Simon Singh, with his lawyer Robert Dougans, outside the Royal Courts of Justice

A self-described geek, with spiky hair and a PhD in physics, Simon Singh is something of a scientific celebrity. Approximately three hundred staff and students crowded into one of Durham’s largest lecture theatres on December 8th when he gave the annual Stirling Lecture on ‘Science and the Media’. A large audience by university standards, but Singh is presumably used to larger ones from his national ‘Uncaged Monkeys’ tour alongside Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince.

Singh initially made his name with a documentary and subsequent book on Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem and this formed the first part of his talk, discussing the process of filming and the ethics of altering an interviewee’s words to make them more comprehensible to a lay audience. The second, rather longer, part focussed on Singh’s more recent activities: alternative medicine and the libel case that has made him a hero in scientific circles.

His interest in alternative medicine was sparked by watching a BBC documentary purporting to present the evidence for it. In one scene a woman is shown undergoing open heart surgery while still conscious, using acupuncture instead of general anaesthetic. Impressive? Well, it would have been if the acupuncture hadn’t been supplemented by three major sedatives and local anaesthetic! After eventually winning an apology and correction from the BBC board of trustees Singh wrote Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine.

This book formed the basis for an article in The Guardian on 19th April 2008 marking Chiropractic Awareness Week. It’s worth reading in full, but the synopsis is that most chiropractors don’t restrict themselves to treating back problems (and even here the benefit is questionable) but believe many or most general ailments are caused by misaligned vertebrae, with the British Chiropractic Association claiming its members can help treat colic, ear infections, asthma and more. Singh (rightly) noted that there is “not a jot of evidence” for these claims, and declared that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments”.

Rather than present evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic and arguing their case the BCA chose to sue. The case was eventually dropped, but only after two years and £200,000 of legal fees. Singh was able to claim his defence fees from the BCA but as a freelance writer he will not be compensated for the lost income from the years spent fighting the case. These figures are absurd but typical. The Guardian was left £175,000 out of pocket defending a libel action launched by Matthias Rath after Ben Goldacre criticised him for taking out full page adverts in South African newspapers condemning AIDS drugs and plugging his own vitamin pills instead.

There are many more examples of science writers subject to litigation or threats of litigation for raising concerns about particular results and therapies: Andrew Wakefield against Brian Deer, Channel 4 and The Sunday Times (and more recently the British Medical Journal), the Society of Homeopaths against David Colquhoun, Gillian McKeith against, well, just about everyone. The only unusual aspect of these cases is that they were fought at all: with nothing to gain and everything to lose most people, quite reasonably, back down rather than wager their livelihoods in a game rigged against them.