Jun 04 2009

Singh Will Appeal – Keep Libel out of Science

Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for correctly pointing out that they promote therapies that are not backed by adequate scientific evidence – therapies which Simon called “bogus.” In a pre-trial hearing the judge ruled that was Simon meant by that statement was that all the members of the BCA know that their treatments do not work and promote them anyway, as an act of deliberate fraud.This means that if Simon is to go forward defending himself against libel, he has the burden of proof that the judge’s interpretation of what he said is true – an impossible task.

That is an absurd ruling, especially since Singh clarified exactly what he meant elsewhere in the article, that the chiropractors are simply deluded true-believers.

Simon announced today that he will appeal the judges decision and continue to go forward with his defense. This is good news for the cause of free speech, especially in the realm of educating the public about science and the fight against quackery and nonsense.

The BCA was essentially called out by Simon for promoting treatments – like adjustments for children with asthma or chronic ear infections – that are not supported by evidence. The BCA and the chiropractic profession as a whole deserve to be called out on this, and Simon is not alone in doing so.  The BCA did not respond by providing the evidence Simon claimed is lacking (and in fact the Guardian offered them space in their newspaper to do so). Rather they decided to sue Simon for libel. In my opinion, the purpose of this move was to intimidate a critic into silence, and perhaps even make an example of them as a warning to any future potential critics.

This is scandalous behavior which in my opinion does not reflect an honest, transparent, and scientific organization, but rather a group of thugs who want to ply their dubious trade free of public scrutiny.

Also, to put this in perspective we need to examine the English libel laws, which are themselves a scandal. The person accused of libel is guilty til proven innocent, and bears the burden of proof that their statements were true. Worse than this, however, is the fact that in English court the expense of defending a libel case in often in the tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Even if one successfully defends a libel case, it can be financially ruinous. Therefore, the threat of libel is an effective intimidation tactic. Strategically, it is much better to just settle (which means being silenced) that to incur the outrageous court costs.

Even worse, English courts will and have claimed jurisdiction over libel cases, even if the author is from another country, published in another country, and the target of their criticism is from another country. All that is necessary is for someone in England to have read the material. In the age of the internet this means that we are all potentially affected by the ridiculous English libel laws. This has led to so-called libel tourism, where claimants will try to get their libel case heard in English courts.

Simon has decided to take a significant personal hit in order to pursue his defense for two reasons. The first is to stand up for his criticism of the BCA and their “bogus” treatment of childhood medical conditions with manipulation. The second is to urge the British government to reconsider their libel laws.  They really are anti-free speech and anti-science. They are a menace to free-speech throughout the world.

Simon certainly has all of our support. Here is, in fact, a supporting statement hosted by Sense About Science that has an impressive list of signers. You can also hear an interview with Simon on this topic where we go into further detail on this week’s SGU podcast, which will go online Saturday.
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