Using legal threats against science

Ben Goldacre, who I cited a number of times, was sued years ago by a character whose business was threatened by Goldacre science-based criticism, a story he details in his blog: Matthias Rath drops his million pound legal case against me and the Guardian.

He was lucky to have the newspaper which publishes his column — The Guardian — on his side, willing to fight the legal battle he eventually won, but which cost the newspaper around a million pounds. Having won the case, the newspaper could go after the other party to recover their costs, but what individual can face this kind of expense on their own?

The chilling effects of such tactics are described on the blog post, and I quote a few examples: "When I attempted simply to write that the Dore miracle cure for dyslexia had not cured three people, we received several legal warning letters, delaying the piece by a month. An academic who dared to criticise the evidence base for the programme received a threatening legal letter delivered by hand to her home address. Gillian McKeith has made repeated legal threats against websites who have dared to discuss her work, and her lawyer husband has threatened an academic who suggested testing her ideas. She also has a legal case hanging over the Sun that has seen little movement in three years. When chiropractors had their practices challenged in the New Zealand Medical Journal they simply sent a threatening legal letter (“Let’s hear your evidence,” said the editorial in response, “not your legal muscle”). A herbal pill entrepreneur – and academic – had Professor David Colquhoun’s website removed from UCL servers after he dared to question her evidence. The Society of Homeopaths had a blogger silenced by threatening his web host."

And this is happening once again, in a very bizarre case.

A paper was published last year which demonstrated a connection between science denialism and beliefs in conspiracy theories, as well as, in the auhtors’ words, "an endorsement of a laissez-faire conception of free-market economics":
Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (2013). NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore,(Climate) Science Is a Hoax An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science. Psychological science, 24(5), 622-633.

They analyzed how, despite the endorsement of almost the totality of climatology scientists, anthropogenic climate change is denied by a number of bloggers, who display similarly bizzarre beliefs in conspiracy theories and share a similar political ideology.

Predictably enough, those same bloggers where outraged by the result of the research and included the study and its authors in their paranoid view of the world.

That, in turn, provided fodder for yet another article by the same group, which was submitted to another journal, peer reviewed and published. And then things became very weird.

Threatened by unspecified sources with legal action, the journal retracted the paper — not because it had any flaws, but because its "legal context is unclear." (sic)

This is a serious threat against science, and something that should give everyone with an interest in science and scientific publishing some pause.

Detailed information can be found in the following blog posts:

Climate of intimidation: "Frontiers" blunder on "Recursive Fury".

Journal pulls paper due to “legal context” created by climate contrarians.

Legal or privacy problems? Journal changes its tune on climate paper. (this is a follow-up on the previous post)

The journal that gave in to climate deniers’ intimidation. (this one is particularly interesting because it was posted by one of the reviewers of the paper, and has lots of inside info)

Despite being retracted, the paper can be downloaded from the main author’s university’s sever: Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.

Scientists have now to face denialists who are not contented just with spreading misinformation; they want to silence real science as well.


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