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UK Libel law threatens science and honesty

November 11th, 2010 · 5 Comments

free debate. Sign at http://libelreform.org/

Freedom of speech in everyday life is a beautiful and hard-won fundamental liberty. I can say what I like about the prime minister and the royal family. There will be no knock on the door in the night.

Bur as a scientist, I cannot express an opinion on a scientific question freely. That is not, thank heavens, because of the government, the military or the police. It is because of a bunch of despicable lawyers who take advantage of an unjust law to make vast amounts of money. Do Carter-Ruck care if I’m made homeless and my son loses his education? They don’t give a damn.

The present libel law in the UK is a threat to journalists and, even more, to bloggers most of whom have little money. Still worse it endangers science itself. You cannot safely write an article in a scientific journal If your conclusions are unfavourable to a rich company, for fear that they will sue and you’ll end up sleeping in a tent.

The lie detector scandal

One good example concerns lie detectors. They don’t work and quite probably never will work. Nevertheless they sound like a very good idea to scientifically-illiterate government departments, police and military people. A recent report of the Lacerda case summarised the problem.

In 2007, Professor Lacerda and Anders Eriksson, of Gothenburg University, published an article entitled “Charlatanry in Forensic Speech Science” in the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law. It criticised the science behind analysis technologies that purport to identify stressed voices, which may indicate lying.

One VRA system, designed by Nemesysco, an Israeli company, is being evaluated in 24 pilot studies by the DWP [Department of Work and Pensions], as a means of highlighting potential benefit fraud. The DWP has spent £2.4 million on the pilots, which are due to report back soon. Nemesysco threatened the journal with a libel action over the article, which was withdrawn from its website.

The system was tested properly. Like all others of its sort it didn’t work. That, no doubt, is bad for the income of the people who make it, Nemesysco,as it should be. But instead of the company being convicted for selling devices that don’t work, the company hired lawyers and forced the journal to withdraw the paper, on threat of destitution.

The current case of Dr Peter Wilmshurst

Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. Like any good doctor he likes to ensure that the tools of his trade actually work as advertised. The Times reported thus.

Wilmshurst

Dr Wilmshurt’s case began with his involvement in a study of a medical device made by NMT called Starflex, designed to close a type of hole in the heart known as a patent foramen ovale (PFO). The study investigated Starflex as a potential treatment for migraine, which is significantly more common among people with a PFO, but failed to find benefits.

At a cardiology conference in Washington in 2007, Dr Wilmshurst criticised NMT Medical in relation to the research. His comments were reported by Heartwire, a website, prompting NMT to sue him.

This sort of behaviour by a medical company is utterly disgraceful. One would think that the fact that their actions had made the company name, NMT Medical, a laughing stock might have inhibited them, but far from that working, they recently launched a second legal action against Wllmshurst. The details are given by the Health Watch web site, and by legal blogger Jack of Kent.

It is small consolation to Dr Wilmshurst, as he faces destitution, that a Google search for "NMT medical" brings up on the first page a link to More news of NMT Medical MIST Trial – false declarations. This provides an excellent report on the technicalities. It is on the Scientic Misconduct blog, written by Aubrey Blumsohn, who has himself suffered for being honest in the face of corporate misconduct (in his case the villains were the University of Sheffield, in particular Prof Richard Eastell, and Proctor and Gamble. see also this blog),

Boob job cream

The latest case concerns Plastic surgeon threatened for comment on ‘Boob Job’ cream. She’s been sued for doing her job by saying that a cream costing £125 per jar cannot, as claimed, increase your bust size.

Not content with threatening the surgeon. The company, Rodial Ltd. also threatened Sense About Science if they publicised the case. They haven’t yielded to that threat.

The company should be prosecuted by Trading Standards for making illegal false health claims. But Trading Standards don’t do their job. Instead another honest clinician faces ruin

My own brushes with lawyers

I have experienced myself the cold terror of getting a letter from lawyers. In my case it came from the New Zealand Chiropractic Association after I’d written an editorial for the New Zealand Medical Journal, Doctor Who? Deception by chiropractors. It got to the stage of wondering whether the house could be put solely in my wife’s name, but in this case, thanks to a feisty response from the Journal editor, the chiroquacks backed off.

This blog itself was born as a result of legal threats against UCL by a couple of herbalists who were cross because I described the term "blood cleanser" as gobbledygook. The fact that this is true was irrelevant. Tnanks to lots of publicity the outcome for me was good, a vast increase in readership.

What you can do

The present libel law in the UK is notoriously the most iniquitous and expensive in the world. It is a national disgrace. It isn’t a new problem. One of my predecessors in the Chair of Pharmacology at UCL, A. J. Clark, was forced to apologise for a perfectly true statement made in his 1938 book on Patent Medicines.

The government has promised to change it but a huge amount of work to be done to make sure it is changed to something more civilised. There are a lot more lawyers in government than scientists (well, about one scientist). There is good reason to think that they will try to subvert the changes that are needed.

Support the campaign run jointly by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.

Get every friend to sign the petition. Ask your students to sign it. Write to your MP. And ask your friends from every country to sign it. Anyone in the world can be sued in UK courts. The present UK law doesn’t endanger only UK science, but it endangers science, and honesty itself, over the globe.

Keep up the pressure for a sensible reform..

free debate. Sign at http://libelreform.org/

 

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Tags: lawyers · libel · Nemesysco · NMT Medical · Peter Wilmshurst · Rodial

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