Skeptics – Getting Under Their Skin
Steven Novella, Jan 25 2010
As the activist skeptical movement grows and increasingly networks, thanks largely to social media, we seem to be irritating those who are the targets of our critical analysis. This is a good thing. It’s a sign that we are doing our job and having an impact.
Recently there has been an increase in those attacking skeptics and skepticism. One tactic is to attempt to intimidate critics and silence public debate through libel lawsuits or the threat of such suits. The blustering by Bonnie Vent and her minions following Mark Edwards’ latest post is a good example. Clearly, they are not familiar with libel laws in the US, or they hope that we are not, or they simply don’t care.
To be clear, we take very seriously our responsibility to be fair and factually accurate, and we will happily correct mistakes if they are pointed out to us. The original version of Mark’s article contained the word “apparently” to refer to second-hand information. This was probably enough of a qualification, but we strengthened it to “allegedly” just to be sure, and even added the caveat about the original source. (Read the post for details.)
Fortunately in the US we have rational libel laws. In order to prove libel the plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant wrote something that was wrong, they knew it was wrong, and they did it deliberately out of malice. In some states you also have to prove harm, but a few have what is called “libel per se” which means that certain accusations are considered automatically damaging to one’s reputation.
On the other hand, some states also have anti-SLAPP laws – strategic lawsuit against public participation. In essence, if you use a libel suit to silence a critic and remove their right to participate in free speech, you may be counter sued under anti-SLAPP laws. The courts, in short, have recognized the threat that SLAPP suits pose to first amendment rights.
The Canadian Supreme Court recently recognized this as well, ruling in one case:
The Supreme Court said it examined laws in other countries with similar legal systems, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. It found that Canadian law was strict by comparison and did not give enough weight to the value of free expression.
“This, in turn, may have a chilling effect on what is published,” said the text of one of the rulings. “Information that is reliable and in the public’s interest to know may never see the light of day.”
Unfortunately, English libel law is still in the dark ages, as some of our colleagues across the pond have discovered. Simon Singh is currently defending a libel suit in British court against the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Apparently he stung them and made it hurt when he pointed out they promote treatments that are not supported by evidence. This resulted in a backlash against the BCA and a campaign to reform English libel laws.
Previously Ben Goldacre and The Guardian were the target of a libel suit from one Matthias Rath, for selling dubious treatments for serious illnesses, like AIDS, in Africa. Ben emerged victorious from this suit.
Back on this side, Robert Lancaster was threatened with suit by Sylvia Browne for his website, stopsylviabrowne.com. Robert refused to back down or be intimidated by Browne, who had not case against him. Unfortunately, Robert suffered a stroke and during his recovery period it appears that the registration for the domain name lapsed and the url was picked up by a psychic promoter.
Paul Offit and Amy Wallace from Wired Magazine have also recently been sued by anti-vaccinationist Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). This one is over the claim by Offit printed in Wired Magazine that “she lies” – referring to Fisher. If it actually gets to court it is likely, in my opinion, that Offit will be able to demonstrate that Fisher has made comments that are less than truthful. But usually in such cases the point of the suit is not to defend it in court, but simply to force a settlement.
Threat of libel is not the only way that the cranks of the world are trying to fight back against skeptics. They are also trying to take us on in their own critical writing, which of course they have the right to do. But just like with the libel suits, this strategy has been backfiring more often than not. It seems that if we irritate them enough, we can goad them into embarrassing themselves by trying to do something they clearly are not good at – critical analysis.
Recently Deepak Chopra, Rustom Roy, and Larry Dossey attacked Science-Based Medicine in the Huffington Post. Invariably such attempts butcher the skeptical position (always a marker of intellectual sloppiness) and just provide more fodder for us to criticize, and this was no exception. In the world of alternative medicine defenders on nonsense, like the three above, have an especially hard time because they do need to seem scientific while attacking science and defending pseudoscience. So it is easy to trip them up in self-contradiction. As David Gorski writes:
Dr. Dossey just spent two articles whining that his beloved CAM is being treated so very, very unfairly by promoters of science-based medicine, but from my viewpoint it’s being treated more than fairly these days; it’s being given a free pass, by and large. Again, that’s why I’ll repeat it one more time. If Dr. Dossey really wants CAM to be evaluated on a truly equal scientific footing with science-based medicine, I have one thing to say to him one last time:
Bring it on!
Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, has also felt the sting of skeptics and decided to fight back with his own rhetoric. In it he raises an army of particularly flimsy strawmen against skeptics, easily dismantled. He was joined by fellow natural guru Joseph Mercola, who attacked one of our Australian colleagues, Rachel Dunlop. Mercola’s comments were in such poor taste that his own followers flinched.
Speaking of which, the winner of the most callous, distasteful, and strategically moronic attack on skeptics of 2009 goes to the Age of Autism for their photoshopped picture of various critics of the anti-vaccine movement (including yours truly) eating a baby at Thanksgiving dinner. Even some of their devoted followers were put off by this despicable (and mysogynistic) display, and they quickly decided to take it down.
As the skeptical movement grows we will increasingly become the targets of counter-attacks like those I discuss above. Like it or not, we are engaged in conflict with the promoters of pseudoscience and an anti-scientific world view, and they will fight back. But we have shown in recent years that we can stick together and we will not be intimidated. Try to silence one of us, and the criticism will only be magnified 100 fold.
Bonnie Vent could have just taken Mark’s criticism and moved on, but instead she chose to try to have the criticism taken down, resorting to empty libel threats as an intimidation tactic. But all she has accomplished is to focus our attention on her all the more.
The BCA was soundly embarrassed by the attention they received as a consequence of their lawsuit. It even led to skeptical activists reporting instances of chiropractors making false claims, which in turn led to one chiropractic group advising their members to take down all claims on their websites (which seems like a curious admission that their claims do not hold up to scrutiny).
I am particularly amused when the purveyors of pseudoscience try to engage skeptics in critical analysis. That is our arena, and we will be happy to trounce them all day long. In fact, we want a serious discussion of logic and evidence – that is what skepticism is all about. If we can get them engaging us in such discussion that can only serve our ends. Even if they can demonstrate that they are correct about a claim – that is all we want, to base claims on logic and evidence.
More likely, however, we will get what Mike Adams served up – a frothing rant that is so disconnected from reality it accomplishes our work for us.
So keep it up, fellow skeptics. We are having an impact, and the cranks of the world are feeling the pain.