Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Simon Singh Round-up

Some accounts of yesterday's proceedings at the Court of Appeal from people who were actually there:

Jack of Kent gives a typically lucid summary of the legal arguments. He also notes the remarkable turn-out in support of the science writer:


There were the great and the good of the skeptic world: Wendy Grossman, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Evan Harris MP, and so on. The press bench was full, including Nick Cohen and Padraig Reidy; there were famous bloggers and activists, such as Crispian Jago and Alan Henness. And then there were dozens and dozens more, just coming in and crowding in at the back. The usher even found 'deck' chairs for people to sit in the side aisle, and one bench usually reserved for lawyers and clients was made over to the public.

It would normally take a major multiple murder trial, one lawyer told me, to have this many members of the public at a court hearing.

Simon Singh's QC had a relatively untroubled morning, it seems. By contrast, the BCA's lawyer was quickly tied up in linguistic knots. "It was becoming painful." JoK highlights - rightly, I think - this terrific quote from an American court decision brought up by Singh's counsel:

Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation...More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models-not larger awards of damages-mark the path toward superior understanding of the world around us.

JoK's conclusion: too early to predict the outcome. "Simon may still lose: the Court of Appeal could decide that even if the High Court ruling is incorrect, it is not so incorrect that they should disturb the judgment." But overall it was "a good day in court".

Crispian Jago relates his experience as "a court virgin" in characteristically vivid style:

Lord Chief Justice started off the afternoon by stating the he was buggered if he knew why the BCA didn’t just accept the Guardian’s right to reply instead of arsing around with a dumbass libel case that will end up costing some poor bastard a shitload of cash. At which point I would have given my football rattle a good spin, had I been allowed to bring it.

Very atmospheric - though the resemblance between the mild-mannered Simon Singh and Eighties icon Mr T is rather lost on me. CJ also mentions (as JoK does) that Simon's use of the word "happily" - which Mr Justice Eady claimed meant "knowingly" - seems to have been a major point of contention yesterday. Would "insouciantly" or "blithely" give the best sense of it? Evan Harris on Crispian's blog left this comment:

I was very pleased at how effectively the word "happily" was suggested should be interpreted as "blithely" or "insouciantly" rather than "knowingly or deceitfully". If the judges accept that then it does not matter whether they find that "bogus" was reasonable as it was defined by SS in his next paragraph and/or that "not a jot of evidence" is a reasonable way of asserting that "scientific enquiry concludes no evidence of therapeutic effect" or "no good/reliable evidence of benefit".


This doesn't surprise me. As I wrote last summer, "Happily, in the natural meaning of the adverb, need not mean deliberately and with "eyes open" - but, rather, the opposite."

Stephen Curry has a very full account of the morning session for the Nature Network. He even comments on the intertior decoration - "the court-room was a modern affair; light from a suspended ceiling illuminated magnolia walls and a pastel red carpet" - and is slightly disappointed by the wiglessness of the judges in their utilitarian new European-style gowns. In general, though, he was impressed:

What struck me from the very outset was the sheer strangeness of hearing science discussed in such detail in the unfamiliar surroundings of a courtroom.

No less striking was the air of professional courtesy that imbued the proceedings with an exceedingly civilised ambience. The judges were patient and polite, apologising on one occasion for having spoken to softly (Neuberger) and on another for having left part of the paperwork behind in his rooms (Judge). At several points they waited patiently, to allow Page the time to find her place in her notes. There was no arrogance or superiority, but a keen and tenacious interest...

Also surprising were the moments of levity that were sprinkled through the proceedings. At one point, where the interpretation of the article in the mind of the reader was being discussed, Sedley confessed to resisting the temptation to discuss Guardian readers as a subspecies of humanity!

I would go so far as to say that I have a newfound respect for the legal profession. It may be a scandal that the libel law of England and Wales permits such cases—where the issues are matters of science and public health that need to be fully and publicly debated—to be dragged through the courts. But I was re-assured on this morning’s evidence that, once in those courts, due and intelligent process is possible.

Padraig Reidy has a fairly straight report for Index on Censorship. He notes that Lord Judge said he was “troubled” by the “artificiality” of the case and also by its cost implications:

“At the end of this someone will pay an enormous amount of money, whether it be from Dr Singh’s funds or the funds of BCA subscribers.”

Finally, Simon Singh's own thoughts are relayed by Sense about Science. He thanked his supporters and expressed satisfaction with the day's events:

I am delighted the Court of Appeal has decided to reconsider the meaning of my article about chiropractic, and I am particularly glad that three such eminent judges will make the ruling. They grilled both sides on all aspects of the appeal. However I should stress that whatever the outcome there is still a long way to go in this libel case. It has been almost two years since t he article was published, and yet we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved.


With typical modesty and generosity, he asserted that the wider cause of libel reform was more important than his own case, and mentioned others - notably Peter Wilmshurst - whose livelihoods were threatened by potentially ruinous libel actions. "Please continue to spread the word about libel reform," he concluded.