A version of this post initially appeared on the Times’ Eureka blog
The ballad of Simon Singh and his altercation with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has been told many times before (for example). What I want to focus on here is the way the case inspired scientists, skeptics and bloggers to become involved in a movement to change the law. Or, to put it another way, how libel reform ‘got its geek on’.
Why was it that, sitting in the pub last April, when someone joked about the idea of a calendar of geeks, the first response was “yep, it could raise money for libel!” When did libel reform become the charity of choice for UK science?
The BCA vs Singh case provided a clarion call for those who care about science to start worrying about libel. As Singh himself notes in Greg Foots’ great video, this is not the only time someone’s found talking about science can lands them in court. Indeed, a new story about Peter Wilmshurst broke just after I sent this to the Times.
In many ways, the English libel laws go against a certain ideal of science: a need for free and open debate. It is an ideal shared by much of journalism. In the words of the Times science reporter Hannah Devlin: “English libel laws are undermining the basic tenants of science: that there isn’t any question you can’t ask and there isn’t any hypothesis that can’t be challenged. It is important that we can do these things in journalism as well as in the practise of science”.
Perhaps then, it is no surprise that scientists and science writers are so worried about the issue. Groups such as Sense About Science and the Association of British Science Writers joined the campaign, the latter organising a debate about science journalism and libel law at City University last year (watch the video). Events like this helped promote feelings many in science and science writing felt already, got them talking to one another and helped to foster a sense of a movement.
There was also the work of intersecting ‘geek’ communities of skeptics and bloggers, both with their own history of commitment to ideals of free debate. As Ben Goldacre wrote last April, the scale of online activism during the BCA vs Singh case, often from skeptics, was “unprecedented”, a point echoed by Nick Cohen, proclaiming after a visit to a skeptics meeting that “the nerds are on the march”. Still, as David Allen Green says, we should maintain perspective. We shouldn’t reduce the story of BCA vs Singh to simply a triumph of the geeks, many other characters, groups and events played their role too.
For me, the key point is the way the libel reform movement has folded into the relationship between science and politics. In the run up to the 2010 election, it was noticeable how libel reform was often packaged alongside science issues. So much so, that when the Guardian asked each of the main parties questions relating to the ‘science vote’, they included libel but not education. That the Guardian should suffer what might be seen as somewhat of a lack of perspective here is testament to how important the cause has become to the UK scientific community.
When that pub idea of a Geek Calendar somehow became real and we held a photoshoot with Evan Harris in quad of the British Medical Association, he echoed the same comments he made in judging the Times’ Eureka 100, declaring Singh his “geek hero”. As Harris put it, Singh’s case has not only “turned geeks on to libel reform”, his articulate handling of the events has helped cultivate political expression in the UK scientific community. Indeed, Singh spoke alongside Harris at the recent Science is Vital rally.
That may be one of the legacies of ‘geekifying’ the libel reform movement. It is not just that scientists, technophiles and skeptics played a role in lobbying for change in the law, but that the campaign itself has played a role in the broader politicisation of UK science. Crucially, the libel reform movement demonstrates a politicisation of science that cares deeply about their work relates to the world outside the laboratory, and are ready to work with a range of people and institutions in trying to achieve its aims.
A lot has been made of what geeks have done for libel reform. Maybe in years to come we’ll also think of what libel reform gave the geeks. Either way, there’s still some distance to go yet.
A brief postscript on nomenclature: I’ve never really liked the word geek. I find it a bit affectatious. Still, it captures a range of characters well enough and many do self-identify using the term. As I tried to say in the Guardian last week, the recent ‘reclaiming’ of geek and nerd perhaps reflects a sense of 21st century celebration of niche interests, something I think is probably a good thing, or at least an inevitable part of social life in late modernity.