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Don’t settle science in court

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