Respectful Insolence

In the battle of science versus woo…

sometimes the good guys win.

Congratulations to Ben Goldacre for taking on the supplement quack Matthias Rath and prevailing. That he did it even in the notoriously plaintiff-friendly U.K. court system is even better. Indeed, The Guardian also deserves kudos for supporting Ben in this.

This case could be as momentous in terms of its implications for going after health fraud in the U.K. as the David Irving case was in terms of Holocaust denial. No, I am not calling Rath a neo-Nazi or Holocaust denier. There is no evidence, at least as far as I’m aware, that he subscribes to such vile views.

No, the similarity is that purveyors of “alternative” medicine do often use the same abuses of logic, science, and reason to push their pseudoscientific views as Holocaust deniers do to push their pseudohistory. A more pertinent similarity between Irving and Rath, however, is that, just as David Irving did with Professor Deborah Lipstadt, Rath sought to intimidate the “little guy” by suing him in British courts, where unfortunately libel laws are such that the defendant has to prove that what he wrote was truthful rather than the plaintiff having to prove that what was written was either false or published with a reckless disregard for the truth. Indeed, given the plantiff-friendly nature of British libel law, it’s become a very common tactic of quacks just to use the threat of a lawsuit to silence U.K. critics, as the Society of Homeopaths and a quack named Joseph Chikelue Obi recently did. And it all too often works, either because most bloggers don’t have a large publishing house to fund their legal defense or because their ISP isn’t willing to tell the originators of abusive lawsuit threats to take a hike. So the bloggers are often forced to cave. Unexpectedly, as in the Irving case, Ben Goldacre’s publisher (The Guardian) stood by him and funded the defense, just as Penguin Books stood by Deborah Lipstadt (for the most part; she still had quite a few legal bills of her own by the time it was all over). In the end, Rath’s attempt to silence his critics using the British courts failed as ignominiously as David Irving’s did.

Good. In celebration, I’m going to say, “Matthias Rath is a quack. Quack, quack, quack, quack!”

In the meantime, Ben promises to go after health scammers with renewed vigor, free of this legal cloud hanging over his head.

Even better.

Comments

  1. #1 Lightnin
    September 15, 2008

    Quack, quack, quack, quack!”

    Duckies!

  2. #2 Paul
    September 15, 2008

    Great news, I hope Rath chokes on this.

    Unfortunately it’s a little late to help the 300,000 or so South Africans whose lives could have been saved by ARVs, but at least it provides a little more hope for the future.

  3. #3 gimpy
    September 15, 2008

    This case could be as momentous in terms of its implications for going after health fraud in the U.K. as the David Irving case was in terms of Holocaust denial. No, I am not calling Rath a neo-Nazi or Holocaust denier. There is no evidence, at least as far as I’m aware, that he subscribes to such vile views.

    No he does something almost as bad though, he exploits survivors for his own ends.

  4. #4 Alison Cummins
    September 15, 2008

    “This case could be as momentous in terms of its implications for going after health fraud in the U.K. as the David Irving case was in terms of Holocaust denial.”

    Um, how?

    The courts found against Irving, but Rath just dropped the case.

  5. #5 Sam C
    September 15, 2008

    Unexpectedly, as in the Irving case, Ben Goldacre’s publisher (The Guardian) stood by him and funded the defense,

    That “unexpectedly” is a little harsh on The Grauniad, which has successfully defended itself in several libel trials, including one which ultimately led to a former government minister being jailed for perjuring himself on the stand (the gobshite found God in prison, and acquired a layer of preeening sanctimoniousness over his core of smug arrogance, oh yum).

    And while our defamation laws are unfortunate (but will probably change in time, as the treacle-slow process of review struggles on) and our civil courts do favour rich clients and their expensive lawyers, our judges do seem to retain a better understanding than their US counterparts of the principle that they should deliver justice intelligently rather than simply administer the letter of the law pedantically. Sophistry is still less of an issue here than in the US.

  6. #6 Joe
    September 15, 2008

    Simon Singh is being sued by the British chiropractic association. http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=121214

  7. #7 Joe
    September 15, 2008

    Perhaps I should explain- Simon Singh is a PhD physicist and award-winning science author. His latest book, co-authored by Edzard Ernst (MD, PhD) is “Trick or Treatment: the Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” (Norton, 2008). What got him in trouble, though, was a newspaper article; it was also in the Guardian.

  8. #8 iain
    September 15, 2008

    Best of all, the dropping of the case means that the Guardian can return to covering the story, as it does today in a two-page spread:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/15/matthiasrath.aids

  9. #9 notmercury
    September 15, 2008

    If the defendant prevails, who pays court costs in the UK?

  10. #10 The Perky Skeptic
    September 15, 2008

    I’m so glad you linked to this! I’ve been following the Matthias Rath travesty for a while, and I’m SO glad for this outcome!

    Also, lookie, I went and got my own blog so I’ll quit leaving loser-length, semi-off-topic comments on other people’s! ;)

  11. #11 Despard
    September 15, 2008

    notmercury,

    I believe in this case Ben has said that Rath has had to pay the costs:

    “Usefully, it seems that Rath will now be responsible for the Guardian’s legal costs. Interim costs were awarded this afternoon at just shy of a quarter of a million, and we are seeking the full half a million pounds the paper has spent.”

    http://www.badscience.net/2008/09/matthias-rath-pulls-out-forced-to-pay-the-guardians-costs-i-think-this-means-i-win/

  12. #12 notmercury
    September 15, 2008

    Nice. Thanks.

  13. #13 Robin Levett
    September 15, 2008

    @notmercury:

    (Disclaimer – IAA(UK)LBNYL).

    In the defendant-biased US system, a publication can ruin your reputation (hence potentially also your career, marriage and life) knowing that even if you win a case against them you will have to cover your own costs – and that if they drag it out long enough you’ll fold, however good your case, because you run out of money before they do. True, contingency fees ameliorate the position somewhat, while introducing significant ethical problems, but you’ve still got to persuade the lawyer (i) to use his money financing your case for you and (ii) that you have a good enough chance of winning to make it worth his while taking the risk that he might not get it back.

    In the UK system frivolous claims, and cynical defences, are discouraged by the fact that in most circumstances the loser pays.

    You pays your money and you takes your choice…

    Just as a talking-point; what exactly is wrong with saying “If you’re going to ruin someone’s life, you’d better have some damn good evidence to back you up”?

  14. #14 Dr Aust
    September 15, 2008

    If anyone is curious about how the UK libel system works in cases like this (based mostly around the still-pending case of the Chiropractors vs. sceptical science writer Simon Singh) I have an extended (warning – quite extended!) discussion on my blog. Also a bit about the “libel tourism” phenomenon (people suing in the UK to take advantage of the plaintiff-friendly laws)

  15. #15 IBY
    September 15, 2008

    Yaeh! Victory for the science anti woo guys.

  16. #16 DLC
    September 16, 2008

    Good to see Goldacre prevail over the forces of Evil-quackdom.

  17. #17 Reginald
    September 16, 2008

    Quack Quack Quack, Mr. Ducksworth!

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