The efficacy of UK Libel law is now being shown up, in the legal fracas between science writer Simon Singh and the BCA, who’ve taken umbrage to his use of the valid term ‘bogus’ to describe one of their treatments.
Valid, I hasten to note, in the sense that no knowledge or malicious intent is required of the bogus treatment in order for the statement to work. OK?
We at the JREF support Simon in his quest for justice. It’s clear from his
writing that his intent was not to claim that the BCA knowingly commits acts of
fraud, but that the BCA is nonetheless incorrect in their claims of the efficacy
of chiropractic. Simon is, of course, correct. Furthermore, the ruling, as it
stands, would produce a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to
question the claims of anyone, including pseudoscientists. Whatever path Simon
chooses over this issue, the JREF will be there, and to the best of our ability
we’ll have his back.
Ideas and practises improve when they are criticised, and that’s important,
because medicine always has the potential to do great harm.Sadly the alternative
medicine community has shown itself to be utterly intolerant of criticism: they
refuse to disclose their university teaching materials, their university exams
are closely guarded secrets, and rather than embracing and engaging with
critics, they sue them, silence them, smear them, or stifle them. Brothers and
sisters in nerdiness, we stand together!
So, let us Support Science!
And above all, our hearty endorsement of Simon Singh and The Guardian at this time.
ADDENDUM 5th June – Here is the petition I and many others have signed in protest:
We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel
laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.
The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The
scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position
about chiropractic for various children’s ailments through an open discussion of
the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream
Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections
and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure
or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to
criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these
English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny
and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public
interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily
against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants
can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the
English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed
as the “libel capital” of the world.
Freedom to criticise and question in
strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and
debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which
have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such
as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and
science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base
supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate
and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.
law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should
discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case
shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English
libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.
And Orac has a great point about this here:
Quacks have discovered just how useful British libel laws are for silencing
criticism, and using chiropractic to treat asthma and allergies is, quite
simply, quackery. There is no evidentiary basis for it; there isn’t even
scientific plausibility. To get a case rolling, all a quack has to do is to show
that a statement is potentially defamatory; it’s then up to the defendant to
show that it’s true or was misunderstood–all at great expense. As I said
before, I don’t know if I could write what I write when I blog if I lived in the
U.K., and even that may not be protection, given the phenomenon called libel
tourism. The only protection anyone has from British libel laws is that it is
(now) fairly rare for the British courts to try to get American courts to
enforce a judgment. In any case, British libel law is a tool custom made for
quacks to wield against skeptics in order to shut them up, and that’s exactly
what they are doing. Like the Society of Homeopaths before, the British Chiropractic Association is
nothing more than a group of thugs and bullies who cannot defend themselves on a
scientific basis and thus use the law to try to stifle scientific debate.