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Skepticism in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons

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Skepticism Examiner has attempted (April 13, 2009) to shed some light on why Amanda Gefter’s recent, foolish story on why materialism is right and design is wrong was pulled from New Scientist. The only copy I have been offered has a problem with its security certificate, so I cannot recommend going there, unfortunately.

I still don’t understand what the problem with the story is.

I thought the story silly, but considered pulling it a gross shame. As I have made clear in all communications on the subject, despite the fact that Gefter misrepresents me and has persistently done so, I was not the person who complained.

I have no idea what happened, but fear that the most likely answer is – yet another cock-up due to Britain’s unreformed libel laws. Today, people troll the planet looking for foolish jurisdictions that do not have clear libel laws.

Let me recommend a sound, traditional English Common Law approach:

A person can sue for defamation – without risk of simply wasting the court’s time (and, in Canada, being forced to pay the court costs of the accused person – which is how we deter silly law suits) – if the false or unprovable statements made about him/her resulted in a specific harm (= lost a job opportunity, lost an election, was unfairly accused of throwing a sports match, etc.).

All the law of defamation really means – if rightly applied – is, you had better be sure of your facts before you go public with the accusation. In that case, the accused can claim as defenses:

1. Truth (= It’s true.)

2. Fair comment (= I have the right to say that.)

3. Public interest (= I have evidence that this person – who is standing for public office – is not of good character.)

4. Good intent (This matter may be doubtful in your view, but I mean what I said for good. I did not intend harm to anyone. = “I honestly believe that those toadstools cause cancer.”)

Having thought the matter over more thoroughly, I now think “honest mistake” should also be allowed as a defense in certain cases:

5. Here’s a sample case: The journalist phones the home of Eusebius Actron, whose phone number shows that he lives in Saskatchewan. Journalist asks, “Are you the man who was just released from prison in the robbery and murder in the ABC Bank. But some lawyers say you might be innocent?”

Having acknowledged that his name is indeed Eusebius Actron, the man shouts “Get off my phone! I won’t talk to the media! I”m calling my criminal defense lawyer!”

So the journalist reports that Eusebius Actron is now believed to be living in Saskatchewan.

Now suppose the man the journalist contacted wasn’t actually the former bank robber, but someone who just happens, for some reason, to have exactly the same name, and also happens to be living somewhere in Saskatchewan?

It seems unreasonable to me that the non-criminal (?) Eusebius Actron could have a serious action for libel in such a case. He refused to acknowledge that he is not the convicted bank robber, which is all the journalist wanted to know in the first place. And his behaviour led the journalist to reasonably assume that he was.

I do not see why a journalist should be responsible for purveying false information that is not contested by the subject and perhaps not even easily checked, if the journalist does not have access to the police computer system.

I admit this is a more difficult area than some of the matters addressed above. But honest mistakes happen in all fields, and we certainly need to discuss levels of responsibility.

Okay, back to our main story: Amanda Gefter has – falsely – labelled me a creationist. But that doesn’t really matter because – were it true – it would be of no real consequence. Gefter can define the term ”creationist” any way she wants, I suppose.

By contrast, if someone were to falsely label me a car thief, that would be another matter … then, I might need to consider an action for defamation. That term is specifically defined, and I have never been convicted for any criminal offence. And false allegations that actually mattered might raise my insurance rates …

In an apparent attempt to explain what happened, I love the sentence

If O’Leary is to be believed, then that leaves Le Fanu.

Well, I am to be believed.

I have never met Le Fanu, know nothing about him, and have not got to his new book yet, though I hear it is making something of a stir.

You will not find a scrap of evidence that I have ever sought legal redress regarding any foolishness that Amanda Gefter has written about me or about any of my colleagues.

In any event, it would be entirely contrary to principles to which I have dedicated my entire professional life. So you may just as well just believe that, and save yourselves a heap of wasted research.

“New scientists”: Why not try to find out what is really happening, instead of telling yourselves dark tales in the dark?

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

Thanks, Seversky, for agreeing with me about the urgent need for reform of Britain's defamation laws (= both libel and slander). They are - as you imply - now used for all sorts of purposes that have nothing to do with the original intent: to compensate living persons for actual harm done to them by demonstrably false statements. (= Jane Schmeazle doesn't get a job washing car windows at a dealership because someone persistently asserts in the media that she is a car thief, but that is untrue/unproven - and the untrue/unproven statements are costing her her livelihood.) Concepts, religions, ideas, dead persons, et cetera, should never be causes under any kind of defamation law - because they do not have interests in this world in the specific sense I am describing above. And no libel law should be constructed in such a way as to prevent vigorous public debate. O'Leary
David Kellogg; Most journalists would not do a story on a single phone call or letter, unless the person in question is very important in some way. But if a person, for whatever reason, persistently misrepresents himself - the only point I am trying to make is that the journalist should be able to rely on the legal defense of honest mistake. If you wish to say something about this site, why not go ahead and do so? O'Leary
David Kellogg does not sound like he has ever had to deal with a news deadline or with people who persistently misrepresent/undeerrepresent/overrepresent themselves - or are just plain confused and have no idea what information would be useful or how to convey it, or what difference the information would make. Phoning them is the usual procedure - but it may not necessarily help. Anyway, the question of honest mistake is certainly discussable. I only offer it because I can see how, under certain circumstances, it may properly be offered as a defense to a libel action. O'Leary
In (5), the sample case, the journalist should be fired for gross incompetence. The journalist has a duty to determine if this is the person or not before reporting. Also, reporting that the person "is now believed to be living in Saskatchewan" is inaccurate. Believed by whom? The journalist alone, apparently. There's no collective belief by anybody but a journalist who wouldn't take more effort than call a number in a phone book. David Kellogg
Good thoughts, Steve. I wish Le Fanu would issue a statement. Or New Scientist. I am certainly not the only person who would like to know what is going on here. I am especially concerned because I am a Free Speech journalist, here in Canada. I will try to prioritize reading L-F's book. There are a number of new books coming out on the design side, so I can't help wondering ... is this all just a ruse to reach the top of people's overloaded In Trays? Oh, who knows? But if it is not a ruse I'll thank anyone for trying to find out what is happening. I agree that Gefter's conspirazoid ramblings do no credit to New Scientist. But surely most people solve the problem by just flipping the page. So ... ? This vaguely reminds me of the situation a few years ago when commenters were writing here to UD to rant about Ann Coulter (an American pundette, sometimes bestselling). At one point, I responded something like: YOU give her the power, because you listen. Stop listening, and she loses power. Don't write to me to complain about Coulter if you are listening to her and speaking and writing about her. And if you are not listening to Coulter, you don't actually know what she is saying, so why ... ? And if very few people are listening to her, hasn't the problem you are ranting about solved itself? It felt sort of like a guy bashing his head against a brick wall and complaining that his head hurts - but he won't stop. And he wants me to help pass a law against brick walls. Yeah really. O'Leary
I have risked cyber life and limb to read Gefter’s banned piece. My guess is that it was probably Le Fanu who got it pulled. It’s too bad that it was pulled, not merely for the civil rights reasons but also because it did a very good job – unwittingly – in showing just how philosophically illiterate contemporary Darwinists can be. Her piece is intended as a reader’s guide on how to spot hidden creationist motives in popular science books that do not present themselves as being pro-creationist. The clues are familiar but when they are assembled into a checklist, they will make philosophers cringe. She says stuff like no scientific supporter of evolution would ever call him/herself a ‘Darwinist’. Well, that certainly leaves evolution’s able philosophical supporters like Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett out in the cold! She also says that crypto-creationism can be found whenever someone holds Darwin’s theory responsible for the bad things it inspired, as per the Expelled film. I wonder where she stands on the GOOD things that Darwin’s theory inspired – an exercise I’ll leave for the reader….. Steve Fuller
I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with both Denyse O'Leary and George Monbiot about the oppressive and scandalously unjust nature of British libel law. It is in urgent need of reform. The suspicion must be, as Monbiot argued, that it has been allowed to continue as is for so long because it is so useful for protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Seversky

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