Over recent weeks I have heard a great deal about Simon Singh’s legal problems. Simon Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over an article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper in 2008. He decided yesterday to appeal the libel case. More details can be found here (link to Sense About Science Article.
Why is this important to me as a scientist, and why should this matter to you?
Simply, this case gets to the heart of a very significant issue for scientists: the use of libel law to influence and end scientific debate. As scientists we are obliged to challenge beliefs, findings, conventional wisdoms and other such information provided to us under the auspices of scientific evidence or fact. We should hold ourselves to high standards of accuracy and fairness, and generally expect others to do the same. We reserve the right to challenge those facts, those beliefs and those pieces of evidence that do not make sense to us as scientists. We also require evidence obtained in a scientifically rigorous manner for any and all claim of benefit for any treatment, regime, policy or preparation. We can do none of this in a culture where libel is used instead of coherent data, where law may be used to stifle debate and silence criticism.
Sense About Science have started a campaign to keep the libel laws out of science. If I may quote:
The use of the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence discourages debate, denies the public access to the full picture and encourages use of the courts to silence critics. The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic through an open discussion in the medical literature or mainstream media.
Other good writing on the topic can be found in the following places (I’ll update as I stumble over more):
Reciprocal Space – Stephen Curry’s blog on NatureNetwork
The Scientist – Richard Grant’s blog on NatureNetwork (who suggests writing to your MP)
NatureNetwork forum topic on ‘Using the law to stifle scientific debate‘