June 4th, 2009
Science journalist Simon Singh has announced today that he will be appealing against the libel charge brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, following a piece Singh previously wrote in The Guardian that raised questions about the effectiveness of chiropractic – particularly for childhood illnesses.
The case has had a good round up in the press today, particularly in the Independent and Times Higher Education. Meanwhile, blogger Gimpy has an update on how some alternative practitioners have been responding to this case.
Charity Sense About Science are supporting Singh. Their take is The law has no place in scientific disputes. Sense About Science have an update on Singh’s case including an account from Simon himself about the events leading up to his recent court hearing and his decision to fight on.
I’ve blogged about Simon’s situation previously, and following this a number of colleagues have said to me things like
“well it’s a sad story but it doesn’t apply to me because I’m not a science journalist”
“I’m a blogger, I don’t think I’d be affected”
“I blog about the social sciences, I think this is more of an issue for natural scientists”
None of these things are right. What’s happened to Simon could happen to any of us who write about science or health issues in the mainstream media, on blogs or even on teaching materials. The fact that an organisation are prepared to sue someone who asked a reasonable question about the claims they made about their practice should give us all pause for thought. Aside from the personal toll such a situation may lead to (not to mention the expense) there’s the downside that many people will simply assume to avoid trouble they just won’t tackle potentially tricky topics. Meaning issues of poor practice, unethical behaviour, or dubious outcomes will not be reported.
Don’t assume because you’re not a science writer or blog about social issues that this doesn’t apply to you. It applies to all of us. Even if you don’t blog or publish in some other way it should matter to you because the whole time scientists (and science reporters) are silenced you are not getting accurate information. That in turn could affect the wellbeing of you and your friends and family.
What can you do? Support Simon Singh! That doesn’t mean we all plan a mass civil disobedience campaign where we all attempt to get sued by individuals or organisations. But it does mean standing beside Simon and showing you agree with what he’s said and his right to write critically about health and science issues. You can sign the statement of support. You can join the Facebook group For Simon Singh and Free Speech (where you can also get updates on the campaign progress). And you can follow the case through Jack of Kent’s fantastic blog (which has consistently supported Simon).
You can also make a pledge to ensure that you will report on anything that needs questioning, and not give in to the chilling effect that threatens science (and science writing) at this time.
It would be nice to think that by challenging the libel ruling this case is now closed. Unfortunately it is still ongoing and there is no guarantee Simon will win. So the final word goes to Gimpy to explain what this may mean to Simon and why we must back him.
“This is a risky and brave decision by Simon Singh. There is no guarantee that he will win, British libel law is notoriously unfair, with success often decided by wealth than by ideals of fairness. Nevertheless Simon Singh must be supported, science and science communication depends on the free and frank exchange of ideas and accepting criticism is a necessity, not a choice. All too often we have seen those who peddle pseudoscience, nonsense and bogus treatments resort to threats and actions involving lawyers and libel in attempts to silence their critics. A clear message needs to be sent that those who care about evidence – science and free debate will not stand for such behaviour”Tweet