CAN EVERYONE BE WRONG ABOUT SOMETHING?
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/04/07
After just a little thought, most people would answer “Yes” to that question, surely. After all, everyone has been wrong about all sorts of things over the ages; the Earth being flat is perhaps the most commonly cited example (though it’s a popular misconception that this was the case as recently as medieval times).
Most people, too, would have to agree that there are some matters over which large chunks of humanity must be wrong. When it comes to God, say, there are a number of competing beliefs, none of which commands majority adherence even though no more than one of them can be correct. Most people would see matters of politics as another and similar illustration. Yet on those very same questions of politics and religion, each group of adherents is firmly convinced that their group—and only their group—has it right while all the others have it wrong. In other words, all manner of minorities believe that the others, who are in a majority, are wrong.
But in this age which is often (self-)described as a scientific age, there’s a widespread belief that science is somehow exempt from the polarization of opinions that characterizes other spheres of intellectual life, that science possesses some magic ability—namely, the scientific method—to have it always right; and it’s blithely taken for granted that science is synonymous with the established institutions of science and with the views of those who happen to hold leading positions in those institutions.
That circumstance coexists with a general willingness to cite Thomas Kuhn (1962/70) on “paradigm shifts” and “scientific revolutions”, and to get the significance of Kuhn’s work entirely wrong. It’s not that science advances by periodic giant and revolutionary steps; “revolution” here means getting rid of the present order. Kuhn’s insight, buttressed by a pretty good knowledge of the history of science, is that periodically the accepted view of things is overturned, as it’s realized that what was previously believed to be right turns out to be wrong.
Very little known are the works of Bernard Barber (1961) and Gunther Stent (1978), lately revisited in an important, long-overdue discussion (Hook 2002): history of science reveals that corrections of mistaken scientific paradigms are always fiercely resisted up to the very moment that they succumb to a revolution. Just now I came across a discussion of this phenomenon that predates Barber’s classic and focuses in large part on matters of medicine (Stevenson 1958).
By and large, it’s only scientific pioneers who discover this truth of routine resistance to new scientific discoveries, when the pioneer’s peers refuse to consider even well-supported claims that don’t fit the mainstream consensus. Peter Duesberg illustrates the surprise that such pioneers experience when the approbation and high regard they have long enjoyed is suddenly switched off, indeed reversed, because they said something different.
Even when these insights of Barber and Kuhn and Stent and Stevenson are recalled and pointed out, it doesn’t shake the mainstream belief on any given topic; somehow, the conventional wisdom is able to sustain the illogical and intellectually unsustainable view that this time, on this particular issue, one can be absolutely sure that “science”—the mainstream, their own group, the Establishment—has it right beyond any doubt. Added to the certainty expressed by the insiders is that disseminated by the science groupies, herds of dogmatists who reveal themselves on blogs as utterly sure about matters of which they actually have little if any direct knowledge. All they know is that it’s what “science” says and so it must be right. Such dogmatists may be found in academe as elsewhere, and they populate such organizations as the Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which is comprised of more non-scientists than scientists, does no investigating, and is as one-sided in its approach to evidence as those blogs that style themselves as scientific.
Over the years, I’ve come to prize more and more those rare individuals who are able to admit their own fallibility and who strive to mold their beliefs to the best available empirical evidence while remaining aware that what’s now the best available will not remain so. I’ve found such individuals everywhere, even in the ranks of CSICOP. The late Gordon Stein, for example, was active in CSICOP and intent on debunking what deserves to be debunked while refraining from the indiscriminate castigation of every unorthodox opinion in which most CSICOPpers indulge. Just as I know of no one who is always right, so too I’ve not been unfortunate enough to get personally into contact with anyone who is always wrong. (Well . . . maybe I can think of a couple.)
The state of affairs that I’ve described applies, of course, to HIV/AIDS as to many other and many less prominent topics. Dogmatists over HIV/AIDS will readily—or at least ultimately—admit that, of course, science and medicine have sometimes been quite wrong; it just happens, they maintain, that this time and on this issue, there’s just no doubt at all. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming, and the overwhelming majority of qualified and competent doctors and scientists are unanimous about it.
The trouble is, those dogmatists are committing the usual, the typical, the routine error of not applying to their one pet subject the lessons that history offers; and, as the saying goes, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”.
It’s not only the lessons from history of science that they forget; it’s also the substantive history of HIV/AIDS itself. “HIV” was never isolated by Gallo from all his AIDS patients, in fact he claimed to have found it in fewer AIDS patients than in association with what used to be called pre-AIDS. As Michelle Cochrane has documented, the shibboleth that the early AIDS victims were “young” and “previously healthy” is wrong on both those counts. As John Lauritsen pointed out long ago, the shibboleth that the early AIDS victims were young, previously healthy “gay men” is also misleading because the common factor was drug abuse, not gay sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seem to have forgotten that they have proclaimed year after year for about two decades that about 1 million Americans were “HIV”-positive, as they continue to talk of spreading infections. Some of the most careful and comprehensive studies are ignored whenever they conflict with the accepted view: the Concorde study which showed AZT to be useless at best and CD4 counts to be clinically irrelevant; the Rodriguez study that found no correlation between CD4 counts and “viral load”; the Antiretroviral Collaboration, with data from 22,000 patients, which found that HAART brings “adverse events” on sooner. The significance is ignored of huge masses of data: that HIV tests do not track an infectious agent; that deaths from HIV disease show no sign that the “lifesaving” antiretroviral drugs have extended life; that every bright idea for a vaccine against HIV fails to make good on its promise. And innumerable self-contradictions are swallowed whole, say, that HIV crossed in Africa from monkeys or chimps to humans, did no damage there but made its way to the Western Hemisphere where it produced the first epidemics, whose cause was then somehow transported back to Africa to spread like wildfire there even though it hasn’t in the developed countries where it first appeared. This infectious disease is unique, unprecedented, “everyone” is willing to accept: it discriminates by race, unlike every other infectious disease; it kills preferentially adults in the prime years of life, unlike every other infectious disease; the virus multiplies prodigiously without being detectable, and it mutates at an unprecedented rate while remaining fully pathogenic.
And so on. During these months where I’ve become increasingly irritated by the lack of intellectual integrity displayed by political partisans and pundits, I find myself sadly reminded that intellectual integrity is in short supply everywhere, by no means excluding academe, science, and medicine.
Barber, Bernard (1961). Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery. Science, 134: 596-602.
Hook, Ernest B. (ed) (2002). Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962/70). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1st ed. 1962, enlarged 2nd ed. 1970).
Stent, Gunther (1972). Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery. Scientific American, December, 84-93.
Stevenson, Ian. (1958). Scientists with half-closed minds. Harper’s Magazine, 217: 64-71.