Back in May many of us in the skeptical blogosphere were alarmed to learn of what British law blogger Jack of Kent termed “an astonishingly illiberal ruling” by Sir David Eady against science writer Simon Singh. Eady was the judge presiding over another bit of legal thuggery by practitioners whose feelings were hurt when Simon Singh called them out in print for their ‘promotion of chiropractic to treat all sorts of conditions for which it is utterly useless, referring to the British Chiropractic Association as promoting “bogus” remedies. When I wrote about this case nearly a month ago, I pointed out just how plaintiff-friendly British libel law is, citing the case of Holocaust denier David Irving suing Holocaust historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel because she had the temerity to refer to him (quite correctly) as a Holocaust denier in one of her books. I also cited the cases of U.K. bloggers bullied into silence by the threat of a lawsuit which, given how plaintiff-friendly British libel law is, making it incredibly expensive to defend against a libel suit, would be nearly impossible for a person of average means to defend. At the time, when a technical ruling on the meaning of the word “bogus” went against Singh, in essence deciding that he said something that he did not mean and which would be virtually impossible to defend, I sadly speculated that the rational thing to do would be for Singh to cut his losses and settle. No one would blame him, and no one would buy the bogus (yes, I’m going to use that word as much as possible–thanks to the Founding Fathers for the First Amendment!) arguments from the bogus British Chiropractic Association that its winning the lawsuit was some sort of scientific vindication of their woo.
Thankfully, Simon Singh is made of sterner stuff. He is going to appeal:
Singh said he will appeal against the decision on Monday, though he concedes that the courts rarely overturn such rulings. “We think it might be worth it. The ruling is quite extreme and it’s our only hope,” he said.
The courts could take two months to decide whether it will hear an appeal, Singh’s lawyers said. The writer already faces a bill for legal costs in excess of £100,000. If the appeal fails, said Singh, he will take the case to the European courts. “We’ll fight this until all the options are exhausted,” he said.
The case has led to a campaign to raise awareness of English libel laws, which critics claim can stifle legitimate and open debate about scientific and health issues. A statement, signed by more than 100 leading scientists and public figures, said libel laws had “a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices.”
I think even Singh realizes that he will probably lose his appeal, but he is doing it to make a point and to try to exhaust all legal remedies in the U.K., which is what he has to do before he can take his case to the EU. This is as brave and principled a decision as I have seen in a long time, as it could cost Singh very dearly. Sense About Science has launched a campaign to support Singh called Keep Libel Laws Out of Science, with a statement signed by 100 eminent scientists and academicians:
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.
Indeed. Quacks have discovered just how useful British libel laws are for silencing criticism, and using chiropractic to treat asthma and allergies is, quite simply, quackery. There is no evidentiary basis for it; there isn’t even scientific plausibility. To get a case rolling, all a quack has to do is to show that a statement is potentially defamatory; it’s then up to the defendant to show that it’s true or was misunderstood–all at great expense. As I said before, I don’t know if I could write what I write when I blog if I lived in the U.K., and even that may not be protection, given the phenomenon called libel tourism. The only protection anyone has from British libel laws is that it is (now) fairly rare for the British courts to try to get American courts to enforce a judgment. In any case, British libel law is a tool custom made for quacks to wield against skeptics in order to shut them up, and that’s exactly what they are doing. Like the Society of Homeopaths before, the British Chiropractic Association is nothing more than a group of thugs and bullies who cannot defend themselves on a scientific basis and thus use the law to try to stifle scientific debate.
Sign the petition now and show your support for Simon Singh! Now, I didn’t see a legal defense fund to which I could donate…