HIV/AIDS and parapsychology: science or pseudo-science?
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/12/30
Burden of proof: on this point, “HIV/AIDS” fits a commonly postulated criterion for recognizing pseudo-science [“Science Studies 102: Burden of proof, HIV/AIDS ‘science’, pseudo-science”, 22 July 2008]: the proponents insist that there’s overwhelming evidence on their side while being unable to cite a manageable number of specific publications containing definitive proof; for example, publications that demonstrate that a positive “HIV”-test means that active virions of “HIV” are present in the patient (as opposed to taking cellular material from the patient, incubating it with a whole mess of pottage, and then finding miscellaneous proteins or bits of nucleic acid that are presumed to come from virions — something one could never know without having had in hand, at one time or another, some actual certifiable virions derived directly from an AIDS patient [what used to be called “isolation” — and still is, except by retrovirologists]).
There are a couple of related generalities that would also classify HIV/AIDS as pseudo-science: the significance of large amounts of claimed evidence, and the strength of evidence needed to establish a case. Defenders of HIV/AIDS theory — for example, several of the expert witnesses in the Parenzee case — assert incessantly that there are innumerable publications proving that “HIV” causes “AIDS”, while conceding that there is no single one that does so and while failing to cite even an exemplary handful. That’s reminiscent of arguments over parapsychology (the study of extrasensory perception or psychic phenomena).
Proponents of the value of parapsychological studies point to a vast literature reporting happenings that are explicable only by some mechanism that appears to work in a way not known to contemporary science: various forms of extrasensory perception such as remote viewing (clairvoyance, seeing things not in the range of sight), successful predictions or prophesies, psychokinesis (producing tangible physical effects simply by intending to), and more. The cited evidence includes not only anecdotes but a host of laboratory studies where the controls and statistical approaches are, in recent decades, as rigorous as in any social science. For example, a number of studies have concluded that “the sense (feeling, hunch) of being stared at” appears to be correct more often than chance would allow; and in so-called Ganzfeld experiments, the percipient attains information, again more often than chance would allow, while totally isolated from sensory input (blindfolded, ears muffled, in a separate room that’s often electromagnetically shielded). The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) group used computerized equipment with elaborate checking of base-lines, inerasable recording of results, etc., and still obtained above-chance results.
What have the skeptics had to say about all this?
First of all, that no individual study has proven to be fully reproducible at will. For instance, although PEAR almost always gets above-chance results, they are not always above chance to the same degree, and in independent multi-lab replications, different aspects of the data were above-chance in the various labs.
Well, how reproducible are HIV/AIDS experiments? No better than in parapsychology. Consider the matter of sexual transmission, where probabilities are often cited while one of the best studies found no transmission at all during the lifetime of the study [Padian et al., American Journal of Epidemiology 146 (1997) 350-7]. Consider the belief that “HIV” kills CD4 cells, the more so, the more “HIV” there is: yet Rodriguez et al., (JAMA 296  1498-1506) found that the level of “viral load” didn’t predict the course of CD4 depletion; and many studies have found that “virologic failure” doesn’t go hand-in-hand with “immunological failure” and that neither goes reproducibly with clinical condition.
A standard explanation to which HIV/AIDS researchers take recourse for such problems is to remind us that “HIV” mutates at unprecedented speed, and is diabolically clever in other ways as well. Of course, there’s no independent evidence for those ad hoc explanations, any more than for the parapsychological excuse that, like all human abilities, extrasensory perception isn’t perfectly controllable.
Just as parapsychology points to a vast literature, albeit no single paper or handful of papers that gives uncontestable proof, so HIV/AIDS points to a vast literature, albeit no single paper or handful of papers that gives uncontestable proof. To parapsychology, skeptics like to respond that an overwhelming amount of poor evidence, lacking controls and the like, doesn’t add up to even a smidgeon of sound evidence, elaborate meta-analyses notwithstanding (and when proponents of parapsychology do suggest the most probative results, they fail to agree among themselves what those are [see discussions in Zetetic Scholar 6 & 11, available at www.tricksterbook.com/truzzi/ZeteticScholars.html]). Similarly, AIDS Rethinkers and HIV Skeptics say to HIV/AIDS proponents: stop talking about 120,000 articles, overwhelming evidence, and so on; just cite those specific publications that you believe establish the case.
When it comes to establishing such a case, a standard demand by critics of parapsychology (and UFOs, and the like) is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” *. That’s perfectly applicable to HIV/AIDS, which makes truly extraordinary claims for the unique characteristics that it attributes to “HIV”: killing CD4 cells by some not-understood mechanism (it isn’t direct, we know that — perhaps it’s the same mechanism as in extrasensory perception or in psychokinesis?!); mutating incessantly, all the while remaining pathogenic; changing its preferred victims and preferred mode of transmission while remaining pathogenic and killing by (presumably) the same not-understood mechanism. The death rate attributed to “HIV” fell more than 5-fold in the United States from 1982 to 1996, before there was any really satisfactory treatment available; and then fell by only half from 1997 to 2004, when truly lifesaving treatment, HAART, had supposedly been available. And the median age at which people died of “HIV” disease increased by about 11% during the pre-HAART era, and by the same amount in the HAART period. Extraordinary indeed! To establish such claims, one might ask at the minimum to be given samples of actual particles of this miraculous agent; but they are as unavailable as the poltergeists and apparitions that constitute some of the more exotic claims made by some parapsychologists.
A related point about evidence and proof: There’s all the difference in the world between “this is consistent with theory Z” and “this proves theory Z”. The innumerable articles cited by HIV/AIDS proponents as “overwhelming evidence” for HIV = AIDS don’t PROVE it, they merely report things that might be interpreted as consistent with HIV/AIDS theory; even though in a number of cases, like the Padian and Rodriguez studies cited above, to interpret them as consistent with the theory is perverse (although the authors didn’t shy away from attempting to do so in the Parenzee case). By contrast, Rethinkers have offered a number of falsifications of HIV/AIDS theory: actual proofs that “HIV” isn’t infectious, that “HIV” doesn’t correlate with “AIDS”, and that mortality from “HIV disease” has varied in synch with changing definitions of “HIV/AIDS”, which is thereby seen to be an artefact.
So there’s quite a good case to be made for “HIV/AIDS” as a model example of pseudo-science: something that claims to be science but isn’t.
This saying is often attributed to Carl Sagan, though Marcello Truzzi said it earlier. As with so many aphorisms, it can be traced much further back. For a thorough tracing-back of sayings akin to, “If I’ve seen further than others, it’s because I’m a pygmy (or dwarf) standing on the shoulders of giants”, see Robert Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (University of Chicago Press, 1993).