Science blogger Ben Goldacre faces a remarkable decision of conscience at the moment. Goldacre, along with many who write about science, has expressed concern about our libel laws and the way that they have been used to suppress scientific views. Yet now, Goldacre appears to have been libelled. Should he sue, or should he rise above the libel system that has been so misused?
I won't go into the details of the alleged libel here - you can get an excellent summary from Jack of Kent's blog. Suffice it to say that a tweet that appears to have been from 'nutritionist' Gillian McKeith or her organization apparantly called Goldacre's book Bad Science lies. After a spate of negative tweets in response, the original message disappeared to be replaced by a string of posts defending McKeith's mail order 'doctorate'. Even more bizarrely, the Twitter account was then removed from McKeith's website (though left in the page code), and a post added hinting that it wasn't really Ms McKeith's Twitter account at all.
So Ben Goldacre has a strong case for taking legal action if he wanted to. But should he? He is among the vanguard (rightly) criticising our libel laws, the libel laws that resulted in the ridiculous Simon Singh case. Yet no one arguing for libel reform has suggested we should remove libel entirely from the legal system. What should Ben do?
For what it's worth, in his case I would not begin legal proceedings. His reputation has not been damaged by this. Quite the reverse - he has come out smelling of roses, while poor Ms McKeith (okay, these are crocodile tears) does not come out of the encounter well. If she's smelling of anything, it's the bodily product she is most associated with. I think Goldacre can afford to be magnanimous. I don't even think he should press for a retraction, appealing though an endorsement of Goldacre by McKeith would be. Provided this affair has mass media coverage (at the moment, Goldacre's paper The Guardian seems to be the only one to have covered it) then I would be entirely satisfied that honour has been satisfied in the traditional manner of shooting yourself in the foot.
Image from www.badscience.net