How ludicrous libel laws are threatening the scientific pursuit of the truth...
It is the stuff of nightmares - a society so wound up in the legal system that no-one is allowed to tell you the truth, or that those with money control state censorship. However, this isn’t some John Grisham novel, this is the unfortunate state of the UK libel system today.
Put simply, the current UK libel laws have no place in science. Scientists should be free to tell the truth, to publish the results of their experiments and should be free to criticise bad science. Criticism is the cornerstone of science and without it UK science will crumble. Think about it - without criticism how will you be able to spot falsification? Without criticism, what is even the point of proving your ideas anyway? Who needs experiments and proof? Ownership of the truth would fall to the highest bidder - and the UK (and many other countries) would turn into very dangerous places.
But why does the UK have this problem? In a country that has practically unparalleled human rights it seems odd that people would be silenced. Unfortunately, our libel laws are historical artefacts, set up originally to reduce the number of duels being fought. The laws are also constructed in such a way that the defendant has to prove his allegation to be true, which puts the person being accused of libel at a significant disadvantage.
Luckily for them, other countries don't have this problem. Others, like America, have even gone so far as to create new laws to protect their citizens against the exigences of our libel system. This is because the UK legal process is so biased against the defendant that, in recent years, foreigners have been deliberately bringing cases here, even when they have little or no connection with the UK at all, because the odds stack up so well in their favour. This so-called ‘libel tourism’ is becoming a significant problem.
But why are the UK laws courts so appealing to people that want to gag someone? At stake is money and time. Libel cases takes months if not years to defend. During that time freelance writers can struggle to continue working and therefore end up losing money. Getting sued for libel may also scare off others from employing you.
Big corporations think nothing of spending thousands on lawyers, but imagine if someone such as you or me was asked to personally come up with £100,000 to defend a libel claim? And as there is no legal aid for such instances, you’re on your own, unless your publishers decide to help you out.
All this leads to one thing: silence. Scientists can no longer afford to disagree with big corporations; it is too much of a risk. So watch the literature and newspapers: stories will be pulled, wording will be changed, subjects will be ignored. This problem is insidious – but we don’t know the half of it!
But maybe that's about to change because the issue has been in the spotlight in a big way recently since the writer Simon Singh was sued over an article he wrote for the Guardian about alternative therapy. I’ve read it, and, like many others, cannot conclude that it's libellous at all. In fact, why not read the article itself and form your own decision. Here's a version of Simon Singh's Guardian piece, kindly provided by Sense about Science (see also Ref. 1).
But, before you assume that this is the exception rather than the rule, be assured - it's not an isolated example. In another high-profile case in 2008, action was initiated against Guardian 'Bad Science' columnist Ben Goldacre when he covered a story about a businessman who, as he puts it, 'bought full page adverts denouncing AIDS drugs while promoting his vitamin pills in South Africa, a country where hundreds of thousands die every year from Aids under an HIV denialist president and the population is ripe for miracle cures.'
Goldacre's case was finally dropped but was a gruelling experience and led Goldacre to lament on his website 'This libel case has drawn on for over a year, with the writ hanging both in my toilet, and over my head. Although fighting it has been fascinating, and in many respects a great pleasure, it has also taken a phenomenal amount of my time, entirely unpaid, to deal with it. For the duration of the case I have also been silenced on the serious issues that [Matthias] Rath’s activities raise, the chapter on his work was pulled from my book, and I have been unable to comment on his further movements around the world.'
I’m not for one minute advocating the abolition of libel laws. Nasty stories of people wrongfully calling other people paedophiles (tactics used by some animal rights groups (see ref 3)) are a good reason why we should keep some semblance of these laws. But surely laws that threaten the very essence of the scientific method and the right to have an informed public debate on issues that affect us all need re-examining?
Thankfully, scientists and science-writers are now beginning to fight back. The ‘Keep libel laws out of science’ (ref 4) campaign run by Sense About Science has already gained 17,834 signatures since it began, and already has the support of some political parties. Famous figures have been weighing in too: Stephen Fry supports the campaign saying “The simplicity and purity of evidence is all that stands between us and the wildest kinds of tyranny, superstition and fraudulent nonsense. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh's reputation, then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation”.
The UK has a proud history of scientists and writers that have defied the world to tell us the truth. Darwin’s right to free speech allowed him to teach us about evolution and revolutionise modern thinking. However, without immediate libel reform, what hope is there that the truth will triumph over mis-information?
References and further reading:
2. Bad science, Ben Goldacre, (2009 edition), fourth estate. Chapter ‘The doctor will sue you now’.
3. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7837064.stm [Animal rights campaigners jailed].
4. www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/375/ [The campaign at a glance].
A system that deters rational argument threatens to jeopardise the whole scientific process. Modern science is based on peer review. So what next? Reviewers finding themselves in a libel court for critiquing a piece of work...?
I think the problem is encapsulated in a phrase from that article: "Scientists can no longer afford to disagree with big corporations". The important point is that it should not be the scientists who disagree (with anyone) but that the evidence and data indicate a particular 'truth' upon which the conclusions of the scientist should be based.
The point is that there is no case for the scientist to answer. It is the data and evidence that is being challenged and not the scientist. Perhaps the scientists who have suffered from this phenomena haven't made that point. LeeE, Tue, 15th Dec 2009
It is not just libel, but any private litigation is hugely in favour of those with wealth. The cost of pursuing a matter in court is prohibitive to the ordinary man-in-the-street. Unless someone is 100% confident in their position, the deterrent factor is the risk of losing; and being right does not necessarily guarantee success either. The "no win - no pay" system that was introduced a few years back can help to a point but has its own disadvantages. An example is public services (i.e. ultimately, taxpayers) getting sued because a person stubbed their toe on a paving slab etc. and giving a market to "ambulance chasing" lawyers.
I have heard a number of reports on this matter and all concur with you Chris, as I do. But, as Graham wrote, "...litigation is hugely in favour of those with wealth." The ordinary scientist will be afraid to criticise despite evidence in his/her possession. The problem will be that it will be left to jurors and judges to decide the 'truth'.
Ah, patents - there is another world evil that needs sorting. In the electronics/semiconductor industry patents are, primarily, a way of gathering enough weight of material to deter other huge companies from suing you. If you don't have an inventory of patents you can be in a weak position. It does not matter much in 99% of the patent claims are invalid because proving their invalidity can be very costly and time consuming. The people who are supposed to vet patents for validity are, for the most part, not competent to do so. I don't blame them for this as the subject is far too wide and complex for a patent lawyer or even any non-specialist. The large company patents are also a way of deterring small companies from getting into a field of business, which is exactly contrary to their original intent. There is also quite a bit of variation country to country with the USA, for example, not recognising prior art unless patented in the USA (or in other countries well in advance) or publicly disclosed in the USA. graham.d, Wed, 16th Dec 2009