Libel Reform

Well well well. Look who’s not dead! ME, bitches.

The guns of my scientific rage fell silent this year due to a spectacularly bad year with one thing after another. But I will be back with more shortly. This isn’t just a promise. It’s a threat. Yeah.

But I have just written to my MP about libel reform which is an incredibly important issue in the wider context but especially for those who care at all about STEM (see below). The current state of affairs is extraordinarily bad for STEM and needs drastic work. There are many who have dedicated much more time to the issue, have written extensively, and actually acheived a lot of support for libel reform. I advise reading their work to learn more. This is just the text of my own personal support for the cause.

Dear Sciencey Splurge’s MP,

Firstly, I would like to take the time to thank you, in advance, for reading my correspondence. I am writing to you to express my concern over the state of English libel law.

I have signed the Libel Reform Campaign`s petition. Over half of all eligible MPs in the last Parliament indicated support of libel reform. Additionally, all three main political parties backed the campaign`s call for reform of these laws to protect freedom of expression and scientific enquiry. This has been strengthened by the recent condemnation of our libel laws by the Joint Select Committee on the draft Defamation Bill.

Our current libel laws are so perverse, in their current standing, that they have been criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The situation is so severe that President Obama recently signed into law the US Speech Act specifically to protect US citizens from the, frankly, idiotic reach our libel laws.

Free speech is, I think few would disagree, an absolutely fundamental human right and responsibility in any sphere. But I feel that the issue takes on particularly sinister shades when it comes to silencing proper and necessary critical analysis of things relating to Science, Technology Engineering and Medicine (STEM). One of the underlying principles of science is the freedom and necessity for peer review. It is still, and has always been, absolutely crucial to examine claims made within STEM. Many ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny. Some are found to be actively fraudulent. Some revolutionise our world. This freedom to express views on the merits, or otherwise, of STEM claims without fear of reprisal cannot have its importance overstated.

I hope that this doesn’t seem like a fringe of, for want of a better word, nerds, agitating over something that is actually relatively unimportant. Every thinking person knows that we live in a world that is increasingly defined and supported by advances in STEM. I write this message, and you will receive it, thanks to concepts in quantum physics, chemistry and electrical engineering that would have not been imaginable within living memory. It is crucial to any country that hopes to be able to compete in any future economy (however reshaped by current events) to have a strong STEM base that is able to discuss and debate without fear of legal reprisal. We also face challenges in healthcare with increasing population size, decreased infant mortality, and increased life expectancy. These are strains that society will not be able to tolerate if a strong STEM culture is not cultivated.

The essential component to continuing our strong tradition of being amongst world leaders in STEM is the ability to discuss ideas, products, methods and theories without the fear of being silenced by malevolent forces with deep pockets who can use the current legal system to buy silence of any criticism. This is a situation that is not just damaging to STEM but should also be obviously morally abhorent in any context.

This is not just conspiritorial rambling. Virtually everyone who works in STEM, as I do, has had some experience of it in one way or another. It is frightening and there are those who are cowed into submission. A pharmaceutical company based not a million miles away from Manchester tried to use this exact method to silence a university research group next door to the group I worked in at the time. This group had done work that showed current-generation anti-psychotic medication to be less efficacious, less safe and vastly more experience than drugs that were common on the market decades before. Said pharmaceutical company had a vested interested (i.e. large market share) in keeping the information quiet. They were very nearly successful too as threats of legal action came in thick and fast. Fortunately, through the doggedness of the research team, the company was unsuccessful.

There are innumerable examples of this sort of behaviour. Some receive more media attention than others (such as Simon Singh’s famous and successful struggle with the British Chiropractic Association). The problem should not be underestimated. Even if threats of libel are unsuccessful, the time and money required to fight it before it even comes to court cause many people to understandably, and unjustly, concede defeat at an early stage. Clearly an undesirable situation.

It is time for the government to act.

Please write to the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, and your party`s lead on this issue to ask them to commit to ensuring a defamation bill is included in the next Queens speech.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Sciencey Splurge



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