About three months ago, I wrote about libel laws in the UK being used to muzzle concerned skeptics whose articles incite cranks and pseudoscientists, using the case of science writer Simon Singh’s legal battle with a chiropractic group as an example. Now, it seems that something similar is starting to happen in the U.S. with rabid anti-vaccination activists. Surgeon and vocal skeptic Orac has been covering a libel suit against Dr. Paul Offit by Barbara Loe Fisher, a woman who seems to believe that anyone who advocates the use of vaccines must be on the payroll of a sinister pharmaceutical cabal. After Dr. Offit noted that she doesn’t let such things as reality or facts get in the way of her anti-medical screeds, Fisher sued him, the reporter who got him on the record and Conde Nast, the owner Wired, which ran the story with the quote. Anyone else she’d like to sue?
We should remember that cranks like Barbara Fisher and J.B. Handley tend to see themselves as geniuses and whistleblowers who discovered something terribly wrong and like the characters of a crime thriller, trying to sound the alarms while an evil corporate conspiracy tries its hardest to discredit them. So they’re basically their own action heroes. But unlike the scrappy, vulnerable rebels we usually see in cinematic parables, they have money and lawyers, and lack the good sense not to use them for a terrible encroachment on others’ free speech. And they honestly don’t care. At this point, they’ve drunk so much of their own kool-aid, they don’t ask why they receive so much criticism and the thought that they might be wrong doesn’t even enter their heads. A doctor who studies immunology and recommends an injection of those evil vaccines said they’re dishonest? Off with his head! Legally speaking of course. In the process, they don’t even notice how they’re becoming an oppressive, tyrannical movement that will sink so low as to drag you to court to intimidate you.
Since the libel laws in the U.S. actually do have a set of protections against frivolous lawsuits or using a court system to harass a critic with the intention to censor him or her, they have to jump through a few hoops to get the process underway, but it’s not impossible. And that’s exactly what anti-vaccination activists are ready to do when they can’t win debates on scientific merit. Why do you think the Age of Autism blog is censored and every skeptical comment that questions their agenda, claims or methods is removed? Listening to criticism is not a skill they possess and while the vast majority of skeptics are just fine with letting them comment on the blogs they run and debating with them in public, they’d much rather create a tranquil echo chamber that praises their efforts and tells them how great they are for fighting those who dare oppose their agenda. But in reality, when a comment or criticism is silenced not because it’s wildly random, or repetitive, or incoherent, but because it’s a critique by its nature, that’s cowardice pure and simple. I wonder, does pointing out acts of cowardice equal libel? Is an angry crank with more money than decency going to sue me for practicing my right to free speech?
These questions are exactly what those who want to silence skeptics with the threat of legal action want us to be asking. Maybe this is a hyperbole, but it seems like a form of intellectual terrorism. Question us and you’re going to be served a subpoena. We’ll drag you to court, we’ll threaten to take everything you own, we’ll get your blog shut down by threatening your host, and even if you win, you’ll have to spend a lot of money to fight us off. This is a technique of public discourse on par with driving past a house and making the throat-slitting gesture with the side of your hand as you look your intended victim in the eye. Only it’s done in an office while everyone is nicely dressed and uses legal jargon. Skeptics need to be able to question without the threat of lawsuits by angry cranks swimming in money from donations or profits from their quackery. This is a case in which we’re not just supposed to fact check and offer good science to rebut ridiculous claims. It’s a story we need to show the public, a story of wannabe whistleblowers who fancy themselves as rebels fighting corrupt organizations becoming exactly what they hate and hurting innocent people in the process.
[ illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad ]