British Indian scientist fights libel

June 12th, 2009 - 3:39 pm ICT by IANS  

London, June 12 (IANS) A Britain-based scientist and bestselling author of Indian origin is fighting a libel case after he criticised the alternative medical system of chiropractic as unscientific. Top scientists have come to his defence.
Simon Singh, who has penned the popular science books “Fermat’s Last Theorem”, “The Code Book” and “Big Bang”, had little idea of what was in store when he wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper in April 2008.

“The article discussed the history of chiropractic and (its) founder’s belief that manipulating the spine could treat 95 percent of all diseases because disease was supposedly caused by blockages in the flow of innate energy along the spine and through the nervous system,” writes Singh.

“In particular, I wrote about the likely risks of chiropractic treatment and whether or not there is any evidence that it is effective for various childhood conditions, including asthma. I thought it was quite an interesting, important and well-researched article, but unfortunately the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) claimed I had defamed their reputation and threatened to sue me for libel.”

Though the newspaper offered to publish the BCA’s version, the association maintained that it would rather sue the author himself, according to Singh’s blog.

Singh, whose parents immigrated from Punjab to Britain, holds a PhD in particle physics from Cambridge University and has received the MBE honour for services to science education and communication.

He realised that given the British libel laws, he would have to spend a fortune to defend himself and stand to lose in financial terms regardless of the legal outcome. “In other words, a good outcome would be bad, and a bad outcome would be catastrophically bad.”

Moreover, in libel cases, it is the defendant who carries the burden of proof.

But instead of tendering an apology, Singh decided last year to fight on as experts said “we had a valid defence and stood a good chance of winning the case.

“Moreover, the article was about an issue of public interest, namely, childhood health and the effectiveness of particular treatments for some serious conditions. Hence I was not prepared to apologise for an article that I still believed was important for parents to read and which I believed was accurate and legally defensible.”

There was a primary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice last month to decide on the meaning of Singh’s article. The verdict was not in his favour, making the next stage of legal fight more difficult.

Meanwhile, as the science media and bloggers discussed the case, Singh has received offers for financial support from hundreds of people. Besides, leading scientists have come to his aid.

on June 4 Singh announced he was applying to appeal the pre-trial ruling and launching a support campaign to defend “the right of the public to read the views of scientists and writers”.

The statement of the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign has been signed by over 100 people from the worlds of science, journalism, publishing, literature and law, expressing support for Singh and calling for a review of the libel law.

Supporters include leading biologist Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford and David King, former chief scientific adviser to the British government, as well as well-known authors Martin Gardner, Martin Amis, Alain de Botton, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali.

Within a day, 4,000 people signed in support of the statement - available on Singh’s website (senseaboutscience.org.uk). It is to be sent to the British government every time it gets 1,000 signatures online.

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