Silencing Sciencing?

Quite a storm of controversy in the U.K. at the moment regarding the decision in a libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against science writer (and oft-times ‘media skeptic’) Simon Singh. Earlier this month the British High Court found in favour of the BCA, based mainly on the meaning of the word “bogus” in the following passage written by Singh:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The judge ruled that in using the word “bogus”, Singh was saying that the BCA were being intentionally dishonest.

Singh is going to appeal the case, although his chances do not look good. But apart from his own challenge, the charity ‘Sense About Science’ has also started a campaign of its own, supported by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Brian Cox and a host of others (including the Bad Astronomer). Their campaign is to “Keep Libel Laws Out of Science”, contending that British laws stifle the “freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice”, which are “the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate”.

I’ve got two opinions on this. Firstly, libel laws based on ambiguous definitions suck – I fully support Singh in his appeal. I have a strong dislike of of anything but essential use of libel laws, and as a writer and publisher I fully understand the difficulties in screening all of your text for every tiny definition and nuance. I also enjoy healthy debate and dislike those that resort to petty rebuttals to the larger topic at hand.

On the other hand, there’s this growing meme out there that this particular decision means libel laws stifle scientific debate. But to me, it seems that in this case, Singh simply made a really bad choice of wording – the definitions of bogus that I’ve looked up seem to suggest what the judge says (however petty it might be for the BCA to take issue with it). The UK’s libel laws certainly enable it, but I think what needs to be acknowledged is that you can “Keep the Libel Laws Out of Science” simply by presenting the science, rather than saying things like “happily promotes bogus treatments”. Singh is British, he’s a high-profile media skeptic – he should have had a pretty good understanding of the law in this area before writing a column accusing someone of bogus medicine. There needs to be a little ownership here of a mistake made (though certainly continued push for reform of the laws), and acknowledgement that libel laws can’t be used against you if you’re just presenting solid science.

My additional query on that point would be, if Singh had the opportunity to withdraw the remark (leaving the science intact) before legal action was taken, why didn’t he? Although in his defence, at that stage he may not have been aware that the “bogus” section would end up the primary point, and so felt sure enough of his remarks to stand behind them.

All in all though, a rather nasty affair. Hopefully the BCA acts honourably and offers some sort of settlement to Singh to retract the overly-construed “bogus” word – although, would Singh accept the settlement, or would he try for a decisive victory? Coming fresh on the heels of Ben Goldacre’s own brush with libel cases, science writers in the UK might feel a beachhead needs to be created.

Imagine poor Randi if he lived in the UK…

Update: Came across Simon Singh’s personal account of the whole affair – essential reading.

Editor
  1. Singh’s Sad Song
    It may be the “bogus” that Singh tripped over, but it’s the BCA’s “can help” in their self-description that pushes Singh from behind to make sure he falls good and hard. CAN and HELP are two well worn weasel words used by all facets of health care marketoids. Let’s take a look:
    CAN – able to. Not does, not assists, only that it has the capability should it be called upon to:
    HELP – not works in conjunction with, not increases positive outcome in any measure, but rather offers aid in any form of its choosing, such as kind words, not contributing to factors that would decrease positive outcomes, etc.

    BCA’s people ‘can help’ whatever the say, because they are capable of not causing an outcome worse than no treatment at all. I ‘can help’ cure persistent ear infections by being capable of holding down the sufferer while someone takes a masonry drill to their ear. Crest’s tartar control toothpaste ‘can help’ reduce tartar not because it’s a new formulation (it’s not) but because of a paper insert in the package that tells how to brush your teeth so as to prevent more tartar.

    It would take a complete recanting on Singh’s part to get him free of this morass, because the entire health care industry knows that no matter how effective or not something is, there are words with neutral denotation but positive connotation that they can use to make you think what they want you to but they can weasel out of because you assume the connotation and they’re not admitting they meant it. Trust me, I know, I have a master’s in health care administration and know what to do, how and why, from their side of the table. I CAN HELP them tell their lies. But I have a conscience so I can’t work in that industry.

    No, I am not the brain specialist…..
    YES. Yes I AM the brain specialist.

  2. Singh: self-appointed martyr?
    My guess is that the reason he didn’t back out of the use of “bogus” is because he was counting on creating a lot of attention to this trial, not unlike the famous Scopes “monkey trial”.

    I find myself in an ambivalent position regarding this story. On the one hand it annoys me that the BCA is resorting to the usual methods at the disposal of big (and wealthy) groups: legal bullying. Aren’t those the same methods used by Scientology?

    On the other hand, I’m also uncomfortable with the way skeptics are quick to judge something without regarding a fair test of the available evidence.

    These debates shouldn’t be handled on a court room. They belong to the clinical environment of a lab.

    You can’t let a judge have the power to decide if 2+2=4, and yet we always resort to them to settle these debates. We need to overcome this.

    —–
    It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
    It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

    Red Pill Junkie

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