Beth Miller

Writing and tea

Interview with Simon Singh

Simon Singh is a science author who wrote probably the most popular ever maths book, Fermat’s Last Theorem. It was a No. 1 bestseller in the UK and has been translated into more than twenty languages. He’s also written books on code-breaking and the Big Bang theory. More recently Simon’s become famous for being sued for libel by the British Association of Chiropractors (because of an objection he made to their suggestion that chiropractic can cure a range of non-back related conditions).

What are you going to talk about at the Lewes Skeptics meeting in March?

Two things: Firstly, alternative medicine [Simon’s book Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Professor Edzard Ernst, examines the case for various treatments]. It’s a rapidly growing part of the health industry - in places like Lewes and Brighton there are huge numbers of practitioners. We need to know whether it works or not.

Secondly, libel reform. In the end, the case against me was dropped, but I was still left with huge costs. There have been several other cases recently of researchers being sued for libel. It’s really worrying – science and medicine move forward by people examining evidence and being critical. Groups such as Skeptics In the Pub have been at the forefront of lobbying for change to the law, but there’s still a long way to go [].

Did you always think you would win the libel case?

No! For a long time I thought I was going to lose.

How did you feel when you realised you’d won?

Just relief. I could get on with the rest of my life. The case was dropped just three weeks after my baby was born.

How long will it take for you to pay off the libel costs? (60K?)

Even if you win, you lose. I’m lucky, I knew I could bear the burden of the costs, though they are damaging. But others in similar situations will lose their houses, become bankrupt. In March the Government will present a draft paper on libel reform. I hope it will be radical. It’s still important to keep campaigning. The law’s acknowledged to be an embarrassment, it’s well known that people come to England to fight libel cases as they’re sure they’ll win.

In the course of your alternative medicine research were there any striking findings?

Not all alternative therapies are the same; some are more effective than others and there are different conditions that they’re effective for. But there have been 200 clinical trials on homeopathy over the years, and it just doesn’t work. Yet it’s a multi-million dollar industry. People assume it must work because the remedies are stocked in Boots and it’s funded by the NHS.

But surely homeopathy’s harmless?

It’s all very well if homeopaths are treating colds but I’ve heard of young people going travelling who’ve been given homeopathic pills to treat malaria. It’s hard to believe some homeopaths would be so irresponsible.

Did you always understand Fermat’s Last Theorem or did it take a while?

The problem’s relatively easy to understand – the answer is absurdly complicated.

Which do you gain most satisfaction from: journalism, novel writing, telly, radio?

I like a mixture. Lately I’ve been mixing science, comedy and music on stage. In May we’ve got a new show, the Uncaged Monkeys Tour [also starring Robin Ince, Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre], which will tour fourteen cities It’s so good to see live audiences getting excited about science. After that it will be nice to start writing again.

Have you done many other Skeptics in the Pub events?

Several, across the UK. I love the events. The second half, after the speaker’s finished, is driven by the audience and can go in any direction. I hope there will be some homeopaths and Reiki practitioners in the crowd at Lewes, it would be good to hear their views.

What topic would you most like to get your teeth into next?

I’m not sure. Economics, possibly? It crops up all the time and I have no real understanding of it. Nobody really does! Part of the fun of writing a book is to learn.

If you were remembered for one thing, what would you like it to be?

Fermat’s Last Theorem. It proved you could make maths accessible. Young mathematicians starting out on their careers they often tell me they read it at school and found it inspiring. It showed that maths can be as beautiful as art or music. I’m really proud of that: changing people’s views of maths.

Beth Miller. Published in Viva Lewes, March 2011