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Saturday, April 18, 2009

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

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:

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