The XX Factor

Anti-Vaccers Import a British Silencing Tactic

KJ , your post on Barbara Loe Fisher’s lawsuit against Amy Wallace and Dr. Paul Offit sent chills down my spine. That’s because various quacks and medical charlatans have been using libel lawsuits in order to intimidate and silence critics for years now in England. Since they don’t have the facts on their side, they have no other choice but to use the threat of financial ruin to shut down those who do have the facts. It’s quite a bit like the way that creationists in the United States try to shut down presentations of evolutionary theory in biology classes in public schools, either through direct censorship or by making it so miserable to teach it that schools give up altogether. But since the United States has a higher standard of proof for libel than the U.K., I honestly never thought that the tactic of silencing critics through legal harassment would take off. It seems Fisher is floating a test case that, if successful, could have huge ramifications for proponents of science-based medicine and therefore huge effects on the public health.

Some background is available on a recent Skepchick podcast about the way that the pro-science, pro-skepticism movement has helped kickstart an effort aimed at libel law reform in England. The Coalition for Libel Reform has documented many cases in which England’s overly loose libel laws have been used to silence journalists and activists-journalists have suffered expensive, atrocious lawsuits for exposing organized crime, terrorism funding, and the backstory behind the Rwandan genocide. But for our purposes, what’s interesting is how pro-science activists and journalists have suffered an intimidation campaign through the courts to prevent them from speaking out about various suspicious medical claims. Simon Singh is still battling an expensive libel case against him because he aggressively questioned chiropractors who claim they can cure various childhood illnesses, and Ben Goldacre and the Guardian faced a lawsuit from a supplement manufacturer because Goldacre wrote an article denouncing the manufacturer for claiming AIDS drugs don’t work but his supplements do. The Guardian won the lawsuit, but the award of £200,000 falls well below the £500,000 they spent defending themselves.

Obviously, the idea behind these lawsuits is to make it prohibitively expensive to promote good science, particularly if it hits the pocketbooks of those promoting “alternative” medicine. But supposedly this tactic won’t work in the United States, which has a higher burden of proof for libel. That Fisher is trying it concerns me. I’m also unclear on what the anti-vaccination folks get out of this whole thing. In the lawsuits I mention above, there’s a clear financial incentive for chiropractors and supplement salesmen when it comes to silencing critics. But as far as I know, anti-vaccination proponents aren’t promoting some lucrative alternative. But that they’re adopting this tactic should set off a million alarm bells, knowing what we know about how this has shaken out in the U.K.

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.