Silencing Skepticism: The Case of Simon Singh
Posted by mattusmaximus on June 6, 2009
There is a very important issue regarding skepticism & free inquiry that came to my attention just today. I was listening to the latest (June 3rd) Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and they were discussing the case of Simon Singh. Singh is a science journalist in Britain, who has written a number of popular science books (such as Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book) plus a lot of newspaper articles.
And it was one of these articles, written for The Guardian in April 2008, that got him into some trouble. In this article – titled “Beware the Spinal Trap” – he criticizes the alternative “medical” woo of chiropractic and specifically takes to task the British Chiropractic Association for the promotion of nonsense such as using chiropractic subluxations to treat children with asthma. In short, Singh laid down the gauntlet to the BCA in his article by noting that they didn’t have any scientific evidence to support their claims.
The BCA’s reaction? They’re suing Singh for libel. No written response to The Guardian outlining flaws in Singh’s argument, nor did the BCA attempt to provide evidence showing their claims – this despite the fact that they were invited to do so publicly by The Guardian. Instead they sue Singh in an attempt to use England’s libel laws in order to shut down any public criticism of their pseudoscientific garbage.
**Aside: You can read the entire account of this sordid affair, in Simon Singh’s words, at this link.
One of the reasons why this is such a big deal is that according to English law, in some countries, if one is successfully sued in an English court for libel then the ruling stands against you – apparently, even if you aren’t a British citizen! So does this mean that if I criticize the BCA on this blog, which I am obviously doing, that they can sue me? Wow, so much for free speech… but fortunately for me, I live in the United States of America where freedom of speech & expression are enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution.
So, the implication here is that if the BCA woo-meisters are successful in trying to shut up Simon Singh, then other pseudoscientists can try using the same tactic to shut their critics up. By silencing skeptical criticism & free inquiry in this manner, woo-meisters all across the spectrum could then attempt to push their nonsense upon an unsuspecting population without having to defend any of their claims.
But it’s worse than that – if left unchecked, this could threaten the fundamentals of open inquiry & transparency which form the heart of the scientific process.
Fortunately, Simon Singh isn’t taking this lying down, nor is the skeptical & scientific community in general. In fact, if anything, this stupid move on the part of the BCA has galvanized skeptics in the last year like nothing else, because we tend to view this kind of thing as an attack on us all. This skeptical counter-attack has taken the form of the Sense About Science campaign – which is centered in Britain but, for the reasons noted above, should concern all skeptics on the planet.
I encourage you to go to the SAS website, read the information there, sign their statement, donate money if you can, and spread the word. Simon Singh is taking this fight straight to the woos, and I think we owe him and those being bamboozled by the BCA nonsense our support. Not to mention, this also sends a strong message to others not to mess with us simply because we wish to speak our minds.
As Thomas Jefferson once said: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” And vigilant we shall be.