Bad Science, Journalism, Law and the Internet

Dr. Ben Goldacre writes a weekly column for the Guardian called Bad Science, in which he “skewers” journalists, politicians, advertisers and others who misrepresent, make up or ignore scientific evidence concerning the sorts of things that concern us all. He also maintains a blog by the same name, where he can (and does) expatiate on these issues. One of his recurring themes is the awful mishandling of vaccination data by the media and, consequently, the various vaccination panics that spring up around the world.

In this connection he writes about an interview he gave on LBC Radio in the UK (“London’s Biggest Conversation”) with their Jeni Barnett (“vulnerable passionate, strong”). Because, in his words, her opinions “exemplified some of the most irresponsible, ill-informed, and ignorant anti-vaccination campaigning that I have ever heard on the public airwaves,” he posted the 44-minute segment of her show on his blog. Now he’s been told by LBC’s lawyers to remove the audio excerpt because it violates LBC’s copyright.

Goldacre is considerably unsettled by this demand — and, apparently, by their lawyers’ statement that LBC “reserves its rights” — labelling it “legal chill.” I suppose it is: Goldacre posted the piece as part of a serious critique of it and not as a means of making (directly, at least) money. On the other hand, someone so adept at exposing poor or absent scientific reasoning — Goldacre is a physician with a Masters degree in philosophy — should be less naive than he appears to be when it comes to basic copyright law.

At any rate, LBC may have failed to reckon with the internet. It seems that Stephen Fry, who counts me as one of his 80,000 followers on Twitter, has tweeted about Goldacre’s situation and seemingly dozens of places have either hosted the offending 44 minutes, or have offered to do so. The contest continues and will doubtless turn out to be a storm in a stein, but if it introduces you to Goldacre’s writing on bad science — or even just to the issue of vaccination panic — it’ll have done someone some good. The chances that it will result in the improvement of science journalism are very small, however.

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