Jan 04 2010

Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit

We are still in the midst of the libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, and now another defender of science has been targeted by such a suit. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine have been sued for libel by Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).

Here is a pdf of the complaint.

The subject of the suit is the excellent article by Amy Wallace criticizing the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace was attacked for this piece by anti-vaccinationists – essentially because she got the story correct. Wallace pointed out that the science strongly favors vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the anti-vaccine movement is dangerously wrong – hurting the public health with their misinformation. The anti-vaccinationists were apparently very upset over be called out by a mainstream journalist. They got a lot of bad press this year, the Chicago Tribune also did a series of articles detailing the dangerous pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace’s article earned her a place in the infamous baby-eating photo (along side Offit and yours truly) that only served to further embarrass the anti-vaccine movement via the blog, Age of Autism.

The lawsuit, in this context, seems like just the next step in the campaign against Offit and Wallace.

The NVIC, despite its innocuous name, is an ideological anti-vaccination group, and they were targeted among others in the Wallace piece. Fisher found a sentence in the article that she felt she could build a libel case around.

Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“She lies” will now be the subject of as much analysis as the term “bogus” was in Singh’s article about the BCA, so I might as well start. Critics often walk a fine line – we want to accurately portray the actions and claims of the targets of our criticism, without holding any punches, but we have to be clear in our terminology and careful not to inadvertently give the wrong impression. The term “lie” is problematic. It is not necessarily inaccurate, but it can carry implications not intended by the writer, because it may imply something about what another person knows or believes.

Often we speculate, when someone makes a claim that is demonstrably false, are they deliberately lying or are they grossly mistaken. But this is a false dichotomy. There is a vast gray zone in between. Making a claim without due diligence is a form of deception. Often people will make claims as if they are verified and documented truths, without acknowledging that the claim is controversial, or without really verifying the facts. People may care more about the utility of a claim and its relationship to their ideology than whether or not it is objectively true. Is making such claims lying? It is more than being wrong, but not quite a knowing lie.

However, when one is engaged in a public debate and advocacy about an important health issue, one has a responsibility to get basic information correct and to relay it in as unbiased a manner as possible. Being recklessly wrong in such a case may be the moral equivalent of lying.

On the NVIC website there are numerous examples of misinformation. For example, about squalene (a vaccine adjuvant) they write:

However, the use of squalene type vaccine adjuvants, which were allegedly added to experimental anthrax vaccines and made Gulf War soldiers sick, is controversial.

OK – they write “allegedly” so I guess they are covered. But this is still deceptive, and meant to scare people off vaccines. It turns out that there was no squalene in the anthrax vaccines given to Gulf War soldiers. And soldiers who developed unexplained symptoms in the Gulf War were not more likely to have antibodies to squalene. The anthrax vaccine-squalene-Gulf War syndrome connection has been completely demolished at every point. It is no longer “controversial” among scientists.

So is the NVIC statement above a “lie” or is it just sloppy misinformation – and is there a functional difference between the two?

The use of libel suits to intimidate critics and have a chilling effect on open discussion is an old strategy. As I said, the BCA attempted to do that by suing Simon Singh, taking advantage of the horrible English Libel laws. Uri Geller sued James Randi in the past for saying he cannot really bend spoons. Matthias Rath sued Ben Goldacre for criticizing his health claims. Skeptics have, to a degree, engaged in public criticism of pseudoscience with the constant threat of being sued. Even when such suits are legally unsuccessful, they can be financially ruinous and therefore an effective bullying tool.

The ability to sue for libel is an important right to redress legitimate wrongs. But this right can easily be abused to silence open discussion. For this reason many states have SLAPP laws (strategic lawsuit against public participation). Recently the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the need for open public discussion of important issues is a legitimate defense against a libel suit.

This is also the point behind the Keep Libel Laws out of Science movement, which is partly a backlash against the BCA suit against Singh.

Now the anti-vaccine movement in getting in the game, using the threat of libel to place a chill on legitimate criticism of their dangerous misinformation. It is time for the scientific and skeptical communities to rally behind Paul Offit as we did Simon Singh. I suspect this lawsuit will backfire against Fisher as much as the Singh suit did against the BCA. Let’s take a close look at the claims Fisher makes and whether they constitute “lying”. I suspect she will not hold up well under close scrutiny, just as the BCA claims did not.

Skeptical analysis is all about shining the light of science into those dark places of dubious claims and ideology that fear the light. Libel suits are often used as a tool to shield against the light of open examination, but we should fight back by using them as opportunities to shine even more light. Fisher better put on her sunglasses.

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