Richard P Grant and his BioLOG (biolog); the wee blog, weblog, or web blog; things not necessarily biology related. The anti-blogger.

BioLOG
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1 June 2009

On doing my duty

This is the (slightly edited) text of an email I’ve just sent to my MP, Simon Hughes (can I even mention his name? HT: Jenny)

Dear Simon

You are no doubt aware of the case that the British Chiropractic Association brought against Simon Singh, the popular science author. Singh criticized the BCA for making medical claims [potentially libellious bit redacted] that have no basis in fact. Rather than demonstrating that Singh was wrong, the BCA sued him for libel (see here and here among other places).

This is no way for a supposedly civilized society to behave. Our country has a long history of encouraging ideas, and furthermore of debating those ideas in the public sphere. It is how new ideas are forged and progress is made. We are not some totalitarian regime where those who ask difficult questions are arrested or otherwise silenced: we rejoice in our ability to poke fun at the establishment, to draw offensive cartoons, to get ideas into the open and give them a good seeing to.

Singh was not sued because he was actually libellious, but because of potential defamation. The BCA were, apparently (and I am no lawyer) quite within their rights under UK law to bring this action, which to me says that the law needs to be changed. I am informed that even mentioning someone by name in a blog post could result in legal action, for example).

And Singh is not the only one. I keep a weblog at Nature Network, which is run by Nature Publishing Group: the same company that publishes the world’s leading scientific journal. In the last week another blogger on the Network―a professor at Imperial College and a personal friend―had a blog post removed on legal advice by Nature Publishing Group’s lawyers. We are still a little bit in the dark about this, but it might be because he suggested that certain people―certain well-known and certainly richer peopler―don’t have a firm grasp of what ‘scientific authority’ means. This is potentially defamatory, and could lead to legal action? In what sane and free-thinking world is that the case?

I’ve taken the liberty of attaching a saved copy of the blog post to this email, so you can judge for yourself whether such opinion should be censored―or be the subject of a libel action.

My fellow writers at Nature Network are interested in communicating with other scientists as well as in engaging with the wider community: to share what science is (and is not), how science is done, why it’s important; its limitations as well as its strengths and maybe, just maybe, to help people make informed decisions about how they live their lives. But if every time someone writes something that criticizes an idea or an attitude, they are under threat of legal action, what is to become of this ideal?

Research councils and funding agencies are waking up to the necessity of scientific communication within the community, and are currently looking at ways of funding and encouraging active scientists to partake in this. If part of scientific communication is saying what is and what is not science, and explaining why certain ideas are wrong-headed, or not scientific, or mistaken, or just plain dumb, then how can we do that if we need a lawyer to check everything we write? How can we, as scientists, engage with the lay public if we’re afraid to do so?

(It might be argued that Nature Publishing Group, which, presumably, is concerned with the dissemination of ideas and which, over the last few years, has tried very hard to make scientific papers more accessible, should try a little harder to defend the people writing for it. That’s not really the point though: if their lawyers don’t think they could win this case before the threat of an action has even been made, there is something seriously wrong with the law.)

This is not about free speech. It is not about ‘rights’. It is about the responsibilities that scientists have towards the taxpayer, the people who pay their salaries and fund their research; scientists’ responsibility to engage each other in discussion; their responsibility to give back to the community the fruit of their research. This is about the culture of scientific debate―open, honest, robust debate―that has existed (until now) in this country and the wider scientific community. This culture is now under threat, and will remain so until the law catches up with the 21st Century.

Yours faithfully,

Richard Grant

PS I will be posting the content of this letter on my own weblog. Unless someone threatens to sue me first.

(x-posted)

Filed under: fools (!gladly) — rpg @ 7:15

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