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From not deigning to not daring

UK libel laws stop scientists speaking out, says Tracey Brown

We should keep the libel laws out of science. They shut down discussion. They stifle public access to opinions and criticism. They silence would-be contributors to public debates. 

The libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the science writer Simon Singh over an opinion piece in The Guardian last year is just one example of legal chill where open debate should be. Singh had criticised the promotion of chiropractic for infant conditions such as colic and asthma. The BCA turned down the newspaper’s offer of a response article and sued. Publishers and editors are now cagey on this subject, as they are on the promotion of vitamins by Matthias Rath, who sued Ben Goldacre and The Guardian, and as they are on US pharmaceutical company NMT, who sued cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst in London for comments about a trial he made in the US to a US publication. 

The English law of libel has a wide jurisdiction, narrow defences and extremely high costs – all the features you would look for in a law to shut your critics up. Even a flimsy case (and with low thresholds for action in the London courts, flimsy gets you a long way) imposes such expense that defendants are best advised to pay and apologise. If you can’t prove to the courts that you have the money to fund it, you cannot fight the case. Singh faces costs of £100,000 before he even gets to court to defend himself.

Access to all views

The issue here isn’t just the right of scientists and journalists to say what they think. It is public access to the full range of views, which includes robustly-worded criticism and accusations that products or practices are ‘bogus’ or ‘quackery’. But fear of libel, and the self-censorship that results from that fear, chills many discussions before they start.

People can read the ads on the Internet for a box to ‘protect you from EMF radiation’ but not the assessment of the engineers who opened it up and found no mechanism inside –but who were too anxious about legal exposure to publish direct criticism of the product. A Hollywood actor’s views on psychiatry flashed around the globe in seconds; a scientist’s reaction against them in the Celebrities and Science Annual Review sat with media lawyers for a week, before the public eventually got a modified, euphemistic version. And people will probably never hear the details of the laboratory that provides three pages of gobbledegook ‘scientific analysis’ to people with Alzheimer’s disease and to parents of autistic children (concluding rather regularly in the need to buy some over-priced supplements), because its connection with a Harley Street practitioner who has sued previous critics scares us all off. 

Change the law

Many of us have pushed hard over recent years to get scientists sharing what they think about the evidence for different claims, rather than keeping it in common rooms and private members’ clubs. Instead of rolling eyes at each other about MMR vaccine scare stories, we said, get out there and tell people what is wrong with Andrew Wakefield’s case reports. We have come some way since those timid times. But the effect of libel fears in silencing criticism threatens that. Where, time ago, many scientists and medics didn’t deign to share their views, now we encounter the problem that they don’t dare to.

The libel laws have no place in scientific disputes. The fact that litigants can use them to silence critics in science and medicine tells us that something is very wrong with the law. If we are serious about open debate in science, we should join those who want to change it.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is Managing Director of Sense About Science
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