Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmx DOT com

Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Session on #libelreform at the Science Communication Conference

I decided to pre-blog some of the conference sessions at the May 2011 Science Communication Conference because every time I read one of the session blurbs I thought "that would be interesting to blog about". I've previously blogged on my interest in public engagement and online public engagement, the latter being the theme of this conference.

Things kick off at 9am with an invitation-only session on public engagement for people newer to the field, and then a conference plenary at 10 with a keynote address (as this is the draft programme I don't think the details have been published yet) and then, after coffee, some structured networking and lunch, a choice of three parallel sessions.

1. Libel reform and science
(2. Evaluation: Facing the tricky questions / 3. I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!)

The speaker for this is Simon Singh who galvanised scientists, writers and skeptical activists among others to campaign about the unfair libel laws in England and Wales. Simon found himself in the middle of a libel suit after he wrote a Guardian comment article which was critical of the evidence for chiropractic treatments for certain childhood conditions, and perceived by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) as being critical of them. The BCA sued Simon (not The Guardian) and the Twitter hashtag #SinghBCA took off as the case played out (almost in real time thanks to @JackofKent's postings). Eventually the BCA withdrew but not before the case had cost Simon several thousand pounds (somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand) - had he lost the case I understand his costs could have been nearer a million pounds.

Simon discussed and criticised the claims and scientific evidence for chiropractic treatments - which is something that anyone should be free to do especially where health decisions are being made, ie there should be the possibility of free debate without fear of being sued.

A number of companies sell stem cell transplants for a variety of conditions (beyond their recognised use in some blood disorders) with claims that the cells can cure or cause a massive improvement in symptoms. Evidence is usually of the testimonial kind and other information given minimises or fails to mention risks or even to explain what is actually done. I'm unlikely to be much more specifically critical than this in case a company decides to have a quiet word with me about it ;-)

Simon wrote an article about it in 2010 which explains things much better than I can - he's not the only person to have experienced being sued for defamation. There's a dedicated Libel Reform website and the charity Sense About Science are involved in libel reform too.

I'm always a little bit surprised when people sue for things that would better be managed by discussing the science rather than thrashing it out in the Courts. This seems to be a common theme - someone or someones I've never heard of get miffed because of scientific criticism, sue and then I hear of them only to think they'd have done better to keep quiet. It reminds me of the concept of 'suicide by cop'... a sort of self-defamation by libel suit. I can't help thinking that if someone starts a reckless claim for defamation and damages their own reputation in doing so then this should immediately disqualify their claim in court ;)

There will be a draft defamation bill in March 2011 so that should certainly be available by the time of the conference in May.

Libel reform
concepts to be aware of
libel chill, fair or honest comment, public interest defence, see also this article highlighting that Simon had won the right to rely on fair comment.

incomplete list of some of the people who've been affected by the libel laws

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