[update: there are not many places left, there’s 150 places, so if you’re interested in science and the communication of science, particularly with the internet as a medium, then get along. At £10, it’s a bargain].
WHEN I was part of the huge legion that didn’t go out and buy the newly released iPhone, but instead bought an iTouch, I revelled in my uniqueness, my individuality, my un-erring sense of fashion. Pah, anyone can by an iPhone I thought; I wanted the technology that was almost completely locked, with under-developed software and little use beyond a few snazzy features.
One such snazzy feature was embodied in an early app called ‘Koi Pond’, where the iTouch miraculously became a simulation Koi Pond. I could peer into the magical device and the little Koi swimming amongst the lillies; I could interact with them, ripple the surface. It was really cool for a whole 5 minutes. Then it was boring.
This all changed soon enough, with software updates, the opening up of the OS platform to third party developers and general usability. I was quids in; I saw the development coming and made the right choice. At the end of last week, Apple finally released the much awaited OS 3.0 for iPhone (for free) and iTouch (at cost, of course). I updated on Sunday morning and was pleasantly enjoying the cut and paste (never was cut and paste seen as such a novelty in recent times!) and the Spotlight function allowing me to search my whole iTouch for keywords.
Yes, this fun lasted all of about 2 hours. Upon arriving at a friend’s house on Sunday afternoon, I visited their pond to look for fish. The iTouch slipped from my unsecured shirt pocket into the pond, sinking into the mirk at the bottom.
My digital Koi had had the last laugh as they joined their brethren, before fizzling out never to be seen again.
The law has no place in scientific disputes
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 media.
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 views.
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.
The English 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.
Everyone below signed as an individual unless otherwise stated