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Keeping libel laws out of science - fighting for our right to debate

22 February 2010
Appeared in BioNews 546
During my endeavours to explore science communication, I came across a UK charity called 'Sense about Science' (SAS), a non-profit charity trust that work with over 2000 scientists and civic groups to respond to misrepresentations of science in the public domain. SAS believes in good science communication and in promoting public understanding of science to prevent panic and confusion. The topical publications it produces - such as 'Making sense of GM' - are easy to read and appeal to all levels of background knowledge. They are available on the charity's website and are often requested by schools, hospitals and media companies for learning or research resources. During a recent internship with SAS I was lucky enough to get involved with their latest hot topic - libel laws in science.

In science, healthy debate and discussion of each other's work is crucial. We all read papers and discuss what we think about them, whether we agree with their controls, their statistical analysis, whether we would have drawn the same conclusions. It is what drives our work forward. We put so much emphasis on having a fresh pair of eyes on our work that we have even designed the peer review system around it. Science is meant to be open for all to see, warts and all!

Libel law is designed to protect us from false accusation and defamation of character. The general consensus is that if you are telling the truth and have evidence to support your claims then you can't be sued for libel; you have every right to say or print the truth. So this should mean that the law of libel protects the good science and punish the bad, right? Well it doesn't appear to be that straightforward and last year's court battle of Simon Singh v The British Chiropractic Society proved to be the catalyst in the reaction. The opinion now is that libel law works to protect the rich companies against comments they don't want the public to hear. Libel laws are silencing scientific debate and worse still are preventing important information getting into the public domain.

Case One: Simon Singh v The British Chiropractic Society

Simon Singh is a science writer specialising in debunking false scientific claims and standing up to quackery. Simon and Edzard Ernst, the worlds first professor of complementary medicine co-authored a book titled 'Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial'. In this book, Professor Ernst analysed over 70 studies exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found there was no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat diseases such as colic, asthma or deafness and in fact there were some serious side effects that could result from chiropractic treatment. Simon wrote an opinion article in the Guardian newspaper titled 'Beware the spinal trap' stating just this and stressing the importance of weighing up possible benefits against the possible side effects ranging from numbness and headaches to fatal vetebra dissection and stroke. After the article was published the British Chiropractic Society sued Simon for libel. This court case is still ongoing, running up what I can only imagine will be an astonishing financial bill.

Case Two: Ben Goldacre and The Guardian v Matthias Rath

Ben Goldacre is medical doctor who writes a weekly column called 'Bad Science' for the Guardian. He has won many awards for his articles, which aim to expose dodgy science claims and media hype by journalists. Back in 2007, he wrote some articles reporting on the concern he felt about Matthias Rath, a medical doctor who believes nutritional supplements can be used to treat disease. Goldacre voiced his concern over the promotion of this theory in Africa as a treatment for HIV, he claimed that Dr Rath was promoting his vitamins as a better treatment than the conventional antivirals and so was responsible for deaths of HIV patients. Dr Rath took Dr Goldacre and the Guardian to the courts and attempted to sue him for libel despite Dr Goldacre having checked all his sources and having evidence to back his statements. Thankfully, Dr Rath lost his case, but the costs of libel action means that the Guardian are still thousands of pounds out of pocket. You can win your case and still lose!

Case Three: Wilmshurst v NMT Medical Inc

Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist who is highly regarded by his peers. His case is one of blatant libel tourism and is one of the main issues the SAS campaign is fighting to address. Whilst attending a medical conference in America, Wilmshurst mentioned his opinions on a new heart implant device called Starflex made by Boston-based manufacturer NMT Medical Inc. These opinions were published in an online American journal called 'Heartwire'. On returning to the UK, Wilmshurst found himself being summoned to court for libel action. NMT had not sued the journal Heartwire as they were prevented from doing so under US libel law, but instead claimed they could sue Wilmshurst personally in the UK as the journal is online so could have been read in this country. If Wilmshurst looses his case he faces bankruptcy, but he says he will fight for the right of free speech to protect his patients.

Realising that this issue was not going to be resolved on its own and that it needed urgent attention, SAS, English PEN and Index on Censorship joined together to start a campaign to reform the UK libel laws and I was lucky enough to attend the launch in December last year. Standing in the conference room listening to the likes of comedian Dara O'Briain, TV and radio presenter Nick Ross and SAS managing director Tracy Brown voice their anger and dismay about our UK libel system was inspiring and really hit home for me how much this issue can affect so many people in different professions that interact with the public.

I started to think about how long these issues might have been bubbling under the surface. How many scientists have thought twice about publishing their findings because it went against the grain of what was originally thought? How many journalists have re-worded an article or even dropped a story for the fear of being sued for libel and not being able to afford to fight their corner? I am sure for many not publishing something is better then going through with it and then having to retract it which would give the public the impression they were lying.

I also started to think about the times I had heard science being criticised in the media by companies who had an interest in how the data was perceived. Take the review last year into the nutritional value of organic food versus 'normal' food. This well conducted meta-analysis by Dr Alan Dangour, a nutrionist at the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, showed there was no nutritional benefit to eating organic food. Immediately there was a fierce public reaction and Dr Dangour was accussed of dishonesty and incompetence. I remember watching some of the coverage on BBC Breakfast failing to understand why people were so angry, now the mother who is earning minimum wage doesn't need to feel guilty for buying Tesco basic baked beans, isn't that a good thing? People could still buy organic if they chose too: Dr Dangour wasn't saying they couldn't or shouldn't.

The point is, we as scientists have a duty to report what we find. May this be our own result or pointing out the flaws in other work it must be done to make sure everything is clear to society and nobody is duped into thinking something is a miracle cure or worrying that what they can afford isn't good enough. If libel laws are preventing us from doing this then we need to do something about it.

Over 19,000 people including performers Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry, Sir Mark Walport (director of the Wellcome Trust), Lord Rees of Ludlow (President of the Royal Society) and myself (I realise I do not sound impressive following this crowd… maybe I should have mentioned myself first…) have signed the petition, but the more people who sign the bigger our voice will be so I urge all of you who haven't yet done so to go to the website and make your pledge. I do not want to sound like a cheesy sports coach or a Tesco advert but every signature counts and together we can make a difference!

The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning ... For by doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we arrive at truth - Peter Abelard

National petition for libel law reform
Sense About Science |  1 December 2021
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30 April 2010 - by Sile Lane 
On 15 April the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh, bringing to an end a case that had cost 200,000 and taken two years of Simon's life. The BCA had sued Simon following an article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper criticising chiropracty for children...
19 April 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel action against science writer Simon Singh...
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