by Jesse Galef -
Back in October, WIRED magazine had an excellent article on the anti-vaccine movement featuring Dr. Offit. Though many people call him a vaccine advocate, Offit says he sees himself as a science advocate. And the science is pretty conclusive: there is no good evidence that autism is linked to vaccines. Commenting on why anti-vaccine advocate Barbara Loe Fisher upsets him, he said “She lies.”
Fisher is now trying to sue Offit for defamation (libel). My friend Ames Grawert, JD soon to be sworn in as an attorney, co-wrote a post on the issue with PalMD at the White Coat Underground on Scienceblogs:
To many physicians and scientists, this type of claim is hard to understand. Science is a process for finding and understanding facts. People can become emotionally tied to their work but science doesn’t care, and scientists often have vigorous debates about their work. Real scientists and real doctors must have thick skins.
So when someone is so attached to their own scientific opinion that they feel a need to use the legal system to protect their beliefs, many of us are left scratching our heads. Why wouldn’t she just try to find evidence to support her beliefs? How can a court possibly have something useful to say about a scientific question? What the Hell?
It would be terrible if Fisher could use the courts to silence Dr. Offit. Fortunately, this case shouldn’t go far, Grawert says:
If you’re thinking that the law shouldn’t work this way — that angry combatants in the battle of ideas shouldn’t be able to leverage defamation law into silencing their more strident critics — you’re right. And it doesn’t. For better or worse, the American first amendment is a vigorous creature. Where other countries would hold defendants liable for negligently false and offensive speech, American law prefers that ideas be spoken, and their value decided by informed citizens, rather than lawyers and judges.
Critically, when it comes to public figures, the first amendment protects hyperbole, and some pretty wicked satire, too (N.Y. Times v. Sullivan; Hustler Magazine v. Falwell). A statement about someone’s character and honesty — “she lies” — may be offensive. But it’s this kind of vigorous dialogue that the first amendment not only protects, but encourages. Any conclusion to the contrary would hold our capacity for public debate hostage to a few sensitive players who “can’t take the heat.”
So say we all.
I’m thankful that our approach to libel in America is different from, say, England’s – we’ve seen the problems facing Simon Singh for calling out the British Chiropractic Association. If people could use the courts to shape scientific discussion, we would be in a much worse place.
There’s a legal saying I’d like to borrow: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.”
Fisher doesn’t have the facts on her side and she doesn’t have the law on her side. She’s just pounding on the table, trying desperately to get attention.
To be sure, I don’t accuse her of acting maliciously – she no doubt cares about the children. But she’s being ignorant and irresponsible by not learning a basic understanding of science, and chilren are suffering because of it.