Science should challenge ideas without malice

9 Jun 2009

The British science writer currently in the eye of a storm over press freedom and the UK’s tough libel laws has said that the purpose of science is to challenge new ideas without malice or censure.

Simon Singh, a BAFTA award-winning director and presenter, and author of science books Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and Big Bang, is currently at the heart of a fiery debate on free speech and libel.

An article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper about the ability of chiropractors to treat ailments such as ear infections and infant colic resulted in him being sued for libel last year by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA)

Former Tomorrow’s World producer Singh, who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to science, technology and engineering, wrote there was no evidence that chiropractors can treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, asthma, ear infections, and prolonged crying.

Last month, Justice Eady at the UK’s Royal Court of Justice held that using the phrase “happily promotes bogus treatments” meant that he was stating as a matter of fact that the BCA was being dishonest in promoting chiropractic treatment of certain child ailments.

The ruling provoked a media storm, with coverage on Channel 4, the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. The Wall Street Journal Europe cited the judgement as an example of how UK libel law “chills free speech”.

Since last week, more than 8,000 people, including celebrities Dara O’Briain, Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Martin Amis, as well as the former chief science advisor to the UK Government Sir David King, have signed a petition on the Sense about Science website against the tough laws and their impact on science debate.

A further 6,000 people have joined the Facebook group ‘For Simon Singh and Free Speech – Against the BCA Libel Claim’, and, according to Singh, there are about 20 new blog posts a day on the subject.

Singh, who told that he is facing legal fees of £100,000 sterling as a result of the BCA action, fully intends to appeal Justice Eady’s ruling, despite an offer by the Guardian to pay BCA’s legal costs in an out-of-court settlement.

“We are pursuing a campaign to reform the libel laws. There is a concern about how libel laws can restrict scientific debates, especially if journalists are feeling intimidated about tackling subjects such as stem cell research, MMR vaccines or food additives.

“Science should be about challenging ideas without fear of malice or reprisal. As a society, we have to be able to do that. For journalists, whether writing about technology or science, they should be able to write about progress without being inhibited.”

Singh said the UK libel system is the most expensive in the world and is “about 140 times more expensive than the European average”.

He said the UK’s libel system is also giving rise to a trend he terms “libel tourism”, where parties are choosing the UK as a location for libel cases because of its structure.

“Freedom of speech affects everyone, from journalists to bloggers. The issue has attracted 20 blogs a day in the past week. I’m sure bloggers have removed posts because they’ve received a nasty legal letter. That’s why the blogosphere has come out in support.”

The Sense about Science campaign has attracted a number of interesting comments, including one from our own Dara O’Briain: “We have to avoid a precedent that puts anyone who writes about these matters from a scientific perspective onto the back foot in the battle against peddlers of misinformation, whether they are knowing or not.

“The preliminary ruling is a worrying development for comedians as well, a number of whom have been ridiculing the world of dubious medicinal and scientific practices for some time. For example, I may now have to reconsider my routine about homeopathy being a 300-year-old con trick.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: scientist and BAFTA-winning documentary maker Simon Singh

Picture courtesy of Steve Trigg