Science Articles

Silencing Our Science: SOS

Tue, 15th Dec 2009

How ludicrous libel laws are threatening the scientific pursuit of the truth...

Harriet Dickinson

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.

Simon SinghBut 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).

"Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation.

Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association."

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. [Animal rights campaigners jailed].

4. [The campaign at a glance].

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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...?

This is scary and it needs to stop.

Chris chris, Tue, 15th Dec 2009

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.

If scientists stick to basing their conclusions upon the data and evidence, any disagreement is not with the scientists but with the data and evidence.  Let them try suing the data.

Anyone who spouts off about something likely to upset someone else, without good evidence for showing that what they say is truthful, is just asking for trouble, whether they be a scientist or not.

In the cases identified in that article, the scientists clearly seem to have the data and evidence to back up what they have said and should seek damages from the organisations wrongly persecuting them, either on the basis of malicious accusation or on lack of due diligence in bringing the case and incurring the costs of the defendant.  They should also ask for punitive damages too, to act as a deterrent.

The saddest thing of all though is that some people think it's ok to try to win through fraud, and the reason that it's so sad is that it's part of human nature to take the p!ss. LeeE, Tue, 15th Dec 2009

But I think the point being made is that teh writers are guilty until proven innocent, which is the converse of the way the legal system actually works under other circumstances.

Also, the writers, traumatised by one heap of litigation - as Goldacre says he spent a year dealing with it, Simon Singh's into year 2 - are hardly likely to want to pursue even more expensive and risky litigation to rectify the damage that's already done.

Simon Singh's article - included in Harriet's article - is supported by evidence - he bases it on published material - check out the link in her Ref 1 for the actual publications; I can't see what else he could have done to make a reasoned case out of that.

The point is that we're now in an evidence-based era; the days of dogma are gone or going. But unless people are allowed to question practices and highlight when they are wrong then nothing can improve.

It seems that, in this case at least, "you can't teach an old dogma new tricks..."

Chris chris, Tue, 15th Dec 2009

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.

The article cited does not criticise any particular individual but throws doubt on the validity of chiropractic treatment. I am surprised that this can be classed as libel at all, particularly as, at least in the section quoted, it is mainly a criticism by implication from evidential sources. The point is that even if the libel was not provable, the threat of litigation is sufficient to prevent criticism or to deter a journal from printing such criticism.

This is not just an issue in science. The British libel laws certainly need addressing. The weight is too much in favour of those who are libelled at present. However, I can see no reason why Chiropractic methods cannot be criticised provided there are no ad hominem attacks on chiropracters themselves. graham.d, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

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'.

We already have a situation where legal entanglement over financial irregularities leaves jury's, with no financial expertise, to decide on matters they do not understand. Are we to have the same situation with scientific research? How can a jury made up of plumbers, bus drivers, checkout operators, carpet salespeople and the like understand, let alone decide on, the in's and out's of drug research or some such case? How can they decide whether this theory or that is correct on a matter of quantum physics?

I think government or the Lord Chief Justice needs to act NOW, to stop this lunacy. Don_1, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

A very good point - unless there has been an allegation against an individual, there has been no libel. LeeE, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

They should be able to. Unfortunately people have committed muchos time to learning these techniques, only to find that they are ineffective in many cases. No doubt some would rather try to keep their occupation than look at the evidence when it's a question of livelihood I sympathise deeply with them - it's a very, very hard position to be in, & no doubt many are angry with Goldacre, though I believe he's right. I read Bad Science about half a year ago, & I was shocked at the level of evil pharma companies represent.

It's a very real problem for me, since I'm doing a Chemistry degree.. I can choose between trying to change them from the inside, or reject working for them altogether. To be honest, the way the system is set up right now, in terms of American patents & profits, I don't think I would like to work for them - there are more efficient ways of helping people. For example prevention of the diseases in the first place is easier & cheaper in poorer countries.

Gillian McKeith.. don't even get me started. I feel dirty walking into Holland & Barratts & knowing that people will buy into her products. I have deep sympathy for both her & her customers for being so sadly misinformed. glovesforfoxes, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

Both are good articles about Singh's legal struggles.
Sense About Science's fight to reform libel laws in the UK. AllenG, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

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

As I see it, the problem was that Singh commented accurately on the chiropractors but the judge got it wrong twice.
Firstly he thought that this was a statement of fact, when it was actually a statement of opinion (and thus protected as free speech).
Secondly he thought that the fact was incorrect. Actually the chiroprctaors were engaged in exactly the behaviour that Simngh said they were.
It's not a fault with the law here, it's just a bad court decision.

A year or so back my boss falsely accused me of dishonesty and misconduct.
He insisted that his accusations were true and he put them into my end of year report on which, among other things, my pay and promotion prospects depend.

When I threatened to sue him for libel he retracted the allegations.
He realised that the so called "reversed burden of proof" is the normal burden, but looked at from the other side. It's not "guilty till proven inocent" at all.
I was entirely innocent of the charges he alledged and the law presumes that I am innoocent. That's why he would have had to prove the accusations in order to avoid losing a libel case. If he hadn't lied in the first place I couldn't have threatened to sue him, or I could have threatened, or even sued, but I would have lost as I wouldn't have been able to prove my case.
The idea is thet the court finds out what happened and awards damages accordingly.

The problem here seems to me to be that the court have got it wrong.

Bored chemist, Wed, 16th Dec 2009

BC - is what your boss did actually libel, or defamation? chris, Thu, 17th Dec 2009


I beg to differ. One of the greatest reasons that there is so much patent litigation and befuddlement that allows the major corporations to push their weight around is that the majority of patents are very poorly written. Ironically, the patents produced by many of the major corporations are among the worst!

Individual inventors can still find significant gaps in prior art and obtain patents to improve the art. However, like most things, the inspirational part is a mere fraction of the total effort required. Geezer, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

It was libel.
He called me a liar and I'm not. He accused me of misconduct and, in doing so , he lied.
I don't want to give details here but there's no question that what he wrote was defamatory and since he copied it by email to a number of other people, it's libel. Bored chemist, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

Geezer, I detect you know something of the electronics industry. The IEEE journal (JSSCC) used to publish a handful of granted patents every couple of months and I can guarantee there would always be a version of the Schmitt trigger in there!! For non-electronics people this is like re-inventing a football on a regular basis.

Having been in both huge and small semiconductor companies (and also having run my own company) for many years, I can attest that the large companies have an upper hand in this game, although it costs them a fair bit of money and time. I agree the patents are often badly written and can allow gaps that allow improvements in existing inventions (I have a few myself) but the cost, time and effort of getting a patent in multiple countries and then defending will more often not yield a worthwhile return.

Some good patents still emerge from univerity departments who now often will be associated with a company to exploit their research. I think this is a shame as I think it corrupts the principles behind the concepts of a university, but I can see that the univerities need the money.

I am not saying there are no good patents and that these are not deserving of reward, but the vast majority are not in this class. The purpose of patents is to protect, encourage and reward invention, particularly for the small company or individual, but that is far from the effect in most cases. I used to like IBM's approach; they rarely (relatively) patented anything but simply disclosed inventions to stop others preventing their use via patents. graham.d, Thu, 17th Dec 2009

Graham - I don't disagree with your observations about the electronics industry. It's basically a game based on shear weight of numbers. Also, as I'm sure you know well, it's usually not so difficult to design around a patent to avoid infringement, or at least put things into a grey area. My point is that if an inventor really solves a problem in a novel way, they should consider patenting it, but it's not for the faint hearted!

Case in point Geezer, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

Yes LeeE, but the problem is that people/companies threaten to sue writers even when they know they’re not going to win. This is because most writers will back down when faced personally with a £100,000+ libel suit. It doesn’t matter how much data/evidence there is -it still takes a lot of time and money to fight the case, which most science writers don’t have. The writer will take down the article, or delete the comment, and the general public will never hear of it. This is terrible for science, and dangerous for the general public.

Even winning a libel case does not solve the problem- according to some of Ben Goldacre’s posts the guardian is still massively out of pocket from their case, despite winning.

The current libel laws are being used to silence scientists, and this must stop. We need libel reform, and fast.
HarrietD, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

This is what I don't understand.  Why would someone back down when they know they're just representing the data and evidence?  If anyone is to blame for this state of affairs it is those people who have backed down in these cases, which has then encouraged further cases.

Anyone who doesn't stand up to this type of legal bullying when they have the data and evidence to prove their case is condoning the act of bringing a libel against them, and even worse, to others by backing down and allowing the action to pass.  Rather than bringing truth, which was the original intent, they're condoning falsehood.  Knowledge comes with a responsibility to defend it; failing to defend it, once discovered, is suppressing that knowledge. LeeE, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

Rubbish, LeeE.
There are several factors here. One is that the "costs" paid by the unsuccessful party are not always the full costs of the successful party in defending their position. Another is that in order to be successful it is necessary to place ones trust, to the point of one's house and the wherewithall to buy the kids' Christmas presents/fund them through university, in a legal system whose reputation is not, frankly, 100%. Even if it's 99% that's not a gamble everyone feels they can make, if they have responsibilities to other people. Finally, big companies can hire damn good lawyers and if you're a moderately-paid scientist then you can't necessarily afford to get near enough to such a person to convince them of your case. rosy, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

I think you, and many other, may have accepted too much of the legal professions' propaganda re the need to pay for expensive representatives to defend you, especially when it is the data and evidence that is actually being accused.  If you are reporting what the data and evidence suggests and you are not making a statement about a specific individual there is no case to answer.

Arguing that you should not defend this point because there is a risk of failing just seems worse, to me, than worrying about being hit by a falling meteorite.  It's worse because being hit by a meteorite is purely down to chance whereas defending the facts is entirely the opposite.  Failing to defend valid data and evidence, because of fear is neurotic. LeeE, Fri, 18th Dec 2009

But the point is LeeE that Simon Singh has done exactly what you suggest - if you look at the Ref 1 cited in the article you can see that all Singh's done is to put forward evidence against chiropractic. Nothing he says isn't supported by a published and peer-reviewed evidence base.

Yet, despite this "evidence", the judge initially found against him and then he had to appeal in order to appeal!

I think part of the reason is that judges know bugger all about scientific method, or at least this one did. Otherwise this sorry situation wouldn't exist.

The point is though that if I had written that article and been hit by the BCA with a libel suit, then I would have caved-in on financial grounds.

It's only because Simon Singh has got existing wealth (and a very good chance of selling this story or at least trading off the back of the publicity it's creating) that he's been able to take this course of action - and good luck to him. Most people, however, would not... chris, Sat, 19th Dec 2009

Don't get me wrong, insofar as I don't believe that the legal process is always perfect; far from it, but challenging it when it is wrong is the only way to fix it.

I don't know how much personal wealth Simon Singh had, to feel that he could challenge it, but it was that wealth that he risked losing.  I would love to be challenged in a similar case; I have no wealth, to the extent that I can barely afford to wipe my bottom, but then it also means I have literally nothing to lose and any damages would have to come out of my JSA - Lol.  Heh! - it would soon descend into farce as it would mean at least a 20+ mile walk to and from court each day, which isn't really feasible due to arthritis and PAD, and engaging any sort of legal defence would be out of the question.  Nevertheless, if I was supporting valid data and evidence I could not respect myself if I were to back down. LeeE, Sun, 20th Dec 2009

...maybe you should see a chiropractor about that...! Meera, Mon, 21st Dec 2009

I would like to see the original piece, unedited. I would also like to see exactly the British Chiropractic Association are objecting too. In my opinion, the article is ill-researched, prejudiced, and sensationalist, all the hallmarks of a newspaper article. But still cannot fathom what could be considered libellous enough to warrant legal proceedings. It really isn't much different to any other newspaper article written about anything else in this country. Variola, Mon, 21st Dec 2009

If you go to the article and click on Reference 1, this is a link to a complete version of the published article. It's not grossly different to the version carried on our site. chris, Fri, 25th Dec 2009

A wonderful comment on the sense about science site:

Anagram of "chiropractic" ... "Critic - oh, crap!" chris, Mon, 28th Dec 2009

Yes I did that after I had posted my comment. There is still nothing in it that I can see is libellous, it really is no different to any other newspaper article. We can't just sue someone because we don't like what they say.
It still remains an ill-researched and poorly written article. Co-authoring a book does not mean the findings are correct,neither does anything published on pubmed mean findings are correct, that really is stating the obvious. But the article is basing itself of that, as well as adding in some sensationalism.
It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical companies to make out chiropractic care is quackery, and I say that without malice or bias against the pharmas, it is just business.
To go from constant pain, and regular painkillers, to pain free cannot be ignored. That is what happens for many people who receive chiropractic care, and many more feel a vast improvement.
Mainstream medicine has as many risks as chiropractic or oesteopath care, as does surgery, the difference is it is more accepted. Variola, Mon, 28th Dec 2009

James Michener, the American writer, wrote in The World is My Home, how families and interest groups vehemently would try to censor what was being said about them in textbooks, or how they used underhanded tactics to keep the books their families published in schools--even if they were boring. Boredom for the student having to read a censored textbook is one of the worst results of dishonest censorship. Paula Shevick, Sat, 8th Oct 2011

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