Thought for the month

“Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction the sign of truth.” Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and physicist (1623 – 62).

Friday, 11 November 2011

The sun, the moon and the truth

According to Buddha, three things cannot be long hidden - the sun, the moon and the truth. Someone should try telling that to the unnamed Texan actor who has filed a $1 million lawsuit against a show business database for revealing her true age. Unfortunately, as Oscar Wilde noted, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Neither Buddha nor Oscar Wilde had to cope with the internet and the rapid electronic dissemination of everything from truths and honest opinions to malicious spite and lies. The electronic blog age enables one, frequently anonymously, not only to enquire, inform and comment but also to slur and defame individuals and organisations. This non-trivial matter is being reviewed by the UK parliament and a Draft Deformation Bill (First Report) has been published. It recommends that where complaints are made about comments from identified authors the website should promptly publish a notice of the complaint alongside it. The complainant can then apply to a court for a "takedown" order which if granted, should result in the comment being removed, if the website is to avoid the risk of a defamation claim. However where potentially defamatory comments are anonymous, the website should immediately remove them on receipt of a complaint, unless the author agrees to identify themselves.

Whilst the above have already raised issues of freedom of speech, it is interesting to note that the parliamentarians also clearly state that scientists and academics must not be left in fear of being sued simply for doing their job. They recommend that the legislation extends qualified privilege to peer reviewed articles in scientific or academic journals. The reviewers quote the historic examples of the safety of smoking and the risks associated with a drug such as Thalidomide, where the truth eventually emerged only following persistent and impartial research. They note that a process of critical review is essential with work being published and subsequently challenged by others. Furthermore, the committee says that there is convincing evidence that defamation law is being used to silence members of the medical and scientific community in order to protect products and profits. They felt that it is unavoidable that efforts to uncover the truth and expand the limits of our understanding may sometimes turn out to be wrong or to clash with the commercial and personal interests of other individuals and corporate organisations.

Whilst ultimately these things have to be decided in a court, it will be very interesting to see the eventual guidance given to the judiciary concerning deciding which "peer review articles" or "scientific or academic conference" are appropriate for qualified privilege.

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