may be the first important British legal case to be socially networked: here is a libel case featuring no pop stars or movie idols, and yet they had to turn some 20 or 30 people away from the courtroom. Do judges read Twitter?

Beginning with Howard Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community, it was clear that the Net's defining characteristic as a medium is its enablement of many-to-many communication. Television, publishing, and radio are all one-to-many (if you can consider a broadcaster/publisher a single gatekeeper voice). Telephones and letters are one-to-one, by and large. By 1997, business minds, most notably John Hagel III and Arthur Armstrong in net.gain, had begun saying that the networked future of businesses would require them to build communities around themselves. I doubt that Singh thinks of his libel case in that light, but today's social networks (which are a reworking of earlier systems such as Usenet and online conferencing systems) are enabling him to do just that. The leverage he's gained from that support is what is really behind both the challenge to English libel law and the increasing demand for chiropractors generally to provide better evidence or shut up.

Given the value everyone else, from businesses to cause organizations to individual writers and artists, places on building an energetic, dedicated, and active fan base, it's surprising to see Richard Dawkins, whose supporters have apparently spent thousands of unpaid hours curating his forums for him, toss away what by all accounts was an extraordinarily successful community supporting his ideas and his work. The more so because apparently Dawkins has managed to attract that community without ever noticing what it meant to the participants. He also apparently has failed to notice that some people on the Net, some of the time, are just the teeniest bit rude and abusive to each other. He must lead a very sheltered life, and, of course, never have moderated his own forums.

What anyone who builds, attracts, or aspires to such a community has to understand from the outset is that if you are successful your users will believe they own it. In some cases, they will be right. It sounds - without having spend a lot of time poring over Dawkins' forums myself - as though in this case in fact the users, or at least the moderators, had every right to feel they owned the place because they did all the (unpaid) work. This situation is as old as the Net - in the days of per-minute connection charges CompuServe's most successful (and economically rewarding to their owners) forums were built on the backs of volunteers who traded their time for free access. And it's always tough when users rediscover the fact that in each individual virtual community, unlike real-world ones, there is always a god who can pull the plug without notice.

Fortunately for the causes of libel law reform and requiring better evidence, Singh's support base is not a single community; instead, it's a group of communities who share the same goals. And, thankfully, those goals are bigger than all of us.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. I would love to hear (net.wars@skeptic.demon.co.uk) from someone who could help me figure out why this blog vapes all non-spam comments without posting them.

February 12, 2010

Light year

This year is going to be the first British general election in which blogging is going to be a factor, someone said on Monday night at the event organized by the Westminster Skeptics on the subject of political blogging: does it make any difference? I had to stop and think: really? Things like the Daily Kos have been part of the American political scene for so long now - Kos was founded in 2002 - that they've been through two national elections already.

But there it was: "2005 was my big break," said Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes. "I was the only one covering it. 2010 is going to be much tougher." To stand out, he went on to say, you're going to need a good story. That's what they used to tell journalists.

Due to the wonders of the Net, you can experience the debate for yourself. The other participants were Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Mick Fealty (Slugger O'Toole), Jonathan Isaby (Conservative Home), and the Observer journalist Nick Cohen, there to act as the token nay-sayer. (I won't use skeptic, because although the popular press like to see a "skeptic" as someone who's just there to throw brickbats, I use the term rather differently: skepticism is inquiry and skeptics ask questions and examine evidence.)

All four of political bloggers have a precise idea of what they're trying to do and who they're writing for. Jonathan Isaby, who claims he's the first British journalist to leave a full-time newspaper job (at the Telegraph) for new media, said he's read almost universally among Conservative candidates. Paul Staines aims Guido Fawkes at "the Westminster bubble". Mick Fealty uses Slugger O'Toole to address a "differentiated audience" that is too small for TV, radio, and newspapers. Finally, Sunny Hundal uses Liberal Conspiracy to try to "get the left wing to become a more coherent force".

Despite their various successes, Cohen's basic platform defended newspapers. Blogging, he said, is not replacing the essential core of journalism: investigation and reporting. He's right up to a point. But some do exactly that. Westminster Skeptics convenor David Allen Green, then standing approximately eight inches away, is one example. But it's probably true that for every blogger with sufficient curiosity and commitment to pick up a phone or bang on someone's door there are a couple of hundred more who write blog postings by draping a couple of hundred words of opinion around a link to a story that appeared in the mainstream media.

Of course, as Cohen didn't say, plenty of journalists\, through lack of funding, lack of time, or lack of training, find themselves writing news stories by draping a couple of hundred words of rewritten press release around the PR-provided quotes - and soul-destroying work it is, too. My answer to Cohen, therefore, is to say that commercial publishers have contributed to their own problems, and that one reason blogs have become such an entrenched medium is that they cover things that no newspaper will allow you to write about in any detail. And it's hard to argue with Cohen's claim that almost any blogger finding a really big story will do the sensible thing and sell it to a newspaper.

If you can. Arguably the biggest political story of 2009 was MPs' expenses. That material was released because of the relentless efforts of Heather Brooke, who took up the 2005 arrival into force of the UK's Freedom of Information Act as a golden opportunity. It took her nearly five years to force the disclosure of MPs' expenses - and when she finally succeeded the Telegraph wrote its own stories after poring over the details that were disclosed.

The fact is that political blogging has been with us for far longer than one five-year general election cycle. It's just that most of it does not take the same form as the "inside politics" blogs of the US or the traditional Parliamentary sketches in the British newspapers. The push for Libel reform began with Jack of Kent (David Allen Green); the push to get the public more engaged with their MPs began with MySociety's Fax Your MP. It was clear as long ago as 2006 that MPs were expert users of They Work For You: it's how they keep tabs on each other. MySociety's sites are not blogs - but they are the source material without which political blogging would be much harder work.

I don't find it encouraging to hear Isaby predict that in the upcoming election (expected in May) blogging "will keep candidates on their toes" because "gaffes will be more quickly reported". Isn't this the problem with US elections? That everyone gets hung up on calumnies such as that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Serious issues fall by the wayside, and good candidates can be severely damaged by biased reporting that happens to feed an eminently quotable sarcastic joke. Still: anything for a little light into the smoke-filled back rooms where British politics is still made. Even with smoking now banned, it's murky back there.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

November 27, 2009

Women and children first

The Irish author Tim Pat Coogan has commented that Ireland was colonized twice: once by the British, and once by the Catholic church. I was reminded of that yesterday when reading that the leader of the Irish Catholic church, Cardinal Sean Brady, the Irish government, and the commissioner of the Irish police have all apologized for decades of systematically covering up child abuse by Catholic priests, uncovered in the damning report of a three-year inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin from 1975 to 2004. It seems that the cover-up went, like Watergate, all the way to the top.

When I was living in Ireland in the late 1980s few people talked about abuse by priests. One who did was Frank Crummey, whom I interviewed for one of my first-ever published pieces, for the Guardian's women's page about the prosecution of the Irish Family Planning Association for giving away condoms at Virgin's Dublin Megastore. (Richard Branson funded the IFPA's defense, and flew in for the court hearing.) The chain of contacts led to Margaret Gaj, a veteran of contraceptive campaigns, and she sent me to Crummey.

He told me that his interest in contraception began as a campaign to redress the imbalance in subsidies between the Gaeltacht - Irish-language - and English-speaking agricultural areas. Working on that got him into the schools, where he saw that children were being abused - he mentioned in particular the Christian Brothers. But trying to engage their mothers on the issue failed: they were too poor and too dependent on their priests for help and charity to risk confrontation. Often, he told me, the priests would divulge even to abusive husbands what their wives said in the supposedly safe confessional. As the Irish writer Seán Mac Mathúna asked in one of his short stories, "Who'd be a woman in Ireland?" The situation with respect to child abuse seems not to have been much different: clergy and police cooperated to protect the guilty.

Unable to interest the authorities in the problems he was finding in the schools - a problem he encountered again, reportedly, in Ireland's industrial schools - Crummey concluded that the underlying problem was that too many children consigned them to poverty and powerlessness. That's when he began smuggling contraceptives into Ireland and, with his family's help, distributing them by post. The letters he got from desperate women telling their stories to beg for help, he said, were heart-rending.

It is hard to convey to anyone who didn't live in Ireland in or before the 1980s how deeply embedded the Church was. It owned 90 percent of the primary schools and most of the hospitals. The Irish Constitution, although it includes a US-like clause guaranteeing the separation of church and state clearly intended "freedom of religion" to mean "freedom to be Catholic". The late Leslie Shepard, editor of The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and an early supporter of The Skeptic frequently talked about the unique position of priests in rural villages in earlier times. Often, he noted, they were the only people who could read and write.

In fact, the village priest figured heavily in one of the topics covered in the early issues of The Skeptic (and revisited in the soon-to-be forthcoming Why Statues Weep: the Best of The Skeptic from Philosophy Press). The Trinity College Dublin professor David Berman had discovered new documents showing that the local priest was behind the Knock Apparitions. (Shepard always vehemently disputed that any village priest could be so deceptive.) I'm not sure a similar strategy will work now.

Noticeable change had begun while I was living there, often attributed to economic improvement that meant that many of Ireland's emigrants could afford to return, bringing with them experiences of life in other countries. A few of these founded the Campaign to Separate Church and State; others banded together to build non-denominational charter schools for their kids. In the 1990s, of course, then along came the technology boom which, at least for a time, charged the economy.

The Church was already in trouble before the scandals broke. Writing in Disillusioned Decades: Ireland 1966-1987 (Gill and Macmillan, 1987), Coogan noted that, "...though the presence of the church is all-pervasive there has been a diminution of the grip which it is able to maintain on an increasingly well-educated society. Increasing affluence (of a sort) and mobility mean that people can move in and out of the purview of the church without permitting it to have any great influence on their conduct (unless, of course, they want an abortion or a divorce)." From 1970 to 1985, the numbers entering the priesthood dropped by a quarter.

Now, according to the Independent, the abuse scandals have not only dramatically accelerated the already notable decline in numbers applying to enter the priesthood but is emptying the churches. For a country that only a little over 20 years ago could be persuaded through the power of the pulpit to vote down a constitutional amendment allowing divorce, it's staggering. The change may be less of a hard road for Ireland than it appears: one of the key messages the CSCS tried to impart in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the church paid for less than people thought, since the religious-owned schools and hospitals had and have considerable State funding.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

May 15, 2009

"Bogus"

There is a basic principle that ought to go like this: if someone is making a claim that a treatment has an impact on someone's health it should be possible to critique the treatment and the claim without being sued for libel. The efficacy of treatments that can cost people their lives - even if only by omission rather than commission - should be a case where the only thing that matters is the scientific evidence.

I refer, of course, to the terrible, terrible judgement in the case of British Chiropractic Association v. Simon Singh. In brief: the judge ruled that Singh's use of the word "bogus" in commentary that appeared in the Guardian (on its comments pages) and which he went on to explain in the following paragraph 1) was a statement of fact rather than opinion and 2) meant that the BCA's members engaged in deliberately deceiving their patients. The excellent legal blogger Jack of Kent (in real life, the London solicitor specialising in technology, communications, and media law David Allen Green) wrote up the day in court and also an assessment of the judgement and Singh's options for discussion.

None of it is good news for anyone who works in this area. Singh could settle; he could proceed to trial to prove something he didn't say and for which under the English system his lawyers may not be allowed to make a case for anyway; or he could appeal this ruling on meaning, with very little likelihood of success. Singh will announce his decision on Monday evening at a public support meeting (Facebook link).

A little about the judge, David Eady (b. 1943). Wikipedia has him called to the bar in 1966 and specializing in media law until 1997, when he was appointed a High Court judge. Eady has presided over a number of libel cases and also high-profile media privacy cases.

Speaking as a foreigner, this whole case has seemed to me bizarre. For one thing, there's the instinctive American reaction: English libel law reverses the burden of proof so that it rests on the defendant. Surely this is wrong. But more than that, I don't understand how it is possible to libel an organisation. The BCA isn't a person, even if its members supply personal services, and Singh named no specific members or officers. I note that it's sufficiently bizarre to British commenters that publications that normally would never reprint the text of a libel - like The Economist - are doing so in this case and analysing every word. Particularly, of course, the word "bogus", on which so much of the judgement depends. The fact that Singh explained what he meant by bogus in the paragraph after the one in dispute apparently did not matter in court.

We talk about the chilling effects of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the chilling effects of English libel law are far older and much more deeply entrenched. Discussions about changing it are as perennial and unproductive as the annual discussions about how it would be a really good idea to add another week between the French Open and Wimbledon. And this should be of concern throughout the English-publishing world: in the age of the Internet English courts seem to recognise no geographical boundaries. The New York author Rachel Ehrenfeld was successfully sued in Britain over allegations made in her book on funding terrorism despite the fact that neither she, the person who sued, nor the publisher were based in the UK. The judge was...David Eady.

Ehrenfeld asked the New York courts to promise not to enforce the judgement against her. When they couldn't (because no suit had been filed in New York), the state passed a law barring courts from enforcing foreign libel judgements if the speech in question would not be libellous under US law. Other states and the federal government are following to stop "libel tourism".

None of that, however, will help Simon Singh or anyone else who wants to critically examine the claims of pseudoscientists. The Skeptic, which I founded and edited some years (look for our Best Of book, soon), routinely censors itself, as does every other publication in this country. There are certain individuals and organisations who are known to be extremely litigious, and they get discussed as little as possible. Libel law is supposed to encourage responsible reporting and provide redress to wronged individuals, but at this virulent a level libel law is actually preventing responsible reporting of contentious matters of science and the individuals who are wronged are the public who are at risk of being deprived of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. David Allen Green, writing in New Scientist, provides an excellent summary of cases in point.

It will be understandable if Singh decides to settle. I've seen an estimate that doing so now could cost him £100,000 - and continuing will be vastly more expensive. Lawsuits are, I'm told, like having cancer: miserable, roller-coaster affairs that consume your waking life and that of everyone around you. I have no idea what decision he will or should make. But he has my sympathy and my support.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to follow on Twitter, post here, or reply by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

December 19, 2008

Backbone

There's a sense in which you haven't really arrived as a skeptic until someone's sued you. I've never had more than a threat, so as founder of The Skeptic, I'm almost a nobody. But by that standard Simon Singh, author with alternative medicine professor Edzard Ernst of the really excellent Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, has arrived.

I think of Singh as one of the smarter, cooler generation of skeptics, who combine science backgrounds, good writing, and the ability to make their case in the mass media. Along with Ben Goldacre, Singh has proved that I was wrong when I thought, ten years ago, that getting skepticism into the national press on a regular basis was just too unlikely.

It's probably no coincidence that both cover complementary and alternative medicine, one of the biggest consumer issues of our time. We have a government that wants to save money on the health service. We have consumers who believe, after a decade or more of media insistence, that medicine is bad (BSE, childhood vaccinations, mercury fillings) and alternative treatments that defy science (homeopathy, faith healing) are good. We have overworked doctors who barely know their patients and whose understanding of the scientific process is limited. We have patients who expect miraculous cures like the ones they see on the increasingly absurd House. Doctors recommend acupuncture and Prince Charles, possessed of the finest living standards and medical treatment money can buy, promotes everything *else*. And we have medical treatments whose costs spiral every upwards, and constant reports of new medicines that fail their promise in one way or another.

But the trouble with writing for major media in this area is that you run across the litigious, and so has Singh: as Private Eye has apparently reported, he is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. The original article was published by the Guardian in April; it's been pulled from the site but the BCA's suit has made reposting it a cause celebre. (Have they learned *nothing* about the Net?) This annotated version details the evidence to back Singh's rather critical assessment of chiropractic. And there are many other New Zealand. And people complain about Big Pharma - the people alternative-medicine folks are supposed to be saving us from.

I'm not even sure how much sense it makes as a legal strategy. As the "gimpy" blog's comments point out, most of Singh's criticisms were based on evidence; a few were personal opinion. He mentioned no specific practitioners. Where exactly is the libel? (Non-UK readers may like to glance at the trouble with UK libel laws, recently criticized by the UN as operating against the public interest..

All science requires a certain openness to criticism. The whole basis of the scientific method is that independent researchers should be able to replicate each other's results. You accept a claim on that basis and only that basis - not because someone says it on their Web site and then sues anyone who calls it lacking in evidence. If the BCA has evidence that Singh is wrong, why not publish it? The answer to bad speech, as Mike Godwin, now working at Wikimedia, is so fond of saying, is more speech. Better speech. Or (for people less fond of talking) a dignified silence in the confidence that the evidence you have to offer is beyond argument. But suing people - especially individual authors rather than major media such as national newspapers - smacks of attempted intimidation. Though I couldn't possibly comment.

Ever since science became a big prestige, big money game we've seen angry fights and accusations - consider, for example, the ungracious and inelegant race to the Nobel prize on the part of some early HIV researchers. Scientists are humans, too, with all the ignoble motives that implies.

But many alternative remedies are not backed by scientific evidence, partly because often they are not studied by scientists in any great depth. The question of whether to allocate precious research money and resource to these treatments is controversial. Large pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to do it, for similar reasons to those that led them to research pills to reverse male impotence instead of new antibiotics. Scientists in research areas may prefer to study bigger problems. Medical organizations are cautious. The British Medical Association has long called for complementary therapies to be regulated to the same standards as orthodox medicine or denied NHS funding. As the General Chiropractic Council notes NHS funding is so far not widespread for chiropractic.

If chiropractors want to play with the big boys - the funded treatments, the important cures - they're going to have to take their lumps with the rest of them. And that means subluxing a little backbone and stumping up the evidence, not filing suit.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).