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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Keep Libel Laws Out of Science: The Case of Simon Singh

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

If you were one of Britain's most respected science writers, you might expect that you had the right to publish articles surveying the evidence for the effectiveness of certain clinical techniques, without this costing you hundreds of thousands of pounds. If you were a voice on science to whom people listen, you might in fact think it your core duty to bring make the public aware of the claims being made by certain medical practitioners about remedies for which there is simply no evidence of benefit. If you did this, protecting the public from medical quackery, you might expect to be applauded rather than be dragged through the courts.

free debate

However, the latter is precisely what has happened to Simon Singh, bestselling author of books such as Fermat's Last Theorem. In 2008, Singh wrote an article for The Guardian which focused on chiropractic. This discussed its founder's belief that manipulating the spine could treat almost all diseases, by alleviating blockages in the flow of energy through the nervous system. Though the article acknowledged that many modern chiropractors have moved away from this extreme position, concentrating instead on alleviating back pain, some continue to claim that it can be used to treat various childhood conditions, including asthma.

Though the article has since been removed from The Guardian's website, it is still circulating freely online. Reading the article, it seems quite clear that Singh's doubts about the effectiveness of chiropractic in treating non back-related conditions are valid, and supported by evidence. In particular, Edzard Ernst, with whom Singh co-authored on a book on alternative medicine, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, had done a meta-study of 70 trials on chiropractic treatments related to the back, and found no evidence of effect. Ernst's research articles, all peer reviewed, can be found on PubMed.

Singh must, therefore, have been surprised to receive a letter notifying him that the British Chiropractic Association intended to sue him for libel, and for defaming the reputation of their organisation. Out of necessity, The Guardian could not support Singh, who was left to fight the case alone, which he did. Unfortunately, on 7th May, 2009, a preliminary ruling at the Royal Courts of Justice deemed that the article was a statement of fact rather than personal comment, and that the article contained "the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them (the BCA) of thoroughly disreputable conduct."

Singh objects to this ruling
that he was accusing the BCA of being dishonest and disreputable. He argues that although calling chiropractors are deluded and reckless, he was not suggesting that they are dishonest. Additionally, the judge ruled only on meaning and the way in which Singh's statements affected public perceptions of the BCA, not whether that meaning was supported by valid evidence and was therefore a legitimate case to argue. Finally, the burden of proof is reversed in libel cases, which means that Singh is guilty until proven innocent. He has to prove the accuracy of his statement, rather than the BCA having to prove why Singh was wrong - something they would find difficult to do, given the balance of scientific evidence about the effectiveness of chiropractic.

Rather than going to trial (which would be expensive) or settling out of court (which would be to acquiesce to the BCA in spite of the weight of valid scientific evidence behind Singh's statements), Singh has boldly decided to take the case to the Court of Appeal and then, if that fails, to the European Court of Human Rights.

Luckily, Singh is a bestselling author who can afford to pursue his case, whilst he is supported by various organisations. The point is, other scientists may not be so fortunate. The case has drawn attention to the serious flaws in the English libel system, that threaten the ability of scientists to express opinions based on sound scientific evidence, opinions that might be of benefit to the public if disseminated through the media.

In particular, it is too easy in English law for anyone to launch a libel action. And, from the point at which an action is launched, the burden of proof is on the defendant, rather than the defendent being judged innocent until proven guilty, as is the case for criminal trials. Consequently, defending cases - even those for which there is sound scientific evidence - becomes both time-consuming and costly. Organisations such as the BCA know this - and as a result libel can be used as a way of silencing scientists who, unlike Singh, are unstandably unwilling or unable to pursue their defence further.

Additionally, English libel cases are very costly and do not qualify for legal aid support. Going to trial can cost £1 000 000, which could be many times more than the damages at stake. By contrast (using this handy graph), a case in Sweden might cost a mere £10 000. Taking a case to trial puts one in a lose-lose scenario. Win, and you lose some money. Lose, and you lost a lot of money. Again this means libel can be used to bully publishers and authors into silence, even if they have solid evidence for their claims, as is true of the vast number of scientific studies that endorse Singh's view against chiropractic as a treatment for non back-related syndromes.

As David Colquhoun wittily puts it in his Patient's Guide to Magic Medicine:

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

Clearly the stilted, unfair nature of English libel law is a problem in many areas of publishing, not just in science communication. Alan Rushbridger of The Guardian puts the case very well. But the problem is particularly evident in the case of science, because libel cases can be used maliciously to silence honest scientists, even though the scientists speak with the weight of evidence on their side. Statements supported by clear scientific facts can still be sued against, and the burden of proof means is up to the scientists to prove otherwise, by which time the scientist will be broke, exhausted, regardless of whether he or she ultimately wins.

I am, therefore, very worried about this phenomena, and the effect it may have on scientific communication and practice, particularly in England where, we are continually told, the government is keep to promote innovation. Luckily, an army of bloggers, writers, commentators, publishers and scientists is fighting back, marshalled by the Sense About Science organisation. They have a campaign to Keep English Libel Laws Out of Science. For what it's worth, appropriately situated beneath the Irrepressible.info button campaigning for free speech, you will now see my own badge of support for this campaign. And if, having read this post, you feel similar concern about the way libel can be used to stifle legitimate scientific argument, I would urge you to sign up too.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:13 am


Blogger E F Orwell said...

The UK Libel Laws have taken another step into the abyss and could signal the end of Free Speech. A UK based media club, The Groucho Club which is owned by a billion pound corporation ‘Graphite Capital’ have launched a one of kind High Court action for a pre publishing test case for libel against Tyrone D Murphy, the author of an exposé book about the club. The book has not been completed yet and the case seems to be based on what could be written and not what has been written. www.g-book.co.uk is the book web site

What do you make of this type of case where a legal action can be taken against a writer of a book that has not been written yet. This action is certainly a threat against all writers and journalists

12:16 pm  
Anonymous pierre landan said...

Tyrone D Murphy was in the French Foreign Legion, I served with him and he was a tosser as an offficer. The D in his name stands for dickhead He has duel citizenship of France and Ireland, he was booted out of the legion for hitting another officer. Last I heard he was working as a mercenary in Africa as a comms officer. Tosser

3:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Urgent Message to Jack-of-Kent

Dear jack
Free Speech needs your help urgently. Please read up on libel pre publication test case for a book that has not been written yet. Do not leave us down jack this case is against all bloggers , writers and journalists and the case is madness

Search terms for information on the test case
The Grocuho Gate Affair - The Grocuho Club - Tyrone D Murphy writer. www.g-book.co.uk

4:06 pm  

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