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Don’t settle science in court

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If one thing is clear, it is that robust discussion is essential when it comes to disputes about evidence. This is what makes us grown-up – this is what protects our patients.

I feel proud when I hear the rough and tumble of Prime Minister's Questions in parliamentary session on Wednesdays – our democracy can take the free-for-all.

I feel glad that we have Private Eye, rude and cynical and so often completely correct. We need to be able to poke fun, vigorously question, slate, annoy, demand and push for debate and talk and chide. Personal attack is not so good, but free speech is sacrosanct.

This is what makes our country great – this is the kind of Britain I want to live in. It is good for medicine and good for patients. We should not be hemmed in by fear about libelling someone and prevented from debating the data.

This is why doctors should be supporting Sense about Science's attempts to make good the poor libel laws in the UK.

Most doctors are likely to have heard of Simon Singh's travails after the British Chiropractic Association attempted to sue him for libel, or when cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst was threatened with libel after speaking out about trial data of a heart device.

Then there is plastic surgeon Mrs Dalia Nield, who contested claims about ‘Boob Job' cream, and the Burzynski Clinic, which threatened bloggers who wanted to dispute their claims about antineoplastin treatments for cancer.

And now a new possible libel action is looming after a long-running dispute between a private GP and a scientist, over their differing views on the evidence base for the therapies the GP was offering to patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.

GPs are often the first contact for people who have read about miracle cures.

It's part of our job to help people reach good decisions about their health – and as the internet becomes our debating ground, it's essential that doctors can freely talk about the shortcomings and problems with evidence.

It would be even better if patients – or potential patients – could read these debates for themselves, and that's only possible if we are unafraid of being sued just because we disagree.

The Defamation Bill is currently going through the House of Commons. While it has cross-parliamentary support, there is substantive concern that as it stands, it will be ineffective where it counts.

I support Sense about Science's efforts to make the bill effective, and would urge GPs to consider supporting them. We need freedom to call out for evidence, and we need to be assured that debate will not end with a demand for libel damages.

It's clear that in the UK, defamation proceedings cost more than in other European countries.

As it stands, patients lose out when their doctors cannot openly challenge and debate matters of evidence.

The court is not the place to settle science. Everywhere else is.

Dr Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow

Readers' comments (6)

  • Mark Struthers

    "The court is not the place to settle science", says Dr McCartney. And she's absolutely right. But is Margaret aware that courts, juries and judges are deciding on murder or otherwise, when the science has not been settled?

    Now I’ll tell you a story of Vitamin D and the power of those dangerously negligent doctors who still roam the streets of London. It concerns a 16 year old girl with a dark skin who lives in London. She has a baby by her 19 year old, dark skinned boyfriend – who is overjoyed to be a father despite his youth. The girl breast feeds her child. The baby becomes unwell; the couple take him to the GP who refers them to hospital. They go on the bus. The baby is admitted to their local London hospital, deteriorates and is transferred to the intensive care unit at GOSH where he dies. The young parents are not allowed to be with their child because the doctors had diagnosed deliberate abuse by parents. A post-mortem exam revealed rickets. Two years later the young couple were up at the Old Bailey defending a murder charge.

    There were 60 medical experts present as witnesses. No doctor really knew why the child died, but a jury was expected to decide on murder beyond reasonable doubt, or otherwise. After six weeks the trial was called off. Judge Stephen Kramer QC told the jury: “There is insufficient evidence for you to be asked to continue.” The trial probably cost the taxpayer around £3 million, though the financial is a small part of the true cost.

    http://www.standard.co.uk/news/parents-cleared-of-murder-as-shaken-baby-trial-collapses-6377071.html

    Of course, this sort of "evidence-based" obscenity has now become routine,

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/4632198/Doubt-over-shaken-baby-theory-that-has-sent-dozens-of-parents-to-prison.html

    Anything to say, Margaret?

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  • Mark Struthers

    Margaret said,

    "And now a new possible libel action is looming after a long-running dispute between a private GP and a scientist, over their differing views on the evidence base for the therapies the GP was offering to patients with chronic fatigue syndrome."

    Margaret: as a GP, how would you feel if you were called a ‘deluded, pill-peddling quack’ in an online forum? What if a complaint was then made to the GMC by the same "scientist" whose forum signature was,

    “Those who live in glass houses should masturbate in the basement”

    You wouldn't like it would you, Margaret? You would probably deny the perpetrator further free expression of speech on your blog. You might block them on Twitter too.

    Here's the story of "scientist" Stuart Jones (aka 'Jonas' on Ben Goldacre BS forum) ...

    http://www.meassociation.org.uk/?p=9879

    .... and the comeuppance he got.

    BTW, what do you offer patients with CFS?

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  • Mark Struthers

    "The court is not the place to settle science", says Dr McCartney. Too true, Margaret! But the state has decided that the rights and wrongs of Shaken Baby science will be sorted out in court ... with agonising results.

    http://bit.ly/UjYkR3

    "A young couple who were in effect tried and cleared twice of shaking their baby son to death called last night for an inquiry into their ‘agonising’ treatment at the hands of social services, the NHS and the police. Rohan Wray and Chana Al-Alas were accused of killing four-month-old Jayden, who died of severe head injuries. While awaiting trial, they lost custody of the little boy’s younger sister, Jayda."

    and,

    "Mr Wray said: ‘We feel we were treated very poorly by the state authorities involved in investigating our case. We were viewed as guilty from the outset. ‘They went down the line that we had done this to our son by shaking him. ‘If the doctors had found the rickets problem, we feel our son could still be alive today. But our agony at losing Jayden was exacerbated when we were accused of killing him.’ Police refused to let the couple or their family attend Jayden’s christening, which they requested before his life support machine was switched off. They were not allowed into the paediatric intensive care ward to see him when he died. But the parents said the most heartbreaking moment of their ordeal was when their newborn daughter was taken from them."

    This young couple's experience provides damning evidence of the dreadful state we're in. Any thoughts, Margaret?


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  • Mark Struthers

    The "scientist" who defamed the private GP is now being sued for libel. Stuart Jones (aka Jonas), a "scientist" employed by the Queens Hospital in Romford, called the GP a "deluded, pill-peddling quack" in an online forum hosted by Ben Goldacre.

    hhttp://bit.ly/VocnXc

    Of course, the court is not the place to settle science. But it is the place to deal with "scientists". Is it possible that Dr McCartney would agree with that?

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  • Mark Struthers

    As a result of the accusations, Andrew Wakefield lost professional relationships, funding for his research, his good name, his job and his country.

    http://youtu.be/EMArUYLfXYU

    Brian Deer said,

    "If it is true that Andrew Wakefield is not guilty as charged, he has the remedy of bringing a libel action against myself, against the Sunday Times of London, against the British Medical Journal," etc, etc ...

    Dr McCartney is absolutely right; the court is not the place to settle science. But as Brian Deer readily admits, the court is the right place to settle a libel action. The court is the place to deal with defamatory accusations that damaged both Andrew Wakefield and vaccine damaged children ... and broke up the path of honest science.

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  • Mark Struthers

    Of course, science is about the truth. However, the right decision in the court often depends on whether powerful doctors are prepared to tell the truth.

    Here’s another reminder that “medical experts” still get it dreadfully wrong.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/woman/real_life/4593440/Father-who-overturned-Shaken-Baby-conviction-fears-family-life-ruined.html P

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