Scientists as idiots savants (Science Studies 200)
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/02/28
What do scientists actually do? What do they produce?
Consider, for example, the titles of the articles in volume 53, issue #2, February 2010, of JAIDS (Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes). How relevant are they to the question of interest to AIDS Rethinkers and the public at large, which is whether HIV causes AIDS?
— Urgent need for coordination in adopting standardized antiretroviral adherence performance indicators
— Pairwise comparison of isogenic HIV-1 viruses: R5 phenotype replicates more efficiently than X4 phenotype in primary CD4+ T cells expressing physiological levels of CXCR4
— Prediction of HIV Type 1 Subtype C tropism by genotypic algorithms built from Subtype B viruses
— Maternal antiretroviral use during pregnancy and infant congenital anomalies: The NISDI Perinatal Study
— Insulin sensitivity in multiple pathways is differently affected during Zidovudine/Lamivudine-containing compared with NRTI-sparing combination antiretroviral therapy
— Pooled nucleic acid testing to identify antiretroviral treatment failure during HIV infection
— Short-term bone loss in HIV-infected premenopausal women
— Pharmacokinetic interaction of Ritonavir-boosted Elvitegravir and Maraviroc
— Durability of initial antiretroviral therapy in a resource-constrained setting and the potential need for Zidovudine weight-based dosing
— Hepatitis C and the risk of kidney disease and mortality in veterans with HIV
— Bisexuality, sexual risk taking, and HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men accessing voluntary counseling and testing services in Mumbai, India
— Trends in HIV prevalence, estimated HIV incidence, and risk behavior among men who have sex with men in Bangkok, Thailand, 2003-2007
— Indian men’s use of commercial sex workers: Prevalence, condom use, and related gender attitudes
— The association between alcohol consumption and prevalent cardiovascular diseases among HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected men
— Sustainability of first-line antiretroviral regimens: Findings from a large HIV treatment program in Western Kenya
— Comparison of early CD4 T-Cell count in HIV-1 seroconverters in Cote d’Ivoire and France: The ANRS PRIMO-CI and SEROCO cohorts
— Incident depression symptoms are associated with poorer HAART adherence: A longitudinal analysis from the nutrition for healthy living study
— Prevalence and correlates of HIV infection among male injection drug users in detention in Tehran, Iran
— HIV infection: An independent risk factor of peripheral arterial disease
— Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in HIV-infected persons: Epidemiology and the role of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors
— Reply to “Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease among HIV-Infected persons”
This little exercise is intended to illustrate what should be perhaps the first axiom of scientific literacy: Nowadays scientists qua scientists are idiots savants. They are focused professionally on just one very specific and highly technical matter that is almost immeasurably distant from the wider context that matters to everyone else. Popular coverage of science, TV documentaries, magazine and newspaper pieces make it appear as though scientists were grappling continually and always with LARGE questions: the overall story of human evolution, perhaps, or how species become extinct, or how vaccines were invented, and so on and so forth. But the overwhelming proportion of scientists spend their time on esoteric little aspects of obscure little details, and they step into quite other shoes and perform in quite other roles if they are ever brought to speak to the public at large.
Specialization nowadays has reached the degree that the old saw* becomes almost literally true — scientists get to know more and more about less and less, until they know almost everything about almost nothing while knowing essentially nothing about everything else. A minor but instructive example: Medical professionals engaged for several decades in attempts at gene therapy did not keep up with the progressive understanding of genetics and development which has revealed that the initial basis for attempting gene therapy is not valid, because the Central Dogma of “one gene, one protein” was wrong — see for example the review by Ast, “The alternative genome”, Scientific American, April 2005, pp. 58-65. “Genes” are not permanent units of heredity, they are functional assemblages of sub-units that get activated and deactivated by signals from elsewhere, and those signals must be timed and coordinated with exquisite precision.
The very success of science has entailed that achieving ever deeper understanding means that research has to focus on increasingly infinitesimal detail. Scientific research means looking intensely at properties of the markings on individual leaves; which may eventually lead to a better understanding of the leaves; which might eventually contribute to a better understanding of tree growth; which is still a very long distance from knowing much about the forest, let alone the landscape.
In doing research, scientists simply accept as unquestioned the theoretical framework of the prevailing mainstream consensus. HIV/AIDS researchers have no time, no incentive, no reason to wonder whether HIV really causes AIDS — that’s simply a given for them. If it weren’t, then they wouldn’t be HIV/AIDS researchers: they might be scholars of “science and technology studies” (historians, sociologists, philosophers of science, political scientists, and so on), or they might be “HIV-positive” people whose health and lives depend on how the big question is answered.
Suggest to an HIV/AIDS researcher that HIV might not be the cause of AIDS, and you are questioning the very basis of his professional life and implying that he might not be able to trust his colleagues, his guild, his “science”. That’s why those Rethinkers and Skeptics who have approached even friends of theirs who happen to be HIV/AIDS researchers have received very cold, unfriendly, dismissive responses. It is quite literally UNTHINKABLE for an HIV/AIDS researcher that HIV might not be the cause of AIDS.
It’s also unthinkable for the great majority of biologists who are not HIV/AIDS researchers themselves, for they automatically trust their colleagues in other specialties of biology or medicine to be right about their particular specialty, just as they themselves expect to be trusted about their own specialty.
And it’s unthinkable for most scientists that any area of science or medicine could be so visibly and drastically wrong on so major an issue as HIV/AIDS.
Science is a vast mosaic of overlapping specialties glued together by mutual trust. Centuries of modern science appear to the conventional wisdom as a triumphant progress to better understanding of more and more about the natural world. That the progress has actually come by many trials and much error is known only to specialist historians and others. Even for them, this awareness of continual correction of errors, and of the occasional startling “scientific revolutions”, is no preparation for the possibility that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, for history offers no instance of a mistake comparable in its huge, widespread human and financial cost. Lives lost to “AIDS” in one way or another, and resources expended on “HIV/AIDS”, are of a magnitude usually associated with wars, not with a medical-scientific blunder (of which there have been many of lesser magnitude).
This underscores what Clark Baker, among others, has been saying to Rethinkers for some time: Overturning HIV/AIDS theory will not result from scientific discussions, it can come only through political and social activism. The wider society must decide to force HIV/AIDS theorists to defend their faith under public cross-examination. HIV/AIDS researchers will reconsider the fundamental basis of their work only if forced to do so by irresistible outside pressure.
I’m not saying that the scientific issues are unimportant. They are nowadays of little concern only because all the necessary evidence is already at hand, in the mainstream literature, to demonstrate that “HIV” tests do not detect infection by an HIV retrovirus, that testing “HIV-positive” is not an inevitable prelude to illness, that “HIV-positive” is not in general a sexually transmitted condition; and so on. I am saying that the necessary task is to find some way of presenting that scientific evidence to the media and to the public and to socially and politically influential people in sufficiently concise yet convincing manner that they are forced to think the unthinkable, namely, to question the official mainstream consensus even when there is no precedent for such questioning.
One barrier to such a scenario is scientific illiteracy. Scientists as well as non-scientists are functionally illiterate when it comes to understanding the proper role of science in public affairs and how science should be organized to serve the wider society. That’s how scientific literacy and illiteracy should be defined, in terms of the place of science in human affairs. It’s quite unnecessary for everyone to know what molecules are, or enzymes, but it’s essential in a democratic society that everyone have an understanding of the degree to which experts, including scientists, can be taken at their professional word.
Here are some basics of scientific literacy:
→ There is no scientific method that guarantees objectivity (H. H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992).
→ Science is the search for consensual knowledge — consensual among fallible, non-objective human beings (John Ziman, Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science, Cambridge University Press, 1968; and others culminating in Real Science—What It Is, and What It Means, 2000).
→ Like other human beings, scientists don’t readily change their views in the face of contradictory evidence. Resistance to new discovery by scientists is endemic. Major advances that modify or overturn an established scientific consensus have always been strenuously resisted, even as afterwards the resistance is forgotten and the formerly resisted ones are pronounced heroes — sometimes posthumously (Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134  596-602; Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93; Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect, University of California Press, 2002).
→ The overwhelming majority of scientists nowadays are craftsmen, tinkerers, journeymen. Many are mediocre even in terms of their professional talents. To think of Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and the like as exemplifying scientists is like thinking of Eisenhower, Macarthur, Marshall, and the like as exemplifying soldiers (H. H. Bauer, Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press 1984, 1999, pp. 303-6).
→ The great achievers are typically idiots savants. Nobel-winning scientists usually make very poor administrators or advisers on anything outside their narrow specialty. Nobelist Varmus as head of the National Institutes of Health dropped conflict of interest regulations that led to scandalous behavior by senior scientists (David Willman, series in Los Angeles Times, December 2003). Nobelist Chu as Energy Secretary has already displayed qualities of dogmatic belief and single-mindedness that high-achieving scientists need but that are dysfunctional for administrators who need to be flexible, open-minded, pragmatic, willing to compromise. The enormously successful atom-bomb project had as its director Robert Oppenheimer, a highly knowledgeable physicist but not the highest achiever within physics. (I should enter the caveat that some Nobelists are quite sensible, even wise, for example economists Herbert Simon and James Buchanan.)
→ In research, one accepts the prevailing theoretical framework as the working hypothesis and tries to build on it. That becomes functionally equivalent to believing that theoretical framework to be true. Anomalous phenomena are shoved aside for later attention, or reasons are found for ignoring them as flawed, or ad hoc modifications are added to the basic theory to accommodate them, no matter how illogically or awkwardly — like Ptolemy’s “wheels within wheels within wheels” to preserve the Earth-centered view of the heavens. The accepted theory is abandoned only as a last resort under a tsunami of contradictions. (T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962/1970; Imre Lakatos, “History of Science and its Rational Reconstruction”, in Method and Appraisal in the Physical Sciences, ed. Colin Howson, 1-40, Cambridge University Press, 1976).
A couple of things about science are relatively new and have so far not become generally recognized even within the interdisciplinary field of science studies:
→ The normal resistance to counter-mainstream views has become actual suppression in an increasing array of fields (H. H. Bauer, “HIV/AIDS in historical context”; “Suppression of science within science”; “The new world order in science”; “21st century science: Knowledge monopolies and research cartels”).
→ Before HIV/AIDS, no scientific theory was so wrong as well as so influential in medical practice as to bring direct physical harm to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, also causing unknowable amounts of psychological, social, and fiscal damage. That this is unprecedented makes it all the more difficult for the media and the public and the policy makers, let alone HIV/AIDS researchers themselves, to see it. (Human-caused global-warming theory is just as ill-based scientifically, but it hasn’t caused the same human suffering.)
So, again, what’s needed is to find facts sufficiently obvious to non-specialists, sufficiently incontrovertible, and of sufficient human impact, “human interest”, that the media cannot avoid taking notice and the politicians cannot continue to remain in blissful ignorance. Somehow HIV/AIDS dogma must be forced publicly to reveal and defend its supposed evidentiary basis.
* I thought I’d read somewhere, perhaps in Gulliver’s Travels, the insight that specialization leads to knowing more and more about less and less; but a search through readily available reference-sources (Bartlett, Hoyt, Bergen Evans, GOOGLE) turned up only “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until eventually he knows everything about nothing” in a Murphy’s Laws collection, though the first clause is attributed in several places to Nicholas Murray Butler; also “An old complaint about the narrowing of interest of the medical specialist defines him as a person who gradually comes to learn more and more about less and less” (editorial comment, Psychiatric Quarterly, 23  567). But I’m still inclined to think that Jonathan Swift, or perhaps George Bernard Shaw, said something along those lines.