HIV/AIDS exemplifies scientific illiteracy
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/11/13
HIV was never shown to have caused AIDS.
Nevertheless, during three decades huge arrays of people and organizations have become engaged in a variety of activities based on the mistaken belief that HIV is an infectious immune-system-killing virus that caused and continues to cause AIDS.
That such a mistake could metastasize so massively seems incredible to the conventional wisdom, which regards it as impossible that “science” could go so wrong — after all, this is a scientific age in which all manner of technological marvels are accomplished all the time; and science itself can’t go wrong because it uses the scientific method and is self-correcting.
The conventional wisdom can hardly accept that it’s wrong about HIV/AIDS so long as it doesn’t realize that it’s wrong about science. It needs to be understood that
1. Science is not self-correcting.
2. Science is not done by “the scientific method”.
3. Scientists are not the appropriate experts to explain science to policymakers, the public, or the media. On the whole*, scientists know only the technical intricacies of what they do; they don’t understand the epistemology and sociology of science and they are ignorant of or mistaken about the history of science.
Science is not unique in this respect. Quite generally, those who do things don’t necessarily understand what they’re doing.
That’s to say, they don’t necessarily understand how what they’re doing fits into the larger picture. Why are they’re doing it? Why does it exist to be done? Why has the wider society made it possible to do it? Does it connect with other aspects of human society? How? Are the connections beneficial — and if so, to whom? Is it worth doing, in other words, and if so, in whose opinion?
Practitioners are obsessed with the parts of a tree, and their view doesn’t extend to the surrounding forest, as the hoary old metaphor would put it.
Politicians, for example, may be extraordinarily adept at getting elected and working within their particular system; but if you want to understand what’s going on in political matters, politicians are not the people you want to consult; you can get better guidance from historians, political scientists, journalists, novelists.
Within the social sciences and the humanities, this is universally understood, at least implicitly. Critics explain the wider significance and value and meaning of novels, plays, poems; the novelists, playwrights, poets do their own things, but they don’t see those things in perspective.
What’s understood in and about the humanities and social sciences is not understood with respect to science and medicine. The experts consulted and cited about matters of science and medicine are scientists and doctors; they are supposed to explain to the rest of us what science and medicine are about, what they mean to our culture and our society, how we should use what they produce. Scientists and doctors represent Science and Medicine in the same way as priests represent Religion: as unquestionable authorities.
But scientists don’t understand science in the same sense that politicians don’t understand politics and novelists don’t understand literature, and doctors don’t understand medicine in the same sense that politicians don’t understand politics and novelists don’t understand literature. There’s the need for science critics and for medicine critics just as there’s the need for art critics, literature critics, music critics.
Above all, public policy should be informed by science critics and by medicine critics, not by scientists or doctors.
So far, science criticism has barely emerged, and insofar as it exists it has not emerged from the academy into public discourse, where it belongs.
Only within the last few decades has the intellectual basis for science criticism begun to form as philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists and others cooperated in ventures like programs in “Science and Society”, “Science Studies”, “Technology Studies”. This nascent interdisciplinary field does not yet even have an agreed nomenclature or canonical literature. Nevertheless, there is massive consensus on a few points like those above:
1. Science is not self-correcting.
2. Science is not done by “the scientific method”.
3. Scientists are not the appropriate experts to explain science to policymakers, the public, or the media.
4. Any distinction between “pure” and “applied” science has essentially dissipated.
5. The inputs and outputs of scientific research now depend as much on factors external to science as on internal matters: funding, political attitudes and controls, social acceptability, bureaucratic aspects and the like influence heavily what research is done, how results are disseminated or suppressed, how society benefits or suffers as a result of scientific research.
Once these points are established, everything about the HIV/AIDS mess becomes explicable, because the view that HIV causes AIDS became accepted as a consequence of social and political factors, not scientific ones:
The initiating event was not any scientific publication, it was the press conference on 23 April 1984 at which Margaret Heckler, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced the discovery of the “probable” cause of AIDS by Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute.
The National Institutes of Health, which is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, is the chief provider of public research funds to biologists and clinical researchers. The press conference served to alert them to the best approach for getting research funding: study the AIDS-causing virus.
And so it went. The history of HIV and of AIDS has been written about by many people from a variety of viewpoints. No matter the differences among these accounts, close reading of just about any of them will illustrate how social and political rather than scientific factors were influential; where technical matters are mentioned, keep in mind that force was given to those technical issues by the mainstream hegemony, which is viewed as authoritative in interpreting data. For example, Rethinkers, and fence-sitters or -jumpers like Root-Bernstein, have interpreted the evidence relating to HIV, AIDS, and hemophiliacs quite differently than the mainstream, but the latter carried the day so far as journalists and policy makers are concerned. Again, Rodney Richards has shown how the detection of “HIV antibodies” came to be taken as proof of infection without benefit of evidence, purely as a result of decisions within and statements from the bureaucracy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The science relating to HIV and to AIDS has never supported the mainstream assertions. Vested interests determined the course of events: careerism, political exigencies, empire-building in government agencies, financial benefits for companies and individuals. Once an activity commands billions of dollars of annual expenditure, mere scientific findings can exert little if any practical influence.
HIV/AIDS was not built out of science, and it will not be destroyed purely by science. The necessary science has been available for a long time. What’s needed is for the conventional wisdom to recognize that mainstream science and medicine are not necessarily right; and for that to happen, the conventional wisdom must abandon its misconceptions about science and medicine.
The conventional wisdom will not be changed directly by the growth of academic ventures in science and technology studies (STS). Possibly those who are educated in those fields may eventually exert an influence if they gain relevant positions in government or the media or foundations or think tanks. For the nonce, though, there remains a sad lack of sorely need science criticism: informed critiquing of very specific matters — not abstract wide-ranging criticism of “science” as a whole. or of “technology” as a whole, but criticism as practiced in the arts and humanities: criticism grounded in a passion for the general activity and seeking to explicate particular instances of it and their significance.
For lengthier discussions of this need, see
Maurice Goldsmith, The Science Critic : A Critical Analysis of the Popular Presentation of Science, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Eugene Garfield, “Science needs critics”, THE SCIENTIST, 12 January 1987.
Don Ihde, Why not science critics? in Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science, Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Declan Fahy, “Skeptical of science”, 28 September 2011, The Observatory — Columbia Journalism Review.
* “On the whole”: Of course there are individual exceptions, as always. Those exceptions have no more influence on and significance for public policy than, for instance, AIDS Rethinkers have with respect to mainstream HIV/AIDS dogma.