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Posts Tagged ‘libel’

Remember that time some legitimate cancer researchers threatened to sue a 17-year-old kid who questioned the scientific credibility of their medical claims?

No, me neither.

But, after Rhys Morgan posted to his blog about the Burzynski Clinic a couple of months ago, he started getting bizarre, abusive, bullying, creepy, and borderline illiterate correspondence from the same self-professed representative of the clinic who I blogged about recently.

Partly because of Rhys’s involvement, this is no longer just a story of specialist interest. There was a minor fuss being kicked up by the skeptics who follow these things, and people like Ben Goldacre were trying to get it some wider coverage, but it was still fairly localised. It’s not anymore. It’s been retweeted by the likes of @stephenfry and @serafinowicz. It’s on BoingBoing. Thanks to Marc Stephens’s efforts to browbeat people into silence with utterly baseless talk of libel lawsuits, the internet’s pricked up its ears. The internet doesn’t take kindly to this sort of thing.

I was going to talk about the analysis of Burzynski’s published research, and the clever people who have watched and dissected the weird propaganda movie about his clinic, explaining why the very limited data available is entirely insufficient to justify the grandiose claims being made about cancer treatment.

But I don’t think I even need to go there. Given the way they’ve behaved lately, I consider myself entirely unburdened of any onus to sift through the history of their claims in a search for validity.

The guy in charge of the Burzynski Patient Group’s Marketing & Sponsorship (or someone pretending to be him) sent multiple emails to a 17-year-old blogger, harassing him into deleting from the internet every pertinent comment or remark he’d made, threatening to file a libel suit against him (despite every indication that he’s not actually a lawyer), and attached to one email photos of Rhys’s own house taken from Google Maps.

That is creepy to the point of fuck you in the ear. There is no plausible reason for acting like Marc Stephens has done if he had any coherent legal point to make, let alone a shred of scientific standing. Nothing that’s come out of the Burzynski Clinic this week – heck, nothing I’ve seen any evidence of from the last thirty years – supports the idea that there’s anything legitimate or ethically sound about the way they operate. They’re acting like morally deranged maniacs.

There’s more at the Quackometer, the Twenty-First Floor, the Sceptical Letter Writer, and the Skeptical Nurse.

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A man named Dr Burzynski believes he can treat cancer through an entirely new form of therapy.

I don’t know if this is true, but other people have been trying to find out.

Orac has previously reported on some of the reasons why most physicians doubt that Burzynski’s method is as effective as he claims. The evidence supporting his claims appears to be mostly anecdotal, and the only results he’s published are ones which nobody else has yet been able to replicate.

When someone makes a world-changing assertion like this, good scientists will want it to be checked carefully to make sure there isn’t some mistake, before they accept that it’s true. This becomes an especially acute concern when, for instance, mainstream newspapers run full-page stories about a four-year-old girl with a rare and inoperable brain cancer, for whom a multiple-celebrity-endorsed fund has been set up to get her the help she needs.

This should not be a controversial opinion: When the parents of a young girl with cancer are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to make their daughter healthy, it is the profound responsibility of everyone involved to make sure that that money’s not going to be wasted.

Sadly, Andy Lewis thinks it might be.

Even sadlier, he’s being sent obnoxious and inane libel threats as a result of his trying to help.

Someone claiming to “represent” the Burzynski Clinic (although in what capacity is unclear, as he doesn’t seem to be a lawyer) has demanded that Andy stop “defaming and libeling” his client with “factually incorrect” information. Weirdly, he doesn’t want to say what the information is.

Andy wrote back a number of times, expressing every desire to correct and amend any such errors of fact he might have made, and asking exactly what part of the blogpost in question is at issue, pointing out that anyone wishing to sue for defamation will need to express the exact wording they find objectionable. The not-lawyer responded with more threats, and a continued lack of any specifics, as well as a number of phrases like “Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics [sic] days are numbered”, and “when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went [sic] up against 5 Grand Juries”, which are weird and unprofessional on several levels.

This apparent representative of Burzynski appears grammatically and legally incompetent, and has received the famed “misconceived and illiberal” label from Jack of Kent. And he’s sure as hell not improving the scientific credibility of this purportedly legitimate medical facility.

Andy Lewis wrote an article, because he was concerned about the welfare of a girl, whose parents have raised considerable funds from many generous sources, and whose proposed treatment is unproved by any scientific standard and has been undergoing “trials” (in which people can be enrolled for a vast fee) since 1977 with no significant progress in publishing positive results.

The Burzynski Clinic still aren’t publishing any results for peer review in a respectable journal. But they’re making legal threats toward people who are concerned by the lack of evidence for their grandiose claims. Andy sums up the problem with this approach:

Dr Burzynski presents himself as a man of science. But, I would say to him and his associates, a man of science would welcome critical appraisal, would publish all the data he has, and allow the world to come to conclusions based on how good that evidence is. A man of science would not threaten critics and try to silence them. That is a sure and certain way that you will end up harming patients.

Such actions are typically not those of someone concerned with scientific truth but of someone concerned with protecting a multi-million pound income stream.

I’d be surprised if Burzynski takes his advice. I think we’ve already got enough representative data of how this particular clinic operates.

Also worth reading: The Twenty-First Floor, and Josephine Jones.

Edit: Something I just saw before posting this. Keir Liddle points us toward a petition for the Burzynski clinic to release their trial data. It can only help the cause of truth and public health for them to do so. It can only obfuscate the truth, and protect a profitable business that’s failing to deliver on its claims, if they keep it hidden.

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You know that hideously embarrassing English libel law we’ve been trying to get changed, so that it has a slightly greater fighting chance of actually representing some semblance of justice?

Well, some people have been working on that.

In particular, a draft libel reform bill was published by the government today (PDF link). This will be discussed in parliament, and if all goes well then something like it will pass into law before too long, through methods too arcane and mystical to elaborate on any further here.

David Allen Green’s initial thoughts on the draft bill are encouraging. It’s still just another step on a long road, but a number of the suggestions made by the libel reform campaign are being taken seriously.

And, because I’m not really in the mood for being creative or evocative about legal arguments right now, let’s talk about sex.

You should really be reading The Pervocracy, unless sex just doesn’t interest you, or there’s someone in your life who monitors your internet habits closely and has no sense of fun. This latest post is another good one, about the inherent ambiguity in talking about sex while refusing to actually talk about sex:

You can’t be afraid to ask for what you really mean, and you also can’t be afraid to agree to what you really mean. People who agree to the platinum record, tee hee, nudge nudge, but balk at the explicit mention of sex, but really do want to have sex, are also a big part of the problem here. In a world where saying you want to have sex is a taboo that makes men creepy and women slutty, people have to speak in oblique hints – and not everyone can take a hint.

For reference, anyone who wants to have sex with me should stick with the oblique hints, but make sure they consist primarily of R Kelly lyrics. It’s the only language I understand.

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This might not be the only place you see the following message cropping up. It’s a coordinated thing, and it really is saying something important. It’s in everyone’s interest to establish a good libel law which actually defends people against being wronged, without being open to abuse.

If you happen to be against the idea of having years of your life derailed by legal proceedings that will cost you more than everything you own, simply because you said something true which someone rich didn’t like, then please sign the petition at the link below.


This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

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The British Chiropractic Association happily promotes bogus treatments.

This morning, one of Simon Singh’s lawyers posted this notice:

The BCA today served a Notice of Discontinuance bringing to an end its ill-fated libel claim against Dr Simon Singh arising out of criticisms he made of its promotion of treatments for childhood ailments.

It’s over. He fucking did it.

Of course, it’s not over over. There’ll no doubt be a certain amount of wrangling about costs yet to get sorted out, but Simon should end up being largely reimbursed for his expenses. The best guess seems to be that he’ll still end up around £20,000 out of pocket, though, not to mention the loss of earnings over the past two years.

And, of course, he’s not the only one to have been screwed over by the sorry state of England’s libel laws. The need for reform is as pronounced as ever, and there’s no better time to join the 50,000 people who have already signed the petition to make it happen.

But, still. He fucking did it.

I’ll be directing you to other, more newsworthy news sources now.

Jack of Kent broke the news, to me at least, and highlights a comment about the relevant civil procedure regarding liability for costs. It bodes well for Simon. He also has some thoughts on the overall significance of this result.

Le Canard Noir has posted what looks like a great analysis at The Quackometer, which I plan to read in full when my brain’s working better.

Sense About Science rounds up some opinions well also.

BBC News got on this pretty quickly, with an interview with Simon. They also link to a statement from the BCA (PDF link), which doesn’t really say anything unexpected or do much to alter their position.

The Guardian are on this too, with some interesting remarks from his legal team. Padraig Ready also has things to say.

And, perhaps most wonderfully of all, the original article is back up on their website. They lost no time in returning it to full view. Published back in 2008’s Chiropractic Awareness Week, almost two years ago to the day, “Beware the spinal trap” is still worth another read. Well done, Simon.

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The British Chiropractic Association happily promotes bogus treatments.

The angry godless diatribe has been postponed once again, in favour of an evening watching the first Steven Soderbergh movie I think I ever actually enjoyed, and finding time to write a quick update on Simon Singh’s libel case.

Last year, the preliminary ruling on meaning did not go well for Simon. Mr Justice Eady ruled that his article discussing chiropractic therapy, which was published in the Guardian, should be classified as a “statement” of fact, not an expression of opinion.

It was also determined that, by declaring that the British Chiropractic Association “happily promotes bogus treatments“, Simon was attributing deliberate dishonesty to the BCA. The position he would have to defend, if he continued to fight the libel charge, was that the BCA were knowingly and dishonestly peddling ineffective medical treatments, even though this wasn’t something he’d meant his article to accuse them of.

That there is “not a jot” of evidence supporting certain claims, such as those regarding spinal manipulation as an effective treatment for infant colic, is entirely supported by the scientific data. Since these are claims that the BCA publicly made, Simon wanted to contribute to this public conversation, and help add to the general public understanding as to the state of affairs regarding these claims.

He requested permission to appeal this ruling on the meaning of his words; was denied it; requested permission to appeal that; was granted it; won the right to appeal; and, this morning, the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Eady’s original ruling. Simon’s claims were ruled, by the Lord Chief Justice, to be “a statement of opinion, and one backed by reasons”, allowing him to pursue a defence of “fair comment”.

So, they still have to argue the actual, y’know, case. But the tide has turned dramatically on where the goalposts are placed. Today was one step of many on a long and costly road, but it was a fantastic result, worth celebrating and rallying around.

Here’s what some cleverer people have had to say about it.

Index on Censorship, who also have a statement from Simon himself. He points out:

It is ridiculous that it has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a handful of words… I am still angry that libel is so horrendously expensive. That is just one of the reasons why the battle for libel reform must continue.

Jack of Kent was there, and highlights some of the more interesting aspects of the ruling, ahead of a full report to come this weekend. In particular:

Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation.

Yep.

The JREF rather overreacted – the hard part is still very much to come, I feel. Certainly for libel reform more generally, and probably for Simon’s own case too. But they did bring balloons.

Speaking of which, sign the petition here if you haven’t already. We really need this. I’m going to bed. No connection between those two things. Just didn’t feel like starting a new paragraph.

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– The Amateur Scientist’s Fat Jesus art contest is just the awesomest thing since the last totally awesome thing. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this idea before, it’s so brilliant. Rebecca Watson’s winning, obviously.

– Remember those leaked emails that revealed how all this global warming malarkey was just one big massive hoax conspiracy by dastardly scientists in the pocket of Big Weather? Yeah, not so much. The UK’s Parliamentary Science & Technology Committee have released their report, detailing the findings of their investigation into the “scandal”, and have found “no reason… to challenge the scientific consensus” of anthropogenic climate change. The scary-sounding talk of using a “trick” and “hiding the decline” was people being casual with the language, using colloquial terms that might sound incendiary when removed from all context, and there was no evidence of systematic fraud of any kind. So, shush now. (H/T to PZ.)

– … You know, when I decided to do a quick link round-up and save my latest scathing anti-theistic rant until tomorrow, I was sure I had more than two links to talk about.

– Actually, Jack of Kent is providing some interesting commentary again. The House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee, which is apparently a thing we have in this country, voted yesterday on a reduction of what are called “conditional fee arrangements” (or CFAs), which (if I’m getting this right) are the bonuses to their fees that lawyers can claim in certain types of “no win, no fee” cases. Mr of Kent is very much in favour of the proposed reduction in CFA uplift, but it was blocked yesterday by a number of MPs, including Tom Watson. Mr Watson has today explained his decision to oppose this particular change, while supporting a reform of the libel laws in general. It seems well thought out and articulate, and I do tend to find it encouraging when people expend this much thought and effort on important decisions.

Jack of Kent is not impressed, however. Specifically, he finds Mr Watson’s claim that the proposed change “could significantly reduce the chances of people receiving justice” to be entirely without supporting evidence. Even though I have only a tenuous grasp of what’s going on, I’m actually quite enjoying all this. Watching these discussions happen on Twitter in real time is sort of like a soap opera, only interesting.

And amidst all this, and with Simon Singh’s big decision tomorrow morning, there’s no better time to sign the libel reform petition, wherever in the world you might be. This is one of those things to actually give a shit about, people.

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