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Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science

Sense About Science, a UK-based science outreach organization, has launched a campaign to prevent British libel law from being used to stifle scientific debate. The direct motivation for this campaign was a lawsuit brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh holds a PhD in physics and has written bestselling popular science books on a variety of topics. In April 2008, in conjunction with the publication of his book “Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial”, he wrote an article in The Guardian about the BCA’s claims that chiropractice can treat a variety of illnesses including asthma and ear infections. Singh denounces these claims as unsubstantiated and reckless.

The BCA’s response was not to provide any evidence for the efficacy of these treatments, but rather to sue Singh for libel. And this is not an isolated incident: British libel law has often been used to threaten journalists and other writers who aim to provide objective criticism of scientific or other topics. A variety of factors, including excessive costs and a “reverse burden of proof”, make such claims particularly difficult to defend against. (This article in the Wall Street Journal provides more details on the topic, including a discussion of how British law can threaten writers around the world, not just those in the UK.)

Although Singh’s situation is obviously upsetting, I’ve been impressed and heartened by the thoughtfulness and good spirit with which Singh and others have responded. Singh is fighting the libel case out of his own pocket: he explains in a statement that despite the immense financial risk, he finds the issue sufficiently important and feels a personal obligation to challenge this flawed system:

Moreover, the article was about an issue of public interest, namely childhood health and the effectiveness of particular treatments for some serious conditions. Hence, I was not prepared to apologise for an article that I still believed was important for parents to read, and which I believed was accurate and legally defensible.

The final reason for fighting on was that I knew that I was able to devote the time, money and energy required for a long legal battle. Most journalists would have been forced to back down and settle under the pressure of a libel threat, so it seemed that I had a duty to fight on in light of my privileged position. I knew when started, and I still know now, that this legal fight will be horrendously expensive and draining, but it will not destroy me.

Singh and Sense About Science have received an outpouring of support from the scientific community, and from science bloggers in particular. Within 24 hours, more than 2,000 people signed a statement published by Sense About Science calling for a reform of British libel law. In Singh’s statement, he writes touchingly about how grateful he is to the members of a facebook group created to support him, and to the numerous bloggers and journalists who have been following his case. Throughout, Singh has been admirably even-tempered, presenting his thoughts straightforwardly and without malice. Likewise, his supporters have been encouraging and optimistic, without being rude to those on the wrong side of the debate.

Despite the grief that Britain’s libel laws have caused Singh and others, I take heart in seeing how the scientific community has come together to productively oppose these unreasonable laws, how science blogging in particular has been used to quickly spread awareness of this issue, and how Singh himself has taken on the burden of standing up for productive scientific inquiry and debate.

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