Thursday, 4 June 2009

Simon Singh is appealing - he's also fighting for justice and freedom of speech

I like Simon Singh. Not in a I-stalk-him-and-his-wife-Anita-Anand-off-Radio-5-wherever-they-go kind of way (honest, guv...). No, I like his brilliantly insightful books, his quirky yet informative style of presenting the most complex principle in physics so that even an ignoramus like me can grasp them, and his more recent contribution to the sceptical literature that includes the fabulous Trick or Treatment, co-written with Prof. Edzard Ernst.

I do not like the really rather shameful treatment (no pun intended) that Singh has been subjected to by the British Association of Chiropractors (BCA) in response to an article he penned in The Guardian last year. It isn't for me to re-cap the whole story here - for more on the background visit Jack of Kent's extraordinary blog - but suffice to say that the BCA took offence at Singh's criticism of their profession, and in particular his contention that their claims for efficacy in cases for all sorts of diseases are in fact bogus (the original article has long since disappeared but Andy Lewis of the Quackometer blog has excerpts here...). They sued, and as is now being widely reported, Mr. Justice Eady ruled in a pre-trial hearing that Singh would have to defend his use of the word 'bogus' as in Eady's judgement this imputed fraudulent malice to practitioners of chiropractic.

Singh is not the first to be threatened with legal action for expressing a scientifically valid opinion backed up by peer-reviewed evidence - the likes of the Quackometer, Ben Goldacre and many many others have suffered the chill from various sources. But what sets this case apart is that it's ended up in court, with astronomical (again, no pun intended) costs incurred already, and more in prospect. Moreover, the potential implication of Judge Eady's ruling extends to virtually all critical commentary on scientific issues.

As Nick Cohen eloquently wrote in last week's Observer,
The consequences of letting the libel law loose on scientific debate are horrendous.
If bloggers, journalists and writers fear the wrath of a scandalously bad libel law every time they dispute scientific findings, if critical thought is to be silenced without any deference to scientific fact (which in this case is squarely behind Singh, hence the furore), then what price debate and enquiry?

And so to yesterday's news that Simon is to appeal against Justice Eady's ruling after all, which comes to this blogger via The Quackometer, Professor Colquhon's DCScience and Dr* T of thinking is dangerous. A brave decision, one that may cost Simon considerable personal effort and of course more funds, and yet the right decision. Not only because it shows that in the face of bullying and legal chill, scientific debate and free speech as a whole must be defended to the bitter end; not only because the right to question practices that have potentially grave consequences for public health is an essential prerogative of a free and independent press. As well as these reasons, Simon's decision to appeal is right because he has the support of hundreds of academics, journalists, lawyers and others who believe in the right to criticise that which is in the public domain and falsifiable, who believe that scientific criticism should not be answered with a bullying use of libel law but with considered debate surrounding the evidence, and who are prepared to lend their weight to a campain not only to support Simon in his commendable fight but to reform the libel laws of this country such that they become fit for purpose.

So sign up to the Facebook groupd supporting Simon, sign the Sense about Science statement of support, get the word out to all and sundry that the sceptical community will not stand by in silence while one of its most prominent and respected members is put through the mill.


joel said...

It only occurred to me recently that maybe Eady is a chess player and this is exactly what he was hoping for, a groundswell to change the stupid laws. He put Simon in this corner, he arrived at the pre-trial with a formed idea, he must have known the course this would take.
I hope it comes out the way we're all hoping for, because I've never seen so much of the internet pointed in the same direction. This is on fire, let them all burn tonight.

teekblog said...

@ joel: an interesting theory, not one I'm sure is true but nonetheless I can see where you're coming from.

As you said it is rare for teh internets to be aligned in this way, must Venus interjecting into Mars's trajectory and causing a rupture in the interplanetary flux capacitor during an eclipse...

Jhon said...

I hope it comes out the way we're all hoping for, because I've never seen so much of the internet pointed in the same direction.

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