Libel laws silenced me, says Francisco Lacerda, critic of lie detector system
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England’s libel laws have been used to silence scientific critics of lie detection technology on which the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has spent £2.4 million.
An academic from Sweden will tell MPs today how a paper challenging the principles behind the voice risk analysis (VRA) system was withdrawn by his publisher after legal threats from its manufacturer.
In an interview with The Times before a House of Commons seminar on his case, Francisco Lacerda, professor of phonetics at Stockholm University, said that the case showed how English law was damaging science abroad as well as in the UK.
Because English was the international language of science, and many important academic journals were based in Britain, anybody who published controversial work could be at risk of being sued, he said.
Libel law was also suppressing information that should be available in the public interest, he added. A public interest defence and controls on costs were needed to protect free scientific debate.
“I feel my duty to return to society the knowledge I have been gathering cannot be done because of the English libel laws,” Professor Lacerda said. “MPs have to find a way to allow scientists to challenge claims freely.
“It is a big problem, not only for English scientists. If you publish in English, as scientists must, you are at risk.”
Professor Lacerda has come to London to support the Libel Reform Coalition, which is campaigning for changes in the law after a series of high-profile defamation actions against scientists.
Simon Singh, the science writer, is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning the evidence for its medical claims, and Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist, is being sued over his criticisms of an American company’s heart implant trial.
The campaign has been backed by Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, and more than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling for reform.
In 2007, Professor Lacerda and Anders Eriksson, of Gothenburg University, published an article entitled “Charlatanry in Forensic Speech Science” in the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law. It criticised the science behind analysis technologies that purport to identify stressed voices, which may indicate lying.
One VRA system, designed by Nemesysco, an Israeli company, is being evaluated in 24 pilot studies by the DWP, as a means of highlighting potential benefit fraud. The DWP has spent £2.4 million on the pilots, which are due to report back soon. Nemesysco threatened the journal with a libel action over the article, which was withdrawn from its website.
Amir Liberman, who devised the technology, said the paper contained inaccuracies that could damage his business, and that he had particularly objected to the title’s implication that he was a charlatan.
“Scientists’ words are taken for more than face value and therefore call for even higher responsibility,” he said. “Nobody should be protected against gross slander and defamation, and this includes scientists.”
Professor Lacerda said he felt it important that governments, insurance companies and other agencies that might buy the technology were aware of his concerns. The withdrawal of the paper will limit access to his work.
“We expected a rebuttal of the claims, but in the academic literature, not in court,” he said. “That has a suffocating effect on science.”
A spokeswoman for the DWP said officials running the trial were aware of the Lacerda paper, and that the department had a duty “to do everything we can to stop fraud in the benefit system".
Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, which is part of the Libel Reform Coalition, said: “With such high costs and few defences, it is not surprising that threats of libel action from big companies succeed in getting publications withdrawn and critical views silenced.”
Dr Singh said that the case showed the international reach of English libel law.
“It is bad enough that English libel law can intimidate British scientists, but when our law begins to silence overseas academics such as Professor Lacerda then we need to take responsibility for the global chill caused by our legal system.”