Last week, at the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding the syntactic and semantic scope of knowingly in 18 U.S.C. sec. 1028A(a)(1), the English High Court decided, in effect, to insert wide-scope knowingly into a newspaper Op-Ed piece.
The story starts on April 19, 2008, when The Guardian's "Comment is free" section published Simon Singh's anti-chiropractic article "Beware the spinal trap". Singh's article included this passage:
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 British Chiropractic Association sued for libel. As a first step in English libel litigation, as I understand it, the court needs to decide whether the allegedly defamatory material is a comment or a statement of fact. This decision determines whether the defendant must prove that the comment was "fair" or must justify the statement of fact. (In American libel law, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.) The court must also decide what the comment or statement means, again in order to define what the defendant must prove.
According to a report by Jack of Kent, the presiding judge in the English High Court, Sir David Eady, decided last Thursday that Singh's passage was a statement of fact. But more surprisingly, the judge decided that
The word "bogus" meant deliberate and targeted dishonesty. So it did not mean that chiropractic for the six named children's ailments (including asthma) was simply wrong, or that it was contrary to established medical practice or research, or even that it completely lacked evidence.
"Bogus" meant a lot more. The judge held that by the mere use of the word "bogus" Simon Singh was stating that, as a matter of fact, the BCA were being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for those children's ailments.
This (to me puzzling) decision may be based on a cultural and perhaps generational difference. Then again, perhaps it's simply bogus.
The OED's entry tracks bogus back to its origin in 1827 as "An apparatus for counterfeit coining":
1827 Painesville Tel. (Ohio) 6 July, That he never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces. Ibid. 2 Nov. The eight or ten boguses which have been for some time in operation.
and give this interesting etymological note:
Dr. S. Willard, of Chicago, in a letter to the editor of this Dictionary, quotes from the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph of July 6 and Nov. 2, 1827, the word bogus as a n. applied to an apparatus for coining false money. Mr. Eber D. Howe, who was then editor of that paper, describes in his Autobiography (1878) the discovery of such a piece of mechanism in the hands of a gang of coiners at Painesville, in May 1827; it was a mysterious-looking object, and some one in the crowd styled it a ‘bogus’, a designation adopted in the succeeding numbers of the paper. Dr. Willard considers this to have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father's time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object; he points out that tantarabobs is given in Halliwell as a Devonshire word for the devil. BOGUS seems thus to be related to BOGY, etc.
The coining-machine meaning is of course obsolete — the OED's gloss for a more current meaning is "Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham"; Webster's Collegiate gives "not genuine: counterfeit, sham"; AHD gives "Counterfeit or fake; not genuine"; Encarta gives "1. fake or deceitful: false, dishonest, or fraudulently imitating something; 2. bad or useless: not good, pleasant, or acceptable ( slang )".
But more relevant to contemporary usage — and perhaps also to Singh's court case — is the Jargon File's entry:
Astrology is bogus. So is a bolt that is obviously about to break. So is someone who makes blatantly false claims to have solved a scientific problem. (This word seems to have some, but not all, of the connotations of random — mostly the negative ones.)
It is claimed that bogus was originally used in the hackish sense at Princeton in the late 1960s. It was spread to CMU and Yale by Michael Shamos, a migratory Princeton alumnus. A glossary of bogus words was compiled at Yale when the word was first popularized there about 1975-76. These coinages spread into hackerdom from CMU and MIT. Most of them remained wordplay objects rather than actual vocabulary items or live metaphors. Examples: amboguous (having multiple bogus interpretations); bogotissimo (in a gloriously bogus manner); bogotophile (one who is pathologically fascinated by the bogus); paleobogology (the study of primeval bogosity).
Some bogowords, however, obtained sufficient live currency to be listed elsewhere in this lexicon; see bogometer, bogon, bogotify, and quantum bogodynamics and the related but unlisted Dr. Fred Mbogo.
By the early 1980s ‘bogus’ was also current in something like hacker usage sense in West Coast teen slang, and it had gone mainstream by 1985. A correspondent from Cambridge reports, by contrast, that these uses of bogus grate on British nerves; in Britain the word means, rather specifically, ‘counterfeit’, as in “a bogus 10-pound note”. According to Merriam-Webster, the word dates back to 1825 and originally referred to a counterfeiting machine.
I believe that the term bogus was current in the early 1960s in my prep school, in almost exactly the sense described in this entry. I'm sure that we used it that way in college and grad school, and I was quite surprised when I learned that some people took it to mean "counterfeit". According to the way I've always used the word, it's certainly rude to call someone's statements bogus, because you're accusing them of saying something that is blatantly false, or at least deeply confused; but they might merely be careless, credulous, or stupid, rather than dishonest. In this respect, bogosity is epistemologically even further from lying than bullshit is, since bullshitters don't care whether or not their statements are true, whereas someone who promotes bogus ideas may be passionately convinced of their validity.
I wonder whether British and European technical and scientific circles had adopted the Jargon File's sense of bogus by the time that Simon Singh studied at Cambridge and CERN in the 1980s, since his usage in the cited passage seems to accord exactly with the application to Astrology and to "someone who makes blatantly false claims to have solved a scientific problem".
But even if bogus is taken in the older sense of counterfeit, Ben Murphy's comment seems a propos:
… false scientific claims are the equivalent of counterfeit coins. Their circulation threatens to devalue real currency. Of course, once a bogus coin is in circulation, it can be passed on by people who have no intent to deceive – not everyone is capable of spotting a counterfeit indeed, the ability to tell real science from pseudo-science falls within Simon Singh's area of expertise.
In any case, in support of Simon Singh, I hereby suggest that the international standard unit of bogosity should be temporarily renamed the BCA (for "British Chiropractic Association"). Of course, by the usual argument, the largest unit practical for everyday use would be the μ-BCA ("micro-BCA").
[For a discussion of the tangled history of this joke, see "Bogosity", 8/29/2006.]
[And if you're actually interested in the rights and wrongs of the case, check out Ben Goldacre's "Characteristically amateurish and socially inappropriate approach to pitching an article" at badscience.net.
See also "Simon Singh loses first round in chiropractic fight", The Great Beyond (Nature); ; "Truth under siege in the U.K.", PalMD; "Simon Singh's libel suit", skepticblog; "Sinh case update: A real pain in the neck!", God Knows What.]
[In a comment at Pharyngula, Mike Williamson points out that Justice Eady was responsible for a 2006 decision in which a journalist who referred to someone"s PhD as "bogus", was found to have committed libel, "even though it was established that the PhD was from a fake university [which was shut down by the FBI for fraud]. The issue was that the individual didn't intend to obtain a fake PhD and thought it was real, and [the justice] said the word 'bogus' implied [the fakery] was intentional". Than which. ]
[Update: it's easy to find evidence from recent journalism that bogus is often used to mean "false" without any implication of conscious fraud. One example among many: Ellen Goldberg, "Cops Debunk Bogus Crime Alert Email", NBC News, 5/12/2009:
Arlington police have been inundated with calls ever since an e-mail alleging a crime spree cover-up started circulating.
But the majority of the e-mailed crime alert about a man who was robbed after visiting an ATM is untrue, police say.
"The people who are forwarding it are thinking they are helping, but in this case they are heightening a situation," police spokeswoman Tiara Ellis Richard said.
Another example, where bogus means "contentless" or "empty", again without any implication of fraud: Matt Zimmerman, "AGs' Bogus Threats Hit Their Mark: Craigslist Gives In", EFF:
Disappointing news today out of San Francisco that craigslist has given in to pressure from law enforcement officials and agreed to remove the "erotic services" section from its site, establishing a rather dangerous incentive for law enforcement officials to bully website operators with baseless threats. As we noted last week, craigslist was at no legal risk -- none -- because federal law immunizes them from state criminal liability based on material posted by their users. However, the ongoing pressure, especially in light of craigslist's previous willingness to try to accommodate the concerns of law enforcement, finally proved too much.
David Eady's Wikipedia page says that before becoming a judge, he was a plaintiff's attorney for the likes of Lee Kwan Yew, and that as a judge, he
... presided over the "libel tourism" case brought by Khalid bin Mahfouz against American scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld for documenting his alleged financial support of terrorism in Funding Evil. On 1 May 2008, in reaction to this case, the New York State Legislature passed a law that "offers New Yorkers greater protection against libel judgments in countries whose laws are inconsistent with the freedom of speech granted by the United States Constitution."
So I may have acted too hastily in suggesting that the International Unit of Bogosity should be re-named in honor of the British Chiropractic Association -- perhaps the micro-Eady would be a more appropriate measure. ]
[Update 6/10/2009: I note with satisfaction that at least one writer has started footnoting this post when describing ineffective treatments as "bogus".]