It’s a subject of grim amusement among scientists that while it is perfectly acceptable for wrinkle creams to claim to be “inspired by the science of genes” (whatever that means), real discussion of scientific process and results could result in a lawsuit.
Scientists are trained to do their battles in public, with disprovability and reproducibility as guiding concepts. Their standard is already higher than much of the rest of public discourse; by definition it has to be.
We won’t wander over to the parallel topic of fossil-fuel devotees politely called “climate skeptics” – yet.
Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association over an article that suggested there was a lack of evidence for the claims over colic, asthma and other conditions. Singh’s original statement was judged lawful in a ruling on the appeal on Thursday … at an expense to him of over £200,000.
What the case came down to was the meaning of a few words – did Singh’s statement allege that the BCA was purposely misleading people? It is having to consider the possible interpretations of the readers that makes skirting libel law so frightfully difficult, as well as unclear.
Singh has described the ruling as “brilliant” – and it is, because in such a high-profile case, this could set precedents. But it doesn’t go far enough…
Of particular interest is Paragraph 34 of Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley’s ruling on Singh’s case. It quotes the judgment in a US court of a science and libel case, Underwager v Salter:
“Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation […] More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”
Libel law in the UK is particularly one-sided and unfair. To the point where libel tourism is a job description.
Different countries, cultures, ideologies employ different means to try their best to hold back progress in knowledge and understanding of the real world. Foot soldiers from the ranks of True Believers are always ready and willing to join the struggle on the side of those who fear science. Paid flacks, opportunists – even non-politicians – are willing to further their ill-gotten gains through obscurantist maneuvers.
Though it sometimes feels as if we live in a uniquely reactionary day and age, I’m pleased the range of Know-Nothings from climate deniers to teabaggers, creationists to “I haven’t a racist bone in my body”-Republicans, hasn’t yet reached the level of violence and mayhem of the Inquisition. Mostly.