free debate

July 19, 2010

Using Courts to Silence Science

John Adams famously said "Facts are stubborn things." In life and in science we sometimes get the answers we want, and sometimes we don't. When the facts don't go your way you only have a few options. Change your opinion, ignore them, or try to get rid of them. I'm sure we all have someone in our lives who is so stubborn they just won't change to new information. Our natural response as humans is usually to one of the latter two. Scientists strive to do the first even though it can be hard to give up a cherished idea. Personally, I like being right. This makes it hard to admit when I am wrong so I consciously work to override that gut reaction. Still there will always be those who refuse to accept those stubborn facts.

In 2008 Simon Singh wrote an article that said chiropractors were claiming to treat disease without the evidence to support those claims. In response the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) responded not by showing the evidence, not by responding with facts. Instead they tried to get rid of the facts by suing Simon for Libel. As the exposure of the trial grew it became more and more apparent that they did not have the evidence to back them at at one point they even advised chiropractors within their association to take claims off of their websites. It took almost before two years the BCA dropped the charges and only after Simon had spent over 200,000 Pounds (aprox. $307,500). The BCA couldn't change the facts, so they tried to get rid of them.

Now in the last month a similar series of events has begun here in the US. When I have questions or want information on quack or alternative medicine one of my first stops is It is an excellent resource for these issues with well written articles that cite the scientific evidence and explain its significance on lots of issues. On June 18th this year the owner of, Dr. Stephen Barrett, was sued by Doctor's Data also for libel. They neglected to tell Dr. Barrett where he mistaken in his articles but that he must take them all down. Doctor's Data can't change the facts, so they are trying to get rid of them.

Now I fully admit that in such a short article I am leaving out lots of the complexity in each of these cases. I also need to point out that many cases of libel are legitimate. That said, using libel to science your critics is dishonest, deceptive, and unscientific. This approach of using the courts is not just used by alt. med practitioners but also creationists and other groups who don't have the evidence to play by the rules of science. I find attempts to science the evidence and facts despicable. I think the best thing to do in these cases is grow awareness. The more people know this is going on and its risk to the public, the less  effective it might be as a strategy.  Dr. Stephen Barrett and Simon Singh have the resources in court but many who criticize quacks and cranks do not. "Facts are stubborn things," but they can be buried in the absence of a vigilant public.