Síle Lane on keeping libel laws out of science

Sile LaneGood science depends on open, critical discussion. Where medical science is concerned, if doctors didn’t voice reservations and medical publishers don’t air disputes, many people might think them irresponsible. But the libel laws in England mean robust criticism brings a risk of ruin that is chilling scientific and medical debates. It does this so effectively that we are now getting only the sanitised, ‘legal’ed part of many stories, and not hearing some stories at all.

That is particularly alarming when it comes to subjects such as the activities of a clinic offering advice about micronutrient deficiencies to parents of autistic children, which no-one will report because the owner is a notorious litigant, or the willingness of researchers to speak out when they think that funders misrepresent data from a clinical trial, since the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst was sued for doing just that. As Fiona Godlee wrote in a recent editorial: “Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine”.

This chilling effect on what people are prepared to discuss or print, and the threat of ruin for those who speak up, is why Sense About Science launched the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign. As BMJ readers know, the science writer Simon Singh has been sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Simon has worked with us for several years exposing misleading science and health claims, including pharmacies offering homeopathy as anti-malarial prophylaxis. He wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian last year about chiropractic claims to treat childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. The BCA sued him personally. A disastrous pre-trial ruling this year, which leaves him defending a meaning he didn’t intend at huge financial cost, became the lightening rod for mounting concern about libel threats.

It was in the confused week following that ruling, as we and Simon tried to make sense of the law and the decision, that two things dawned on us all. The first was that, even if Simon wins, it will cost him thousands of pounds and a large part of his life. That is because of the current state of the English libel laws: defences are narrow, costs are high and definition of libel is incredibly wide. The second was the likely damage to all that we were striving for in getting scientists and clinicians to make it their business to challenge pseudoscience and misleading claims.

We had already become aware that people don’t touch some issues for fear of litigation. Sense About Science’s publications about dodgy product claims and celebrity pseudoscience, for example, were meeting with lawyer-checking delays in the media that reported them. We sensed a further chill from Simon’s case. Indeed, that very week we had someone cite what happened to Simon as a reason for refusing to comment on homeopathy for ovarian cysts for a women’s magazine.

There has been an unprecedented counterblast to the chill in this case. For a start Simon is fighting on. For another, a very large group of people, from leading scientists to MPs to editors, performers and journalists have joined in saying ‘enough!’ Over 16,000 have signed a statement arguing that the law has no place in scientific disputes about evidence. Science blog writers have dug in their heels in every way they can to stop the arguments in Simon’s original article disappearing behind courtroom doors. Cosmos magazine recently led publications and blogs around the world in a reprint of an edited version of Simon’s original article, so it is now widely available, including here at the BMJ, and in 6 languages.

Don’t get me wrong – the chill is still there. We have heard from many authors and editors worried about what they said in previous books, articles or blog posts, or complaining of legal delays or being unable to publish stories, particularly anything about chiropractic.

What’s shocking is that so much of this has been going on for so long. At a recent meeting about Simon’s next steps in his appeal, we all sat there horrified that we’d not seen the extent of what others had had to endure – Ben Goldacre being sued by vitamin salesman Matthias Rath, Peter Wilmshurst by NMT, and all the others who have since written to us. 

Our organisation’s aim is to equip the public with good science and to encourage the science community to take responsibility for public debates. We, and others, push people into public debate, so we must fight the obstacles and intimidation they might face there too. We must ask why the cost of defending a libel case in England is 140 times the European average and why 90% of cases are won by the claimant. We must document the chilling effect in science and health and make the case for public interest in a free and frank debate.

Síle Lane joined the charity Sense About Science after a career in stem cell research. Sense About Science equips the public to make sense of science and evidence. As Public Liaison, Síle is concerned with the role of science and evidence in civil society. She coordinates the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign.

Note: Síle wants to hear from authors, researchers and editors about the impact of libel cases or fear of libel on what they write, say or publish at slane@senseaboutscience.org