Trying to think about the Unthinkable
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/01/02
“Unthinkable” connotes different things in different contexts; it’s often value-laden — “an unthinkable horror” — but I’m using it here in the most basic sense of “inconceivable, impossible to imagine, not possible — impossible to think about”.
I had ascribed to cognitive dissonance, my difficulty in seeing that mortality (rate of death) among PWAs has nothing to do with individual deaths (median age of death) among PWAs [Cognitive dissonance: a human condition, 26 December 2008]; but my difficulty stemmed not only from the human penchant for cognitive dissonance, it was also owing to the logical impossibility of making sense of things that make no sense, trying to think about things that are unthinkable because there’s nothing to think about. If you try, you tangle your mind into Gordian knots.
The specific trouble here is that “mortality” and “death”, in general, in ordinary circumstances, when applying both to the same population, go together; “rates of death” and “average age of death” obviously ought to be related in some way. So it’s understandable that one begins by assuming that they also go together when it comes to “HIV” and “AIDS”. But since the latter aren’t definitive “things”, the populations of people classed as having “HIV” or “AIDS” aren’t “natural kinds”. You might equally try to compare the mortality among Andaman Islanders with the average age of death among the Sami. Since the normal connection between mortality and death for a definite population doesn’t apply with “HIV/AIDS”, trying to think about the data brings up only mind-bending conundrums; until one finally realizes that there’s nothing there to think about, because “HIV” has nothing to do with “AIDS”.
The mortality among people defined as “PWAs” has changed in a manner that shows there is no functional relationship between “being a PWA” and the individual risk of dying for a person classified as “PWA” (reflected in the average age at which “PWAs” are reported to die). Therefore the basis for classifying someone as “PWA”, namely, “risk of dying from HIV disease, a.k.a. AIDS”, is wrong. Being classed as “having AIDS” has no functional connection to “risk of dying from AIDS”. Seems crazy, makes no sense — until you thoroughly absorb the fact that “HIV”, the criterion for “at risk of dying from AIDS”, actually has nothing to do with “AIDS”.
But if you’re stuck in the belief that HIV=AIDS, you’re doomed to attempt impossible explanations and to make nonsensical statements. So I occasionally get comments like the following from the ilk of Köpek Burun, The Snout, pseudo “Hank Barnes” at Change.org, Chris Noble, etc:
“There is a difference between two things being unrelated and them being inconsistent or contradictory.”
That boggled my mind. Of course there’s a difference, but we’re not talking about the definition of words. The point is that mortality and age of death are unrelated among “PWAs”, which demonstrates that “risk of death from HIV disease”, the criterion for being in the group of PWAs, doesn’t equate with the actual “risk of death from HIV disease” as experienced by individual PWAs. So “HIV”, being unrelated to “AIDS”, cannot be the cause of “AIDS”. It’s then utterly meaningless to attempt to consider whether “HIV” is consistent with or contradictory of “AIDS”; they just have nothing to do with one another. That disproves HIV/AIDS theory. Case closed.
Then KP-ilk continued:
“There may be no functional relationship between the price of sardines and size of oranges but this does not logically correspond to them being inconsistent or contradictory.”
Exactly. It’s meaningless to attempt to consider whether (sardines-price)-“HIV” is consistent with or contradictory of (oranges-size)-“AIDS”; they just have nothing to do with one another. That disproves (sardines-price)-“HIV”/(oranges-size)-“AIDS” theory. Case closed.
But KP-ilk went yet further:
“If you are claiming that the median age at death data contradicts the mortality data then you are obliged to show us what the relationship should be.”
But I’m not saying the mortality and death data contradict one another, I’m pointing out that they are not related. That disproves HIV/AIDS theory. Case closed.
Beyond that, here KP-ilk asserts a generalization that’s empirically baseless and illogical to boot: that when two things are not related, and therefore one is not the cause of the other, that cannot be recognized without postulating what the relationship between them should be if they were related!
Continuing in that vein, KP-ilk concludes with a statement that, pace Wolfgang Pauli, is “not even wrong”:
“If you are claiming that the median age at death data are not simply and directly related to the mortality data then this is not a disproof of the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS.”
Except, of course, the lack of any functional relationship between “at risk of dying from HIV disease, a.k.a. AIDS” and “at risk of dying from HIV disease, a.k.a. AIDS” does disprove the assertion that being a PWA, i.e. suffering from “HIV disease”, puts one at risk of dying from “HIV disease a.k.a. AIDS”. If there could be a clearer disproof of the claim that HIV causes AIDS, I’d like to know what it could be.
This aspect of HIV/AIDS, trying to think the unthinkable, is yet another similarity between HIV/AIDS and subjects that are often called pseudo-science: typically one is looking for explanations for which no explanation seems available, at least one consistent with logic and contemporary knowledge.
The topic of this sort that I know most about concerns Loch Ness “monsters”, a.k.a. Nessies. There’s a film of unquestioned authenticity that shows a large animal swimming in the Loch. Innumerable sonar contacts have been recorded with large moving underwater objects. A few still photos of underwater objects are consistent with several thousand eyewitness reports. BUT there is no explanation so far offered that is consistent with contemporary knowledge within biology. The apparent shape of the animals is like nothing except species (plesiosaurs) extinct for tens of millions of years; which, moreover, were air-breathing and would be seen at the surface far more often than Nessies are. Perhaps that’s what makes the mystery so universally fascinating.
Parapsychology affords similar conundrums. If it’s possible to glimpse the future, then one could do something to change it, transgressing common sense; or, it would mean that we don’t have the free will that subjectively we are sure we do have. Or, if the claims of above-chance psychokinesis or precognition are warranted, even at only a few percent above chance, then it would be possible to break casinos and win the sums of money that parapsychologists claim to need to further their research, which hasn’t been done even by those who claim to have successfully made money by above-chance predictions; why ever did they stop?
However, with Nessies and psychic phenomena and UFOs and the like, there are many evident gaps in empirical knowledge, so there exists the possibility (somewhere in the “unknown unknown” *) that future observations could provide satisfactory understanding of the empirical data. As concerns extrasensory perception, there’s even a plausible analogy in the phenomenon of quantum entanglement at the sub-microscopic level. With HIV/AIDS, there’s no such hope, because data in hand have already disproved decisively the notion that HIV causes AIDS.
* for a discussion of the “unknown unknown”, see my book, Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press, 2001