Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign
June 25, 2009 3:25 AM   Subscribe

Simon Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (previously on metafilter). A pre-trail ruling by the judge caused much concern in the scientific community and elsewhere. On the 4th of June Singh announced that he was applying to appeal against the pre-trial ruling, and Sense About Science launched a Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign (T-shirts, badges and mugs available). The Streisand effect really started to kick in when Simon Perry screen-scraped 400 uk chiropractic web sites, searched for claims about the treatment of colic, and mail-merged letters to various Trading Standards officers. Over 240 letters were sent. This led to an interesting response.

On the 8th of June, the McTimoney Association sent an urgent email to all its members: "Because of what we consider to be a witch hunt against chiropractors, we are now issuing the following advice: ... If you have a website, take it down NOW ... REMOVE all the blue MCA patient information leaflets, or any patient information leaflets of your own that state you treat whiplash, colic or other childhood problems in your clinic or at any other site where they might be displayed with your contact details on them. DO NOT USE them until further notice ... IF YOU DO NOT FOLLOW THIS ADVICE, YOU MAY BE AT RISK FROM PROSECUTION."

Their claims of a 'witch hunt' are discussed in this Guardian article by Chris French: "Challenging unsubstantiated treatment claims does not seem to me to qualify as a witch hunt."

Simon Perry's blog has a lot of detail about the responses he has had to his complaints. He also submitted 56 individual complaints to the General Chiropractic Council, and sent the whole list of web sites that make claims about colic to the Office of Fair Trading.

Over 12,000 people have so far signed up to the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign, and there is also a statment of support from senior parliamentarians.

After the pre-trail ruling, BCA President Dr Tony Metcalfe said, “The BCA brought this claim to preserve its integrity and reputation. I’m delighted that the Judge has vindicated the BCA’s position.”
posted by memebake (33 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
"If we go to trial it's almost impossible for me to defend the article, because it's something I never meant in the first place."

I agree that Britain's libel laws are fucked up, and I agree that scientific inquiry should be protected from what are largely commercially-derived restrictions on speech, but isn't Singh's statement an admission of culpability, within the context of UK law?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:48 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whatever your take on chiropractic treatments, I don't think it's unreasonable demand to expect chiropractors to have to either (a) cite studies from reputable sources which support any claims they make, or (b) attach a very prominent and clearly-worded disclaimer/warning to anything they print or otherwise disseminate.

This is only a witch-hunt in the sense that it's targetting one particular branch of alternative medicine. If this leads to other alleged therapies being forced to back up their claims or shut up shop, that can only be good.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:49 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Hilarity ensues!

Also of interest is that the paniced email from the McTimony association might be enough to support a claim that the MTA at least really was making "bogus" claims under the stronger Eady interpretation of the word bogus: ie that the organisation knew that it was making claims that were either false or unsupportable.

Sadly, proving that the BCA was in the same position as the MTA may not be possible in court. Hopefully the appeal against the Eady interpretation of "bogus" will win out and make the whole thing moot.
posted by pharm at 3:58 AM on June 25, 2009


Balzecock: no, because the judge in question has asserted that Simon meant to say "knowingly promoted false information" when he used the word bogus, instead of simply "promoted false information".

To prove that the BCA was wilful in their claims, rather than simply mistaken is a much higher bar to cross, even if it were true, which it may not be.
posted by pharm at 4:02 AM on June 25, 2009


Oh wait, you mean an admission of culpabilty in the trial on the narrow meaning? No, because it's possible that the BCA really is knowingly spreading "bogus" claims under the Eady interpretation: Proving that is a lot harder than demonstrating that they're spreading merely unproven claims however.
posted by pharm at 4:09 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


it's possible that the BCA really is knowingly spreading "bogus" claims under the Eady interpretation

Right, which is why the MTA's panicked email is so damning.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:18 AM on June 25, 2009


Before everyone hops on the bandwagon criticising British libel laws, I'll just say there is a lot that either has happened or is happening behind the scenes.

About one year ago I got involved in UK politics, after attempting to resolve issues directly with my landlord. Didn't really want to, just became increasingly uncomfortable standing by silently witnessing what I was seeing, so my ex-New-York-biker-bravado I just dived right into the fight to get me some.

Long story short, I live on an estate with (according to census data) 61% BME residents, however the (puppet) residents board that is supposed to manage our landlords affairs for the better of all residents is almost 100% Cockney (as in out of 30 folks on their board they've got two BME reps and by the way they can't hold on to BME reps as folks pretty quickly suss out what's up and resign).

I'm very comfortable speaking in public so twice I presented the problem at meetings of our full local Council. First meeting went well, relatively little publicity but I pressed the flesh and made lots contacts. They don't get many Americans politicking down here in London's East End, so I was and remain an object of curiosity which helps our cause immensely.

The next speech we coordinated very precisely with TV & radio spots and leaflet carpet bombing before and after the event, and, long story short, we've ended up getting not only negative publicity that just doesn't end, we've successfully politicised the issue so we've now got three political parties fighting over who's gonna kick the landlord harder, and we've even secured an Early Day Motion in parliament naming and shaming the landlord in question.

Well, the puppet board didn't take too kindly to all the negative publicity, and ended up not only slandering me but also libeling me.

I never really undertake anything without researching fully, so I took off two weeks from my studies to pursue the issue almost full time and here's a snippet from what I've learned.

The Woolf reforms of 1999 set forth a structure of early discussion and exchange of information to determine the validity of complaints. This framework and the obligations / responsibilities of all parties is known as the "pre action protocol on defamation proceedings".

Litigation is discouraged and both settlement out of court - "an offer of amends" in response to a "letter of demand" - as well as mediation strongly suggested. Suing now without following this protocol every step of the way will negatively bias the judge and will reflect in his or her instructions to the jury (all libel / slander cases in the UK are heard by a jury).

Every step of the framework not only must be followed, but there are stringent timeframes involved, which insure that justice is pursued and there are no attempts to draw out the process to the detriment of one party. Sidenote: next week my letter of demand will be delivered to three distinct parties complicit in the libel against me (which will certainly make their world a rather different place), and I'll have a better feeling for the timeframes these actions take place under.

The bar is fairly low in defamation cases. All the claimant need prove is the statements spoken (slander) or written (libelous) are Further, "For a statement to be defamatory the imputation must tend to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. Even if the words damage a person in the eyes of a section of society or the community, they are not defamatory unless they amount to a disparagement of the reputation in the eyes of right-thinking people generally." (can't cite source; ran across in my research).

Another thing that's interesting - if one party doesn't precisely follow the protocol, and seems unreasonable in its demands, the judge can award interim costs to the other side, simply to insure that someone who is has indeed been defamed isn't litigated into poverty or forced to drop the case due to lack of funds.

Unlike the United States, contingent fee arrangements are typically not allowed, but there are some exceptions.

So unlike the United States this wasn't a knee jerk, "lets sue the bastard", next day response. This clearly has been brewing for some time and I think there is a lot of detail we're not privy to.

For example, its just not clear to me how this suit can be filed on behalf of an entity rather than specific individuals. The McLibel thing blew up in such a way, the generally accepted wisdom here in the UK at present is you can't libel a business / etc. Clearly as this shows that doesn't stop folks from trying, but I wonder what the back and forth has been like / what was said / etc.

In any case, there is an active e-petition to change UK libel laws to a somewhat more rational form.
posted by Mutant at 4:38 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


British libel laws are indeed desperately fucked up, and I'm on Singh's side here. But I deeply wish the loathsome RCP crew now masquerading as Sense About Science weren't involved. And isn't "keeping libel laws out of science" absurd on its face? It surely doesn't make UK libel laws any less fucked-up than they are now to deny people protection from reputational damage just because the subject-matter of the attacks on them is deemed to be (according to some subjective judgment) "scientific".
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:48 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ah, the Living Marxism crowd rears its head again.
posted by pharm at 4:51 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


See also the MetaTalk post.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 4:55 AM on June 25, 2009


Mutant: So unlike the United States this wasn't a knee jerk, "lets sue the bastard", next day response. This clearly has been brewing for some time and I think there is a lot of detail we're not privy to.

Yes, this has been going on since last year. Simon Singh covers a lot of the background here: "Unfortunately, the BCA rejected these offers [of the Guardian to print a clarification] and moreover made it absolutely clear that it was not suing The Guardian, but rather it was suing me personally ... So, why did I fight on alone? ... 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."
posted by memebake at 4:56 AM on June 25, 2009


@game warden to the events rhino: thats interesting, i didn't get as far as looking at who was behind Sense About Science.
posted by memebake at 5:01 AM on June 25, 2009



If it ever goes to trial on the intended meaning of the word bogus it seems as if that ASA ruling would be very damaging.

But I deeply wish the loathsome RCP crew now masquerading as Sense About Science weren't involved

WTF? The more you know....though this does seem a bit axe grindy/conspiratorial. Regardless of the background of some of the members Simon Singh is a respected science journalist and they are definitely in the right on this issue.

And isn't "keeping libel laws out of science" absurd on its face?

It should really be more of "keep libel laws from damaging legitimate debate." I mean given that the only really valid criticism in scientific debate is that the other person's view is unsupported by scientific evidence, if they can sue you for saying this how exactly are you supposed to conduct a scientific debate? I think a better example is Matthias Rath suing the guardian.
posted by Erberus at 5:09 AM on June 25, 2009


The Lay Scientist has also been at work making complaints, and the GCC's dodging of the issue is concerning - if they can't tackle the companies run by chiropractors and only the chiropractors themselves, what is the point of having them?
posted by edd at 5:15 AM on June 25, 2009


David Gorsky wrote about this case, and similar UK libel cases, including some in which the claimants successfully intimidated critics into silence. It's my understanding that, regardless of the fairness of the outcome, a libel defense is very expensive.

"It is true that Professor Lipstadt did ultimately win her case. Her victory was all the more impressive given how plaintiff-friendly British libel law is and how, for all practical purposes, she had to “prove that the Holocaust happened” in court and then to show in excruciating detail with copious evidence exactly how and why what David Irving writes and says about the Holocaust constitutes Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, it took many months to accomplish this and a couple of million dollars. If Lipstadt’s publisher hadn’t stuck with her (and there was an indemnification clause in her contract with her publisher that would have allowed it to leaver her hanging in the breeze if it had so chosen), she’d have probably had to settle. Indeed, that was almost certainly David Irving’s expectation when he brought the case–that Professor Lipstadt would settle."
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 5:21 AM on June 25, 2009


"For a statement to be defamatory the imputation must tend to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. Even if the words damage a person in the eyes of a section of society or the community, they are not defamatory unless they amount to a disparagement of the reputation in the eyes of right-thinking people generally."

That is so cute... "right thinking people", huh.

So if I say that, for example, "Mutant has been infected by thetans and is now radiating zone-3 energy and must be shunned," he can't sue me for libel because only whackos, rather than right-thinkers, would listen?

What if I said "Mutant is the spawn of Satan"? Would that be something that "right-thinkers" would buy?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:35 AM on June 25, 2009


WTF? The more you know....though this does seem a bit axe grindy/conspiratorial. Regardless of the background of some of the members Simon Singh is a respected science journalist and they are definitely in the right on this issue.

Totally agree. I don't think Singh, or most of the other famous names who get involved with SAS, the Institute of Ideas, etc, subscribe to or necessarily are even aware of the nasty views of this clique. More here. I'm not implying a dark conspiracy (and certainly I'm not trying to invoke fear of "Communists" — the RCP are rightwing libertarians, corporate apologists and, above all, shit-stirrers). But their rehabilitation in British public life in the last few years has been worryingly straightforward. I'd just like to see people who denied the Rwandan genocide, opposed laws against child pornography, and vocally supported Slobodan Milosevic, go through some kind of process of acknowledging that they might have been wrong.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:05 AM on June 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


pharm Also of interest is that the paniced email from the McTimony association might be enough to support a claim that the MTA at least really was making "bogus" claims under the stronger Eady interpretation of the word bogus: ie that the organisation knew that it was making claims that were either false or unsupportable.

Indeed, that's the most obvious outcome of that e-mail. And since I can imagine there's a significant overlap in membership between the BCA and MTA, that could get Singh out of trouble.

Live by the lawsuit, die by the lawsuit.
posted by Skeptic at 7:30 AM on June 25, 2009


I love projects like this. I also love when someone uses geekery to get things done. The mail merge reporting was brilliant. Loved the letter. This is a way cool story.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:15 AM on June 25, 2009


The chiropractic outfit near my house has a sign advertising an upcoming seminar titled "Reconsidering Vaccination". If there's an outbreak of measles in a few years in Noe Valley amongst kids with very good posture, I'll know who to blame.
posted by Nelson at 8:43 AM on June 25, 2009


Mutant:
"The bar is fairly low in defamation cases. All the claimant need prove is the statements spoken (slander) or written (libelous) are

* To a person’s discredit.
* Tends to lower him or her in the estimation of others.
* Causes him or her to be shunned or avoided.
* Causes him or her to be exposed to hatred, ridicule or contempt.
"

Hopefully you'll forgive this stupid question, but presumably all of this is still ok if what you're saying is true? I like to think that the things I say about the BNP would achieve all four of those goals; hopefully I couldn't realistically be targeted for besmirching their names because the things I repeat are all well documented and demonstrably true?

RE Sense About Science
I hear their name come up quite a lot in connection with sciency stuff in London, and they have some sort of science communication programme for PhD students that sounds interesting but I didn't get involved with. I haven't paid much attention to them, but everything I've heard about their activities really does sound like they're a skeptical, pro-science-education organisation. I'm not too bothered to hear that they opposed the child pornography laws if it's true: some aspects of UK law on that are outright stupid, so it's possible that they had entirely honourable reasons for doing so. Unfortunately child porn is an even worse subject than terrorism about which to try and have a rational public debate.
posted by metaBugs at 10:24 AM on June 25, 2009


"(b) attach a very prominent and clearly-worded disclaimer/warning to anything they print or otherwise disseminate.

"Chiropractic care is for entertainment purposes only."
posted by klangklangston at 10:47 AM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


pharm: Balzecock…

No substantial comment yet, just have to say:

That is, without doubt, the single best accidental misspelling of a username I have ever seen.

That is all. Carry on.

posted by koeselitz at 12:32 PM on June 25, 2009


Come come now, what's the harm in going to a chiropractor?
posted by eccnineten at 12:44 PM on June 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Re: Sense About Science - here's fairly straight up summary of them on Goldacre's Bad Science Forum. It's something of a running joke on the BS forums to string together conspiracies about the RCP connection - hence a lot of eye rolling at the paranoid commenters in the linked thread.
There's another thread on there where director Tracey Brown addressed a lot of the criticisms personally but you'll have to find it yourself.
game warden to the events rhino: I deeply wish the loathsome RCP crew now masquerading as Sense About Science weren't involved
Well, Simon Singh is on the board of trustees for SAS, so I guess that makes him an evil commie too, right?

* Disclaimer: I spent a couple of years working at SAS (and get exasperated with these lame insinuations)
posted by SciencePunk at 1:08 PM on June 25, 2009


@SciencePunk: thanks for that, I'll quote a bit of that post you linked to as it seems relevant:

"As far as I can see, Sense About Science has grown and changed beyond all recognition since it was founded. Many scientists are involved with it, and its output reflects the views of a broad cross-section of scientists. I've no doubt that the founders had there own biases - we all do - and in their early days that was probably reflected a bit in their output (in GM for example, although I don't disagree with them much), but the idea that some guy is directing a secret army of scientists to mislead the public on science is... well let's just leave it at 'unevidenced'."
posted by memebake at 1:49 PM on June 25, 2009


Meatbomb: Unlike many countries, the UK maintains a benchmark of "right-thinking people" for the many situations where common sense and community standards come into play. Until recently they were maintained in a climate-controlled room at the NPL's old Bushy House site; nowdays, I believe they have been distributed across the UK in order to better reflect local variations. This has lead to some countries re-examining their adherence to the UK standard - for example, Australia now defines their own "reasonable person" rather than shipping right-thinking people to the UK for calibration.

Trivia: several of them can be seen in the background of The Dam Busters during the ship tank / model bomb scenes that were filmed at Bushy House.
posted by Pinback at 5:03 PM on June 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


Hopefully you'll forgive this stupid question, but presumably all of this is still ok if what you're saying is true?

I can't speak for British libel and slander, but under defamation law in New Zealand, truth is not an absolute defense. This is not actually as bad an idea as it might strike you on first reading.
posted by rodgerd at 6:32 PM on June 25, 2009


SciencePunk: thanks! I'll have look through that thread later. Also, that's a great username.

rodgerd: Do you mean as a provision for true but misleading statements, e.g. "Since late 2007, metaBugs hasn't beaten his wife"? That sort of thing seems reasonable, but offhand I can't think of other cases. I might have to do some reading around on this.

I'll probably start at Wikipedia and check Simon Singh's website for an essay, but can anyone recommend a lay-person's guide? Like a pop science book, but about British law...

(Also, checking up on chiropractors claims isn't a witch hunt. It's a witch-doctor hunt.)
posted by metaBugs at 2:53 AM on June 26, 2009


Can you stop writing “pre-trial” as “pre-trail,” please?
posted by joeclark at 6:00 AM on June 26, 2009


"Because of what we consider to be a witch hunt against chiropractors, we are now issuing the following advice: ..."

That's not a witch hunt. This is a witch hunt.
posted by homunculus at 11:31 AM on June 26, 2009


Significant Update — take a gander, lots of links and discussion of those links.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:13 AM on July 6, 2009


More on the BCA's recent evidence claims.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 6:04 AM on July 8, 2009


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