HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

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.

Citations:
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.

10 Responses to “CAN EVERYONE BE WRONG ABOUT SOMETHING?”

  1. Tony Lance said

    What conditions typically precede or cause the overturning of an existing view? Does the dissenting side have to reach some critical mass, or is there some sort of event that precipitates the change?

  2. hhbauer said

    I’m not aware of any general or typical route. Kuhn ventured that the anomalies a theory can’t explain eventually get so bothersome that heretical ideas begin to be taken seriously, but he had been studying physics primarily, where one of the chief examples was the idea of “quanta” of energy instead of continuous energy flow. For a long time the theory of continuous flow had been unable to cope with the experimental results of emission of energy from heated bodies. Max Planck then pointed out that the results could be calculated if one assumed that energy existed in packets—but he didn’t suggest that they actually did exist in that way, just that this way of calculating gave good results, so he wasn’t totally challenging the existing view. When Einstein later pointed to the photoelectric effect as demonstrating that the energy packets were real, I suppose physicists had been softened up already. So it was at least a two-step process. Planck himself in his memoirs suggested that new ideas win out not by convincing people but by outlasting the old guard as it dies off.

    Wegener’s notion of continental drift became accepted in a roundabout way. Magnetic measurements of the sea floor showed striations that indicated that it was spreading out to both sides from ridges in mid-ocean, so the continents were evidently being pushed.

    I’m not aware of an episode where a theory was overturned that was so entrenched as HIV/AIDS is among reseachers, medical practitioners, drug manufacturers, activists, and governments. So here I doubt that lessons from history could help much. But it’s worth thinking about some more and trying to find info from other cases, thanks for an excellent query.

  3. Martin said

    HIV/AIDS is not a theory it’s a hypothesis waiting to be proven.
    Sigmund Freud (Fraud?) went to his grave believing masturbation caused insanity. Homosexuality was listed as a disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973 when it was delisted. (Nothing scientific was “discovered” about homosexualty that made no longer a disease – it either outlived its usefulness or caused a credibilty problem for psychiatry. Homosexuality as a disease still recieves support from the US military in its exclusion of gays – I believe they still consider it a disease. It will take a president with courage and persistence to change it and fire every officer that objects.

    Your posting reminded me of a quote from Thomas Szasz’s book “The Meaning of Mind” from his chapter The Abuse of Neuroscience page 88:

    Penrose (Roger Penrose Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Oxford University) believes that explaining the mind mathematically supports the view that there is no God. Frank J. Tipler, a mathematical physicist at Tulane University, believes exactly the opposite, namely, that it proves the existence of God, resurrection, and all the assorted consolations of the Christian faith. Penrose and Tipler cannot both be right, though they can both be wrong.

  4. Steve said

    I’ve read both Penrose’s work and Tipler’s, and as a fully-trained mathematician myself, I can say with some authority that both of them are full of it. 🙂

    How this helps to overturn the HIV/AIDS dogma I don’t exactly know. I think I’m inclined to side with Planck in the sense that we’ll have to wait for the entrenched stalwarts to retire and/or die off. I suspect the only other way out is for a president with integrity and gumption to set things right directly from the top.

  5. MacDonald said

    I may be a bit reductionist here, but I do not see that Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions differs so much from traditional Socratic and later Hegelian dialectics: A viewpoint is advanced in the form of a thesis like this:

    Thesis: the definition of “pious” is “that which is loved by the gods”.

    Antithesis: Some things are loved by one god and hated by another, which means something can be impious and pious at the same time.

    For Euthyphro and Socrates, the discussion ends when they come up against this (seemingly) irreconcilable paradox, which is meant as representative of an endless string of paradoxes, arising not so much from isolated facts concerning what is an instance of “pious”, as from the framework in which we observe such facts.

    Three roads a paradigm shift could take present themselves. 1; A revision of our ideas about the nature of the gods. 2; The decision, perhaps favoured by Socrates, that in the New Greek Aeon of Reason,
    there is no longer room for the notion of gods — for have they not cancelled themselves out in the logical paradox? 3; A revision of the tool itself — dialectical reasoning founded on either-or logic. The option furthest from the Greek mind at that point, it seems.

    What this example hopefully demonstrates is that the paradox forces rethinking, but it does not assign truth-value. It shows that a certain conceptual framework is inadequate for our present purposes, but the errand cannot be to falsify thesis or antithesis. The moment we think we have falsified the thesis that certain things are pious because loved by the gods, we have focused on the finger instead of the heavenly glory to which it points, as the Taoists say: We have remained within the framework of the paradigm, and incidentally we have also plunged into science-cultism, the belief in intrinsic progress towards the truth about isolated facts.

    I cannot forbear to give the beautiful example by Hegel in which the logic of either-or is transcended by the synthesis of thesis and antithesis:

    “Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being (Sein); but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing (Nichts). When it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (consider life: old organisms die as new organisms are created or born), both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming.”

    Here the static view of Being and Nothing, Life and Death, Love and Hate, which produced Socrates’ and Euthyphro’s stalemate is resolved in a third category which unites them dynamically. That means we have improved the conceptual tools with which we operate; we will forever look upon Being and Nothing in a different light, but we have falsified neither of the concepts, nor any of their artificially isolated instances.

    A paradigm is never about isolated facts such as “Does HIV cause AIDS?” “Do viruses exist or not?” etc.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic

  6. Dave said

    Can everyone be wrong?

    Of course.

    Look at the tobacco industry from the 1930’s to the 1990’s. The cultural penetration was immense. The marketing was ruthless. They convinced millions of intelligent, caring, honorable Americans that smoking this filthy weed was cool! Despite the fact that it was known to cause emphysema in the short term and cancer in the long run. Billions of dollars were at stake. Scientific inquiry was distorted and compromised.

    Yet, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart sure looked cool on the big screen with cigarettes from their lips.

    Fast forward 50 years — same type of thing with AIDS.

  7. hugosw said

    I think most people can easily understand that there are serious problems with the present belief that HIV causes AIDS, but as long as almost everybody professionally interested in the issue is dependent on the money flowing their way, nothing will change. What would change the scene instantaneously is if the money stopped flowing freely. The obvious solution is therefore to find a “better”, more profitable question to investigate. When there is no more money in HIV, there will be nobody admitting to having ever been interested in the hypothesis that HIV causes AIDS.
    I used to think of the Berlin Wall as an analogy. It was very solid and real up until the day it fell.

  8. Kevin said

    “What would change the scene instantaneously is if the money stopped flowing freely.”

    I completely agree, Hugo, and I think the free-flowing money will be drying up sooner, rather than later. Credit contraction will be with us for a very long time, and accountability will return to our society, out of necessity. The age of asset bubbles is over. Given that realization, I’m not sure our consumerist society will even survive, and I’m not altogether sure that that is a bad thing, except that I selfishly fear for my own well-being in a world that faces ever-increasing instability. Suffice to say, that HIV/AIDS has persisted this long is but one symptom of a much more seriously “diseased” situation. The brand of ignorance championed by HIV dogmatists will have a short shelf-life, from here on out.

    Kevin

  9. Jime said

    In the case of medicine, it isn’t only a problem of paradigm, but of economic interests too. The pharmaceutical industry has an interest in the current view about diseases and health because it’s the reason for its economic gains.

    Some journalists get paid to spread the official views, as explained in the book “Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism” by Martin Walker. You can download this free online e-book from Walker’s website here:

    http://www.slingshotpublications.com/dwarfs01.pdf

    Many other people have links with official health organizations to spread disinformation about unorthodox medical views and theories:

    http://www.canlyme.com/quackwatch.html

    http://www.bolenreport.net/feature_articles/feature_article070.htm

    This is a deliberate plan, an intentional and well-prepared agenda, not “only” a problem of scientific paradigms.

  10. hhbauer said

    Jime:

    I fully agree about the commercial vested interests. But— unfortunately! —it’s not deliberate. If it were, it would be easier to combat. The problem is an interlocked academic-government-pharma complex that has developed over quite a long time and has finally become really troublesome; see my essay on knowedge monopolies and research cartels, “21st century science”, available at http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/21stCenturyScience.pdf

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