Tag Archives: scientific method

In defence of free scientific speech

Dear Tony Lloyd,

I am a scientist and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, and your constituent. I am writing to you regarding the libel laws in England.

At present it is possible to sue someone for asserting that there is no scientific evidence in support of a particular theory.  As you may be aware, The British Chiropractice Association is suing the journalist and science writer Simon Singh for libel after he wrote that there is little evidence that chiropractic treatments are evidence-based.  There is a useful summary (and petition, which I and many others have signed) here.

This is not how science works.  Science thrives on debate, and on use of the scientific method to demonstrate whether, based on the available evidence, a given theory is likely to be correct.  Freedom of speech in science is vital and is one of the greatest forces contributing to intellectual progress: if I believe you are wrong, I state my opinion and then back it up with appropriate scientific evidence; if you then disagree with me, you present the evidence supporting your counterargument, and so on.  In this way, we approach the truth about science – sometimes tangentially and almost always incrementally – but we do move forward.  To bypass this route is to silence the voice of rational, reasoned, evidence-based debate in science and medicine; is this what we want for our country?

On the matter of the BCA vs. Singh: if the BCA has any evidence in support of their case, then they should present it and let it be debated, rather than resorting to litigation – that they have not done this rather suggests that their evidence would not withstand scientific scrutiny.

But the bigger point remains: it should not be possible to sue someone for making a scientifically verifiable assertion based on the available evidence to date.  This case, before it is even resolved, sets an alarming precedent that anything asserted by a scientist, however well-grounded in verifiable data, could be challenged under current libel laws.  This would be a markedly retrograde step at a time when the doors of scientific debate are open wider than ever before.

If we in the UK wish to be taken seriously as a hub of scientific and medical excellence, and build on our ‘knowledge economy’, it should not be so easy to silence that debate.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Atherton

(Hat-tip to David Farbey for the petition link. And yeah, this wasn’t how I was going to spend this morning, but Burns was right about those best-laid schemes.)


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