I was going to write about Twitter this week (and that is a post that will appear later as my next post), but in my reading there, I came across the case of Simon Singh (a science writer in the U.K.), who was being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel.
In an article in the Guardian newspaper, Singh wrote that the claims of the BCA that chiropractic could cure many childhood ailments (such as asthma) were bogus. An annotated version of the piece is here. The BCA were unhappy by Singh’s characterization, to say the least, and sued for libel, declining the Guardian’s offer of an opportunity to present their counter-argument and evidence. An initial hearing at the Royal Court of Justice found that Singh’s statements were “fact” not “opinion”. The libel laws as they stand are effectively guilty until proven innocent, so Singh would need to prove he was not defaming the BCA and that they were being dishonest in their claims, a formidable challenge to say the least. Singh’s own account is here. Various blogs have taken up the cause and the Bad Law? blog is here.
Singh decided to take the matter to the Court of Appeals, which was heard this week. JackofKent’s account of the day in court is here.
The ultimate problem with the case is that a point of scientific difference of opinion (the effectiveness of a treatment) is not being debated in the classical manner but by litigation and the state of U.K. libel laws are such that if an individual is sued they were very likely to lose, either by settling or losing the case, with a great deal of financial fallout for the individual concerned. It just should not be that one should fear litigation for giving an opinion, especially an informed opinion. There are several other cases of this sort, summarized by the Guardian here. In some cases, the people involved are not even in the U.K., but are sued there because of the favorable outcomes for the company concerned. The good news is that there is movement toward libel reform, led by Sense about Science and the government minister Jack Straw is working towards reforms.
Whether they go far enough for the campaigners remains to be seen.