when the laws aren’t there for your protection

Quacks and cranks are using libel laws to silence critics and skeptics into submission and keep money flowing into their pockets.

Illustration from a Brazilian anti-censorship ad

Every nation, no matter how progressive or conservative, has some form of censorship. In Germany, denying war crimes of the Nazi regime is punishable by fines or jail time. Italian media is often muzzled by the political or religious powers in charge. Australia closely monitors the content of video games and will yank offending titles off the shelves if officials think it’s in the public interest to do so. Most of these restrictions are dictated by national laws or by exerting political pressure. However, there’s another way that people are censored and it’s by the misuse of poorly designed libel laws. Using the courts to silence someone into submission is starting to become a major problem in UK and the prime example of libel law abuse is the case of Simon Singh.

The short version of the story is that an article written by Singh took issue with some chiropractors’ claims of treating illnesses and conditions with no evidence for the efficacy of their methods and asked why the BCA, or the British Chiropractic Association, allows its members to advertise treatments that were bogus as far as the science was concerned. In response, the BCA sued Singh for libel and has made pretty much every effort to cover their tracks, then justify their claims with cherry-picked data after a solid year of being shouted down by skeptical bloggers and groups in the UK, and make themselves look as desperate and malicious as they possibly could. The big problem is that libel laws in UK place the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff which means that rather than having to prove that they were indeed defamed, the BCA could just haul Singh to court and force him to defend his words to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds sterling. And that’s exactly what they did.

Now, after over a year of fighting and having sunk £100,000 into legal fees, Singh wrote an op-ed in which he gives his British readers a dire warning. The backwards libel laws used by courts in the UK are being used by various cranks and quacks to intimidate and silence bloggers and scientists into submission. Question a big shot homeopath without the legal resources to fight his army of lawyers and lose every last penny in your bank account. Post a scathing critique on your blog and have it taken down by hosts threatened with legal action. By making it so easy to use the law to protect the wallets of pseudoscientists and quacks, the UK is allowing the people who should be subject to criticism and public scrutiny to be the bullies on the playground. Worse of all, the government might be putting people in danger. When it becomes too risky to warn the public that what they’re buying is dangerous, ineffective or just a scam, the quacks, cranks and those who profit from them will get far more victims than they would without a skeptical voice there to do the necessary reality check.

There’s still hope for Simon Singh’s case. He was recently granted the right to appeal a ruling against him and can continue the fight to preserve his reputation, though he’ll have to spend even more on trying to rebuke the BCA’s attacks. However what would really help matters is a change in UK’s bizarre libel laws to defend the freedom of speech in the media, allow skeptics to take on harmful quackery and pseudoscience without fear of malicious retribution, and make those who use intimidation and this form of indirect censorship to protect their cash flow come up with evidence or stop wasting the courts’ and the writers’ time and money. And as odd as it sounds, you could help in bringing this change around. Sense About Science, a group dedicated to keep libel laws out of scientific discussions in the UK, is looking for help in its mission. If you can help them make their case, make a donation, or offer any kind of expert assistance, do it by all means. Your contribution could make a difference for Singh and any other blogger, writer or academic who wants to inform the public about a case of bad science or potentially dangerous quackery.

# politics // libel laws / pseudoscience / quackery

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