A disturbing trend has been occurring lately. Due to the growth of pseudo-science and misinformation on the internet, a lot of scientists have been working to educate the public about science on the same medium. However, the anti-science crowd (along with some who are just misguided) have been striking back, not by countering the arguments made by scientists or providing reliable information to support their claims (because they can’t), but rather by launching personal and legal attacks against the scientists to keep them quiet. This is becoming especially noteworthy in the medical field, but scientists in other fields (such as various environmental fields) are also at risk.This tactic initially gained notice a while back when the British Chiropractic Association attempted to sue author Simon Singh for (correctly) stating that some of their claims, such as being able to treat asthma and colic with spinal manipulations, were bogus. They sued him under Britain’s notorious libel laws, which are essentially “guilty until proven innocent.” However, they lost, or more accurately, dropped the suit when it became apparent they were going to lose. On the plus side, this case has led to widespread calls for reform of Britain’s libel laws to prevent them from being used in this way again. However, if the target hadn’t been someone with the resources to defend himself, they would have succeeded in shutting him up.
This failure hasn’t stopped more recent actions of a similar nature. Recently, members of the anti-vaccine group Age of Autism launched an attack on Dr. David Gorski. Part of this attack included trying to get him fired from his position at a university via an email campaign targeted at his bosses. Luckily Dr. Gorski works at an institution where the higher-ups support science and support his activities against pseudo-science and anti-science on the internet, so this campaign failed.
The latest case involves a laboratory called “Doctor’s Data” suing Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the excellent website “Quackwatch“, for 10 million dollars for libel. Doctor’s Data is an organization that provides what are called “provoked urine tests”. Essentially these tests use what is called a “provoking agent” to increase the amounts of metals found in a urine sample, and they then compare the results of the urine sample to metals concentrations found in normal, unprovoked samples to make it look like the person has higher than normal levels of metals in their urine. The alternative medicine quacks who ordered the test then convince the patient to undergo bogus (and potentially dangerous) treatments such as chelation therapy. In other words, Doctor’s Data help quacks defraud patients, and they took exception to Quackwatch identifying this practice. Since they weren’t able to counter the information provided on the website (since, after all, it was true), they decided to try to shut him up by suing him.
These are only 3 examples of an unfortunately growing trend of groups who are either blinded by an ideology or who are making money be defrauding the public, and whose beliefs or practices do not hold up under the light of science, trying to prevent their lies and misinformation from being exposed. While these 3 particular cases involve defendants who are capable of defending themselves, many other scientists do not have the resources, profile or time to defend themselves against these sorts of attacks. Furthermore, even when they can, the considerable time spent on such a defense means more time they can’t be spending exposing other quacks and frauds.
These tactics must be exposed so the public can see them for what they are, and we, as a free society, need to ensure that our laws can’t be used to muzzle science or criticism.
Update: Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch lives on a retirement income and doesn’t on his own have the financial resources to mount a credible defense against a libel suit; he is accepting donations at http://www.quackwatch.com/00AboutQuackwatch/donations.html.