Friday, April 16, 2010

Simon says

Simon Singh is a well-known science writer, one of the best in the business indeed. I found his books on cryptology and Fermat's Last Theorem both enlightening and entertaining -- a difficult combination to pull off at the best of times. I recommend them highly.

On 19 April 2008, Singh published a now (in)famous article in The Guardian criticising certain scientifically unfounded claims made by some chiropractors. The third paragraph of Singh's article, the paragraph that got him into trouble, specifically mentions the British Chiropractic Association (BCA):

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments. [Italics added]

The BCA sued Singh under the United Kingdom's notoriously onerous defamation laws (onerous for the alleged defamer, that is). In his judgement of 7 May 2009, Mr Justice Eady, a senior High Court judge, ruled in favour of the BCA. Singh later secured permission to appeal Mr Justice Eady's ruling in a judgement by (the rather aptly named) Lord Justice Laws on 14 October 2009. Singh's appeal was heard on 23 February 2010 by three of the UK's most senior judges: (the equally euonymous) Sir Igor Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Sir David Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls; and Lord Justice Sedley. In their ruling delivered on 1 April 2010, the three judges unanimously upheld Singh's appeal. On 15 April 2010, the BCA announced that it had decided to discontinue its libel action against Singh.

This court ruling and subsequent climb-down by the BCA marks an important victory for common sense and scientific freedom. I blogged recently about an unfortunate case in Zambia where a man, who was probably drunk, was jailed for defaming the President. I need not mention that Zambia's highly retrogressive defamation laws were largely inherited from the British legal system.

Such onerous defamation laws limit freedom of speech and are an insidious form of censorship.

The three learned judges correctly described the eventual state of a society that embraces, or even tolerates, such laws: Orwellian.

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