- Russell Blackford
- Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Simon Singh gets right to appeal
In another small victory for freedom of speech, Simon Singh has been granted leave to appeal the shocking procedural decision against him in a libel case in the UK. The nature of the decision was to make his position in the larger case untenable. It's almost time for bed at my end, but this whole case is worth following. For now, have a look at the link.
Posted by Russell Blackford at 11:16 pm
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Awesome news, thanks for the heads-up. Have a good night :)
This is a horribly complicated case.
Almost all comments I have seen about it, such as that this prevents people criticizing science, have been wrong.
There will be a horribly complicated outcome, which, I suspect, will resolve nothing.
Who has said the case "prevents people criticizing science"? It was an attempt to stop Simon Singh criticising unscientific claims that chiroporactics could cure various ailments when there was no evidence that it could. The case was brought on the basis that by calling their claims "bogus" Singh was accusing chiropracters of dishonesty rather than incompetence. Chiropracters acknowledged their incompetence by withdrawing the claims from every site that made them.
I haven't seen any comments suggesting that it will prevent people from criticising science. It would be a bizarre conclusion indeed.
Most of the comments I've seen (and Simon himself said the same at TAM London) have claimed that it might prevent people from critisising pseudoscience. Simon gave some anecdotes and I've seen a few examples myself: articles that begin with "Well I was *going* to write about chiropractic, but...."
If Simon loses the case, it seems certain to further increase people's caution and might leave pseudoscientific nonsense less opposed. This could be dangerous, as is the case with chiropractic.
This is why Simon is fighting the case rather than giving up, even though the best case scenario (if he wins) will still leave him out of pocket.
The other issue is that the libel laws here in the UK are insane. Simon's case is highlighting it. It has already caused some changes in US law to limit the damage that can be done to Americans in UK-based libel cases and with any luck it could lead to a re-evaluation of the UK libel laws.
Is the case really all that complicated? From Simon's own account, it seems reasonably straightforward once you get your head round the idiocy of the libel law.
Sorry, badly worded on my part. What I meant was that there have been plenty of comments that this case prevents scientists criticising people on the basis of science. It is the emphasis on science that I think is seriously mistaken. It's not about science, it's about freedom of speech. British law has stifled freedom to criticise for decades, in all sorts of areas of life.
Also, I believe the case is complicated because of the misunderstandings. If Singh wins this particular case, I suspect there will be a lot of celebration, but probably very little will have changed.
"It is the emphasis on science that I think is seriously mistaken. It's not about science, it's about freedom of speech. "
Interesting. I haven't really seen comments of quite the sort you mention. Rather, the emphasis in most of the ones I've seen has been slightly different. I've noticed (and shared) a general dismay that science doesn't trump nonsense in cases like this and while I agree that the major issue is about freedom of speech, I don't agree that a focus on the science aspect is altogether mistaken.
Why should chirporacters and other snake-oil salesmen be allowed to peddle bogus treatments? Why don't they have to provide the same standards of evidence as proper medical practitioners?
So I agree with you that this case is not about preventing people from criticism specifically on the basis of science, but I do think it's partly about the need to stand up against nonsense with science as an ally.
"If Singh wins this particular case, I suspect there will be a lot of celebration, but probably very little will have changed."
Well, who knows these days? To horribly mix metaphores, the government seems to have a hair triggered knee jerk reaction to stories that recieve media attention. But that aside, there are ways it is already making a difference, even if they are what people might dismiss as preaching to the choir. It's got a lot of people both annoyed and inspired to do something about it. It has launched a campaign to keep libel laws out of science. It has brought attention to underhand practices of the BCA.
People being human, of course, who knows if any of this will be sustained, but I'm just optimistic enough to feel that it's added some weight to the wrecking ball of rationalism.
I think an emphasis on science is a big mistake, because in this area law should not be about supporting a particular philosophical viewpoint, but about resolving disputes.
I have seen plenty of comments that start from the position that anyone who does not accept the standards of science is clearly a fraud and a liar, and so Singh must obviously win because he supports science.
Unfortunately, many people don't accept the standards of science. They can honestly believe they are right and "alternative medicine" provides a useful service.
The law should accept that these people may honestly believe this.
What this case is really about legally is whether or not chiropracters will lose reputation because (1) Singh is widely respected and (2) he has said that they were being dishonest.
So I get disappointed when it is framed in terms of pseudoscience vs science. I think people like Dawkins are mistaken to do this. To me what matters is that libel laws are vastly over-applied and allow people with enough money to silence criticism via the courts.
I know what you're saying and I agree for the most part.
I also feel that there's more at stake than 'just' the libel case.
The context of the case is about science vs pseudo-science. It looks very much as though the BCA are suing Simon *because* they are pseudo-scientists (at best) and want to shut him up because they are well aware that they have no evidence. Simon is defending himself because he knows that chiropractic is bullshit and potentially dangerous. So the context is about attacking medical nonsense, even if the libel case is not.
If Simon wins, I'll consider it a (probably quite small) triumph against the enemies of free speech, but I'll also consider it a similar triumph of reason over nonsense, not strictly because of what was decided in court, but because the good guys won. The latter is not technically about the legal case, but I don't see how we as random commentors can (or necessarily should) separate the two. Obviously, the legal people need to make that distinction, but I'm not sure I do.
It seems to me as though chiropractic is believed by lots of people to be proper medicine and the BCA and others certainly does its best to promote this view. It's a practice that needs opposing for various reasons. The fact that there's a court case at the centre of the hype that isn't in itself a battle between science and pseudo-science is beside the point. Or rather, that's a different (and equally important) point.
"The law should accept that these people may honestly believe this."
It should. And I accept your point that the libel case hinges on whether Simon meant "bogus" as "dishonest". Or to put it another way, the case isn't about whether chiropractic works, but whether they will lose business because Simon has (supposedly) said it's practitioners are dishonest.
That is why the BCA are not challenging Simon's actual point, which is that chiropractic is bullshit, but engaging him on what seems to me to be a dubious technicality.
Apologies: I'm rambling a bit. I'm trying to say that I agree that the case and the hype are different, but I don't think it's *entirely* wrong for the public to divorce the case from its context. On some levels, the kerfuffle really is about science vs pseudo-science.
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