Proving HIV/AIDS — Kalichman’s blunders, in a nutshell
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/03/11
Defined as being current or of the present, science should be evaluated in light of its contemporaneousness. Today, AIDS science moves at a faster pace than any other area of medical research, with the possible exception of cancer. To understand AIDS one should not have to look back further than the past few years. For the consumer-reader, if a scientific article was published before 2000, I would say it can be considered dated, perhaps even ignored. Books published since 2000 should also be inspected for the age of their sources. Any writing in the area of AIDS that relies on sources from the 1980s should be suspect. Of the more than 116,000 scientific articles listed in the PubMed database concerning the HIV disease process, or HIV pathogenesis, over 31,000 have been published in the past 5 years. AIDS scientists are basing their conclusion that HIV causes AIDS on these current studies and these same researchers conclude that HIV treatments slow the progression of HIV to AIDS” (pp. 157-8 in “Denying AIDS” by Seth C Kalichman; emphasis added).
As I worked my way laboriously through Kalichman’s opus, I jotted notes for a dozen or more blog posts about egregiously mistaken or uproariously funny bits; but I thought I should finish reading the whole thing before doing more with those jottings. I was rewarded toward the end of the last chapter (#6; there’s also an Epilogue and a couple of Appendixes) by the just-cited paragraph, which illustrates in a convenient nutshell several of the notable failings in Kalichman’s book.
This passage has to do with how science progresses and how the significance of publications changes over time. A great deal of attention has been given to these matters in science studies: history, sociology, philosophy, etc., of science. Kalichman evidently believes himself qualified to hold forth on these, yet just about everything he says about them reveals ignorance or misunderstanding. That’s one major, central, crucial failing of this book, which is, after all, supposed to be not about “AIDS science” but about those who question its conclusions, about “AIDS denialism” and the “denialists”; and that is obviously a phenomenon to be understood via psychology of science, sociology of science, contemporary history of science, and the like, i.e., science studies.
Sure enough, as Kalichman implies, most research articles do rapidly become “dated”; but that doesn’t mean they can be ignored. Not everything claimed more than 5 years ago is now regarded as wrong. Science progresses through a process of “knowledge filtering”, whereby mistakes are stripped away and the less-mistaken stuff survives (though hardly forever, of course). For a fuller discussion, see my book, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, which has been adopted quite often in courses in science studies since its publication in 1992. (The metaphor I introduced, of “the knowledge filter”, has been widely and approvingly cited, and I’m still quite often asked for permission to reproduce parts of the book in other works or in course packets.)
Kalichman maintains that “science should be evaluated in light of its contemporaneousness”, in the sense that recent work should be relied on more than earlier stuff. That’s precisely the opposite of the correct view. No new claim should be given much credence until other researchers have shown that it can be safely relied on to guide further studies — and elsewhere, Kalichman acknowledges that: “Even the most compelling research studies require further analysis and independent replication before scientists themselves draw firm conclusions” (159). Yes indeed: as I’ve often said, REAL SCIENCE ISN’T NEWS [Scientific illiteracy, the media, science pundits, governments, and HIV/AIDS, 15 January 2009].
So ignorance of science studies while holding forth about it is one failing illustrated by the cited passage. A related failing is to mislead about the significance of earlier versus later publications, as just pointed out. That also illustrates yet another type of failing, that the book says opposite things at different places (only recent work should be attended to but recent work shouldn’t be attended to until it’s been thoroughly tested by later work).
A further type of failing in the book is lack of clarity, or ambiguity of meaning, illustrated by the initial sentence above, “Defined as being current or of the present, science should be evaluated in light of its contemporaneousness.” Does he mean BECAUSE science is defined as being current, or IF science is defined as being current? In the second case, what is then said would follow automatically from the definition — but that definition is blatantly wrong, as just discussed; search far and wide throughout the attempts by philosophers and others to define “science”, you won’t find “contemporaneousness” enshrined as a necessary criterion. If however Kalichman means the first, “BECAUSE”, then he’s just plain wrong at the outset and the rest of the paragraph can be ignored without further ado.
There are innumerable other places in the book — I’ll be pointing to some in later blog posts — where it’s simply not possible to be sure what is meant. Perhaps the author was a victim of the post-modernist post-Dewey educational fad holding that grammar, spelling, and syntax are unimportant just so long as the meaning can be discerned — whereas, of course, meaning can be discerned only to the extent that words are used and spelled “correctly”, i.e., in accord with traditionally hallowed usages described by grammar, syntax, and dictionary spellings (which change, admittedly, but very slowly and by effective consensus, not at the whim of every individual).
Another general failing of the book is the proliferation of at-best-doubtful assertions without the benefit of supporting examples or citations. Is AIDS science really moving ahead “at a faster pace than any other area of medical research, with the possible exception of cancer”? The fact that attempts to invent anti-“HIV” microbicides and vaccines continue to fail, for reasons that remain not understood, would seem to make the assertion unlikely. The fact that it remains not understood, after a quarter of a century, by what mechanism “HIV” is supposed to destroy the immune system, lends further reason to doubt Kalichman’s unsupported assertion. At the very least, one looks for evidential support for this unequivocal claim, yet there is none.
Kalichman also invents an unsupported generalization whenever it suits his purpose: “Books published since 2000 should also be inspected for the age of their sources. Any writing in the area of AIDS that relies on sources from the 1980s should be suspect.”
As just one falsifying counter-instance, take Michelle Cochrane’s invaluable study of the actual medical records, dated in the early 1980s, of the first AIDS patients in San Francisco (“When AIDS Began — San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic”, Routledge, 2004). In any case, how could it be irrelevant that the manifest illnesses in early 1980s “AIDS” are different from the illnesses manifested in “AIDS” nowadays? Is it not noteworthy that HIV/AIDS theoreticians have never offered a convincing explanation of that?
The phrase highlighted in the quoted passage illustrates in itself several of these failings, and it shows why thoughtful readers will be unable to fathom what Kalichman’s overarching message might be. If he’s right in his unsupported assertion that “AIDS scientists are basing their conclusion that HIV causes AIDS on these current studies”, what was wrong with the 85,000 (116,000-31,000) articles published more than 5 years ago? Why were they apparently not adequate to prove that HIV causes AIDS? But if they were not adequate, why did the “overwhelming consensus” of “AIDS scientists” insist that they were adequate and roundly criticize the Rethinkers who denied it?
On the other hand, if those earlier articles were adequate, why do AIDS scientists have to rely on the more recent ones? And, by the way, did they have to wait for all of those 31,000 articles that they rely on as proof? If so, what was in the most recently published one of those that provided the last necessary link, the lynchpin, the keystone without which the proof would not hold up?
Well, leave aside that little quibble and let’s just accept that Kalichman is right, and only the last 5 years of AIDS publications have proved that HIV causes AIDS. That also means “AIDS denialism” was warranted up to 5 years ago. But “denialists” have been roundly criticized for much longer than 5 years. Therefore those who were criticizing Rethinkers were wrong to do so, weren’t they? “AIDS scientists” should instead have been citing the papers they believed to constitute proof — though apparently only tentative proof — instead of waving their hands about “overwhelming consensus” and the like. Indeed, until 5 years ago, no good scientist should have been sure that HIV causes AIDS, it seems.
Furthermore, if Kalichman is right here, then the “HIV” tests are based on mistaken premises. They’ve all been based on 1980s work, after all, and have been used since 1985 under the belief that “HIV” causes “AIDS”. If we didn’t know that for sure until 5 years ago, then the tests were being used in unwarranted fashion for two decades.
On the other hand, if Kalichman is wrong, and the proof that “HIV” causes “AIDS” can be found in those older 85,000 articles, then what basis does he have for denigrating writings that cite them?
There’s the rub and the crux of a pervasive failing in this book. Kalichman wants to — must! — find reasons for discounting what is said by “AIDS denialists”. He can’t contradict effectively the substance of what’s in Rebecca Culshaw’s book, or in Duesberg’s, or in mine, so he looks for a hook to hang his criticism on. Since our references cover a range of time, Aha! — he can seize on the fact that many of our citations are from before 2000.
But what’s wrong with that?
On the face of it, most people would say, nothing much, if anything: we’re just citing stuff that’s withstood the test of time, of replication, of further studies. So Kalichman invents — pulls out of his hat, so to speak — a criterion of “contemporaneousness” as putative support for his criticism. Another way of describing it: he constructs straw men to attack. The purported criterion or generalization has no basis other than Kalichman’s need for it.
Pondering nonsense like the cited paragraph, and in particular the highlighted phrase, let’s not neglect to recall that this book was vetted and lauded by such leading AIDS scientists as James Curran, Helen Gayle, and Michael Merson [Kalichman on “Denying AIDS”: an answer to Job’s prayer, 5 March 2009]. It’s leading AIDS scientists like those who constitute the contemporary “overwhelming consensus”. If they were wrong up to 5 years about it having been proved beyond doubt that HIV causes AIDS, what reason do we have to trust that they’re right now, during the last 5 years?