The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

November 10, 2010

In which I jump on a band wagon well worth jumping on…

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.


The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

My favourite… Homeopathic remedy

April 17, 2010

Celebrating the end of WHAW.
(world Homeopathy awareness week, of course)

You may not be aware of it, but we have just survived world homeopathy awareness week (WHAW), the amazing non-event that was marked by ever-so-slightly elevated levels of pro-homeo spam on twitter, and a plethora of pithy science blogs that carefully pointed out that there was no evidence that homeopathy works, or indeed, how it might conceivably work. This was topped off by a Dilbert cartoon that handily lampooned both homeopathy and astrology.


Homeopaths might want take note of the current plight of UK chiropractors – who this week, finally folded in their attempts to sue Simon Singh for libel. In suing Simon Singh, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) stuck their collective heads above the parapet of public ignorance/apathy, and were struck down by a combination of artillery fire from organisations like Index on Censorship, English Pen and the “Keep libel laws out of science” campaign, and some precision snipping from science/skeptical bloggers such as Zeno and Simon Perry. As a result of all this:

  1. the libel laws look set to change,
  2. the BCA lost,
  3. the BCA will be paying a proportion Simon Singh’s costs.
  4. ~25% of all chiropractors are currently under investigation for making unsubstantiated claims on their websites

Given this, one would hope that other “unreality enthusiasts” (© Dr_Aust_PhD) might keep their heads down for a while – but oh no. Not the homeopaths. Despite the 1023 campaign drawing attention to homeopathy, and STFC report into homeopathy concluding that homeopathy is not deserving of NHS funding, the homeopaths continue to draw attention to themselves – by having an “awareness week”.

Of all the “remedies” that homeopaths use1, from the light of Venus, to fragments of the Berlin wall, Natrum Mur has to be one of the most ridiculous, from a scientific point of view. According to this webpage, Natrum Mur is used for:

Homeopaths give this remedy for emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression, that are caused by suppressed grief and other emotions.

Natrum mur. is also used to treat conditions with a watery discharge, such as colds, and phlegm or profuse, clear mucus. Complaints that are generally worse with heat and that are often brought on by stuffy heat or exposure to hot sun are helped by this remedy. These include: migraines with zigzag lines in front of the eyes; eyestrain with aching eyes; headaches that come on after menstruation; and cold sores.

It is also good for mouth problems, for example, gingivitis (inflamed gums), dry, cracked lips, mouth ulcers, and bad breath (halitosis).

Skin complaints, for example, warts, dry cuticles, hangnails, boils, and painful acne are helped by Natrum mur. It is also effective for goiter; anemia; indigestion; constipation with dry, hard stools; bleeding anal fissures; backache; and delayed urine flow.

In women, Natrum mur. is given for absent menstruation induced by shock or grief; irregular menstruation; and a general feeling of being unwell both before and after menstruation. It is also good for a dry or sore vagina, vaginal discharge, and vaginismus (vaginal pain during sexual intercourse).

When ill, people who need this remedy are chilly but dislike heat.

Clearly a highly potent remedy with a wide range of clinical applications. *cough*

But what, I hear you ask, is was in Natrum Mur? It is some exotic herb, a distillation of fermented sheep eyes? No.

It’s table salt. Sodium chloride. The same stuff you put on your chips. The main flavouring in “ready salted” crisps. Salt.

Incidentally, the first crystal structure ever determined was NaCl, which earned Sir W.H. Bragg and his son Sir W.L. Bragg the Nobel prize for physics in 1915.

Salt is an important part of our diet, but problems generally stem from having too much of the stuff. The food standard agency recommend that an adult eat no more that 6g of salt per day. Aficionados of Avogadro’s constant will be able to tell you that this is 6/(22.99+35.453) X 6×1023 = 6.15×1022 molecules of salt – which is “some” salt.

More than “some” salt may cause you problems – hypertension, cardiovascular disease, renal stones, osteoporosis, stomach cancer to name but a few. Now, given that homeopaths follow the law of similars, which states that “like cures like,” one might expect these diseases/pathologies would be the same that homeopaths might claim to cure with Natrum Mur. Curiously, these are all absent from the list.

Salt is also used to balance electrolytes in saline solutions for fluid replacement, and washing wounds with salt water has an antiseptic effect (killing bacteria by “osmotic shock“).

But then we all contain “some” salt  – according to Wikipedia (yes, I know!) the human body has about 0.15% by mass of both chlorine and sodium – this will all be present as sodium and chloride ions. However, if you could extract all this as sodium chloride from an average 70kg person, you’d end up with about 150g of salt.

So, given that we contain ~150g of salt, and we consume/excrete 6g of salt per day, how is adding the memory of salt going to make a blind bit of difference to “anxiety and depression”, “migraines with zigzag lines in front of the eyes” etc?

My favourite homeopathic remedy is Natrum Mur – because for me, it really drives home the inane, reality-deprived nature of homeopathy.

1 – of course, homeopathic remedies above a potency of 12C don’t actually contain anything.


This MP’s not for turning: My MP still won’t sign EDM 423.

March 10, 2010

You may have seen this post, where I showed that my Tory MP, Edward Timpson, had declined to sign Early Day Motion 423. This is the EDM tabelled by Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem Science spokesman) regarding the update of Britain’s rather unfair libel laws, that are being used by people with vested interests to stifle and silence scientific discourse. The most notable use of these libel laws is the infamous and ongoing attempt by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to censor science writer Simon Singh, in a piece in the Guardian for the following passage:

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

EDM423 calls for a re-appraisal of the current UK libel laws to protect scientists, academics and journalists from lawsuits for simply engaging in scientific debate or discussion.

So I had asked my MP (Timpson) to sign this EDM. He declined on the grounds that EDM423 seeks to reverse the burden of proof in libel cases. I replied to him, questioning this, as It was my interpretation of the EDM that this was not the case (an interpretation shared by Simon Singh, who suggested I respond to the original letter I received from Timpson).

This is what I got in reply (abridged):

You are correct to note that the EDM does not explicitly seek to reverse the burden of proof in libel cases, but nor is it explicit in stating the balance that it wishes to strike. I am sure you will understand that it concerns me to put my name to such a sentiment.

Nevertheless we must continue to press that [sic] Government that any changeto libel law will protect both academics and journalists.

It would appear that Timpson, whilst apparently broadly supportive of the need for libel law reform, is unwilling to support a measure which does not explicitly define the changes to the burden of proof it might wish to impose.

D’oh. I tried.

Why tory MP Edward Timpson won’t Sign EDM 423

January 10, 2010

Seeing as I am concerned about the state of UK libel laws, especially their effect on free and informed scientific discourse, I asked my MP, the new conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, Edward Timpson, to sign EDM 423. EDM 423 was proposed by Dr Evan Harris MP, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and “notes that human rights activists, scientists, writers and journalists are prevented from publishing, and the public prevented from reading, matters of strong public interest due to the chilling effect of English libel law

Timpson is not without experience in legal matters, as prior to becoming an MP, Timpson was a family law barrister. So anyway, I asked him sign EDM 423. Yesterday, I received a letter from him, explaining (sadly) why he won’t sign EDM 423 😦

Here it is:

Dear David,

Thank you for writing to me about EDM 423 and libel law reform. I understand your concerns on this issue. It is important that those who contribute so much to research and culture in this country do not feel restrictred from publishing interllectually challenging and informative articles. Fear of libel action should not curb debate by scientists, academics and journalists. Freedom of expression is the hallmark of a free society and must be strongly protected.

If libel cases do succeed, the costs are often so crippling to defendants that even large newspapers are in diffculty in resisting some claims. It is evident that Britain has become an attractive place for individuals to bring about specualative libel action since lawyers will often bear the brunt of the costs in exchange for potential awards available to winning litigants.

I do believe, however, that we must be careful when changing libel law itself. People have the right not to be defamed unless necessary, and changes to this law should not risk this principle. I believe that the burden of proof should remain on individuals who make defamatory claims about other people to justify their asertions about others. For this reason, I do not feel that I can sign EDM 423.

Let me assure you that my colleagues on the Shadow Justice Team will continue to press the Government on this issue, to ensure that any changes to the law adequately protects individuals without placing too great a burden on, for example, scientists, academics and journlists. Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Yours sincerely

Edward Timpson MP

TBPH, after the first two paragraphs I thought I had it in the bag. He seems to agree that there is a problem, but won’t sign it in order to protect the defamed – which is fair enough – but I had thought that EDM 423 had provision in to to deal with precisely that:

…while individual reputation is protected against malicious or reckless smears, lawful free expression is not chilled and there is a fully effective public interest defence for both scholarship and responsible journalism.

So – that’s that really,

Just thought I’d share.