Saturday, May 9, 2009

Careful how you use "bogus"

The Simon Singh court case had its preliminary hearing on the 7th and the news was very bad for Singh.

The two key decisions made by the judge are reported by Jack of Kent here.

The passage from the article in question is this:

"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."

The judge ruled that this passage is not "comment" but statement of fact. Second he ruled that "bogus" means deliberate and targeted dishonesty. Singh maintains this was not his intended meaning (he just meant the BCA was being reckless advocating treatments for which no evidence), but the judge has decreed that is the meaning - the meaning on which the case will turn: Singh was claiming the BCA were actually being dishonest, rather than just, say, stupid and reckless.

I do find this a very peculiar reading of Singh. Look, for example at the following piece by Robert Park (link below) about "bogus science". Park clearly is not suggesting that those promoting bogus science are necessarily dishonest (though some are of course). His criteria for bogusness are not criteria for dishonesty.

The seven warning signs of bogus science.

This author also clearly is not suggesting deliberate and targeted dishonesty when talking about the "bogus science of second hand smoke".

Yet the judge has now declared that by "bogus" Singh meant deliberate and targeted dishonesty. As a result, it is hard to see how Singh can win.

So, be very careful how you use the expressions "bogus science" and "bogus treatment", for the legal precedent has now been set, and you may be sued. Perhaps "bullshit science" and "bullshit treatment" are safer (following Penn and Teller).

Obviously there will need to be a whip round to support Singh.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, "bullshit" could me read to mean intentional dishonesty, too, as in "that guy's such a bullshitter".

I agree though, the judge's assessment here is over the top. 'Bogus' can obviously just been 'false' and the thrust of Singh's argument can easily be understood as saying the the BCA was bumbling, rather than malicious.

Lee said...

"happily promotes bogus treatments"

In context I would have just have taken this to mean 'has not been shown to work' but I'm not good with words and should be careful I guess

Scary times ahead with this court case

georgesdelatour said...

If the judge said that, then the judge is wrong. Does this ruling mean the OED must now be altered to bring it into line with the judge's new, amended definition of "bogus"?

Any reasonably intelligent person can understand there is a difference between making an unsupported claim for the efficacy of a treatment and deliberately setting out to commit fraud. The judge cannot understand... Therefore the judge is not...

Singh is accusing the BCA of the former, not the latter. It's easy to show if someone is doing the former, and very difficult to show if they are doing the latter.

Will the judge accept MRI scans of the brains of senior members of the BCI as evidence? I can't imagine what other evidence there could possibly be, if this is how the terms of the debate are pre-defined...

AIGBusted said...

Hey Stephen,

I just recently published a book called "Atheism and Naturalism". Anyway, I discussed Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism in the book and made points very similar to the ones you made in your paper on the subject. Here's where you can read excerpts and also a link to where you can buy it:

http://godriddance.com/book.php

Peace,
Ryan

Martin said...

I think you and some of the commentators above are letting sympathies for Singh run away with your/their judgement. Take a look at answers.com\bogus and you'll find that the word bogus has a clear meaning of counterfeit and an etymology linked to fake coinage. It's hard to see how a judge could rule that bogus just means "no evidence".

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Martin

Agreed, that is the dictionary definition. However Singh clearly did not intend that meaning. In the article complained of he even expanded on what he did mean.

As someone on Jack of Kent's blog commented: the judge seems to be trying to get Singh to defend a quote-mine.

(If you can't use "bogus" in any sense other than the judges I wonder were this puts Bill and Ted?)

Simon said...

The dictionary also notes that for 160 years bogus means "no good".

But even if we take it to mean counterfeit, as in coin, there is a distinction between someone who makes a fake coin, and someone who tries to use it. The coin is still bogus even if the person using it doesn't know that. So bogus treatment doesn't imply what the judge seems to think.

Of course one could still win by finding members of the BCI who have commented on studies that show no evidence. Since after reading such, continuing to treat would meet the criteria laid out by the judge.

wmbat said...

"Obviously there will need to be a whip round to support Singh."

Have you a link to the fighting fund?

Nick said...

Who are you calling "Kack of Kent"?!

Martin said...

Sorry Tony, but Singh didn't expand upon the meaning of his use of bogus, instead he emphasised that bogus was the word he wanted to use.

I agree that Bill and Ted did make a bogus journey, and that there can be a benign use of the word, but I still believe that the judge is correct in his ruling, and that Singh was unwise to use such a word.

Simon's point about using fake coins innocently doesn't hold because in this case the BCA are being identified by Singh as the manufacturers of the fake coinage, and that has to be done with an intent to deceive.

The Atheist Missionary said...

he ruled that "bogus" means deliberate and targeted dishonestyProof positive that the law is an ass.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I get the impression that the judge had already decided in favour of the Chiropractic Association, and just needed to find a 'technical' way to support his position.

My dictionary definition (Collins Concise) is: 'spurious or counterfeit; not genuine.' And I think that sums it up actually.

The pertinent point is that the judge ignores Singh's 'not a jot of evidence', yet that is what his argument hinges on, not the word 'bogus'.

The point is that if the Chiropractic Association could produce 'a jot of evidence' then Singh would lose his case, and that should be the determining factor.

It appears to be a travesty of justice in the making.

Regards, Paul.

Jack of Kent said...

Thanks for the link. I agree completely.

But "Kack of Kent"? :-( What did I do wrong?

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Martin

Take two alternative meanings of the word "bogus":

1. Resulting from deliberate dishonesty
2. Non-non-heinous and decidedly non-excellent

Add them individually into the "expansion paragraph". Under meaning 2 the expansion paragraph makes sense. Singh says that he knows that the treatments are non-excellent because there has been no testing of them. Under meaning 1 the expansion paragraph is faulty. Singh say that he knows that the BCA have been dishonest because there has been no testing. Singh has missed evidence of dishonesty.

If we are thinking "what on earth did Singh mean by "bogus"" then our decision is helped, in the direction of 2, by the expansion paragraph. In this sense the expansion paragraph clarifies the (Singh's) meaning.

Alternatively the judge could be arguing that although the speaker meant 2 his hearers would understand 1. But that is clearly not the case: meaning 1 came as a complete bolt out of the blue. None of us had the slightest suspicion that we had read an accusation of "deliberate and targeted" dishonesty. We all thought that the key part was the "not one jot of evidence". Why did we totally ignore "bogus"? Because we didn't take it to mean what the judge said it meant.

So Singh didn't imply 1 and we, his audience, didn't infer 1: how can it possibly mean 1?

I suppose the judge's decision makes sense if he is some kind of meaning objectivist: the "meaning" of a word is entirely independent of what the user (both speaker and hearer mean). But then the judge can't run off to a dictionary, lexicographers just record usage and the usage is clear. The judges decision requires some extra-usage principle: most probably "I'm the judge and I decide, you lot can do (and mean) what you are bloody well told".

georgesdelatour said...

So if Singh had said the BCA "happily promotes SPURIOUS treatments", that would have been very different from saying the BCA "happily promotes BOGUS treatments"? One implies no criticism of the ethical motivation of the BCA at all, while the other accuses them of attempted fraud? How many people see it that way?

Some Guy said...

Chiropractic is quackery, just like homeopathy, and any number of other scams. Letting a scammer sue someone who points this out is an outrageous miscarriage of justice.

Martin said...

If I labelled something as "crooked" there is a perfectly benign usage that means "not straight". But I would be ill-advised to label someone's actions as "crooked" because they could easily argue that a third person could infer that I was saying their actions were illegal. My intention is not the issue, instead it is by saying that some action is "crooked" that I could harm the reputation of someone. I think "crooked" has similar properties to "bogus" in this respect.

Georges, I agree with your proposition. Along with Judge Eady that seems to add up to a lonely two.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I think we all agree that the intent of Singh's comment is 'where's the evidence?'

If Singh can demonstrate that there is no evidence then I would suggest that the word 'bogus' is justified, meaning dishonest, spurious or counterfeit. In other words, 'not genuine'. Bogus suggests to me that it's not what it claims to be: a good definition of counterfeit, which I think everyone agrees is the word's origin.

I can't help but feel that the judge is giving his own slant, but even so, if the claims are untrue, then one could argue it is fraudulent, which appears to be the judge's take on it.

Regards, Paul.

Nick said...

Unfortunately I don't have access to the OED online (does anybody here have that access?), but the UK Encarta Dictionary defines bogus as follows:

"Fake or deceitful - false, dishonest, or fraudulently imitating something"

So, whilst bogus can clearly imply deceit or dishonesty, it needn't do so, and can mean nothing more than merely false or fake. I would imagine that this is the meaning that Singh intended.

When common usage of a word has multiple connotations, and the context doesn't clearly indicate which connotation the author intended, then surely the author may subsequently state which meaning they intended.

If Singh states that he intended bogus to mean fake or false, then surely the judge is not at liberty to say either that bogus does not mean that (as it is clearly one of the possible definitions of the word), or that Singh did not intend this meaning.

Stephen Law said...

I think that's exactly right, Nick.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I think, in some respects, the worst aspect of this is that, by suing him, the Chiropractic Association have turned the claim and defense perspective on its head.

In other words, the onus is now on Singh to support his claim, that their claims are false, when, logically, it should be the other way round.

Regards, Paul.

Greg said...

Unfortunately I don't think even a neutral reading of 'bogus' as meaning 'fake' would necessarily let Singh off the hook. Take:

'This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes fake treatments.'

Doesn't the implication still seem to be that the BCA is promoting treatments it KNOWS to be fake?

Since we're all probably disinclined to feel much sympathy for the BCA, it's interesting to notice how different things look if we consider an anologous, purely hypothetical case.

Suppose Stephen publishes a blog post which praises, and links to, a blog post by someone who (unbeknown to Steven) expresses racist views elsewhere on his blog. Then I come along and say:

'Stephen Law is the respectable face of the philosophical profession and yet he happily promotes racist bloggers.'

Now - would anyone seriously want to claim that that statement contains no innuendo whatsoever to the effect that Stephen knowingly and deliberately promotes racist bloggers?

Nick said...

It is possible for the treatments being promoted by the BCA to be false or fake, and yet for the BCA to still not be acting dishonestly by promoting them.

For example, perhaps these treatments have undergone a large number of rigorous clinical trials (and maybe these trials have also been subject to comprehensive Cochrane review), and have been shown to perform no better than placebo. In that case, we might reasonably say that they are false or fake.

However, due to a lack of diligence in investigating this clinical evidence, or a wilful self-delusion in interpreting or ignoring this evidence etc., the BCA might still believe that these treatments work. In such a case, they are not being dishonest if they promote them (since they don't actually accept that they are fake), but they are being reckless by disregarding the best clinical evidence about the lack of efficacy of these treatments.

In a nutshell, I would guess that this is Singh's position:

1) The treatments being promoted by the BCA are false or fake.
2) The BCA refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that this is so.
3) By continuing to promote these treatments, the BCA is acting recklessly (but not dishonestly, as they are sincere in their belief that the treatments are not fake).

Of course, the BCA may say that they are not acting recklessly, as the treatments do in fact work. However, this doesn't change the fact that Singh need not be saying that the BCA is acting dishonestly.

Arabella said...

Does anyone seriously need to know not to use the word 'bogus' unlessthe intent is to mean fake or fraudalent?
Never heard of bogus asylum seekers or bogus benefit claimaints?
Did any of you genuinely believe the people concerned were not intending to mislead? Didn't realise they weren't being persecuted in their own country, or were working after all?
It is ludicrous for Singh to claim bogus doesn't mean what it does.