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Libel victory for alternative medicine

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Page 1: Libel victory for alternative medicine

6 | NewScientist | 16 May 2009
















IF YOU have ever been tempted to call alternative medicine “bogus”, chose your words with care. You could be sued for defamation. That’s the message from a ruling in the High Court in London that censured science writer Simon Singh for claiming that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) promoted “bogus” treatments.

Chiropractic is a system of alternative and complementary medicine that treats illnesses by manipulating the spine. Singh made the comment in an article in London newspaper The Guardian in April 2008. The BCA asked him to retract the statement, which it said was wrong and damaging to its reputation. Singh refused, so

the BCA sued him for libel. In a pre-trial hearing last week,

the judge ruled that Singh was saying the BCA had knowingly made false claims. He rejected

Libel loss for Singh Singh’s defence that it was fair comment. “The judge has given us a meaning [of bogus] that is very extreme and that I never intended,” Singh told New Scientist.

Some lawyers and bloggers see the ruling as a landmark as it could restrict freedom of speech to criticise alternative medicine, and not just in England. People from all over the world are using English libel law to silence their critics (see page 24).

BCA president Tony Metcalf said he was delighted that the judge had protected the BCA’s integrity.

Premium on boys

VIETNAM is seeing a boom in male births as increasing numbers of parents opt for sex-specific abortions .

Christophe Guilmoto of Descartes University in Paris, France, and his colleagues analysed population data collected by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam since 2000, plus two surveys which assessed birth rates in 2006 and 2007.

In 2001, the sex ratio in Vietnam was close to the biological norm of 105 male

births per 100 female births, but this reached 111 to 100 by 2007 (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone0004624).

Guilmoto also analysed statistics of access to prenatal ultrasounds, and found that there had been a tenfold increase in availability between 1998 and 2007.

Demand for sex determination may have existed for a long time, but only once better quality ultrasound machines arrived in hospitals were women able to access and make use of this information, he says.

Bird life in the red

DARWIN would not be happy. A bird native to the Galapagos Islands, the medium tree finch, has joined 191 other species on this year’s “critically endangered” list for birds.

While this finch is in jeopardy as a result of parasitic flies introduced to the islands by humans, most of the bird species on this year’s International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species are

–Solar panels won’t help here–

–A high-visibility snack no more–

Cold-war fuel running outIT MIGHT just be the speediest

government response ever. On the

same day as warnings that new

spacecraft for studying distant worlds

are poised to run out of nuclear fuel,

the US Department of Energy (DoE)

promised $30 million to address the

problem. It was probably a coincidence,

but no one is complaining.

Missions such as Galileo and Cassini

rely on radioisotope thermoelectric

generators (RTGs) that convert the

heat from radioactive decay into

electricity. These are the only

long-term source of power when

sunlight is too weak for solar cells.

Supplies of plutonium-238 used in

RTGs are expected to run out by 2018,

the US National Research Council

(NRC) warned last week. The fuel was

a by-product of reactors that produced

weapons during the cold war but

were decommissioned decades ago.

To stretch supplies, the report

recommended the development of

more efficient electrical generators,

based on a Stirling engine which

heats and compresses gas. But their

moving parts “make people nervous”

as they can break, says Ralph McNutt

of Johns Hopkins University, who

co-chaired the study. A better idea

would be to convert current nuclear

reactors to start producing plutonium-

238, he says, although at least

$150 million in new equipment

would be needed to process it into

a usable form, the study concluded.

The DoE has pledged $30 million

to get the ball rolling in its new

budget. It was “a very pleasant

surprise”, says McNutt.

“The judge has given us a meaning of bogus that is very extreme and that I never intended”