If there’s one thing that’s enraged me as a blogger throughout the years, it’s quacks, cranks, and pseudoscientists who, not liking science- and reality-based criticism, decide to try to silence their critics by suing them for libel. My extreme dislike of such antics actually predates this blog, when I learned of Holocaust denier David Irving’s frivolous libel lawsuit against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, which is recounted here and in two books, History on Trial: My Day In Court With a Holocaust Denier by Lipstadt herself and Lying About Hitler: History, the Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, as well as a movie last year, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally been subject to such threats, although as yet no one has ever followed through, but some of my friends and bloggers I admire haven’t been so lucky. For instance, cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski hired a media manager who issued threats to sue Rhys Morgan over his criticism of Burzynski’s pseudoscience. Fortunately, they backfired. Then there was antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield’s lawsuit against Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who discovered Wakefield’s fraud and conflicts of interest. It failed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop it from being the central focus of a recent uncritical documentary. Then, of course, there was antivaccine grande dame Barbara Loe Fisher’s frivolous lawsuit against Paul Offit. It, too, was dismissed. Other quacks and cranks indulging in this behavior include Dr. Joseph Chikelue Obi’s legal threats against Andy Lewis, Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes attempt to subpoena Kathleen Seidel, HIV/AIDS denialist Matthias Rath suing Ben Goldacre, quack Andreas Moritz suing a student over a blog criticizing his quackery, and of course the British Chiropractic Association’s lawsuit against Simon Singh. Then, more recently, there was the frivolous lawsuit directed at Steve Novella, which was also lost.
If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s that pretty much all of these lawsuits by cranks and quacks against science communicators and reality-based critics are frivolous. The cranks and quacks almost always lose or see their suits thrown out. However, that doesn’t mean these suits are harmless. Defending them causes extreme anxiety, particularly among those who haven’t been the target of a lawsuit before, and require a lot of time and, above all, money. Defendants of limited means are often faced with a stark choice: Settle and be silenced or risk bankrupting themselves with legal fees. That’s why the lawsuit by naturopath Colleen Huber against ex-naturopath turned science advocate Britt Hermes pisses me off so much. It’s not just that I consider Britt a friend, having met her in person now three times last year (at NECSS, QEDCon, and CSICon) and even gone drinking with her (copiously) in Manchester at QEDCon. Rather, it’s that I’ve come to admire Britt for doing something that is so difficult that very few people can manage to do it. She actually realized that her whole career and self view was rooted in pseudoscience and, instead of doubling down and using motivated reasoning to keep from having to change, actually admitted her error and made a radical change in her life to make things right. Very few of us can do that. I don’t know if I could have done it, were I in her position.
Remember, Britt was a naturopath. She went to Bastyr University, the “Harvard” of naturopathy schools (which ain’t saying much, given that naturopathy is almost pure quackery). She practiced as a naturopath. She believed in naturopathy and really thought she was helping her patients and that her education was as good as that of any MD physician. She even evangelized for naturopathy. She was, as she herself now puts it, a quack.
Then she had a revelation. Well, it wasn’t exactly a revelation. You can hear the detailed account of her return to science in an interview with The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, or you can check out this recent interview with ZDoggMD:
And here she is at CSICon last October explaining why naturopathy is quackery in that way only she can:
She started to realize that things she was doing didn’t jibe with what she knew about science. Then, she observed her then-boss importing an unapproved cancer drug for use in his practice and reported him to Arizona’s (allegedly self-regulating) Naturopathic Regulatory Board where as a result of the Board’s investigation the naturopath in violation received nothing more than a slap on the wrist, a verbal reprimand, before being allowed to go back to his quackery. Ultimately, she renounced naturopathy, applied to graduate school to become a real scientist, and became a naturopath’s worst nightmare, someone shedding light on the pseudo-profession of naturopathy who knows where all the dirt is and where all the bodies are buried. No wonder naturopaths want to silence her at her blog, Naturopathic Diaries.
Arizona naturopath Colleen Huber is suing me in Germany for defamation over my opinions about her so-called natural cancer treatments and research. The lawsuit was filed in Kiel, Germany (where I live) on September 17th, 2017. This legal action came four weeks after Huber’s lawyers sent me a cease and desist letter that demanded I remove a blog post about Huber and pay Huber’s legal fees. My lawyer responded that allegations laid out in the letter were not correct and therefore, I would not comply. I believe Huber is attempting to stifle my right to freedom of speech with this SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).
I am fighting this lawsuit with representation by Dr. Daniel Kötz of Kötz Fusbahn Rechtsanwalte in Düsseldorf. His law firm specializes in copyright and media law and intellectual property. Dr. Kötz is the only European member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. He was recommended to me by Marc Randazza, a prominent First Amendment attorney in the United States.
This is good. This is very good. From my perspective it’s hard for me not to conclude that Huber is almost certainly doing nothing more here than trying to intimidate Britt to silence with her lawsuit. Given that she is currently a graduate student and therefore by definition of very modest means, Britt is currently facing the stark choice I mentioned above. So Britt needs money. Thankfully, the Australian Skeptics have stepped in to help raise money for a legal defense fund, and they appear to be doing it right. Noting that just what I wrote above, the Australian Skeptics compare Britt’s case to that of Simon Singh, who was successful and pretty well-off when sued:
Skeptics will be familiar with the libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh in 2008-2010. Following a judgement that Simon could use a “fair comment” defence, the BCA dropped its case. Nonetheless, Simon was still left with substantial legal costs.
While no-one likes to see anyone suffer punitive costs under such circumstances, Simon is a successful author in his own right and had the support of skeptical groups around the world. Britt is not in a similar financial situation, being a PhD student in evolutionary biology at the University of Kiel, Germany. The current case is being brought against her in a German court, and she is already incurring considerable legal costs in her defence case.
With this in mind, we are managing an international campaign to raise funds to support her financially.
Again, Colleen Huber almost certainly knows this, which is part of the reason why she’s suing. I doubt she’d sue someone with the financial means to defend herself. Here’s how any donations you make will be handled:
- The funds donated are non-refundable.
- We cannot guarantee that Britt will win her case.
- Should more funds be collected than required to cover Britt’s costs, they will be held for a period of up to 12 months to ensure the legal risk to Britt has passed, after which they will be donated to Sense About Science or be put into a generalised Skeptics legal defence fund.
- No entity linked to the campaign, including Britt, Australian Skeptics Inc (ASI) or any of the collaborators, will receive any funds raised by the campaign.
- ASI is not a registered charity in Australia and donors should not expect their donation to be tax deductible in Australia or anywhere else (depending on prevailing local regulation).
I don’t know German libel law (obviously), but if I had to guess I’d speculate that it’s probably more plaintiff-friendly than U.S. libel law, given our First Amendment and how difficult it is for a plaintiff to prevail in a libel suit in the U.S. Whatever the case, though, one shared trait of the German and American legal systems is that defending against a lawsuit is expensive. So give till it hurts. Britt deserves the best defense against this lawsuit that can be provided, and this suit has every indication from my perspective of being a SLAPP suit.
As for Colleen Huber, I described in detail hy I think she’s a despicable cancer quack once before and deconstructed her highly misleading claims of excellent survival results treating cancer patients, results that Britt also deconstructed and quite appropriately disparaged. If you don’t believe me, read my analysis, which includes the analysis of Huber’s claimed success rate and why her “evidence” doesn’t support it. Then just peruse the websites of her practice (NatureWorksBest) and her Naturopathic Cancer Society (I shudder just typing that), her Twitter feeds (practice, personal, and NCS), and Facebook pages (practice and NCS). (I can’t help but get a little snarky and say that if nature worked best there would be no cancer.) Let’s just put it this way. Huber believes in Tullio Simoncini’s ridiculous quack idea that cancer is a fungus and the way to treat it is with baking soda.
If anything, in my opinion, Britt probably went too easy on her. So, nerd shield activate! Defend Britt!