Keep libel laws out of climate science?

Simon Singh - Hero of the sceptics

In the past few months, there has been a series of somewhat extraordinary exchanges (by climate standards), between two groups, otherwise hitherto largely insulated from each other. The exchanges have taken place with parts of the so-called ‘online climate change sceptical readership’ in the UK (and others) on one side; and another, well-organized, well-defined and regimented group of ‘sceptics’, also based in the UK, on the other.

The first group is very loosely defined, very new, and not at all organized. It could perhaps even be said, that this group doesn’t exist at all. Cast crudely, it is the ‘authors and readership of the Bishop Hill, James Delingpole, Richard North and the Climateaudit blogs’ – clearly a puny, insignificant bunch. Evidently, and I speak from some first-hand experience here, just a handful of commenters are enough to disrupt proceedings wholescale within this set.

The other group however, is far more corporeal in its existence. It is a congregation of individuals whose gather publicly under the broad banner of ‘sceptic’. They exist in several countries, they usually have a tendency to organize, and they usually tend to focus on certain archetypal topics – god, superstition, alternative medicine, rationality, evolution theory, optical illusions and the like. Out in the far wide world, you say sceptic – and everyone thinks of these folk.

Now, it so happens, that certain members who belong to the latter group have become quite famous, well-known and celebrity-like. Celebrity-like, as in raving crowds swooning on sight, applauding their every word etc. Brian Cox, pop-singer turned nuclear physicist is one. Simon Singh, nuclear physicist turned science popularizer is another. David Allen Green, a lawyer who ‘blogs about the law on his law blog’ is yet another, and there are many, many more.

A gentle start

We will start gently, by asking Simon Singh a question today.

Simon Singh, for those of you who don’t know, has recently become world-famous for ‘taking on’ a group of alternative medicine practitioners known as chiropractors. Chiropractors in the United Kingdown have an association, known as the British Chiropractors Association, or in short ‘BCA’. The whole thing started when the BCA filed a libel suit against Singh in a British court while Singh was doing the usual sceptical thing – taking on the world-destroying scourge called alternative medicine. Singh had written an article in the Guardian where he contrasted, as to how the association was a ‘respectable face’ to its profession and ‘yet’, ‘happily promoted bogus treatments’.

However, the initial ruling did not go in Singh’s favor and a massive publicity and support generation campaign erupted. ‘civil society’, the ‘twitterverse’, the entire ‘sceptical community’ were mobilized and galvanized, automated search engine petitions rained, Facebook pages appeared, street marches held, and public support meetings in pubs organized. Magazine covers appeared.  ‘Freedom of speech, suppression of dissent, chilling effect, silencing of critics, lethal muzzle on medicine’ Orwellian nightmare’ ,… so went the descriptions. Things came to such a pass, that a charitable organisation called ‘Sense about Science’ of which Singh is a board member, created a web page button (!). Clearly you know that a publicity movement has reached critical mass when people start making and passing around small stickers and buttons (like the AIDS red ribbon).

On the cover of magazines

This is what they did. Simon Singh’s issue was framed thus: ‘keep libel laws out of science’. ‘Don’t say I libelled you when I called you a quack, if that is what you are’, went the logic. Don’t try to fight my opinion, based as it is, on scientifically proven fact, by calling it libel, said Simon. Don’t muzzle my criticism, I’ve got science on my side, I speak with the voice of science. Let scientific discussion be free. This is science we are talking about, not some dirty politics. Let not the petty laws of libel sully the exchange of scientific ideas. Thus, did Simon Singh make his case.

Legally however, a shameful paradox lay hidden in plain sight. Singh argued in court that his statement declaring that British chiropractors ‘happily promoted bogus treatments’ was opinion, not fact, whereas the public campaign drew support by striving to highlight, that chiropractors promoted bogus treatments, as fact and not opinion.

Nevertheless the campaign at long last, bore fruit. Simon Singh eventually won a reprieve from the courts. The fallout was impressive: to this date, a murmured susurration still hangs in the air. In hushed tones it is declared: ‘we must reform libel laws, yes we must, yes indeed, it is needed now’. On the other side of things, the BCA was stunned. The campaign had exploded in its face. It fell tripping backward, clambering on its hands and feet in its hasty retreat.

The question

Simon Singh must be aware, by now that the ‘denier-numpty’ columnist and blogger, James Delingpole, belonging to the alternate non celebrity-infested world of climate scepticism, has been pursued vigourously by the University of East Anglia, in almost the exact same manner as Singh was by the British chiropractors. Just as Singh did with the chiropractors, Delingpole gave Professor Phil Jones of the University a few choice names — “FOI-breaching, email-deleting, scientific-method-abusing”. Delingpole cannot pronounce his hyphenated descriptors of Phil Jones or the Jones-run epicentre of climate controversy and data prison – the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), the University felt in turn. They lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Comission.

The question for Simon Singh is this:

Does not James Delingpole, outspoken critic of the University of East Anglia,  deserve the same support from the enthusiastic sceptical community in the UK, against the University’s efforts to muzzle and silence him? Has not Delingpole merely indulged in calling a spade a spade, just as Singh did, with the chiropractors. Why is he to be silenced and gagged by the Climatic Research Unit thus?

Will there be any expression of support from Simon Singh and his sceptical community, to James Delingpole?

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8 comments

  1. omnologos

    One difference is, Singh did literally risk his house and lifelong savings on the “happily” statement. I am not sure James has, at any point.

    But I agree that there is a considerable amount of hypocrisy among people that make money out of selling “science” to the masses. They present themselves as “skeptic” but as shown in the climate debate, there is little difference between them and the Aristotelians fighting Galileo, appeals to authority and all.

  2. Stop Common Purpose

    I am still waiting for UEA chancellor Brandon Gough to take action against me for my allegations of complicity in scientific fraud and corrupt abuse of public funds.

  3. John O'Sullivan

    You don’t seem to have your finger on the pulse as well as you imagine. There is another well-knit group of skeptics, comprised of international scientists who have debunked the greenhouse gas theory. Dr Tim Ball was lead author on their first book, ‘Slaying the Sky Dragon.’ He’s now being sued by Michael Mann and Andrew Weaver for libel. While fellow co-author, Prof Claes Johnson has had his math which appears in the book, banned by his university employers. If you overlook this group at the cutting edge of climate science then you risk being considered truly out of touch with the big developments.

  4. Shub Niggurath

    Hi John

    Just a couple of things here. Firstly, when I wrote above about the authors and readership of ‘Bishop Hill, James Delingpole, Richard North and ClimateAudit’, it was to indicate that it is mainly this group that has interfaced/run in to the so-called ‘British sceptics’, a group of which Simon Singh, can be considered to be a part of.

    Obviously, the climate sceptics are a much bigger bunch and there are many individuals,… far more than those who would satisfy the above label.

    Nor would it be, I suspect, that members even of this group, are comfortable being lumped together as a group. The British sceptics on the other hand, have no qualms self-associating openly.

  5. Steve Koch

    The fundamental problem is that freedom of speech is overly curtailed by the libel laws of England and Canada. I don’t think the global warming alarmists have sued anybody for libel in the USA (even though they have been savaged here).

  6. Shub Niggurath

    Steve,
    I agree with you partly. Why ‘partly’?

    Firstly, why did UEA go to the PCC and not the courts? After all, Delingpole has been saying all sorts of juicy things about the CRU and Phil Jones et al.

    Secondly, while libel laws have been very useful for those wishing to suppress free speech (which impacts on them badly), those arguing for its ‘reform’, such as the Singh coterie, have not explicitly and openly argued for its overall re-haul based on broader philosophical lines, but only put forth a limited caveat, that specifically addresses their concerns alone.

    “Keep libel laws out of science”. To me, as much as my sympathies lie with Simon Singh, this sounds awfully similar to the special-case pleading, AGW argument: ‘let’s keep disagreements aside with regards to climate science because the future of humanity is at stake’, ‘come on guys, this is science here and not our usual politics, let us join hands and try to solve the AGW problem’ and etc.

    Let us not keep libel laws in or out of science. Libel laws in UK and Canada have certain inherent structural ‘flaws’ presently, which lead to the ‘Simon Singh-BCA’ type of situations; science has very little to do with it. These have to do with the high legal costs and, on where the burden of proof falls.

    My guess is that there must have been a feeling that the PCC is likely to give scientist-favourable rulings, and therefore a point could easily be scored, against Delingpole, if they were approached.

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