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[e-drug] The perils of free speech

E-drug: The perils of free speech
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Recently, the E-drug moderators received comments on the quality of some of
the article abstracts, newspaper cuttings  or newsletters from information
centres that we post. It was felt we should 'peer-review' (censor) them
before posting. The moderators did not agree and decided to continue posting
material on subjects we find may be of interest to our subscribers.
Sometimes we do comment on the postings ourselves and encourage E-druggers
to respond, but we do not always have the time or expertise to do so. Of
course newspapers may be biased, and studies that are published may always
be criticised and may have flaws in methodology and statistical analysis
even if they have been peer-reviewed and appear in journals regarded as
leading. Opinion will always differ even between experts. We feel therefore,
that we cannot be censors, but leave it to our E-druggers to be alert and
critical and not swallow everything they read even if posted on E-drug! We
do encourage you to comment on such postings, this is the most fruitful
solution - we think.

In BMJ 5 December we find some support for this decision to encourage free
speech in the editor Richard Smiths' column Editor's choice (copied below)
titled The perils of free speech.

BMJ  327, 6 December 2003

Editor's choice
The perils of free speech
An enthusiasm for free speech can lead you into strange company. For the
past two
weeks I've been receiving a stream of emails from "AIDS deniers" (those who
are
sceptical of the connection between HIV and AIDS) praising me for my love of
debate. The praise follows an article in Nature (20 November, p 215) in
which AIDS
researchers criticised the BMJ for allowing "AIDS deniers" to post dozens of
rapid
responses on our website. If you search on bmj.com for material on AIDS then
much
of what you will discover questions the connection between HIV and AIDS.
(If,
however, you search "articles only," which excludes rapid responses, you'll
find little
such material.)

On Friday I opened the Times (28 November, p 31) and discover that I'm
quoted with
approval by Lord Harris of High Cross, a former chairman of Forest, the
"voice and
friend of the smoker." The quote came in response to the fury that followed
our
publishing research on passive smoking funded by the tobacco industry. "We
must," I
wrote, "be interested in whether passive smoking kills, and the question has
not been
definitively answered." Reading the quote on a Forest advertisement tightens
my
anus, but I wrote it and can't deny it.

If you can tell a man by the company he keeps, then I'm going off the public
health
rails. But why? It's because of the deep commitment of the BMJ to unfettered
debate.
Those who read our rapid responses will find strange beasts, contorted
prose, and
rank nonsense. But the babblings of fools and lunatics are not always easy
to
distinguish from the mutterings of genius.

When taken to task over some of the rubbish we post as rapid responses I
always
resort to Milton because of his beautiful writing and clarity of argument:
"Give me," he
wrote, "the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to
conscience,
above all liberties. Truth was never put to the worse in a free and open
encounter... It
is not impossible that she [truth] may have more shapes than one... If it
come to
prohibiting, there is not ought more likely to be prohibited than truth
itself, whose first
appearance to our eyes bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom is more
unsightly and implausible than many errors... Where there is much desire to
learn
there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for
opinion in
good men is but knowledge in the making."

The most practical argument for free speech comes from the Nobel laureate
Amatya
Sen, the author of our first editorial (p 1297). He has pointed out that
famine does not
occur in countries with a free press. This is because famine is a problem of
distribution not of absolute lack of food. A free press will create such
clamour that a
government has to act. The greater value of free speech outweighs the
discomfort of
foolish thinking.

Richard Smith, editor
rsmith@bmj.com

Comments are welcome also to this posting!

Kirsten Myhr, MScPharm, MPH
Head, RELIS Ost Drug Information Centre
Ulleval University Hospital
0407 OSLO, Norway
Tel: +47 23 01 64 11  Fax: +47 23 01 64 10
myhr@online.no
www.relis.no

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