Libel law and scientific disputes…

Re-posted from Jack of Kent, the stated position of the great and the good on the libel case between Simon Singh and the BCA (details of which I wrote about in ‘Illiberalism in rational causes‘):

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


Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE
Professor of Physics and of Public Engagement in Science, University of Surrey

Dr Sabine Bahn
Cambridge Centre for Neuropsychiatric Research, University of Cambridge

Harriet Ball
Voice of Young Science network

Professor Michael Baum MB FRCS ChM MD FRCR
Emeritus Professor of Surgery and Visiting Professor of Medical Humanities, University College London

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS
University of Oxford and President, The Institute of Physics

Willem Betz
Emeritus Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Chair, SKEPP

Susan Blackmore
Visiting Professor, School of Psychology, University of Plymouth

Professor Colin Blakemore FRS
University of Oxford

Sir Tom Blundell FRS
University of Cambridge and President, The Biochemical Society

Jean Bricmont
Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Louvain and Honorary President, Association Francaise pour l’Information Scientifique

Tracey Brown
Managing Director, Sense About Science

Professor David Colquhoun FRS
University College London

Professor David Cope

Professor Brian Cox
University of Manchester

Dr Tim Crayford MB BS MSc FFPH FRSA
Former President, Association of Directors of Public Health

Professor Richard Dawkins FRS
University of Oxford

Professor Edzard Ernst MD PhD FRCP FRCP (Edin)
Peninsula Medical School, Exeter University

Professor Elizabeth Fisher FMedSci
Institute of Neurology, University College London

Dr Ron Fraser
Chief Executive, The Society for General Microbiology

Carlos Frenk
Ogden Professor of Fundamental Physics, Durham University

Diana Garnham
Chief Executive, The Science Council

John Garrow MD PhD FRCP FRCP (Edin)
Emeritus Professor of Clinical Nutrition, University of London and Former Chairman, HealthWatch

Professor David Gordon
President, Association of Medical Schools in Europe

Professor Hugh Griffiths FREng
University College London and Chairman and on behalf of
The Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK

Dr John Haigh
Former Reader in Mathematics, University of Sussex

Professor Martin Humphries
University of Manchester and Chair, The Biochemical Society

Sir Tim Hunt FRS
Cancer Research UK

Roland Jackson
Chief Executive, The British Science Association

Professor Steve Jones
University College London

Dr Stephen Keevil
King’s College London

Professor Sir David King FRS
Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford

Dr Chris Kirk
Chief Executive, The Biochemical Society

Professor Sir Peter Lachmann FRS FMedSci
University of Cambridge and Founder President, Academy of Medical Sciences

Jennifer Lardge
Voice of Young Science network

Armand Leroi
Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge FRS FMedSci
MRC National Institute for Medical Research

Daniella Muallem
Voice of Young Science network

Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie FRS FMedSci
Former Director, Wellcome Trust

Professor Clive Orchard
University of Bristol and President, The Physiological Society

Professor Ole H Petersen CBE
University of Liverpool

Lord Rees
Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge

Les Rose
Clinical Science Consultant

Dame Nancy Rothwell FRS
MRC Research Professor and President, Biosciences Federation

Alan Sokal
Professor of Physics, New York University and Professor of Mathematics, University College London

Professor Beda Stadler
University of Bern, Switzerland

Dr John Stevens DMS
President and on behalf of
The Institute of Biomedical Science

Professor Ian Stewart FRS
Mathematician and Science Writer

Professor Raymond Tallis FMedSci
Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine, University of Manchester

Lord Taverne
Chair, Sense About Science

Hazel Thornton
Independent Advocate for Quality in Research and Healthcare

Sir Mark Walport
Director, The Wellcome Trust

Professor Robin A Weiss FRS
University College London and President, The Society for General Microbiology

Tom Wells
Voice of Young Science network

Robin Wilson
Professor of Pure Mathematics, Open University

Richard Wiseman
Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire and Author

Journalism and Publishing

David Aaronovitch
Columnist, The Times and Author

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Journalist and Columnist

Wendy Barnaby
Editor, People and Society

Rosie Boycott
Former Editor, The Independent and Independent on Sunday

Geoffrey Carr
Science Editor, The Economist

Duncan Campbell

Dr Philip Campbell
Editor-in-Chief, Nature

Sir Iain Chalmers
Editor, The James Lind Library

Nick Cohen
Columnist, The Observer

Clive Cookson
Science Editor, Financial Times

Nick Davies
Journalist and Author of Flat Earth News

Kendrick Frazier
Editor, Skeptical Inquirer

Professor Christopher C French
Head, The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths University and Editor, The Skeptic Magazine

James Gleick
Science Writer and Journalist

Dr Ben Goldacre
Writer, Broadcaster and Medical Doctor

Nigel Hawkes
Director, Straight Statistics and Former Health Editor, The Times

Mark Henderson
Science Editor, The Times

Roger Highfield
Editor, New Scientist

Dr Richard Horton FRS FMedSci
Editor, The Lancet

Alok Jha
Science and Environment Correspondent, The Guardian

Rohit Jaggi
Columnist, Financial Times

Barry Karr
Skeptical Inquirer and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
Author, Broadcaster and Scientist

Sam Lister
Health Editor, The Times

Brenda Maddox
Journalist and Biographer

Dr Margaret McCartney
Columnist, Financial Times and GP

Robin McKie
Science Correspondent, The Observer

George Monbiot

Andrew Mueller
Journalist and Author

Steven Novella
Editor, Science-Based Medicine; Director of General Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine and Author

Vivienne Parry
Science Writer and Broadcaster

John Rennie
Former Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American

Nick Ross
Journalist and Broadcaster

Ian Sample
Science Correspondent, The Guardian

Ariane Sherine
Comedy, Writer and Journalist

Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic Magazine; Columnist Scientific American and Author of Why People Believe Weird Things

Rebecca Smith
Medical Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Bill Thompson
Technology Journalist

Arts, Humanities and Entertainment

Martin Amis

Joan Bakewell
Broadcaster and Journalist

Antony Beevor

Jo Brand

Derren Brown
Psychological Illusionist

Alain de Botton

Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Laureate

Peter Florence
Director of The Guardian Hay Festival

Stephen Fry
Broadcaster and Author

Ricky Gervais
Writer and Performer

Anthony Grayling
Professor of Philosophy, Birkbeck College University of London

Dave Gorman
Writer and Performer

Harry Hill

Robin Ince

Tim Minchin

Dara O’Briain

Penn Jillette
Illusionist, Juggler and Libertarian

Libby Purves
Broadcaster, Journalist and Author

David Starkey

Illusionist, Juggler and Libertarian

Sandi Toksvig
Broadcaster, Comedian and Author

Dr Richard Vranch
Performer and Ex-physicist

Skeptics and Campaign Groups

Australian Council Against Health Fraud

Australian Skeptics Inc

Peter Bowditch

Neil Denny
Little Atoms podcast

Rachael Dunlop
Reporter, Skeptic Zone podcast

Jonathan Heawood
Director, English PEN

Narisetti Innaiah
Chairman, Center for Inquiry, India

Andy Lewis

Ronald A Lindsay
President and CEO, Center for Inquiry, USA

Simon Perry
Founder, Skeptics in the Pub (Leicester)

Dr Philip Plait
President, James Randi Educational Foundation, USA

James Randi
CEO, James Randi Educational Foundation, USA

Padraig Reidy
Index on Censorship

Sid Rodrigues
Chairman, Skeptics in the Pub (London)

Amardeo Sarma
Chairman, German Skeptics (GWUP)

Eran Segev
President, Australian Skeptics Inc


David Allen Green

Jonathan Morgan
Fellow in Law, University of Cambridge

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Barrister and Labour Member of the House of Lords

If you agree, go and put your name to the statement here.


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