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Simon Singh Talks With Wired About His Libel Battle 239

smellsofbikes writes "Wired has a short but pithy interview with Simon Singh about his defense against a libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association, in which he spent more than $200,000 and emerged victorious."
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Simon Singh Talks With Wired About His Libel Battle

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  • 200,000 dollars (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 04, 2010 @03:31PM (#33476794)
    Sorry... I hate seeing numbers thrown around as if it somehow makes this case more important than others. I'm glad to see that Simon Singh stood up for his comments and also that he is now extremely famous and has furthered his career by this episode.

    Also, can someone enlighten me if British law allows him to sue for his defense cost?
  • A Pyrrhic Victory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @03:49PM (#33476888) Homepage

    Yeah - a victory that cost him $200k of his own money - so that he doesn't have to issue a retraction or pay even more of his own money.

    Or, maybe if he is lucky he might get reimbursed some or all of it - quite some time after having spent it. Of course, he won't get any interest on the money or anything like that. Most ordinary people would lose their homes in the process of trying to pay these kinds of fees, and I'm sure courts would not reimburse those costs either.

    That will teach them!

    Europe at least is far better than the US in this regard, but I'd go a step further. I'd envision a system where when a suit is brought a court would require an escrow of funds from the plaintiff if they had greater than a certain amount in assets. Regardless, the attorneys would be paid by the court (for both parties) - it would be illegal for attorneys to receive money from their clients. The fee rate would be set by the court, and the budget for both parties would be the same, and the budget would be based on the nature of the case and the amount at issue. Both parties would then battle it out in court or settle. Individual participants (whether defendents, plaintiffs, witnesses, or jurors) below a certain income level (moderately high) would also be paid by the court a per-diem based on their annual income. In the end the court would assess the loser of the case for the amount of court costs (which now includes all client legal costs and the cost of the time of all parties as well), plus interest sufficient to ensure the government comes out at least even. This would be a public debt that the government would have the power to collect on.

    This would ensure that merely being sued would have no negative financial impact on somebody, and that people will think twice before filing frivolous lawsuits. People who are out time and money also don't have to try to badger the other party to pay - the government would pay them as they incur costs, and now the government can use all its usual methods to recoup its loss just as if the losing party didn't pay their taxes/etc.

    The bottom line is that the court system needs to stop punishing people (effectively) merely for being sued.

  • Re:Great Quote (Score:3, Interesting)

    by genner ( 694963 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @03:52PM (#33476910)

    I happen to know a few people who are really.. well, they love Jesus more than most. They seem to attack science, not to learn anything, but to merely shoot down their "adversary".

    I really wish those people could understand this quote (last 2 lines of the article): "People start off with a belief and a prejudice—we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth."

    The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth. Sir Karl Popper

  • by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @04:11PM (#33477018) Homepage

    Actually, it is the UK legal system that doesn't work. Neither does the US legal system, or the AU legal system. But for this we can focus on the broken UK legal system.

    Basically, what is broken is that the truth is effectively restricted to people with money and wealth. It's good that we have people like Simon Singh who have enough money to make it work, and make it work the right way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those with money and wealth also tend to be those who perverse and corrupt the system with lies and untruths. So it is a very biased system, even if it might well be balanced and just when those facing off are well moneyed. In other words, it's not a system for ordinary people. So unless we can find a new system to replace it, or at least supplement it, there is no justice, and no truth, for ordinary people most of the time.

  • "experts" (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 04, 2010 @04:13PM (#33477022)

    Simon Singh: Don’t come up with a view, find everybody who agrees with it, and then say, “Look at this, I must be right.” Start off by saying, “Who do I trust?” On global warming, for example, I happen to trust climate experts, world academies of science, Nobel laureates, and certain science journalists. You have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe.

    The guy makes a great point although at the same time if applied everywhere is totally wrong. I'm sure some of those chiropractors are "experts" in their "field". Why wouldn't we trust them over some journalist. After all, the journalist isn't an expert!

    The point being everyone seems to be labeling themselves as an expert these days, even when they're not (social media experts, haha). There was an artist on a TV program I watched the other day labelling himself a "climate expert" demanding that everyone should stop flying, right now! Regardless of how people feel about global warming I start not giving I shit when it turns into the big circle jerk that it has become and everyone starts the "look at me!" game.

  • Re:A Pyrrhic Victory (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @04:52PM (#33477268) Homepage

    Requiring money from plaintiffs does not solve the real problem, which is that court systems like those in UK, US, and AU, are fundamentally biased toward people with money, and hence to the positions more of those people hold.

    A truly just system would not require anyone to expend any money whatsoever, to carry out a complete and thorough adjudication of the issues. Since people have to do work to carry that out, someone has to pay for it, and that leaves the state. Of course those anti-big-government people, who generally benefit from the unjust and biased legal systems we do have now, would never go for such a change. I can also understand the concerns, because a state paid system really gets opened up for so much abuse in the economic sense (excessive numbers of cases, too).

    One thing that would help for lots of little cases is for thing otherwise treated as civil now should be treated as criminal (especially if there is a pattern). The state needs to bring cases against banks and big businesses for things that would otherwise require their customers to sue. If the violations are excessive, there needs to be jail time for the perpetrators, and even "death" for the "corporate person" if it keeps on happening. These cases also need to "pierce the veil of incorporation" in the extreme cases and go after those who voted in the bad guys to the board.

    My big point is, that a judicial system where people must pay up front for justice just isn't a just system for those that don't have that financial means, and at best is unfair to those that do, but have to incur that to get justice. Justice should be about setting things straight (including money to those who are were losers by result of the violation, and taking from those who unfairly gained by result of the violation ... after the adjudication properly determine who and what).

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @04:54PM (#33477274) Homepage Journal

    I remember the 1970's plenty well enough to recall that the great fear then was, are you ready for this, Global Cooling!

    Hate to snow on your parade, but that's a myth.

  • Re:A Pyrrhic Victory (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 04, 2010 @04:56PM (#33477290)

    No, the system he describes is pretty similar to the German system (which has standard lawyer fees; you are allowed to pay your lawyer more than that, but why would you?). That works fine:
    - on a €5,000 lawsuit, both side's lawyers are not inclined to spend more than a few hours for the low 4 digit standard fee on that lawsuit.
    - if you sue somebody for 10 million, and the court later awards you €5,000, you get to pay the lawyer fees for 10 million, whereas the loser will have to reimburse the lawyer fees for €5,000. That discourages suing for frivolous amounts of damages rather than for actual damages.
    - you cannot drown the other side in costs to force them to drop the case

  • Re:200,000 dollars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 04, 2010 @05:25PM (#33477456)

    Singh didn't actually win, the BCA dropped their case when they could see mounting pressure from the public, high profile intellectual celebrities and politicians. A huge difference in law. The last thing the fraudsters within the BCA want is a valid examination of their cure-all claims. The only good from this case is its high profile nature and possible UK libel law reform.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @06:25PM (#33477754) Journal

    Quote from Wikipedia:

    The publicity produced by the libel action has led to a "furious backlash",[2] with formal complaints of false advertising being made against more than 500 individual chiropractors within one 24 hour period,[3][30] with the number later climbing to one quarter of all British chiropractors.[2] It also prompted the McTimoney Chiropractic Association to write in a leaked message to its members advising them to remove leaflets that make claims about whiplash and colic from their practice, to be wary of new patients and telephone inquiries, and telling their members: "If you have a website, take it down NOW." and "Finally, we strongly suggest you do NOT discuss this with others, especially patients."[2][3] One chiropractor is quoted as saying that "Suing Simon was worse than any Streisand effect and chiropractors know it and can do nothing about it."[2]

    Linky. []

  • Re:200,000 dollars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @06:32PM (#33477808) Journal

    Indeed, the court system does seem to favor the wealthy (unless you are the deep pockets being sued), but even loser pay rules struck me as unfair.

    Loser pays in the UK is not quite as simple as many people think. The definition of "loser" is usually based on whether any award was more or less than what was previously offered (and paid into the court) by the defendant. For example if the defendant offered to settle for 100k pounds and the judge awards damages of 99k pounds (less than was offered), then the plaintiff is considered the loser and has to pay the defendant's legal costs even though he was awarded 99k.

    Furthermore, legal costs include the cost of the lawyers' time, unlike the USA.

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @06:41PM (#33477854)

    Let's start with you: Did you personally test Anthropogenic Global Warming? 'Cause I'm willing to bet you trusted someone else's assertion.

    As a matter of fact, demonstrating that CO2 is a greenhouse gas is very simple and can be done at home. I've seen a video from some BBC educational program demonstrating this, with a couple of clear plastic bottles, some vinegar and baking soda to generate CO2, and two digital thermometers.

    I repeated the experiment and, yes, it worked. Therefore, I can assert from my own experience that Anthropogenic Global Warming is, at least, a plausible hypothesis. It's up to the denialists to come with a better experiment proving the contrary if they want me to believe them.

  • Re:200,000 dollars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by growse ( 928427 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @06:47PM (#33477892) Homepage

    There is the concrete defence against libel cases in the UK - be able to prove what you say. Simple.

    This isn't correct. Truth is not an absolute defence against libel under UK law (unlike, I believe, the US). You can be successfully sued for libel even if both parties agree that what you said was true.

  • Re:GMO (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @07:21PM (#33478044)

    Yes. This times a hundred. Times a million. Pseudoscience at best, dishonest [] at worst. I too am really glad he gives genetic engineering it's props, because anti-GMO really is the new anti-vax. Just because you can't be bothered to listen to a valid source doesn't mean that the people who know what the hell they're talking about are in some grand Monsanto/Shadow Government conspiracy to be evil. The scientific evidence is in. It's been it. The idea that they are inherently dangerous to human health is laughable (and growing even less plausible every day), they are a benefit for farmers, and they are a net positive to the environment. Deputing these facts without adequate information to go against them, which is what pretty much every anti-GMO group on the planet does, is not insightful or thought provoking, it's denialism, plain and simple. The modern controversy surrounding GMOs is is no longer a scientific debate, it's a popular one, largely with biologist, horticulturists, botanists, microbiologists, zoologists, toxicologists, geneticists, biochemists, and farmers on one hand, and people who think that an appeal to nature is a valid argument on the other, and even that doesn't make sense considering that we selectively breed crops for various mutations for thousands of years (as anyone who has even a passing understanding of corn genetics will tell you) and that the odds are pretty darn good that every plant we eat has picked viral, bacterial, and fungal DNA at some point, probably insect DNA too. Human DNA is at least 3% virus. We are, in a sense, genetically modified organisms ourselves.

    Here's a good example: A few weeks ago, some anti-science arsonist assholes burned down a GMO grape test field in France. They were government developed, so the claim that they're against corporations doesn't apply. They were virus resistant, so the claim that they're against chemicals was out. They were rootstocks, and since roots don't produce flowers, their claim that they're afraid of cross pollination and wild GMOs is out. The health concerns, even if they had any merit to begin with, are also out, because again, the GMO part was only the root, not the grape. Why are they against them? Because they're GMO. They're against genetic engineering because it's genetic engineering. They've decided that genetic engineering is bad, and base everything else on that decision. They start with the conclusion, and make everything else fit that. Hundreds of studies showing they're wrong is part of the conspiracy, scientific consensus is part of the conspiracy, and every relevant expert who knows what they're talking about is in on it too, and therefore, anything that disagrees with their premise is easily dismissed, knowledge because a vice, ignorance a virtue.

    This topic deserves more publicity than it gets, it really does. I think that this is a truly fascinating area (as a look at my comment history will reveal). I love plants and horticultural science, and I think it is just amazing what we can do with them now, what we might be able to do in the future. We are living in interesting and exciting times. We can increase output, decrease need for inputs, help preserve the soil and the environment. We can help the people who need it most grow more nutritious food. We can lessen or eliminate the problems caused by pests and diseases. Someday I might have a mango or cashew or cacao or coffee or lychee tree here in the northeast US. This is what people are really working on. This isn't sci-fi, it's real, and it is just a shame that we have people with all the intellectual integrity of your average homeopath attacking it and generally trying to influence the general population with cheap scare tactics. And it's almost funny, these people think they're being insightful when all they're going is displaying their own ignorance. It would be like someone claiming that the moon must be hollo

  • Re:200,000 dollars (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 04, 2010 @07:36PM (#33478102)

    Want to defend yourself? That'll cost you ~5 years of a typical wage, then. Suddenly caving in and "apologising" looks quite attractive after all, regardless of how strong you thought your principles were. The whole reason he could afford to stick the course defending this is that he was already "rich and famous" [...] . If some fresh-out-of-grad-school science-interested junior journalist on £18k p.a. had written this, been sued, and faced a £100k bill, they would almost certainly have had to fold

    And that right there is evidence of a horrible corruption of the legal system. Ideally anybody with a strong case ought to be able to defend themselves in court and win without the help of a lawyer. Whatever it is that makes this not the case, be it badly written law or overreliance on procedure, reduces the not-rich to second-class citizens.

  • Re:Next target ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DavidTC ( 10147 ) <slas45dxsvadiv.v ... m ['eve' in gap]> on Saturday September 04, 2010 @07:36PM (#33478104) Homepage

    'Zero-point energy' is a confusing term.

    What the GP probably meant is, yes, that idiot and others claiming they are generating power from zero-point energy, or what I guess could be called 'zero-point energy energy'.

    For people here who don't want to spend any time reading up on stupidity, 'zero-point energy' has become the modern way to say 'perpetual motion machine'. "No, this system can't produce power forever with no outside energy, that's a violation of thermodynamics. It's using zero-point energy!"

    Actually, what they're talking about is called 'vacuum energy', which is the energy difference between the energy level of 'nothing' in this universe, which is full of virtual particles and whatnot, compared actual nothing nothing. The Casimir effect demonstrates that if you remove (some) of the virtual particles, you can get to a lower density than vacuum. The universe itself, without anything in it, has a density, or at least a pressure.

    To actually harness that could be incredibly dangerous, akin to living in a balloon and poking a hole in the wall to use the air rushing out as a power source. Luckily, to do such a thing would require...well, let's just say it starts with the ability to create wormholes, and put one end outside of space/time(1), so it seems unlikely that someone's magical car battery is doing it.

    Zero-point energy is just the lowest possible energy state of a system, because even absolute zero system have some energy. But there's not any way, even hypothetical, to produce power from that fact. Because if you removed that energy, you would, ipso facto, demonstrate that wasn't the zero-point. (And there's no way you can make any net gain in usable energy by moving around minute amounts of heat at absolute zero anyway!)

    'Vacuum energy' is the 'zero-point energy' of the universe, but as the universe isn't at the lowest energy state, it's sorta stupid to talk about it in that context. In the real world, we use the energy that actually exists in this universe compared to other places in this universe, not microscopic amounts of energy compared to some ideal 'no energy' state which we have no way to access and thus can't use for 'work', which is just moving energy around.

    But it's not surprising that pseudoscientists use the wrong term for something, or pick something that actually can't be used to do work and claim it's powering their stuff.

    1) Hilariously, it's so dangerous they can't even do it on Stargate...where they actually can create interdimensional transtemporal wormholes. They have 'zero-point modules' that create an artificial universe and use that for energy...the few times anyone tried to do it to the actual vacuum energy here, they've blown up solar systems. It's so dangerous you can't even do it in science fiction! ;)

  • Re:200,000 dollars (Score:3, Interesting)

    by donscarletti ( 569232 ) on Saturday September 04, 2010 @10:43PM (#33479112)

    Truth is not an absolute defence against libel under UK law (unlike, I believe, the US).

    Truth is an ultimate defence for civil libel in England and always has been. Exceptions have been made in some states in the US for when the truth is told with malicious intent []. However, there has been no such case in England/Wales under civil libel law where the ruling has dismissed truth as a defence.

    The final issue of this case was not Mr Singh's scientific claims, but his claims that the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments", which was taken by the BCA to mean that they knowingly advertised treatments that they knew to be ineffective. Mr Singh claimed this was not his meaning. The issue with this comment, in that interpretation is that it is difficult to show that you have reasonable basis to believe that the BCA has no faith in its own treatment. In the end, the court took it to mean that simply that the BCA promoted ineffective treatments, something that Mr Singh had reasonable basis for saying.

    The law in this case has done its job, it has found Mr Singh not liable for defamation. Defamation laws are there to make people responsible for what they say and they mostly work. The issue here is that the whole system of civil law is so slow and expensive that it becomes prohibitively inconvenient to actually get to the truth. But this goes far beyond libel and to every claim imaginable.

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Sunday September 05, 2010 @01:59AM (#33479948) Homepage Journal

    Does the EU Human Rights Convention act only protect liars, and not the people lied about?

A committee takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom. -- Parkinson