Silencing Criticism through Libel Law

A Scottish colleague brought this article by Richard Dawkins in the UK’s Guardian to my attention, and the title says it all: “Libel laws silence scientists.”  I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of this before now, but the physicist turned science journalist Simon Singh (author of such books as Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book) has been sued in a UK court and, this past summer, found liable for libel for an April 2008 commentary piece in the Guardian (since removed from the Guardian’s website but available in edited form here and elsewhere) in which he explained that there is no evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation can safely and effectively treat back pains, let alone treat non-back problems such as asthma, colic, and frequent ear infections “supposedly caused by blockages in the flow of innate energy along the spine and through the nervous system,” as some chiropractic advocates insist.  Singh called these claims “utter nonsense,” wrote that the British Chiropractic Association “happily promotes bogus treatments,” and noted that there have been several hundred documented cases in which chiropractic spinal manipulation has caused serious vertebral dislocation or fractures.

The British Chiropractic Association was none too happy about these criticisms of themselves and their craft.  But, instead of accepting the Guardian‘s offer to publish a 500-word response and a note in the “corrections” section of the newspaper, the BCA took advantage of Britain’s insane libel laws and sued Singh.  Singh, who of course has copious amounts of published scientific research to back up his claims, decided to fight the suit in court.  But, due to Britain’s insane libel laws, he lost.  Reasons include  the fact that, in the UK, any person or organization with almost any amount of national reputation may bring a libel action for even the slightest deprecation without having to show any actual damages.  Then, once in court, the normal burden of proof is switched, such that the defendant must prove his statements to be completely true, rather than the plaintiff proving them to be false. And UK judges tend to be very favorably inclined toward plaintiffs.

Although Singh’s article mentioned the BCA only once, the judge interpreted that key passage (“happily promotes bogus treatments”) as a direct allegation of purposeful dishonesty:

12. What the article conveys is that the BCA itself makes claims to the public as to the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments even though there is not a jot of evidence to support those claims. That in itself would be an irresponsible way to behave and it is an allegation that is plainly defamatory of anyone identifiable as the culprit. In this case these claims are expressly attributed to the claimant. It goes further. It is said that despite its outward appearance of respectability, it is happy to promote bogus treatments. Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

13. It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments “happily”. What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct.

Singh claims he merely intended to suggest that the BCA and other chiropractic supporters were “deluded and reckless,” not dishonest, and he notes that several other passages in the article support that interpretation.  But, even if that were not the case, since there is plenty of scientific evidence that chiropractic manipulation is bogus, you’d think that would be sufficient defense.  But, it is often said that, under UK libel law, the truth is no defense. Did I mention that the UK has insane lible laws?

This case would be bad enough if it were unique.  Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often.  In a world of global print and Internet publishing, the UK has become a venue for so-called libel tourism, in which slighted plaintiffs from all over the world bring suit in British courts against defendants located outside the UK merely because their comments have been published or re-posted in magazines, books, or websites that happen to appear in Britain.  There is no doubt that British libel law exerts a chilling effect on free speech generally, and on criticism of quack science and bad governance more specifically.  Fortunately, the indispensible UK non-profit Sense About Science has begun a campaign to Keep Libel Laws Out of Science.  I encourage readers interested in defending the right of honest criticism to click the link and learn more.