Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Watch What You Say

Excellent article by Olivia Judson in the NYT about how British libel law impacts science journalism. A British science journalist is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for writing that the association “happily promotes bogus treatments.” A judge has ruled that the author’s use of the word “bogus” implied that the members of the BCA were not only promoting ineffective treatments, but treatments that they know are ineffective. And that’s a statement of fact that might be libelous.

The case illustrates a clash between important principles. On the one hand, it’s important to get the word out to the gullible public that they are being taken in by ineffective products, including — indeed, especially including — medical products. I am frequently amazed at how people (including otherwise intelligent people) can fall for things such as those “homeopathic” products in which the allegedly effective ingredient has been diluted to the point where there is not likely to be even a single molecule of it left in the medicine the patient is supposed to take. It’s important to educate the public about such things. (Magician James Randi has dedicated decades to this effort.)

On the other hand, even a thief can complain if he is wrongly charged as a burglar. (Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).) If people are promoting products that they honestly, but mistakenly, believe to be effective, it does seem libelous (although I’m not expert in libel law) to assert that they are deliberately engaging in fraud.

My snap judgment on this case is that the problem lies not so much in the rule as in its application. I would say the judge erred in determining that the word “bogus” necessarily implies that the author is accusing chiropractors of deliberate fraud. To me, the word “bogus” implies only that the treatments in question (and the article wasn’t a blanket condemnation of all chiropractic treatment, but only of claims that such treatment can cure certain, specified conditions) were in fact ineffective, whether or not the doctors performing them thought so. Indeed, in the context of the full paragraph, it seems that the word “bogus” might have meant even less — only that the value of the treatments was unsupported by evidence.

According to the OED, “bogus” means “Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham.” I don’t see the necessary implication that people promoting bogus things know that they are bogus. So without reaching the question of whether free speech trumps libel law in this kind of situation I think I would have determined that the critical sentence wasn’t as fraught with meaning as the judge thought.

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