In the rough and tumble world of blogging, debate and criticism is healthy. I know I’m a better writer and blogger because the feedback from blogging is immediate and public. Yet if you’re going to blog about science, particularly pseudoscience, you’re going to encounter people who don’t share your belief in critical appraisal. And when groups and individuals cannot defend themselves with scientific evidence, they occasionally react by trying to stop that discussion from happening at all. One of the core principles of scientific skepticism is the belief that all ideas can and should be subject to fair criticism. No testable claim may escape appraisal or critique. It’s a critical component of the scientific method itself:
…at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.
– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Chapter 17
Andy Lewis is a prolific skeptical blogger and inventor of the handy Quackometer, a website that analyzes any website, giving a rating based on telltale signs of quackery. Recently Andy blogged about Stanislaw Burzynski and his eponymous cancer clinic. Lewis detailed the story of a child with an inoperable brain tumor and the fundraising that is occurring to send this child to Burzynski’s clinic. The concern is that Burzynski’s cancer treatments consist of an unproven therapy he calls antineoplastons. Despite the lack of any objective evidence that antineoplastons are an effective cancer therapy, Burzynski offers this therapy under the auspices of a clinical trial. Astonishingly, patients must pay for the privilege of entering these trials – in the case of the child in question, the family is trying to raise £200,000.
What happened next caught Lewis by surprise. Shortly after his original post he received an email from someone named Marc Stephens, claiming to represent Stanislaw Burzynski and the Burzynski clinic. Lewis has posted all of the correspondence with Stephens who warned Lewis to remove his original critical post:
FINAL NOTICE TO CEASE AND DESIST
I am not here to grade your article, or play games with you. You fully understand what you’re doing, which is why you are trying to hide behind your so-called “opinion”. You have a history of lying in your articles since 2008. All articles and videos posted from your little network are being forwarded to local authorities, as well as local counsel. It is your responsibility to understand when you brake[sic] the law. I am only obligated to show you in court. I am giving you final warning to shut the article down. The days of no one pursuing you is over. Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics days are numbered.
So, since you have a history of being stubborn, you better spend the rest of the day researching the word Fraud, you better do full research on the relationship of Dr. Saul Green and Emprise, Inc., and you better do full research on Stephen Barrett who is not licensed, or ever was licensed. So his medical opinion is void, which I am sure you are fully aware of his court cases. So your so-called opinion means nothing when this is disclosed in court, and by law you must prove your statements are true. Your source of information are all frauds, and none are medical doctors. You being apart of the same network makes you guilty, in the eyes of the jurors.
You are still accountable for Re-publishing false information, and disseminating false information. None of the previous attorneys that contacted you about defamation had documented history in the courts. We have well documented history which is on record with the court, which is available to the public. So, when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went up against 5 Grand Juries which involved the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Aetna Life Insurance, Emprise, Inc., Texas State Medical Board, and the United States Government, and was found not guilty in all 5 cases, you will wish you never wrote your article. In addition, my client has treated multiple cancer patients around the world, which is fully documented by the FDA, NCI, and Kurume University School of Medicine in Japan, and has finished Phase II clinical trials with FDA approval to move forward with Phase III. I suggest you spend more time with your new child then posting lies and false information on the internet that will eventually get you sued, which will hurt you financially. I am going to pursue you at the highest extent of the law.
If you had no history of lying, and if you were not apart of a fraud network I would take the time to explain your article word for word, but you already know what defamation is. I’ve already recorded all of your articles from previous years as well as legal notice sent by other attorneys for different matters. As I mentioned, I am not playing games with you. You have a history of being stubborn which will play right into my hands. Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down..Immediately. FINAL WARNING.
Lewis politely and repeatedly asked Stephens to detail the incorrect statements – and Stephens repeatedly refused. The threats have continued since the original post, again from Stephens:
You are apart (sic) of a network started by Michael Shermer called “Skeptic Society”–http://www.skeptic.com/, which is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization that examines….alien abductions”. Your network is linked to other fraudulent websites and individuals, such as, quackwatch.com, ratbags.com, the21stfloor, Peter Bowditch, [REDACTED] , Stephen Barrett, Dr. Saul Green, etc. I also have you guys linked to the Wikipedia page of my client. You should know that the IP Address is publicly recorded by Wiki. A subpoena is used to obtain your personal information. By law, the government does not need to notify you, or disclose when they are pursuing your personal information. see Wikileak personal information.
You define your network as individuals that “prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid…. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence”. Your evidence comes from Stephen Barrett and Saul Green who are apart of your skeptic network, so how fair and valid are your assessments..?
You are fully aware that the quackwatch website is not reliable, valid, fair, or a thorough assessment of available evidence, and that its owner, and your network, were exposed as frauds, not licensed, and maliciously disseminating false information to the public. Your Skeptic network uses the quackwatch.com website as the Bible to your mission of lying to the public. You are not posting your “opinion” and “concern for public health”, you and your network are posting malicious propaganda against my client which stretches back over 10 years.
It continues on in this vein for several more paragraphs. Notably, despite all of the verbiage, Stephens never identifies any factual errors made by Lewis. He simply demands that the post be removed – in its entirety. As Orac at Respectful Insolence comments:
If the accuser lists specific factual errors, then he might—just might—be serious about real possible libel rather than trying to shut you up. However, if he responds the way that Mr. Stephens responds, you can be pretty darned sure that he’s not interested in libel; he’s interested in shutting down criticism, and it’s quite clear that Mr. Stephens is not interested in anything but shutting down criticism using legal thuggery.
The emails from Stephens have grown more and more irate, and are bordering on incoherent. If the Burzynski Clinic is serious that it has a credible treatment for cancer, it should bring the evidence forward for peer review. Trying to silence critics seems like an unnecessary response when all Burzynski needs to do is provide objective evidence that his treatments actually work. Instead, the response seem more focused on stifling criticism – even going after 17 year old blogger Rhys Morgan who dared to criticize Burzynski’s treatments.
We’ve seen this movie before. The saga of Simon Singh is well known in skeptical circles: Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for questioning the promotion of chiropractic for conditions like colic and asthma, in the absence of any credible evidence of effectiveness. Rather than providing that evidence, the BCA went after Singh. It ended disastrously for the BCA: Not only did Singh appeal, and win, but the trial publicity drew more attention to the practice of chiropractic, and the lack of supporting evidence, than anything Singh could have accomplished on his own.
Singh’s case demonstrated the Streisand Effect – an attempt to hide or suppress information can result in even more widespread publicity of that information.
I’ve received threatening emails in response to posts I’ve written before, some of which hinted at legal action. Libel chill is no laughing matter and can be quite intimidating. So it’s commendable when bloggers like Lewis are willing to call Burzynski’s bluff and refuse to back down. Will we see another example of the Streisand Effect? It sure looks that way judging by the the attention this issue has generated online.
When it comes to libel chill – we are all Spartacus. Your move, Burzynski.