Archive for Harassment

Christian Ott’s Resignation

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 2, 2017 by telescoper

I heard this morning an unconfirmed report that Christian Ott, the Caltech Professor who had previously been suspended for harassing two female students, and required to attend “rehabilitation”, had finally resigned from his position. Now I have found confirmation in the form of a news item and the following statement (from this source):

Ott

Ott was due to return from his suspension this summer, but instead he will remain off campus and leave the institution for good at the end of December this year.

When I posted about this episode last year, I wrote:

The first thing to say is that I find it very hard to believe that Ott will ever be able to return to his workplace after the revelations of his behaviour even if he does attend “rehabilitative training”. I very much doubt that the faculty or students would want him back. It surprises me that Caltech could even imagine that this is a realistic possibility.

It was never going to work, for all kinds of reasons, and Caltech should have realised that ages ago. I don’t, incidentally, think it’s fair to say his presence on campus would have been `divisive’. I think opinions at Caltech were pretty much united, based on the people I know there: they didn’t want him back.

It remains to be seen what Christian Ott does. I am not familiar with his work but he is, by all accounts, a talented scientist so he may well find a position at another institution. If he does, I hope, for his and for his future colleagues’ sake, that he has learned his lesson.

But it is not Christian Ott’s future that is the most important consideration. The two individuals involved in the case have had to put up with behaviour that simply shouldn’t have happened, and which should have been dealt with much more decisively before so much damage was done to the lives and careers of the young women involved.

This is a depressing story in many ways, but it seems clear to me likely that the Caltech management were afraid to dismiss Ott fearing a lawsuit and associated reputational damage. Unlike the equivalent posts in the UK, positions like Ott’s are fully tenured in the USA so a dismissal can potentially be challenged on a number of legal grounds, especially if such procedures that were in place were not properly followed. Of course it may also be that the procedures were inadequate anyway, which makes litigation even more likely to be successful. If these were the considerations that influenced Caltech’s decision, then I hope they now realise that they would in the long run have been far better advised to do the right thing, and weather any short-term storm.

The only proper reaction now for Caltech to this sorry business is to undertake a complete overhaul of the way it deals with harassment and related forms of misconduct. If done properly that might also help heal the scars this case has left. Not that Caltech is far from being the only institution with a problem in this regard…

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The Dangerous Myth of the “Great Man of Science”

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on October 18, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve waited quite a while before writing anything substantial about the Geoff Marcy case, partly because I was too angry to reflect properly and partly because this is something impossible to write about with raising some very unpleasant ghosts. The scandalous behaviour of Geoff Marcy – whose repeated sexual harassment of a number of female members of his Department went unchallenged by the University of California at Berkeley for fifteen years – resulted in a  slap on the wrist and a “don’t do it again” from the authorities followed by a badly misjudged email from the Head of the Department of Astronomy (where Marcy worked) which includes the following statement:

Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.

No. It just isn’t “hardest for Geoff”. It’s hardest for the women he harassed, some of whom had to wait 15 years for some semblance of justice. This comment displays a lack of compassion for Marcy’s victims. This not only compounds an already disgraceful episode, but also gives a very clear indication of an attitude that explains why nothing was done earlier. It’s hard to believe that nobody knew what Marcy was up to, but it seems he had powerful friends to protect him.

Subsequently, however, a majority of faculty in the Astronomy Department composed a strongly worded statement concluding that Marcy could no longer perform the functions of a faculty member. I suspect it was that, rather than the feeble actions of the University authorities that persuaded Marcy finally to resign. He should, of course, have been sacked forthwith. He has now gone, but the fallout from this episode will last a very long time. Hopefully out of the debris some good will emerge, not just for Astronomy at Berkeley – because this problem is by no means unique to that place – but for science as a whole. I’d love to believe that Geoff Marcy is an isolated example, but I’m afraid that just isn’t the case.

I think it’s important not to let this case slip from our collective memory before lessons can be learned – hot topics grow cold so quickly these days. So many things are desperately wrong about this case that it’s impossible to comment on all of them, so I’ll just pick up on a few and make some personal comments and hopefully some suggestions. I’m focussing on sexual harassment because of the Marcy case, but what I say applies equally to other forms of harassment (e.g. racially motivated or homophobic) and bullying in the workplace.

The first issue I want to raise is that of procedure. I wish harassment and bullying didn’t happen, but sadly they do. If all members of a University department (staff and students) are to work together in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect then there has to be some sort of code of conduct and a process for dealing with behaviour that is unacceptable under the code. But it is not enough for these to exist. Staff and students also have to be aware of their existence and also to believe that the disciplinary process will be enforced rigorously. I have no doubt that UCB has a code of conduct, but the process of enforcing it failed lamentably. It’s not hard to see why given the attitude of the Department Chair.

In my opinion as soon as an allegation of sexual harassment is made it should always be given to an independent person to investigate. By “independent” I mean from outside the Department concerned and preferably someone who has no direct personal knowledge of the individuals involved. That would at a stroke prevent pals of the perpetrator from closing ranks. This is what we do in my own institution, in fact. I’m not saying that there are no instances of sexual harassment here but I really don’t believe anything would be allowed to go on as long here as it did at UCB.

A properly enforced disciplinary procedure shouldn’t just protect the person making the complaint; it needs also to protect innocent individuals from malicious allegations. It must also realise that people do make mistakes. Who can say that they have never made any inappropriate remark in jest that may have inadvertently caused offence? I certainly can’t. Likewise it is possible simply to misread a situation, to misinterpret a remark or body language, or to take a straightforward comment as a flirtation of some sort. We’re all humans and we can’t read each other’s minds. I don’t think such errors need to go to a full disciplinary hearing; an informal warning should do for a first offence, as long as there is an apology. Repeated offences are a different matter. A first offence of sexual harassment of the kind committed by Geoff Marcy should at the very least have received a final written warning, followed by summary dismissal for any further offence. Any difference in seniority must also be taken into account. All cases of harassment are unacceptable but harassment of a student by a senior Professor takes “unacceptable” to an extreme.

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. Confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it must be ackowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

So far I’ve just talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

This hierarchy of power suits those – usually men – who style themselves as “Great Scientists”. These individuals generally flourish at the head of a team of students and postdocs, but take as much as credit as they can for themselves, often actively hindering the career prospects of junior collaborators. They usually bring in large amounts of grant funding or other awards and possibly even the prospect of a Nobel Prize. In this way they convince their employers that they are indispensible to their institution, which encourages the bosses to turn a blind eye to their transgressions. They may be flawed humans but they are perceived to be great scientists. They are untouchable. Power corrupts, but it’s also too easily acquired by those who are corrupt already.

In reality the only reason why such people may appear indispensible is that they have made themselves so by neglecting (or abusing) their responsibilities to junior staff and students by (for example) not allowing them opportunities to pursue their own research. I’ve many stories of this type of controlling behaviour, which usually results in postdocs and students being discarded or forced out of research for lack of wider experience.

The fact of the matter is that the “Great Man of Science” is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. I’m not saying that there are no great scientists (male or female). I am saying that the elevated status awarded to some eminent individuals is deeply unhealthy and can lead to abuse of power, as recent events have revealed all too clearly.  They are also an increasingly distorted reflection of how science actually works, which is more often than not through collaborations of equal but complementary efforts.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. On the other hand, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognising that there’s a problem.

P.S. For the record I’ll just state that I’m obviously not a “Great Man of Science”. Nor am I a great scientist. I’m not a great manager of people either. But I like to think that I’ve done my job as Head of School sufficiently well that I now consider myself entirely dispensible!

From Brighton Pride to Sussex Pride

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2014 by telescoper

Brighton Pride is coming up this weekend. I heard some people on the train the other day saying that they didn’t think such events were needed any more because “gays have everything they need, especially in Brighton”. Although I was tempted, I didn’t interrupt, though I did disagree. Things have indeed changed a lot over the last twenty years, but they could easily change back if we get complacent and Brighton has its fair share of intolerance and bigotry still.

I was myself beaten up on Brighton’s seafront many years ago, during my previous existence at the University of Sussex as a PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher. There was no doubt why I was attacked: the four young men who surrounded me and punched and kicked me to the ground were shouting just one word over and over again, “faggot”. It’s still a word I hate to hear used, even if purportedly in jest. That event left me with deep psychological scars that contributed to a breakdown I had as recently as two years ago.

Thirty or so years after my encounter with the queerbashers, attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students. Now we have equal marriage too.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and police attitudes not always helpful even though many police forces do now have Lesbian and Gay teams, something that was just unthinkable 25 years ago.

Although relatively few universities appear in the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall,  my experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  generally friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions. Universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. I’ve had plenty of experiences to back that up.

I recently took part in an interesting meeting involving various staff from the University of Sussex with a representative of Stonewall. The topic was how we could work with Stonewall to make it more gay-friendly. If I remember correctly, there are 78 UK Universities currently taking part in Stonewall’s programmes. It is a matter of some  embarrassment to me that the University of Sussex is not among them. Perhaps the attitude is that because there is such a large and visible gay population in Brighton it’s not necessary for the University of Sussex to take any steps in this direction. I disagree, and am absolutely convinced that there are many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender members of the University of Sussex staff who would love to see some action taken to make their workplace just a little bit friendlier and more inclusive, even if that just amounts to acknowledging their existence.  There is a visible and active LBGT student society on campus, but no such entity exists for staff – an absence that is truly glaring. I don’t even think the University has any idea what fraction of its staff identify themselves as LGBT.

No doubt there’ll be many members of the University of Sussex staff on the Pride Parade on Saturday and at the various parties being held around Brighton afterwards. Perhaps it’s time to start some sort of network so that for staff at the University of Sussex, Pride doesn’t just come once a year…?

If you’re interested in this idea please let me know, either through the comments box or by email.

Nom de Google?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 26, 2011 by telescoper

Google+ has arrived. So I’m told. It’s meant to be a rival to Facebook, I think, and it is described as “making sharing online more like sharing in real life”. Um.

Membership of Google+ is apparently by invitation only and, although I’ve received a few invitations, I haven’t taken the plunge yet. I’m not sure I ever will. I already waste so much time on Twitter and Facebook that I’ve scarcely got time to write my blog keep up with work.

Despite not actually being on Google+, I still feel the urge to comment on an issue that I’ve picked up via Twitter. And why not? Complete ignorance of subject matter has never stopped me from commenting on things before.

The problem, it seems, is that, unlike Twitter, Google+ does not allow users to hide behind a pseudonym. One influential blogger describes  Google’s policy as “gestapo-like”, “narrow-minded”, and “big brother” . Another suggests that it indicates that Google hates women. Both have been banned from Google+ for using aliases rather than their actual names. These and other reactions have developed into a fully-grown to-do accompanied by a not inconsiderable hoo-hah.

At the risk of being controversial, I have to say I think Google’s policy is actually quite reasonable.

There are of course many reasons why someone would want to use a nom de plume instead of their real name either on the net or elsewhere. I’ve done so myself, as a matter of fact (and I don’t mean the thin disguise I use on here, which simply demonstrates that I’m overly fond of anagrams).

The use of a pseudonym is by not illegal, neither does it imply some nefarious intent. However, I find it hard to understand the logic that removing the right to remain anonymous (or pseudonymous) is the violation of some fundamental human right.  I’ve blogged about this issue before, so won’t repeat myself here.

I also don’t understand the argument that allowing people to use Google+ incognito will do anything whatsoever to prevent harassment, stalking or bullying. The point is surely that allowing users to conceal their identity allows miscreants to do so too. Far better in my view to police misconduct by naming and shaming those responsible for abuse.

It’s an interesting coincidence that Sunday’s Observer carried a long feature about internet trolling which makes a persuasive case that the cloak of anonymity actively encourages obnoxious behaviour on the internet. People will say and do things when their identity is concealed that they wouldn’t dream of when out in the open. Allow pseudonyms on Google+ and it will be an even worse environment  for those likely to be victimised.

As another blog post explains, Google’s policy is not in any case based on it being some kind of public service, motivated by the ideals of free speech and mutual respect. It’s a business. The reason it wants people’s real names is so that it can target them with advertising.

My policy on this blog is a compromise. I allow commenters to post comments provided they give me a genuine email address. These addresses are not visible to the outside world but they reassure me that if the commenter engages in abuse or harassment then I can identify who they are and take action if necessary. I automatically check IP addresses too. I can tell you there would quite a few surprises if I revealed the identities of certain prominent individuals who have posted or attempted to post comments on this blog. In fact the biggest problem I have on here these days tends not to be abusive comments but spam; tedious automatically generated messages with links to dubious websites outnumber genuine comments by about 5 to 1.

But I digress. It seems to me that the main point is that nobody has to sign up for Google+. If you don’t like their anonymity policy then just don’t go there. Simples.

The F-word

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by telescoper

Once upon a time, a young man was walking home, alone, from a nightclub on Brighton’s seafront towards the house he shared with some friends. It was a warm summer night or, rather, morning, as it was about 3am. As he crossed King’s Road and began to walk up Preston Street, a group of four youths appeared from the direction of the West Pier, ran across the road and attacked him. He fought back, hitting one of them on the nose and drawing blood, but was soon overpowered and fell to the ground under a rain of fists. He was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the road, and soon lapsed into unconsciousness while the onslaught continued.

To this day he can’t remember how long this went on for, nor can he remember anything at all about the people who eventually came to his assistance. But he can remember the word that was being shouted continually as he was systematically beaten. The word was FAGGOT.

This was 1989, and the young man was me. At the time I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, and I had just spent the evening at the Zap Club (now sadly defunct). On wednesdays, this establishment played host to  Club Shame, a gay one-nighter that was extremely popular and well-known around the town. Unfortunately, this made people leaving it in the early hours of the morning easy targets for the many queerbashers who got their kicks beating up gay men for no other reason than that they were gay.

I was actually one of the lucky ones. Apparently, shortly after I fell to the ground and passed out, a group of passers-by chased off the youths who had attacked me, helped me to my feet, and helped me get home.  The commotion when I arrived woke up a couple of my friends who cleaned me up, and gave me a glass of whisky. I was rattled, angry at the gratuitous violence visited on me by complete strangers, and frustrated by the clear demonstration of my own inability to defend myself.   I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises but there turned out to be no lasting physical damage. Although I don’t like to admit it, I do think I have a few psychological scars. I don’t even tell many  people about this episode because my weakness embarrasses me – it’s a slur on my manhood, such as it is. Still, at least I didn’t end up dead, like poor Jody Dobrowski.

Neither I nor any of the friends (also gay) who helped me ever even thought about reporting the incident to the Police. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and Police attitudes not always helpful.

Somewhat closer to home, a recent story in the Times Higher pointed out that relatively few universities have made it onto the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall. My experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay and lesbian staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions.

I also agree with the main point made by the Times Higher article which is that, despite what the law says, universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. Fairly predictably, the online version of the article attracted some nasty comments of a homophobic nature which were subsequently removed according to the terms and conditions of the website.

Recent experiences of my own (relating to this blog) seemed relevant so I passed them onto the Times Higher after reading this story. I didn’t think they would consider it important enough to publish, as in the grand scheme of things it involved a relatively minor offence, so I was a bit surprised to find a full story in this week’s edition. It caught me on the hop a bit because I wasn’t even told they were going to run it at all, let alone straight away and I didn’t get the chance to see the final copy. Thankfully, it’s quite accurate, matter-of-fact, and avoids sensationalism.

I’m not going to put all the details here, because as far as I’m concerned it’s all over and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it again. The relevance to the earlier Times Higher story is clear, however. In a nutshell, I made a complaint about a comment on this blog, involving offensively homophobic language, to the University of Nottingham, the employer of the person who made it. I was not asked to give evidence to the subsequent “investigation”, was not told how it was conducted or how it arrived at its decision, and was not even informed of its outcome for months after it had been completed, and only then after I made repeated requests. My subsequent requests for information about the conduct of the investigation were refused. The University of Nottingham also refused to confirm whether the culprit had ever attended Equality and Diversity training.

What was it I had objected to? It was the F-word – FAGGOT, universally recognized as grossly offensive and, as I’ve explained, one about which my I also have my own particular reasons for objecting to. I was appalled that a former colleague could use that word in a manner that seemed (and still seems) to me to have been calculated to be offensive, subsequent “apologies” notwithstanding. The “investigation”, however, disagreed and accepted the defence that it was meant as a joke. I wonder what they would have decided if I’d been black and had been called a “n****r”?

At the time, I asked for advice on what to do about this. Stonewall encouraged me to report it to the Police, on grounds of criminal harassment. This seemed to me to be excessive, since it had resulted in no physical harm or loss by me and would use up a lot of police time to little effect and a lot of embarassment to others at Nottingham that this had (and has) nothing to do with. A gay-friendly solicitor in Cardiff explained how I could pursue a civil case against the individual and/or employer but that it would be very expensive and damages, if awarded at all, would probably be very small. In the end, therefore, I decided to take the advice of our Equality and Diversity Officer in Cardiff  and reported it instead to the University of Nottingham to deal with internally. What a waste of time that was.

I’m sure there will be some readers of this post who think I over-reacted to the comment in question, and that I’ve blown this matter out of all proportion; this indeed seems to be the prevailing view among the comments on the Times Higher thread. You’re all entitled to your opinion, of course. I fully admit that, for reasons that should now be obvious, I am unable to respond particularly rationally to being called a faggot. But then I don’t see why, in this day and age,  I should be expected to. Things are supposed to have moved on, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, I  don’t think I over-reacted and, in this case, I happen to think it’s my opinion that counts. That’s what the law says too, as a matter of fact.

I’m not claiming to be whiter than white. I am fully aware that I’ve made comments on this blog that have offended some people of whom I am very fond. I’m very sorry that I’ve caused offence in this way. I also admit some of my jokes are a bit off-colour. I tend to be direct in my criticism of those I think deserve it. I think I know how to take a joke too; growing up as  gay teenager in 1970s Newcastle gave me quite a thick skin. I can take forthright criticism too – I should; I’ve had plenty of practice! But I will not accept being called a faggot. Everyone has their limits, and that is mine.

If you don’t like it then, frankly, you can F-off.

Simon Singh and the “Bogus” Issue

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by telescoper

This is an issue that I’ve been meaning to comment about for some time, but hadn’t done so because I really didn’t have a clear view on what opinion to express! I’ve now decided to chip in precisely for that reason, i.e. because I don’t think the matter is as clear as others appear to think.

The story will be familiar to many readers of the blog, so I’ll only give a quick recap of the salient points. Simon Singh is a popular science writer – a very good one, in fact – who recently  co-authored a book on alternative medicine called Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University. In that book they produced evidence showing that many “alternative” medical therapies including homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractice  were, in fact, useless for the control of many conditions for which they are prescribed by the relevant specialists. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Singh wrote a piece in the Comment pages of the Guardian newspaper in which he specifically criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described these treatments as “bogus” and criticised the  BCA for “happily promoting” them.

The BCA decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. The Guardian removed the article from its web pages and encouraged Singh to settle out of court, offering to pay his legal expenses if he agreed to do so. He refused and decided to defend the libel action in court. At a preliminary hearing in May, the Judge, Mr Justice Eady,  ruled that the wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning.

This ruling – which is currently under appeal – effectively means that Singh has to prove that the BCA are consciously dishonest in order to win the libel case. That looks like a very tall order. He also has to pay the costs of the preliminary hearing, which amount to £23,000. If the matter goes to a full trial then he will be out of pocket to a much greater extent than this: a conservative estimate is that his legal costs alone will exceed £100,000, and there will be damages to pay on top of that.

This has become something of a cause célèbre owing, it is alleged, to the intrusion of the courts into matters of scientific debate. The organization Sense About Science has organized a petition (“to keep libel laws out of science”) which has attracted over 10,000 signatures. The issue that signatories are worried about is that the open cut-and-thrust of rational scientific debate will be stifled if a precedent is set that involves one party taking another to court. As they put it

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The case has also revived calls to reform Britain’s  laws on defamation, which make the defence of a libel action in the UK very difficult from a legal perspective compared to other jurisdictions because, roughly speaking, they place the burden of proof on the defendant not the plaintiff. It is also so expensive to pursue such an action through the courts that the system clearly favours the rich and powerful versus ordinary citizens.

The ruling by Sir David Eady has been singled out for disapproval in the print media and across the blogosphere as an example of how  British law stifles free speech.

So why am I unclear about this? Shouldn’t we keep libel laws out of science? Doesn’t the British law of libel need changing?

Of course I say “yes” to both of those. But it seems to me that the Simon Singh case isn’t really about those questions.

For a start, there is no way that you can regard a Comment article in a national newspaper as the proper place for scientific debate between qualified specialists. Such arguments can and do take place at scientific conferences, seminars and through the pages of learned journals. Simon Singh was not participating in this process when he wrote his article. He was doing something quite different: publicising his book.

Secondly, it is true that Simon Singh is a qualified scientist. He has a PhD in particle physics, in fact. But that does not in itself qualify him as competent to pronounce on issues relating to medical practice. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone stating their opinion about things that they’re interested in. It’s just that he doesn’t get a special ticket because he happened to get a science PhD. My point is that his article was not part of the cut-and-thrust of informed scientific debate between experts, merely an individual commenting on something. The fact that he’s a scientist should not give him a blanket exemption from having to obey the laws that apply to others, especially when he is talking about things outside his speciality. It’s also worth stating here that if what he’d said had clearly just been an opinion it would not have been subject to a libel case. The problem is that it appears to be a statement of fact from an authority on the matter.

Third, note that the original book – which is a proper scientific work in which arguments are presented with accompanying evidence – is not the subject of the libel action, just the newspaper article. The BCA is not using the libel laws to suppress or contest scientific evidence.

Now we come to the crux. Does Mr Justice Eady’s ruling really “defy logic” as many commentators have alleged? What does the word “bogus” actually mean? It seems sensible to turn to an authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Doing so, I find that the word “bogus” is actually of American origin. The first usage found in the OED is from 1827 where it appears as a noun, meaning “an apparatus used for making counterfeit coins”. Later on it is found as an adjective, with current meanings

Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham: ‘originally applied to counterfeit coin’ (Webster).

It seems to me that since the preliminary hearing was specifically intended to give a ruling on the meaning of the words that had been used in the allegedly libellous document, Mr Justic Eady actually had no choice at all in deciding that the word meant what it did. Clearly “counterfeit” implies a deliberate misrepresentation. Effectively the ruling means that Singh’s words mean that the BCA are no better than Snake Oil salesmen, a defamatory statement if ever I heard one.

Singh has claimed that this was not what he meant by “bogus” and what he intended was something more like “unproved” but I don’t see how it can be an acceptable defence to claim that one’s words mean what you think and not what everyone else thinks. It didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty and it won’t work for Simon Singh. If I write that “Jones the Dentist is incompetent” then that will be libelous (if untrue) even if I later claim I thought that the word incompetent meant something different to what it everyone else thinks.

Truth is of course an acceptable defence against libel, but the “truth” at issue has now become not whether chiropractice is effective or ineffective (a scientific issue) but whether chiropractioners are consciously fraudulent. I’d be wholeheartedly against trying to settle the first question in the courts, but nobody is trying to suggest that. The second question seems to me one that has to be settled that way.

Now let me say that I don’t know anything at all about chiropractice. I don’t know whether it works or doesn’t work, but it does seem to me that Simon Singh was very unwise to use the word “bogus” and even unwiser still to defend the action after he did.

For me, the only really significant issue in this saga is a general one: the overall matter of freedom of speech. In general, I believe strongly in freedom of speech but because we don’t have a written constitution the right to it is not stated as clearly here in the United Kingdom as it is, for example, in the United States. However, don’t forget that there are defamation laws (including libel) in America too. Among those statements considered defamatory per se under US law are statements “injurious to another in their trade, business, or profession”, which certainly would cover chiropractors. The US system is much less plaintiff-friendly than ours, in that it provides for a wider range of potential defences, and it also largely reverses the burden of proof unless there is an affirmative defence. It does not seem obvious to me, though, that Singh would have any more success in defending his case in America rather than here. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Even in countries like the United States where Freedom of Speech is enshrined as a constitutional right, it is necessary that it should tempered by wider considerations. It should not be legal for someone to damage another person’s reputation and livelihood by making intentionally false and defamatory assertions. Neither should it be possible to abuse and/or threaten another in such a way as to cause harassment or intimidation. There have to be laws covering such things. The real question is how to make them work in a more impartial way than they do now. To argue that one should be exempted simply by declaring oneself to be a scientist seems to me to be dangerously simplistic. The best way to keep the libel laws out of science is to for scientists not to make potentially libelous statements if they don’t possess the evidence to back them up.

I realise that many of you may think that, in not fully supporting Simon Singh, I am being overtly pro-BCA. I certainly don’t intend to be so. I think there’s blame on both sides. I think that the BCA was unnecessarily aggressive in suing him for libel. Given that they did so, though, Singh seems to me to have made an error of judgement in continuing an action he is very unlikely to win. If he continues with the case now his only hope is that he can produce enough evidence in court that damages the BCA that they drop the action. In the long run, what will probably happen is that he loses the case and the BCA wins damages, but suffers a big dent in its reputation for rather heavy-handed tactics. Along the way it might even happen that there is intense scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of chiropractics, and that might do the BCA more harm than good. Bear in mind that anything said in court under oath is privileged can’t be subject to libel actions…