Confronting Junk Science: Keep Calm And Carry On
Various skeptic blogs, particularly those in the United Kingdom, are aflame over a magazine called "What Doctors Don't Tell You," which appears to be an uninhibited woo-fest of conspiratorial-minded pseudo-medical junk science. What's notable about the magazine is not that it exists — there's a zine for every viewpoint, even in the age of the blog. No, what concerns the skeptics is that the magazine is being carried by mainstream stores like WHSmith and Sainsbury. It's like walking into Starbucks and seeing that their newspaper rack has pamphlets about the moon landing being faked.
Some skeptics have begun to write to the corporations stocking the magazine urging them not to, which has led to accusations of censorship. I think those criticisms are off-based, but I have a few respectful words of advice to the skeptics as a free speech advocate.
First: please be aware of the opponents you face, and the rhetorical and legal arena in which you fight. In the junk scientists — let's call them "advocates of non-traditional medicine" for the sake of this point — you are dealing with a community increasingly characterized by an appetite for aggressive censorship. In the United Kingdom, you have an arena with a level of protection for free speech that — and I say this out of love, with a debt of gratitude for my common law heritage and the language I love — sucks donkey balls. It sucks so badly that we've had to pass laws specifically providing that your ludicrous defamation judgments usually aren't enforceable here. My point is this: to the extent you employ censorious measures, you can expect them to be turned against you later by your foes, with the cooperation of your largely censorship-indifferent government. Do not take up any weapon you don't want used against you.
Second: mind the rhetoric, please. Freedom of expression is threatened not only by specifically censorious methods, but by flexible and insipid memes and mottoes. When I see Keir Liddle employing the "fire in a crowded theater" image — the unprincipled nature and repulsive origins of which I discussed recently — I roll my eyes. Andy Lewis' headline "This is not an Issue of Free Speech, but of Responsible Speech" is a cringe-inducing appeal to the categorical dodge. I guarantee you that Mr. Lewis will see some future attack against his writing spun as "this isn't an issue of free speech, but of harassment/bullying/defamation/abuse." Ladies and gentlemen, using sloppy rhetoric in discussions of freedom of expression hands weapons to censors. Broader censorship will not ultimately benefit skeptics.
Third: notwithstanding the above, boycotts and complaints are an acceptable more-speech remedy, whatever the junk scientists might complain. These stores are private actors; informing them of the nature of a magazine they stock, advocating that they make a different private decision, or even threatening to boycott is part of the marketplace of ideas. Of course, if woo merchants organize some boycott that the skeptics don't like, and the skeptics argue that it is censorious, they should be called out for hypocrisy.
Fourth, I urge extreme caution in involving the government and quasi-government entities. Some skeptics advocate reporting the magazine to the government, or to non-governmental self-regulatory advertising bodies. Such reports may be based on genuinely misleading advertisements — the magazine sounds chock-full of advertisements that sound like the pseudo-medical version of x-ray specs in the back of comic books. But European advertisement regulation is already shot through with meddling silliness and the United Kingdom — and again, I say this with love — already has grave nanny-state issues. I admire the skeptical movement to the extent it pursues the goals of truth, open inquiry, and human dignity and autonomy. Ask yourselves — do governmental and quasi-governmental entities advance those goals? Does involving them in a dispute advance those goals?
Ultimately the marketplace of ideas is the best place to rebut what this magazine is peddling. I look forward to reading more critiques of the magazine and its contents in that marketplace.
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