I made a documentary about science and libel for the BBC: here it is

December 8th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, legal chill, libel, podcast | 13 Comments »

Hi all, I made a documentary for the BBC World Service on libel and science. It’s really good, go and listen to it here:

www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009xbbw


It goes out live on the BBC World Service today (8 December) at 20:30 GMT; 9 December at 01:30; and 11 Dec at 13:30.

There’s a piece about it here on CiF:

www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/08/science-libel-laws-mutual-criticism

And here at Index on Censorship:

www.indexoncensorship.org/2010/12/science-libel-law-ben-goldacre/

I did it with Rami Tzabar, exec producer for BBC Radio Science and I think the best person I’ve ever worked with. We also did a two-parter together called the Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists in 2008 which won a prize (and made some pill-peddlers have a tantrum). You can read about it here or better still listen to them, here:

www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/lifestyle_nutritionists_2progs.shtml

And lastly, if you’re in the mood for listening to even more of my girly radio voice, here’s this two-parter on the Placebo effect

www.badscience.net/2008/08/my-placebo-programme-on-bbc-radio-4/

And lots more audio and video here:

www.badscience.net/category/podcast/

Trala.


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If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

13 Responses



  1. howler said,

    December 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    The first link is broken.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Fixed!

  3. collapsibletank said,

    December 8, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    I am curious about this. Scientific criticism should not have a special status – and it need not have it. Scientific criticism, if it is good science, cannot BE libellous because it is stating facts with clearly identifiable confidence intervals and setting criteria. Any other criticism would similarly not be libellous.

    Libel is groundless mudslinging I think. Good science is not that.

    ??

  4. smithers said,

    December 8, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    I don’t think anyone’s asking for special status. Presumably the concern is that the threat of a libel action, with the attendant expense and stress for the scientist defending it, can be used to surpress inconvenient criticism.

  5. smithers said,

    December 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Top link still don’t work :(

  6. Jan Henderson said,

    December 9, 2010 at 5:43 am

    I was wondering what you thought of the Lancet’s comment in their “Truth about Science” editorial that “a culture of scepticism about science reporting has been promoted by Ben Goldacre and others … Although scepticism is often healthy, there is a danger that too sharp a focus on examples of poor reporting will sap confidence in scientific and clinical research.”

    What prompted that?

  7. MrNick said,

    December 9, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I caught the 01:30 broadcast and thought it very good.

    collapsibletank:
    I think that you are missing the point. The libel laws in this country mean that if someone has more money than you do and for whatever reason decide that they want to shut you up they can start a libel action and you have little defense. You are forced to roll over or risk everything, sometimes both.

    Nick

  8. Mitton said,

    December 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    It seems to me that the problem is not whether what you say is libellous or easily provable. It is that in either case you can be bankrupted and have your life ruined.

  9. BKsea said,

    December 10, 2010 at 12:54 am

    I think you are right to defend an honest exchange of scientific opinion and that libel laws could use some tightening. However, I don’t think the NMT case is the best example. The impression I get is that the defendant stated that the company is acting with malfeacance by witholding data. This is not a statement of science. The fact that he is just a poor scientist does not make him any less culpable. He made his statement in front of a body of people who are the thought leaders for the entire customer base of the company. As such, there is a significant potential to cause harm. The subtext would be that this company cannot be trusted. (caveat: I don’t know the details of the case, but this is the impression I get from the story told here).

  10. iamjohn said,

    December 10, 2010 at 1:48 am

    I agree with the need for reform and Ben has again made the case well. I was trying to imagine what some of the negative consequences of such a reform would be though. Would it become possible for company x to question the safety of company y’s new drug with regard to asthma when there has been no direct research on the effects on asthma? In other words company x could damage the reputation of the drug and to then claim libel company y would have to prove no impact on asthma? It could well be that I’m just not familiar enough with the law and proposed reform but I suspect for all the good a reform would do, it could create some new loop-holes too.

  11. skyesteve said,

    December 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Jan Henderson said – “I was wondering what you thought of the Lancet’s comment in their “Truth about Science” editorial that “a culture of scepticism about science reporting has been promoted by Ben Goldacre and others … Although scepticism is often healthy, there is a danger that too sharp a focus on examples of poor reporting will sap confidence in scientific and clinical research.”
    What prompted that?”

    Probably the same crass, ignorant comment that a few weeks ago accused GP negotiators of the 2004 contract of being responsible for the deaths of patients. The editorial in The Lancet(Volume 376, number 9753, pages 1617 – 1710, November 13 – 19, 2010)said:

    “The government and civil service were not wholly to blame. Where was the medical profession? Doctors are supposed to feel an acute responsibility to deliver the best health service to the whole population. It is on this basis that they ask the public and government to support generous pay increases and terms and conditions of service. These attitudes and behaviours are what we commonly mean by professionalism. It seems that doctors failed completely to live up to the rhetoric of their commitment to professional values. Members of Hodge’s committee tried to find out why doctors had been so reluctant to address inequalities themselves. There are some simple and proven interventions that, if implemented evenly across the population, would go a long way to reduce inequalities in health—notably, smoking cessation and the treatment of high blood pressure and raised cholesterol. But doctors did not respond to the clear public and political call to take action on inequalities (and nor did the media). Instead, they sought to massively increase their salaries in a new general practitioner (GP) contract in 2005, one that itself was empty of commitment to reduce inequalities. People died because of this professional failure.
    The negotiators of that GP contract, together with the Department of Health, share a responsibility for those deaths”.

    If you want to see it in context here’s the full editorial:

    www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62078-8/fulltext

    They accuse GPs of basically ripping the NHS off. But if I’m not mistaken this was a contract they were offered by Government and which would have been imposed (without the out-of-hours opt out) even if the profession had rejected it.
    Moreover, to effectively accuse all GPs of not giving a damn about health inequalities and not busting a gut every working day trying address those inequalities is, in my view, a wholly inaccurate picture of primary care, at least here in Scotland, worthy of some gutter tabloid journalist – not the editor of the Lancet.
    Certainly if I was one of the BMA 2004 GP negotiating team I would be speaking now to a lawyer about possible defamation action as there’s no doubt in my mind this article besmirches the professional reputation of those negotiators. They have effectively accused the negotiators of killing people for goodness sake!

  12. matt_g_b said,

    December 12, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    This is a really good programme – but some numbers? You can’t make a case for libel reform, as a scientist, based on anecdotal evidence of a trend. (Yes I know – although it might be relatively straightforward to count cases come to court, counting solicitors’ letters and “oh I’d better not say that”s isn’t easy.)

  13. RoydeCosta said,

    February 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

    There is enough stifling happening online to know that a change is needed.

    For example, there was an interesting exchange on the Trainingzone site on an article discussing research on neuro-linguistic programming:

    www.trainingzone.co.uk/topic/nlp-scientific-paper-suggests-it-s-pseudoscience-should-be-mothballed/150548

    (the edited parts were saved here)
    sites.google.com/site/nlpandthreatsoflibelaction/

    When online magazines have to stop comments under articles because one party simply mentions libel laws, then there is a serious problem.

    I understand its a bit self defeating because its becoming more widely recognized as a tactic of pseudo-scientists. But still, in areas such as training and management, the open scientific debate is more important than ever; if only to sift dross from the daily spam and overload.

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