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responded to a critical article in the New Zealand Medical Journal with a threat of legal action if the article was not withdrawn.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).
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.
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