Long time readers may have noticed that I’ve not poked my head around to offer any significant posts in a while. In fact, the last article of any noteworthy length and substance was on Oct 29 (aside from a recent post on my own blog, which was actually written after this post was). An embarrassing absence on my part. While I could try to explain my semi-hiatus and pass off some half baked excuses about life being busy in some special way that makes it different for me, in truth: I caved. I regret that I let it get to me as much as it did, and I should really know better than to succumb to Libel Chill. I’ve decided it’s time to break my silence, and I ask your indulgence, because it’s the longest post I’ve ever written for this blog.
Skeptics may by now be very familiar with recent attempts in Canada to ban wifi from public schools and libraries. In short: there is no valid scientific reason to be worried about wifi. It has also been revealed that the chief scientists pushing the wifi bans have been relying on poor data and even poorer studies. By far the vast majority of scientific data that currently exists supports the conclusion that wifi and cell phone signals are perfectly safe.
So I wrote about that particular topic in the summer. It got some decent coverage, but the fear mongering continued. I wrote another piece after I did a little digging into one of the main players behind this, one Rodney Palmer, and I discovered some decidedly pseudo-scientific tendencies in his past.
Months went by, and the fear-mongering reached a fevered pitch, as I saw Palmer on Global Television offering testimony before a special Parliamentary committee to look into the claims he and his fellow fear-mongers have been making. In this committee, Palmer announced that he had “become an epidemiologist”, and asking in frustration, “How is it that this is MY responsibility to bring all these people in in?”
One night I came home after a long day at work, a long commute, and a phone call that a beloved family pet was dying, and will soon be in significant pain. That is the state I was in when I read the news about Palmer and Parliamentary committee. Emotions took hold of me, and I was determined that I was not going to let this asinine inanity go unchallenged, since the main stream media seemed to be buying his claims wholesale.
That’s when I wrote my last significant piece for Skeptic North. Titled, “Rodney Palmer: When Pseudoscience and Narcissism Collide,” it was a fiery take-down of every claim I heard Palmer speak before the committee, as well as reiterating some of his conflicts of interest, media manipulation, and some reasons why he should not be considered an expert. A friend even told me in a phone call afterwards, suggesting that I, “shouldn’t beat people up so badly like that!”
This time, the article got a lot more reader eyeballs than anything I had ever written for this blog (or my own) and it also caught the attention of someone on a school board which was poised to vote on wifi. In these regards: Mission very accomplished. I finally thought that I might be able to see some people in the media start to look at Palmer’s claims with a more critical eye than they had been previously, and I was flattered at the mountain of kind words, re-tweets, reddit comments and Facebook “likes.”
But there is a cost to writing from the hip like I did, and it kind of spooked me.
The comments section was mostly supportive of my article, and they were one of the few things that kept me from hiding in a hole for six weeks. There were a few comments in opposition to what I wrote, some sensible, most incoherent rambling (one commenter, when asked for evidence, actually linked to a YouTube video which they referred to as “peer reviewed”)
One commenter was none other than the titular subject of the post, Rodney Palmer himself. Here is a screen shot of what he said:
I asked a lawyer friend of mine what this comment was about. In no uncertain terms, the answer was, “He is threatening you with a lawsuit.”
Knowing full well the story of the libel threat against Simon Singh, I’ve always thought that if ever a threat like that came my way, I’d happily beat it back with the righteous fury and good humour of a person with the facts on their side. After all, if I’m wrong, you’d be able to prove me wrong, rather than try to shut me up with a threat of a lawsuit. Indeed, I’ve been through a similar situation once before, so I should be an old hat at this!
Let me tell you friends, it’s not that easy. In fact, it’s awful. Outside observers could easily identify that Palmer had no case against me, but that was still cold comfort to me. It is a very stressful situation to find yourself in.
There were nights I couldn’t sleep, and as I ventured to and from work, I kept looking around for a person trying to serve me legal papers. I checked my email inboxes like a hawk (do hawks check their email?), waiting for a very official-sounding letter from some law firm. Hell, even a hastily scrawled note written on a napkin by a paralegal would have given me a heart attack.
The state of libel laws in this country are such that a person can threaten a lawsuit without actually threatening a lawsuit. There is no need to hire a lawyer to investigate the claims, look into who I am, where I live, where I work, and issue a carefully worded threatening letter demanding compliance. All a person has to say is some version of “Libel. Slander. Hmmmm….,” and that’s enough to spook a lot of people into backing off.
It’s a modern day bogeyman. They don’t have to prove it. They don’t have to act on it. A person or organization just has to say “BOO!” with sufficient seriousness, and unless you’ve got a good deal of editorial and financial support, discussion goes out the window.
Libel Chill refers to the ‘chilling effect’ that the possibility of a libel/slander lawsuit has. If a person is scared they might get sued, then they won’t even comment on a piece at all. In my case, I had already commented three times on the wifi scaremongering, but this frivolous threat against me was surely a major contributing factor to my not commenting again.
I ceased to discuss anything in the comment thread of the original article, and even shied away from other comment threads, calling me out. I learned a great deal about the wifi/EMF issue since I wrote the article, but I did not comment on any of it, because I knew that Palmer and his supporters were watching me like a hawk (sorry to stretch the simile), and would likely try to silence me again. I couldn’t risk a lawsuit. Even though I knew there was no case against me, I couldn’t afford a lawyer just to prove that I didn’t do anything illegal.
In short: when it came to Wifi and EMF, Rodney Palmer shut me up.
Canada, Ontario, Libel
The Ontario Libel and Slander Act hasn’t really caught up with the internet. If I had written the original article in print, Palmer would have had to serve me with a libel notice within six weeks. That would have given me a chance to reconsider what I wrote, perhaps publish a retraction, and so avoid a lawsuit. But the courts have yet to confirm that a blog post, Twitter feed, or Facebook post is entitled to the same protection that the Act gives to a newspaper or magazine article, or radio or television broadcast. So instead of just six weeks, the threat of a libel action could be hanging over my head for up to two years.
Libel laws in Canada are somewhere in between the Plaintiff-favoured UK system, and the Defendant-favoured US system. On the one hand, if Palmer chose to incur the expense and time to hire a lawyer and file suit against me,the burden of proof would be on me to prove that the facts I cited were true, and the opinions I expressed were honest and not made with malicious intent. Easy peasy. On the other hand, I would have a strong case that I acted in the best interests of Canadians, which would fall under the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on protecting what has been termed, “Responsible Communication.” The Supreme Court of Canada decision does not grant bloggers immunity from libel suits, but it is a healthy dose of welcome freedom to discuss issues of importance to Canadians.
*I’ll remind you all, I am not a lawyer, have zero legal training, and I am not offering any kind of legal advice or hints here. I am simply relaying what I have learned, inasmuch as it relates to my situation only. My words and experiences are no substitute for the knowledge of legal expert. Should you have any legal questions, ask a lawyer.*
Going Back, Going Forward
Palmer himself did not specify anything against me in his threat. There was nothing particular that he complained about, he just said a version of “Libel!” at me. He may as well have said “Boo!”
But it’s not hard to imagine that he was personally offended by the article. Of course, I am only speaking about how I think I would react if someone wrote that piece about me (mind you, I’d never call myself an epidemiologist to get myself in that position). I’d feel personally attacked, and I would likely be angry.
Let me say for the record:
I regret some of that article. I regret that I allowed myself to let my anger take the better part of my mental faculties. I regret that I went after the person, and didn’t limit myself to the claims (as I have done before). I meant Mr. Palmer no personal disrespect at all, and I regret any feelings of personal attack he may have felt. I like to think that as a skeptic, I limit myself to the science, but that was clearly not the case here.
Now, I also want to be very clear: I meant what I said. Every. Single. Word. I was not acting out of malice, I did not lie, and I did not fabricate any data. What I regret, was that I was out of line. This is a skeptic blog, not a hit-blog.
I’ve heard that my original piece was resorting to ‘name calling,’ but I’m not sure I agree with that assessment. Sometimes, personalities do come to the forefront of an issue, and they can easily crowd out any semblance of a rational discussion, just look at the last 12 presidential campaigns. When personalities crowd out the science, the personalities are fair game (more on this point later).
At the time I wrote the piece, I truly felt as though what was motivating Palmer was, at least partially, narcissism on his part. Looking back, I now I know that my evidence for that position was circumstantial at best. My motivations for writing that piece was to make it clear that this issue was far bigger than Palmer, and I felt it important to make that distinction clear. This is why I stand by what I wrote.
There are many topics that I change my mind on over time, and I occasionally look back at pieces I wrote where I was feverishly defending a point I no longer agree with. But at the time, I meant it. I never, ever write something that I don’t mean, or am not prepared to defend. If you think I made a mistake, point it out, and I will defend what I said/wrote. If I erred, then I will correct.
This whole affair has taught me a great deal about the strategies we, as skeptics, employ in our communication of science. Although I am generally loathe to talk to skeptics about what tactics we should and should not use, and I don’t like engaging in these sorts of meta-skepticism discussions, I ask your indulgence just this once. This is not a DBAD discussion (although I wholeheartedly agree with Phil Plait there). This section is not advising people to play nice because we all need to be civil…you can make your own minds about that. I just want to share with all of you the lessons I learned, and I think we can all benefit at least a little.
If you’d like to boil my lessons down to an acronym, I suppose the best one would be the palindromic DBRBD: Don’t be reckless. Be Deliberate.
I wrote a piece that, although it was not incorrect in any measurable way, was written with fire and brimstone, piss and vinegar. I stand by my piece, but I caution others to be a little more careful with the language they use. Not because I think it is any less or more tactically advantageous (because I’m not sure anyone can conclusively demonstrate that being an aggressive jerk is an inherently better or worse communication tool), but because the risks aren’t always worth it.
I’m not saying don’t go after a person. There are egomaniacs out there who deserve to be called out and taken down (verbally, of course). But be very careful with what you say. To any skeptic out there who comments on a Facebook post, a tweet, or writes their own blog, I humbly offer some suggestions that I learned from this experience. When you’re about to communicate your skeptic message, ask yourself some questions first:
1) What goal(s) are you trying to accomplish with this piece? Are you trying to convince people that there is a scientific misunderstanding here? Are you trying to attract the attention of the mainstream media to a particular facet of the issue? Are you really just pissed off and want to vent a little bit? Is this article a catharsis, or is it communicative? Be brutally honest with your intentions, it’s not as easy as you think. Venting is okay. So is vicious venting, but be careful what you dress it up as.
2) In order to attain your goals, did you use data, or personalities? If the former, are you citing the best, most current data you have available to you? Have you made a reasonable effort to check your data against any conflicting data that might be out there? If the latter, are you providing a mountain of evidence, and not just projecting onto personalities? There is nothing inherently immoral or incorrect with going after the personalities. But it is a very risky undertaking. You have to be damn sure you know what you’re talking about, and damn ready to defend yourself. If you’re even a little loose with your claims, you will be called out for it, and a legal threat is very serious and stressful. So if you’re going after a personality, is it worth it?
3) Are you letting the science speak for itself? Are you editorializing? Are you pointing out what part of your piece is data and what part is your opinion?
4) If this piece was written in anger, frustration, or otherwise motivated by a powerful emotion, take a day. Let your anger subside. It will. There are many cathartic enterprises out there, and you don’t need to react to the first one that comes your way. Let someone else read your work before you share it with the internet. Cooler heads definitely do think more clearly.
Most crucial, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your arguments.
In the case of my original piece, I had many strong arguments which were very easy to prove:
- The science is clear
- Palmer’s history of pseudo-science
- Palmer’s manipulated media tactics
I also had some weaker ones, which were no less true, but were harder to prove incontrovertibly:
- Palmer was acting like a hot-head
- Palmer was making himself out to be far more than he is
- Palmer hasn’t yet tasted a dose of his own angry medicine where he is the one being accosted and belittled.
In the strong arguments I used, all I had to do was point out the facts, and let them speak for themselves. A person can get as huffed up and angry as they want, but it never changes the facts. An opponent will try to re-frame the debate to make it about personal experience, but as long as one stays on the relevant point, the facts don’t change, and the person ends up exposing themselves as being unable to defend their position.
In the weak arguments I used, I still think they’re perfectly valid and true. But herein lies the problem with going after a person: however much they’re fair game and seem to be begging for a fight, it degrades the entire debate. Don’t fall for it.
A good general rule here: Assuming that all your points are 100% correct, if you have 2 very strong arguments about the facts, and 5 weakish arguments about the person you’re arguing with, leave the weak arguments behind. They undermine your position because your opponent can respond (just as Palmer did with me) not to the strong arguments, but to the weak ones. Counter-intuitively, weak arguments, no matter how true they are, will tend to crowd out the strong arguments.
Do not construe this post of mine as an apology. It’s not. Don’t construe this as a call to arms either, as the last thing I would want is for anyone to be harassed, insulted or accosted because of a frivolous lawsuit threat. This post is about sharing what I learned, what I regret, and cautioning my skeptic friends and allies about the perils of immediately acting on our more emotional urges. Carefully weigh your short term catharsis against the possibility of long term stress and financial strain.
We’re skeptics. If we’re doing our job right, we don’t need to defend ourselves, because we have the best facts available at the time.
I intend to be writing for a very long time. I have no plans to cease my involvement with the skeptical community. It’s likely that I will write some contentious piece again in the future. Those who trade in pseudo-science often adopt it into their identity, so that attacking the pseudo-science becomes equated with attacking the very identity of the person. I will do my very best to remember my own lessons, but there will surely be a day when someone else threatens me with a libel lawsuit. Keep in mind, the lessons I’ve learned were not just how to be more careful to avoid potentially actionable words: I also learned how to defend myself a little better.
In the future, I’ll not be threatened into silence again. If you think something I say is slanderous, libelous, or defamatory, point it out and I will discuss it with a lawyer before choosing how to proceed. If you think something I said was incorrect, point it out, provide proof of your claim, and I will happily remove the incorrect statement(s), issue a retraction, and maybe even apology (if warranted).
I’m sick of hiding from those that will intentionally obfuscate the issues with frivolous libel threats against anyone. If you want us all to get to the truth together, you have to open the dialogues of discussion, not close them. I’m going to treat my words in the future with a little more care and deliberation. Being careful with how we communicate is good not just to cover our own hides, but it truly is the most honest, and open way we can discuss.
And that’s what we all want right? An open discussion, where we can all discuss the facts.