Suppressing science

Simon Singh, author of the book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine has a brief article in the Times about the problems caused by libel actions on scientific integrity (see Think tank: Costly libel suits are stifling science). He knows what he is talking about as he is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over a Guardian article of his. (The original has been deleted but a cached version is available online here)

Singh had commented that some aspects of Chiropractic treatment were “bogus.” The BCA objected and were offered a right of reply by the Guardian. While the issue could have been decided, or at least clarified, by discussion and presentation of evidence the BCA chose to sue. They chose to show their legal muscle instead of the evidence – to paraphrase a similar New Zealand situation (see Evidence should trump “legal muscle”). In that case The New Zealand Chiropractic Association responded to a critical article in the New Zealand Medical Journal with a threat of legal action if the article was not withdrawn.

But the real problem about such legal action is not the court case itself. After all, science should win over commercial interests if the evidence is properly considered). It is the costs imposed on the defendant by such action. Apparently this is particularly bad in the UK where Singh’s costs could exceed £500,00 pounds!

A better way?

It’s no wonder, in these situations, that scientists and journalists almost inevitably back down, apologise and settle out of court with a relatively small payment. The point of Singh’s Times article is that there should be a better way of handling such cases. As he says:

“It seems ridiculous that I should have to pay such vast amounts of money to defend an article about an important health issue. I am not alone: libel suits against scientists and science journalists are increasingly common.”

This is an issue which should be of vital interest to the public. After all scientific information is often vital to decisions we make about our health, life style and financial decisions. It is in our interest that such information should not be suppressed. Yet, according to Singh such cases are “increasingly common.” And the public remains blithely unaware of this!

Suppressing science in New Zealand

We shouldn’t just think this is a British problem as we have had similar situations in New Zealand, and probably have many more situations where  the threat, alone, of such action is used to suppress scientific information. An instructive example of this was the Maxicrop case in the 1980s and the (largely unreported) downstream consequences of that case.

In 1987 the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and TVNZ for 11.5 million d0llars over a claim made on a consumer rights TV programme “Fair Go.” MAF scientists had shown that Maxicrop was ineffective and one of them, Dr Doug Edmeades, presented this information on “Fair Go.”

The case cost millions of dollars and ran for 135 days making it one of the longest running legal cases in New Zealand. The High Court found Dr Edmeades’s statements true – Maxicrop did not work.

So, on the face of it science won over commercial interests. The rights of the public and consumers (prticularly farmers) to information were guaranteed. Dr Edemades felt that the courts had established important precedents for scientists to speak out about products.

Science can go to hell

But MAF bosses, and their descendant bureaucrats in AgResearch and other Crown Research Insitutes, did not see it that way. They were running scared – their nerves had been broken. They didn’t want a repeat of that experience. Science (and the rights of consumers and the public) could go to hell – they wouldn’t let this happen again.

With this bureaucratic frame of mind the mere threat of legal action has often been sufficient to get unpleasant scientific facts about a commercial product suppressed. Dr Edmeades and his colleagues in the Soils and Fertiliser Group at MAF, and subsequently AgResearch, were forbidden to speak about, or publish scientific information on, specific products. This meant a lot of information on direct application phosphate rock fertiliser was suppressed due to threats of legal action by a firm which imported of one of these products.

This was ironic because Dr Bert Quinn, the owner of that firm, was a former colleague of Dr Edmeades. They had worked together as defendants in the Maxicrop case so Quinn had experienced at first had the power of legal action and the reaction of Ministry bureaucrats. He was to use threats of legal action several times in subsequent years to prevent critical scientific information on his products reaching the consumer, the NZ farmers. (I myself experienced this as late as 2001).

“Science friction”

Another irony in the apparent victory of science in the Maxicrop case was that while Dr Quinn found simple threats of legal action effective with the bureaucrats of MAF and AgResearch, he  had to resort to full blown legal action against his former colleague when Dr Edmeades wrote a book (see Farm science and ‘farce’) about the Maxicrop case and its aftermath – Science friction : the Maxicrop case and the aftermath.

It’s a great read and covers important issues of relevance to scientists and consumers. But because it discussed some of the problems scientists faced communicating their scientific findings on direct application phosphate rock fertilisers Quinn sued, successfully, to get the book withdrawn (see Fertiliser fightback in court). So it’s become a bit of a rare collectors item (I have one).

Just another case of legal muscle being used instead of evidence.

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See also:
BCA v Singh The Story So Far by Simon Singh
Sense About Science | Sign up now to keep the libel laws out of science!.
Chiropocalypse | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine
Chiropractors scrambling to cover their tracks : Pharyngula
Simon Singh and the Chiropractors

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10 responses to “Suppressing science

  1. I think if you do more research, you will the Maxicrop case a poor example. From memory this was a grudge match that had little or nothing to do with the science. I recall hearing something like that from the complainant, Mark Bell-Booth.

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  2. I can’t help but wonder that if “all” the book did was to point out that it had been established that the fertiliser didn’t work and hence that Dr. Quinn is/was promoting something he knows/knew not to work, that he could hardly claim that is reputation, etc., was being unfairly questioned.

    What I’m trying to say is that it makes me curious as to the precise reason why the judge ruled the bid successful and ordered the withdrawal of the book. (I’m not looking for conspiracies! It may well be a turn out to be some kind of legal technicality or the like was used to “pin” the case.)

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  3. I think Bert’s original complaint was that the book was critical of his scientific and business integrity so the decision may have been on those grounds. I don’t recall any significant consideration of scientific evidence in this case. Bert certainly wouldn’t have wanted that and I guess Doug, who was no acting as a private individual in business without the resources of a state institution, could not have pursued things along those lines. I guess it was an example of taking the economical way out. In a way it may have been like Singh’s case (use of the word “bogus”) where Singh is appealing against the Judges interpretation of the word to mean the Chiropractors have knowingly been dishonest with their clients.

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  4. Ross, as I was working in the Soils and Fertiliser group of MAF at the time I was almost in the thick of it. I myself was not actually involved in the court case but many of my colleagues were. I remember scientists, agronomists and biometricians, preparing their scientific evidence for presentation. We often discussed the evidence and the legal situation but I don’t recall any grudge being aired. Now Bell Booth may say it was a grudge case – but he would say that wouldn’t he because the science proved his claims to be wrong (he was also found guilty of violating advertising standards). Do you think the judge also bore a grudge against Bell Booth?

    I am also very aware that there are people who swear by specific fertiliser products, despite exacting agronomic trials showing them to be ineffective. And that is why science is so powerful – it can map claims against reality and produce a quantitative estimate of the chance of random events producing an anecdotal result. This is particularly important with products like fertilisers.

    We all know that there are people who have irrational reasons for supporting various fraudulent ideas and products (just think of the creationists and climate change deniers). But the public demand and deserve objective information on products and services. They deserve the right to objective scientific information. They also deserve a legal system that will protect them against those who for commercial and financial reasons are prepared to lie about, and distort information.

    So, Ross, my research on this issue is pretty extensive – having been in the centre of things. Now tell me about your research on this specific issue. What have you read, who have you consulted and why you seem so convinced that it “had little or nothing to do with science.”

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  5. Now tell me about your research on this specific issue. What have you read, who have you consulted and why you seem so convinced that it “had little or nothing to do with science.”

    (waits patiently)

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  6. As I said, I was going by memory – vague in this case. I seem to recall that Bell-Booth was told by some MAF staff later, that Maxicrop was found to be effective after all, and that the lies told in court were all about ‘saving face’ for MAF. But hey, if someone can track Mark down, they can ask him!

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  7. Ross – Bell Booth would say that, wouldn’t he?

    The interesting point, though, is why you should cling to a hear-say claim from someone who was found to be peddling an ineffective product, and misrepresenting it in his advertisements.

    I would have thought the sensible thing to do, if you really want to check, is at least hear what the scientists who did the work say. (I have absolutely no recollection of any of my colleagues in MAF making the claim you report). And if you want more information, go to the publications, reports and court evidence which describe the experimental results.

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