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.

Signed

Everyone below signed as an individual unless otherwise stated

Continue reading “Libel law and scientific disputes…”

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Illiberalism in rational causes…

The blogdom of skeptics has been in uproar over the ruling of Mr Justice Eady in the libel case Simon Singh vs British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The case has already been covered extensively, by The Lay Scientist (background | verdict) and Jack-of-Kent (background | verdict).

In Simon Singh’s book, ‘Trick or treatment: alternative medicine on trial’ (review by The Times here), he systematically addresses the pseudoscience of numerous alternative healthcare measures, including Chiropractry, about whom he said:

“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 ruling hinged on Simon Singh’s use of the word ‘bogus’, which means counterfeit or fake, spurious, or bad. Unfortunately, when you start thinking about it meaning ‘counterfeit’ then this infers some degree of fraudulent use, or deliberate misuse, which is how the judge chose to rule in this case. Mr Justice Eady decided (evidently prior to the hearing had commenced) that the definition would be taken as consciously and deliberately dishonest. In this case it rules in the favour of the BCA where, by the judge’s own reasoning, Simon Singh has libelled them by labelling them deliberately dishonest. It seems strange that a judge can make any objective ruling on the definition of such a word in this case; Mr Justice Eady has effectively ‘cherry-picked’ the evidence by looking at the word ‘bogus’ within a paragraph, without including the evidential support of context from the chapter as a whole.

As I have discovered through word battles myself, different people lean towards different definitions of words when multiple definitions are available. An example might be ‘tautology’, which in one vein can be a rhetorical definition of ‘using different words to say the same thing twice’, yet can also have a meaning in logic of ‘a statement that is necessarily true’. What distinguishes the uses is the context in which they are used, and this seemed to be apparent in this case.

Continue reading “Illiberalism in rational causes…”