I’ve been a big supporter of the movement to change libel law in the UK, where the burden of proof is unfairly placed on the defendant. However, until it is changed, I see no reason why those defending science should be handicapped and unable to take advantage of it as the cranks have.
Now few pseudoscience movements have been as quick to try and exploit the law to silence their opposition as the anti-vaccine movement. Their prophet Andrew Wakefield tried to censor his opposition in 2004 by suing Journalist Brian Deer for a documentary he made exposing the truth about vaccines. And just two months ago, Barbara Loe Fisher issued a libel suit collectively against Journalist Amy Wallace, Dr. Paul Offit, and Conde Nast in the U.S. simply over Wallace’s inclusion of a quote by Offit stating that Fisher “lies.” Of course, since her case is in the U.S. where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, in my opinion, Fisher doesn’t have a case and has only opened the door for the defense to dig into her past and freely introduce as evidence any number of instances where her statements did not line up with the facts.
But why do I bring this all up now? Because Age of Autism’s editor, Mark Blaxill was shamelessly given space in USA Today to spout his inane conspiracy theories about medical boogymen out to get our kids and had this to say about Richard Horton:
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, a memorable scene follows the protagonist (working at the satirically named Ministry of Truth) as he rewrites the news to erase a man’s life and work from history. That’s what Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, just attempted when he retracted a case series report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital from the scientific record. Horton should be ashamed of himself, and anyone who believes in the free and open discussion of controversial scientific questions should be concerned about what has happened to our civil discourse in the process.
There’s a lot of name-calling and misinformation swirling around this issue that should stop.
Of course you got to love how internally inconsistent Blaxill is, condemning all the “name-calling” in the very next paragraph after, you know, name-calling.
Now I could go on a rant where I point out how Blaxill abuses Orwell, ironically using the free press provided to him to spout his hysterical criticisms of Big Brother without fear of being disappeared in the night after being ratted out by his neighbor, but I’d rather stick to his potentially libelous accusation.
Now I personally do not consider this minor opinion piece as libel, and in the U.S., it would never hold up in court. However, Richard Horton is not a U.S. citizen. He’s from the UK, where Journalist Simon Singh literally lost the initial ruling in a libel suit against him simply because the judge chose to interpret his use of the word “bogus” as implying intentional deception even though no reputable dictionary associates deliberate deception with the word “bogus.”
So I have got to think that unambiguously calling the editor of one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world a deliberate, willful agent of misinformation in league with Big Brother is an actionable offense in the UK. It’s way worse and more explicit than calling chiropractic “bogus” within a lengthy article that exposes chiropractic to indeed not work. And unlike Singh, Blaxill clearly has a dog in this race. It’s in Blaxill’s best interests to promote a general distrust of any medical authority who disagrees with him, so that shows mens rea, the legal term for criminal intent. And the statement itself can be argued to constitute as actus reus, the legal term that refers to the actual criminal action. Together, theoretically, that’s sufficient for Horton’s attorney to prove a prima facie case, where the plaintiff has enough evidence to begin legal proceedings.
Just something to think about, Horton.
But before I end this piece, I’d like to take a minute to answer Blaxill’s challenge:
Anyone convinced that Wakefield is the problem should ask a simple question: Can you name a single instance of fraud or misconduct by Wakefield, describe it simply without deferring to the authority of some faceless tribunal and defend the evidence to an informed skeptic? You won’t succeed. Why? Because the evidence clearly shows there was neither fraud nor misconduct.
How about from Wakefield himself? He a good enough source for you?
Yeah, for future note, it’s never a good idea to tell a room full of total strangers about your medical misconduct. You never know who might be recording it to expose the bogus information provided by those trying to sweep your crimes under the rug.
And just for fun, here’s the complete GMC ruling on Wakefield, detailing his medical misconduct and here’s Brian Deer’s investigative report exposing Wakefield’s fraud.