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Don't sue the science guys

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Simon Singh authored the first book about mathematics to become a number one bestseller in the UK, Fermat’s Last Theorem. His next two books, The Code Book and The Big Bang, are among the most lucid and precise examples of science writing you might read today. He’s a great entertainer, electrocuting gherkins on stage as an example of the “red shift” effect that helps prove the universe is expanding.

He’s also at the centre of a growing debate about science writing, libel laws and the rise of pseudoscience. About a year ago, Simon Singh wrote “Beware the spinal trap”, an article that examined the claims made by chiropractors. In the piece, Singh evaluated the risks involved in undergoing chiropractic treatment, and dismissed some claims—that chiropractors can treat children with asthma, colic and other ailments—as “utter nonsense” and “bogus”. This seemed to be a routine, if well-researched piece; Singh offered evidence of the links between bad chiropractic techniques and heart strokes, and seemed to back up his scepticism with facts.

The British Chiropractic Association sued Singh, claiming that he had defamed their reputation, and as of August 4, the writer was fighting for the right of permission to appeal in what has become a key libel case. Libel suits are feared in the UK—they are expensive, with costs for the defence usually running well over £100,000, and the burden of proof rests with the defence. Though much of the case concerns Singh’s use of the word “bogus”—to the delight of language scholars who’ve been blogging learned definitions and word origins—the broader issue is whether libel laws should apply to science writing.

The reason why Simon Singh is willing to go through the long, grim and financially draining process of a court case rather than issue a general apology is because he believes that science writers should be free to question dodgy science or pseudo-scientific claims. Libel suits are an easy way to prevent science writers from tackling certain subjects—as the pharmacological industry well knows. Over time, the threat of libel acts as a deterrent, preventing public inquiry into subjects that affect us at a very basic level. The pressure group Sense About Science has been running a very successful Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign, and is now in touch with PEN and other free-speech groups.

As an illustration of how important it is to promote freedom of speech in science writing, consider the case of Dr Ben Goldacre. His book, Bad Science, is on the Aventis Science Writing shortlist for 2009, and includes Goldacre’s debunking of vitamin pill magnate Matthias Rath’s dangerous claims in a campaign in Africa that anti-Aids drugs were poisonous, and that his vitamins were the true cure. Goldacre writes, “This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow. Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.”

There’s a chilling lesson to be drawn here. Had Goldacre been more easily intimidated, or had the Guardian been less willing or able to fight such an expensive court case, the truth about Rath’s claims may never have come to public attention. Much of science writing today is pressed into the service of debunking pseudoscience—as with the patient and necessary attacks on creationist “theories” of evolution, or with examining the claims made by the pharma, food and alternative therapy industries. Many scientists are employed by these industries, and it’s for the independent researcher/writer to offer the other side, or to examine claims more carefully.

It would have been so easy for Simon Singh to offer a ritual apology, and to save himself the trouble he’s been put to over the last twelve months. But he believes that his article addressed an important area of public awareness, especially with regard to children’s health—and he believes he did not defame chiropractors by drawing attention to the risks of the practice itself. “As a journalist,” he writes in a recent statement, “I have always been aware of the libel laws, but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the chilling effect they have on journalism — important articles are withdrawn and other stories are simply not commissioned because of the fear of libel.” It’s this absence, this rarely discussed silence, that Simon Singh and others like him are defending, in the UK and elsewhere.  

First Published: Tue, August 11 2009. 00:56 IST