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The Media Censorship United Kingdom Science

In Britain, Better Not Call It Bogus Science 754

Posted by timothy
from the oh-nothing-just-dowsing-for-magnetic-vitamins dept.
Geoffrey.landis writes 'In Britain, libel laws are censoring the ability of journalists to write stories about bogus science. Simon Singh, a Ph.D. physicist and author of several best-selling popular-science books, is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for saying that there is no evidence for claims that visiting a chiropractor has health benefits. A year earlier, writer Ben Goldacre faced a libel suit for an article critical of Matthias Rath, who claimed that vitamin supplements can treat HIV and AIDS in place of conventional drugs like anti-retrovirals. In Britain, libel laws don't have any presumption of innocence — any statement made is assumed to be false unless you prove it's true. Journalists are running scared.'
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In Britain, Better Not Call It Bogus Science

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  • by fantomas (94850) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:34PM (#29446685)

    Coincidently, Ben Goldacre was presenting at the Royal Institution today on "Bad Science" - poor media reporting of science. You can view the stream from tomorrow afternoon at The Times Higher Education website: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/webcast.html [timeshighe...tion.co.uk] . Event details for the RI debate here: http://www.rigb.org/contentControl?action=displayEvent&id=948 [rigb.org]

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:36PM (#29446717) Homepage
    This isn't a problem that is new for Great Britain nor is it limited to journalists. Indeed, the problem has gotten to be so bad that it has given rise to so called "libel tourism" where people who want to sue for libel go out of their way to find some connection, no matter how tenuous to Great Britain, so that they can justify suing in British courts (especially English or Welsh courts. Scotland and N. Ireland are slightly more sane about these things). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libel_tourism [wikipedia.org]. This is having serious chilling effects on what is even published in the United States and other places far away from Britain.
  • Re:Well Then (Score:4, Informative)

    by radish (98371) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @05:53PM (#29446941) Homepage

    20 years ago I was taking a lot of exams and kept getting really serious neck and head pains when I looked down at the desk. Doctor offered painkillers which worked a little but left me too drowsy to take the exams. He suggested a chiropractor, I went for a single 1 hour session and was cured. I don't have any clue what the guy did, and I'm sure it doesn't work for everyone, but it fixed me. YMMV etc.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:06PM (#29447097) Homepage
    It wouldn't matter. IANAL, but I've looked into this sort of thing. Here in the US, the truth is an absolute defense against slander or libel. That is, if you can prove that you told the truth, you've won your case because that's the way the law reads. In Britain, the truth is an affirmative defense. That means that you're allowed to prove that you told the truth, but it might not be enough to save you. British law considers statements to be slander or libel if they are harmful and/or defamatory regardless of the truth of the statements.
  • Re:bah humbug! (Score:2, Informative)

    by blueg3 (192743) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:26PM (#29447385)

    I'm sure you could provide horror stories of quack chiros and what not.

    And those would also be worthless. See how it works?

    And while my story may be anecdotal

    I still don't think you properly understand how anecdotal evidence is worthless.

    but where is your proof that its a bogus science.

    How about the following:
    Ernst E (2008). "Chiropractic: a critical evaluation". J Pain Symptom Manage 35 (5): 544â"62.

  • by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:38PM (#29447559)

    That wouldn't work because the courts are already against him on the definition of the word "bogus". He argued that by "bogus" he simply meant that the treatment is ineffective. The courts interpret it as meaning that the BCA is deliberately defrauding people. The first thing Singh did was try and get a higher court to accept his definition; unfortunately, last i heard, his petition had failed.

    Of course, it shouldn't really matter which definition you go by - the BCA certainly does encourage ineffective treatments for various ailments, and both their approach to the therapy and to the case has been dishonest at best and intentionally deceitful at worst. In any sane legal system he should be able to accuse them of being a bunch of snake-oil-selling half-wits, without having to worry about lawsuits. The UK system is in serious need of an overhaul. The only bright light here is that Singh may get a chance to appeal his case in front of a EU court and, depending on the outcome, may well create a basis for reforming the Brit libel laws.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:40PM (#29447587) Homepage
    If you will read the Wikipedia article on English law about libel, [wikipedia.org] you will see that the truth is only an allowable defense there, not an absolute defense as it is in America. In fact, in an English court, the statements are assumed to be false unless the defense proves them to be true.
  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned&gmail,com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:41PM (#29447601)

    In Britain, the truth is an affirmative defense. That means that you're allowed to prove that you told the truth, but it might not be enough to save you.

    I don't know whether the second part of that is true, but I do know that's not what an "affirmative defense" means. (Well, at least in the US. But the US gets its legal system largely from the UK, so I would be very surprised if it were different.) An affirmative defense is one the defendant has to raise himself.

    Take self defense. During an assault trial, the prosecution is not required by default to show that the defendant did not act in self defense, just that he punched/kicked/threatened/whatever the victim. The defense attorney can't get up in the closing statement and go "the prosecution never presented any evidence that the defendant didn't act in self defense, thus you must acquit." If the defendant wants to use self defense as a defense, they must file a motion with the court (probably before the trial begins, but IANAL and that's the sort of detail I forget/didn't really know in the first place) and convince the judge that it has a reasonable chance of success before it will be allowed.

    Basically what I'm saying is that if you read that truth is an affirmative defense in the UK and took away from that the interpretation that showing truth in court isn't sufficient for an acquittal, then there's a very good chance you're mistaken.

  • by xouumalperxe (815707) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @06:44PM (#29447647)

    You got it wrong. In the US, it suffices that you believe your statements to be true. In the UK, belief isn't enough, you need to prove that what you said is actually true (it's this shift of burden of proof that characterizes affirmative defence, afaik).

    For example, if I were to say "Techno-vampire goes out to bars dressed in drag", you could sue me for slander. In the US, if I could make a reasonable argument that I believed you to be a drag queen, I'd be off the hook. In the UK, actual proof that you had been in a bar while dressing in drag would be needed to successfully defend myself.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:05PM (#29447871) Homepage
    Not so! As I've pointed out several times, if your claim defames me, it doesn't matter (in an English court) that it's true because the truth isn't, and never has been an absolute defense there.
  • by Clover_Kicker (20761) <clover_kicker@yahoo.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:23PM (#29448041)

    I didn't say the rules made sense, I'm just pointing out that "presumption of innocence" and publication bans are for criminal law, not civil - it's apples and oranges.

  • Re:Anecdotal? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Obfuscant (592200) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:33PM (#29448181)
    For example: I got chiropractic care following a car injury, and I tell you for a fact that chiropractic adjustment afforded me relief from pain. This is not anecdotal: this is an irrefutable fact.

    This is where you are wrong. It is not a fact, it is your interpretation of three facts.

    Fact 1: You hurt.

    Fact 2: You went to a chiropractor.

    Fact 3: You didn't hurt after you went.

    You interpret those three facts to assign the cause of the relief to the chiropractor. However, as has been already mentioned, this does not prove causality, although this data (the facts) are reliable (we trust your report) and useful (you weren't worse off after you went, so at LEAST we can say that whatever he did to you did not make you worse.)

    You could have simply gotten better on your own with no benefit from the chiro. Your facts don't rule out that possibility.

    The next step is to find someone with an identical injury and NOT send him to the chiro and see if Fact 3 still happens. The only way to prove causality is to do duplicate experiments and see that the only time that 3 happens is if 2 also happens and 3 does NOT happen when 2 does not.

    But that takes lots of "I did X and Y happened", which we've been told science thinks is unreliable and produces no useful data.

  • by Tynam (1284066) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:37PM (#29448215)

    The law as described here sounds very much on the side of good science.

    Unfortunately, that just means the law hasn't been described well enough.

    British libel law is abominably poor, and entirely on the side of the plaintiff. For a start, it's easy and cheap to bring a case, but ridiculously expensive - cost often two full orders of magnitude greater than the European average - to defend it. And the judge can easily hammer you with ridiculous interpretations of the original statement, which you're then required to accept. (For example, Singh has been required to prove a claim obviously incapable of proof - that chiropractors as a group are intentionally deceitful, not just wrong. It's certainly not what he intended to claim!)

    This is disastrous for science journalism - because any attempt to debunk the pseudoscientific nonsense of fools, homeopaths, scientologists, scam artists or outright crooks is subject to immediate censorship-by-libel-law. (Even if it occurs elsewhere - London courts are notoriously willing to accept jurisdiction over libel cases that have no connection to the UK whatsoever.)

  • Re:Well Then (Score:5, Informative)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland.yahoo@com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:41PM (#29448235) Homepage Journal

    Yes, but you are missing an important point:

    Herbs aren't some magical thing, it's a lot of plants.
    It's meaningless to say herbs have therapeutic effect.

    What can be said is 'This Herb has an effect', 'this herb doesn't have an effect'.

    So we can take a herb, run studies and determine an effect. If there is an effect, we can do better tests, and then trials.
    When that's done you can dose it, control it, and use it to help people.

    If it doesn't have an effect, you discard it and go on to the next one. You don't assign i magical effects and excuse magical thing by says 'Herbs have had therapeutic' effect nonsensical thinking.

    That's applying science to get an accurate results and help people.

    In fact every drug you take that comes from a herb can be track down to a specific field, and often down to a specific plant.

    The crap known as 'Alternative' has no dose control, no quality control on the plant, often have other herbs and materials in them.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @07:47PM (#29448325) Homepage Journal

    Because this happened in the States it was thrown-out as protected free speech (an opinion),

    Something being dirty is not an opinion. If it was dirty - and she could prove it - then it's not libellous to say so, full stop.

    but in the UK presumably that woman would be spending time in jail for libel.

    Libel is a civil offence. You go to jail for breaking the criminal law. Is there anything you don't know fuck all about?

  • by caitsith01 (606117) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @08:34PM (#29448735) Journal

    Actually, the article summary is, as usual, incorrect. Specifically, it is not true that:

    In Britain, libel laws don't have any presumption of innocence â" any statement made is assumed to be false unless you prove it's true.

    Rather, in defamation cases in Britain (and Australia, New Zealand and AFAIK Canada) a statement is first considered in its own right to consider whether it carries any defamatory imputation. If there is no defamatory imputation, there is no libel or slander claim. However, if the Court determines that there is a defamatory imputation on the face of the statement, then it is for the maker of the statement to justify it.

    Which is as it should be - if I write "Darkness404 molests goats" then unless it is true why should I not compensate you for the resulting harm to your reputation? Whereas if it is true, then I have done nothing but convey the truth of the situation to the audience. I think that many people here are confusing "free speech" with "freedom from liability for any consequences of my speech howsoever I choose to exercise it" which are two entirely different things.

    Justifying the statement is not an exercise in proving its absolute truth, either. Civil cases are determined on the balance of probabilities, not 'beyond reasonable doubt' or to some degree of logical or scientific certainty.

    The suggestion in the article that all of this is new and has journalists "running scared" is bogus (ahem) too. Essentially the same principles have applied for several hundred years.

  • Re:Well Then (Score:5, Informative)

    by PCM2 (4486) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:19PM (#29449105) Homepage

    I agree. The GP sounds like he has a very narrow view of how medicine is actually practiced, probably because he quit going to doctors a while ago.

    I don't have what I'd call a "personal physician," but I have a doctor's office that I've been to now and again for various things. Mostly I never see my doctor because I'm a 36-year-old male with few risk factors in my lifestyle or my medical history, and mainly I'm in fine health. When I do see my doctor, the conversation probably lasts about eight minutes. But pretty much every time I've been to the doctor's office, no matter what my problem was, the session is concluded with a few questions, along the lines of: "How is everything else? How's work? Do you like your job? Is it stressful? Do you exercise much?" He clearly understands that there are aspects to human health that aren't strictly chemical.

    At the same time, unlike the so-called alternative practitioners, he's willing (and able) to write me prescriptions for real, working medicines when he thinks I'll benefit from them. I caught a sinus infection once that was giving me one-sided headaches that would come on every time I ate and would get so bad that I had to leave my desk at work and lie down. This went on for weeks. By the time someone convinced me to go to the doctor, I was so tired, weak, and sick of pain that I barely bothered to make myself food once I got home from work -- I just went to bed, or passed out on the couch. What could herbal medicine have done for that? It was an infection. What lifestyle change could I have made? But once the doctor prescribed me a course of antibiotics -- the evil, over-prescribed bugbear of the healthcare industrial complex -- I was back up on my feet in less than two days. No more headaches. Problem solved. I kicked myself over how much time I wasted avoiding legitimate medical care.

    Another time, I caught scabies, a skin parasite. I have no idea how I got it. But try going online and finding home remedies for it. Find the message boards for "scabies sufferers." The stuff you'll find is frightening: Douse your skin with bleach. Scrub it with rock salt. Scrub it with Comet cleanser. Shave off the affected areas with razor blades. Dig them out from under your fingernails. Find the burrows and dig them out with X-Acto knives. Make your own medicines from ingredients you can buy through livestock veterinary supply wholesalers (I'm not kidding). The actual treatment that most doctors will prescribe is a cream, which you apply to your entire body and leave on for ten hours. This treatment cures as many as 90 percent of patients after exactly one application -- that's right, do it right once and you're cured. Compare that to the suffering that people who don't believe in doctors or medicine might endure.

    Do you see my point? No good doctor is going to tell you that every health problem in the world can be solved with medicines. But the alternative, too often, is people who have gotten it into their head that modern medicine is never the solution. I think the latter attitude does people a far greater disservice.

  • by Homburg (213427) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @11:31PM (#29450043) Homepage

    Who said Britain has free speech?

    The Human Rights Act of 1998? The European Convention on Human Rights of 1950?

    It very prominently silenced politicians from Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

    Though the ban on broadcasting the voices of Irish republicans in the late 80s and early 90s was absurd and draconian, I'm not convinced it was all that significant an infringement of free speech - the politicians in question were only "silenced" in a very literal sense, in that people were forbidden from broadcast their voices. They weren't silenced in the metaphorical sense that they could not express their opinions; people were free to print their words, or to print someone else repeating their words. As I say, absurd, but a comparatively minor infringement on freedom of speech.

    You must be confusing Britain with a free, democratic country governed by a written constitution.

    Well, that would indeed be a mistake. Britain is a free, democratic country governed by an unwritten constitution.

  • by Homburg (213427) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @01:13AM (#29450639) Homepage

    The monarch hasn't been sovereign since 1688 [thegloriou...lution.org].

  • by julesh (229690) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @01:49AM (#29450809)

    Not so! As I've pointed out several times, if your claim defames me, it doesn't matter (in an English court) that it's true because the truth isn't, and never has been an absolute defense there.

    Yes, you've pointed it out several times. But, as the GP was saying, you're wrong. The truth is an absolute defence here; you were, however, correct in your OP when you said it is an affirmative defence, i.e. you have to prove it.

    See this useful summary [guardian.co.uk]. Relevant quote: "There are defences in law for libel. The publisher could prove the statement to be true [...]".

    In your original post, you say this:

    It wouldn't matter. IANAL, but I've looked into this sort of thing. Here in the US, the truth is an absolute defense against slander or libel. That is, if you can prove that you told the truth, you've won your case because that's the way the law reads. In Britain, the truth is an affirmative defense.

    This is all correct.

    That means that you're allowed to prove that you told the truth, but it might not be enough to save you. British law considers statements to be slander or libel if they are harmful and/or defamatory regardless of the truth of the statements.

    But these two sentences are wrong. I believe you misunderstand what an affirmative defence is.

  • by julesh (229690) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @02:21AM (#29450947)

    Well, that would indeed be a mistake. Britain is a free, democratic country governed by an unwritten constitution.

    Actually, most of the British constitution is written. Starting with the Magna Carta, and continuing right up to the most recent Parliament Act, huge chunks of British constitutional law have been written. AFAIK there are only a few areas that are yet to be codified in a written form, and these basically come down to what extent a parliament can bind future parliaments (generally held to be "not at all") and what the rights of the monarch are in the parliamentary process (i.e., whether or not royal assent for an act could be withheld, which is something nobody really wants to address...).

  • by julesh (229690) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @02:24AM (#29450973)

    In the UK, the "falsehood" element is missing; a true statement can be considered libelous. This makes life much harder for the defendant.

    This is incorrect. If you can prove the statement is true, it is not libelous.

  • by zazzel (98233) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @03:43AM (#29451229)

    How do you prove something true?

    You don't. To (really) quickly summarize Karl Popper's work: You can only falsify a hypothesis, not prove it.

  • by Chrisq (894406) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @04:04AM (#29451297)

    Not so! As I've pointed out several times, if your claim defames me, it doesn't matter (in an English court) that it's true because the truth isn't, and never has been an absolute defense there. It is not true.

    One counter-reference [swarb.co.uk]

    Truth (justification) is a complete defence in defamation

    Or from Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:

    English law allows actions for libel to be brought in the High Court for any published statements which are alleged to defame a named or identifiable individual or individuals in a manner which causes them loss in their trade or profession, or causes a reasonable person to think worse of him, her or them. Allowable defenses are justification (the truth of the statement), fair comment (whether the statement was a view that a reasonable person could have held), and privilege (whether the statements were made in Parliament or in court, or whether they were fair reports of allegations in the public interest). An offer of amends is a barrier to litigation. A defamatory statement is presumed to be false unless the defendant can prove its truth. Furthermore, to collect compensatory damages, a public official or public figure must prove actual malice (knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth). A private individual must only prove negligence (not using due care) to collect compensatory damages. In order to collect punitive damages, all individuals must prove actual malice.

    Now as I'm English I could sue you for saying that ;-)

  • Re:Well Then (Score:3, Informative)

    by Steauengeglase (512315) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:44AM (#29452421)

    The problem is that we've know the health benefits of quinine since long before "alternative medicine" become fashionable. We've proven it's effects time and time again. Centrum, on the other hand has never been proven as an effective treatment for HIV.

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