Dr Simon Singh
Simon Singh is a best selling science writer with a PhD in particle physics. His written works include ‘The Code Book,’ ‘Trick Or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial,’ ‘The Big Bang’ and ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’ The latter was turned into a BAFTA winning documentary which he also directed. Simon is a prominent figure in the skeptical scene and campaigns for changes to the libel laws in Great Britain. His new book about the mathematics in The Simpsons is out now.
I think it’s a real tragedy at the moment that we don’t have enough science teachers.
On getting started in science
Gosh, I mean I’ve just always been interested in science. My background, as a family we weren’t particularly interested in literature or music, not even nature necessarily in that sort of biology sense, but I was interested in the Universe, I was interested in atoms. I can’t understand how everybody doesn’t want to know where the Universe came from and what the Universe is made of and all those kind of fundamental questions, and others have said this before that this is a childish curiosity that scientists don’t grow out of, so I always wanted to continue answering those questions. So I did a degree in physics, I did a PhD in physics and when I completed my PhD in physics I could see that there were other people who were a bit quicker and a bit brighter and a bit smarter than me and a bit more determined even. And so, I then left science, and I thought well then the next best thing to being a scientist is writing about science and that’s what I’ve done.
On inspiring scientists
So I grew up, ah, I was five when the first man landed on the moon. So I grew up in this era of astronauts journeying through space, I grew up in the era of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and Magnus Pyke and James Burke, um, telly boffins who made science interesting. And teachers of course, you know I think it’s a real tragedy at the moment that we don’t have enough science teachers, we don’t have enough people that are qualified in physics and chemistry in particular to inspire the next generation of scientists because it’s only if you have a real love of science that you can begin to really pass that on. You know, God bless all those other science teachers that don’t have science backgrounds because, without them we’d be really stuck, but ideally you want scientists bringing up that next generation of scientists, that, that’s certainly what worked for me.
But who do I admire most in the history of science? Hmm, ah gosh I suppose everybody, everybody ends up saying Einstein and I guess I kind of have to say the same. He is an iconic scientist and I think maybe what’s most impressive about what he did was he had this interesting interplay between experiment and theory, you know, somebody comes up with an experiment, they get an odd result and a new theory emerges; and Einstein was developing theories, kind of out of thin air – that’s a slightly naive way of putting it – but when he developed special relativity, um, it wasn’t really possible to test it, other than doing thought experiments, and when he came up with the idea of general relativity this was even more mind blowing and there was no real way of testing it. I think he came up with general relativity in 1915 and it wasn’t until 1919 that um, the measurement of the eclipse, that Sir Arthur Eddington was able to prove that Einstein was right.
On Singh vs BCA
So, I’d written this book about alternative_medicine, Trick or Treatment, with Professor Edzard Ernst and when you write a book you want people to read it so I’m really keen, having written a book to go out and do interviews, to go out and do lectures, to write articles, to let people know the book exists. For me that’s the purpose of writing a book is to get people to read it. And one of the articles I wrote just after the book was published was about chiropractic. It happened to be the British Chiropractic Association’s chiropractic awareness week and so I thought, right, they’ve got an awareness week for chiropractic that’s a really good opportunity for me to write an article about chiropractic. I published it in The Guardian which is great, you know, big readership, a good opportunity to educate the public about chiropractic and the article said three things.
It’s not very good for your back. On the other hand nobody’s very good at treating your back so, you know, fair do’s to chiropractors because they’ve got something to offer but it’s nothing magical. Secondly, there are some dangers, so maybe that’s why I would advise somebody to go and not visit a chiropractor because there’s probably more risks with a chiropractor than with a physiotherapist or other possible interventions. And thirdly I said there are some things that chiropractors do that lack evidence completely in particularly in relation to treating children for asthma and colic. These are big claims. They don’t have the evidence to back it up. To me, this article seemed incredibly, um, just full of things that were obvious.
I ran it past Edzard and, you know, if he or I ever wrote anything we’d always run it past each other to see if there was something to be added or anything corrected. He saw nothing wrong with it. The editor, the comment editor at The Guardian saw nothing wrong with it and the sub editor saw nothing wrong with it. The legal person on their desk saw nothing wrong with it and yet a month later, this was April 2008, in late May 2008 I think, I got a letter from solicitors saying that the BCA, the British Chiropractic Association, were very unhappy with what I’d written to say the very least and they were threatening me with a libel action. And I just couldn’t, I remember sitting on the steps near the front door thinking, ‘What does this thing mean?’ And I went back and looked through the article, trying to understand what the problem was and that was the start of what then turned into a libel action. The libel action formally started in September 2008, that’s when they filed proceedings and at this stage I still thought, ‘This is just gonna go away. They can’t be serious.’ And if I make it clear I’m a defendant, I was being sued personally I should say.
In libel you can sue the publisher, you can sue even possibly the distributor, you can sue the author, lots of people you can sue. You can sue the online host if your article is online but they were going for me personally and I just assumed once they realised I wasn’t going to back down they would, they’d understand this was a fight that wasn’t worth having. But I didn’t back down and they didn’t back down either and then before you know it you’re in the High Court. So that was probably May 2009.
So cut a long story, a very, very, very long story short, the case went on for two years and for a lot of that time it looked like I was going to lose because English libel law is very, very heavily stacked against the defendant, the author. And this is for historical reasons. I think it’s always been thought in Britain that a gentleman’s reputation is paramount and anyone who dares besmirch that reputation should have to climb over the highest hurdles possible so it’s really, really tough to defend any libel action. So much so that companies who want to silence their critics can just issue libel threats and then people will just back down because they know it’s a tough fight to win. And if you lose in libel not only will you have to pay damages, which may be a few thousand pounds, but you have to pay the legal fees which can literally be a few million pounds. And so even worse than being threatened with libel you have this thing called the libel chill, whereby you don’t even put pen to paper for fear of being sued for libel.
So my case ended in 2010, took two years, but that was the start of another battle which has been going on for three years which is the battle to reform libel law so that we have a fairer law in England. I should say England and Wales. Today, it is April the 14th 2013, in two days time the Defamation Bill will be discussed in the House of Commons and I’m hoping that after that debate, which is really going to be the final debate to lock down what the contents of this bill will be, that we will have a fairer defamation law. (As of April 23rd 2013 the Bill has passed the House of Lords so we kind of do…)
Thanks to scientists, doctors, human rights groups, bloggers, skeptics, rationalists, Which? magazine, Mumsnet, all of these groups have been campaigning for fairer libel law and in 48 hours I hope we’ll have it! (We did).
On how libel laws effect science
So science is all about developing new ideas and it’s about challenging old ideas and in that challenging of ideas there can be people who take offence. So with cases of somebody – when I say science, I also mean technology – so we have a lie detector developed in Israel which is criticised by a linguist in Sweden and the lie detector company threatens a journal who published the criticism. We have a cardiologist, British cardiologist who criticises a heart device and the company making the heart device threatens the cardiologist. We have Ben Goldacre, science writer, criticising an HIV treatment based on vitamins, who’s sued by the person who sells the vitamins. So when scientists point out problems with products or technologies or ideas, they can often be threatened with libel.
One of the most bizarre cases I came across was, um a mathematician and a librarian, who criticised the way impact factors are sometimes massaged, and an impact factor tells you how much impact a journal has and as a librarian you might pick the journals you stock based on the impact factors. So they wrote an academic journal, an academic paper about impact factors in journals they couldn’t get it published for fear of libel, because those journals that may be guilty of massaging their impact factor might take offence and bring out a legal action. So science is concerned with libel actions that are chilling the free speech in science, that are closing down debates and um, I could just go on forever; Nature was sued for libel a couple of years ago in a case that went on for years and so on and so on and so on.
So scientists have been at the forefront of the campaign to reform libel laws. Sense About Science is charity that’s been at the forefront, working alongside Index of Censorship and English Pen, and the Defamation Bill is about balancing free speech ad right to reputation in many ways, for human rights groups and for citizen journalists and for bloggers and for local newspapers and everybody, but scientists I think in particular are keen to have a fairer libel law.