If You Don't Like The Truth... Litigate It Away
August 3, 2014
whose annual sales were estimated at $30 billion in 2011). Recently there has been a concerted effort to silence or minimize skeptical criticism of pseudoscience. Some, like Deepak Chopra, offer farcical, impossible challenges. There are examples of idiotic and troubling personal attacks, such as Mike Adams's recent screed calling GMO advocates "Nazi Collaborators." Frequently there are threats of lawsuits like threatened action by the quack Stanislaw Burzynski against skeptic blogger Rhys Morgan. Sometimes actual lawsuits happen, as in the case of the British Chiropractic Society suing Simon Singh for libel. Affluent woo purveyors easily have the resources to intimidate skeptics and to mute criticism.Snake oil salesmen and woo purveyors have deep pockets; in the United States money means influence and power (probably the same everywhere). Despite the claims of being corporate-paid shills and/or disinformation agents, scientific skepticism is primarily funded by small, private, grassroots donations. As a whole, the skeptical community is a large, well-informed collective that does have influence. Monetary support for skepticism is a drop in the bucket compared to the money or influence of people like Dr. Oz (whose net worth is estimated at $14 million), Deepak Chopra (estimated at $20 million), or the resources of the US supplement industry (
This week Dr. Steven Novella revealed that he is being litigated by Dr. Edward Tobinick, after he wrote an article on the website Science-Based Medicine, criticizing Tobinick for his shady off-label use of a drug. [Details are here on Steve's website in a post called "Another Lawsuit To Suppress Legitimate Criticism — This Time SBM."] I have read the details, and in my humble opinion, Dr. Tobinick treatment and lawsuit by him are BS. Novella criticized Tobinick's claims of using Embrel (an immune suppressant) to treat neurological disorders like stroke or Alzheimer's disease—claims that amount to a stack of cow pies. No matter how high you stack them, cow pies are still cow pies and they just stink. Rather than produce research or medically defend his treatment, Dr. Tobinick has decided on Plan B: a lawsuit to silence the criticism as well as intimidate Science-Based Medicine (SBM). Yale University, Dr. Novella, and The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (SGU). All are named parties in the the suit. The basis of the lawsuit against Novella is not to attack his statements as libel (which they aren't); instead, Dr. Tobinick is litigating the blog post as an "attack advertisement" or a free trade lawsuit. This tactic seems intended to avoid free speech hurdles. Including Yale Neurology is necessary to justify the spurious basis of the litigation, and put pressure on Dr. Novella.
This attack in particular infuriates me. Just as Simon Singh's legal battle was an example of Great Britain's legal flaws, this exposes problems in the American legal system and a clear manipulation of the law for the benefit of pseudoscience. If you can't attack the facts, then attack the person. In the US anyone can sue anyone for any reason. As long as you have an attorney you can push a case in front of a judge. Although cases that lack merit can be dismissed at that point, arguing against the merits of a frivolous lawsuit can be very expensive as well as time consuming. It is about money: if you have enough money you can torture someone financially with little or no repercussion. In other legal systems the loser can be forced to pay all court and legal costs, so winning means you actually win. In the US, litigation can become a question of cost rather than right or wrong. Dr. Tobinick's litigation is akin to schoolyard bully tactics.
Full disclosure: I have no personal affiliation with SGU or Dr. Novella. I am a member of The Society for Science-Based Medicine. I have met Dr. Novella, and I've worked with him and his brother Jay Novella on a short, four-day video project. I have nothing to do with the lawsuit or its particulars. I work in the medical field and have actually discussed this type of scenario with Dr. Novella. Having your partners and your practice attacked because of your personal advocacy is a very real issue. There are risks to any endeavor. You try to insulate others, but it is not entirely possible. The best defense is to be honest, make sure that your opinion is your own and no one else's, and do what you think is morally right. Even doing everything right is not enough when you are facing large monetary resources. As with Singh's case, skeptics of all walks need to unite behind the SGU and SBM. We need to make our voices clear and loud. We will not be bullied into silence. The science blogosphere exploded over the Singh lawsuit and we need that to happen again this time. Writing articles and letters complaining about Dr. Tobinick to his medical board would be helpful. Attacking the obvious flaws in the American legal system would be a task of monolithic proportions.
Whether you are a die-hard skeptic or a casual reader you should be concerned about quacks using underhanded legal tactics to bully critics into silence. It puts us all at risk. Without watchdogs like Dr. Novella or Society of Science-Based Medicine, dangerous medical quackery will flourish. Worse if the woo peddlers learn that they can intimidate critics into silence everybody loses. You, me, everybody. So what can you do to help? It can be as little as an encouraging email, or as big as monetary contribution. After the litigation was over Simon Singh talked at length how the outpouring of emotional and financial support was critical for him to continue the fight. It kept his spirits up and helped him afford to go the distance until it was won. It can seem sometimes like everyone in skepticism has their hand out, but this is a good cause and even micro amounts of cash can help. Every little bit helps and by helping them out you are helping yourself. I will be doing a follow-up post on what can be done to address this type of medical abuse outside of monetary assistance. If you have ever asked yourself, "What can I do?" now is the time. Here is the link to support the Science-Based Medicine and Skeptics' Guide to the Universe Legal Defense. They help us; now we can help them.
Disclaimer: This post is my personal opinion it does not reflect the opinion of; my practice, my partners, hospital affiliations, Brian Dunning or my academic affiliations. It is for informational/educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace personal medical evaluation and discussion with your healthcare provider.
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