NATURE and science journalism
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/02/03
The NATURE website has published a couple of pieces about the article by Duesberg et al. in the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology (see “Evidence-based medicine: No HIV/AIDS epidemic”): “Paper denying HIV–AIDS link secures publication — Work by infamous AIDS contrarian passes peer review” (by Zoë Corbyn, 5 January 2012) and “Paper denying HIV–AIDS link sparks resignation — Member of editorial board quits as editor defends publication” (by Zoë Corbyn, 30 January 2012).
The first of these set off an avalanche of comments from Rethinkers and from HIV/AIDS vigilantes. Soon the Nature editors removed some of the Rethinkers’ comments. Brought to task via e-mail, they were unable to offer plausible excuses, and resorted to blaming software glitches. Then ALL the comments disappeared.
Now a few of them have been re-posted, so ineptly as to show a correction by Eugene Semon without the comment that he was correcting, for example. The whole original set of comments is available HERE — Christian Fiala had made a copy of them before they disappeared. Comparing the full original set with the small sample that Nature apparently judges harmless enough to re-post demonstrates how feckless these editors are. For instance, they allow Richard Jefferys to post a string of ad hominem insults, but censor the substantive remarks of Charles Geshekter.
Jefferys has one thing — and only one — in his favor: he writes under his own name. Most of the HIV/AIDS vigilantes hide their identities, no doubt aware that they lack any of the qualifications to take part in such discussions (not to say that Jefferys has any pertinent qualifications). Some of these groupie-vigilantes seem to use their creative powers only to multiply their pseudonyms, like Snout = Köpek Burun (Turkish for “dog nose”) = Colin Esperson (SO clever, Esperson = S person, i.e. the Snout fellow), etc. etc.
In refusing to post comments from Geshekter and others, Nature said (from <firstname.lastname@example.org> signed “-Nature News editors”):
“The following post you wrote on the Nature News website has been hidden by the moderator in accordance with our terms and conditions”; .
That might lead the unwary to imagine that there are guidelines about substance, civil language, relevance, and the like. Not at all. Nature gives itself the right to be entirely arbitrary and subjective:
“Your content – what we are allowed to do
We may publish, check, edit or remove all or part of the comments, posts, applications, any of your User generated content or other material, including your name, town and country, which you submit to us (‘Your Content’), at our sole discretion. We are not obliged to do any of these things and we may not.
. . . .
This clause 6 means, for example (without limitation), that we can:
. . . .
Remove Your Content, even if you have not breached these Terms or our Community Guidelines;
. . . .
Edit Your Content, which may result in a part of it being modified and displayed, including without your name.
Please note that we do not check, monitor, moderate or even see all the comments and other material submitted to us. While some comments and the applications may be pre-moderated (i.e. checked in advance by us before publication), some comments and other content is not.”
These few paragraphs illustrate accurately the pomposity Nature has long exuded, and which long-term editor John Maddox, for one, exemplified so capably, for instance in regard to special relativity and Herbert Dingle or with the work of Jacques Benveniste; in both cases he managed to change his position drastically without ever admitting to it or showing any signs of embarrassment, exuding arrogant pomposity even as he contradicted himself.
These Terms and Conditions make it possible for the (ir)responsible editors to hide their mis-steps, usually behind anonymity as well. The excuse about software glitches reminded me of the journalist with the BBC who had arranged to interview me by phone, but just before the designated time sent an e-mail that she had been summoned home because a pipe had burst and the house was being flooded; remarkably enough, she never followed through on the promise to be in touch to arrange a new time for the interview.
Perhaps the Nature editors learned something from their experience with the comments on the 5 January piece, because so far they have not censored comments by Geshekter, Terry Michael, and me on the 30 January article — though they did puzzle me with an e-mail saying my post was being hidden even as they posted it. Maybe assistant editor Brian Owens is right after all, and there are glitches in their software that they are unable to fix, technical incompetence matching their intellectual incompetence.
Fecklessness is revealed not only by these editors but also by various people whose credentials lead to them being described as scientists (“Resignations over AIDS denial”, Jef Akst, 31 January 2012):
“Cell biologist Klaudia Brix of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, has resigned from the board of the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology . . . following the publication of a paper by the infamous Peter Duesberg . . . . Another member of the 13-member board, Hanne Mikkelsen of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, is also considering resigning . . . . ‘Only one [external] reviewer in my mind is not enough for manuscripts of a sensitive nature,’ [said] board member Laurentiu Popescu of the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania, who is not resigning”.
The timing of Brix’s resignation demonstrates that she had not taken the time to consider the substance of the controversy, in other words to look at the article itself and its sources and the piece by Chigwedere et al. which had accused Duesberg and President Mbeki of South Africa of partial responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
This sort of thing is far too common nowadays in the scientific community: political considerations, safeguarding one’s position and grants and good standing in the professional guild, outweighing considerations of proper scientific protocols.
Beyond that, too many scientists don’t understand elementary aspects of scientific activity, for example, what and why “peer review” is. Somehow, peer review has become a shibboleth that is taken as a synonym for reliable, trustworthy, properly accredited science. But peer review is nothing but opinion, moreover opinion usually from people who have no second thought about accepting on faith as absolutely true whatever the current belief happens to be that dominates mainstream discourse. But as Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, has pointed out *:
Peer review . . . is simply a way to collect opinions from experts in the field.
Peer review tells us about the acceptability,
not the credibility,
of a new finding
A nicely appropriate commentary came from Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 about Popescu’s remark that a sensitive manuscript called for more than one external reviewer:
“If a paper is shoddy yet isn’t ‘sensitive’, it should be allowed to just sail on through? . . . Duesberg and co-authors contend HIV is not a new(ish) killer virus and AIDS deaths and their drug treatments are hyped. The knock on that, say critics, is the use of estimates of AIDS deaths in South Africa based on cause-of-death data, which are notoriously unreliable. But that is the exact same unreliable data AIDS advocates use” (“Should you resign over a paper you disagree with?”).
The only thing that really counts in science is whether claimed knowledge reflects actual external reality. Evidence and theory need to match one another. Theories have always changed and there is no reason to presume that we will ever evolve an understanding that will require no modification over time, so it’s foolish to insist that any theory is “right”.
Scientists are human, and fallible, no matter how eminent they are. Mainstream beliefs always have to be modified as time goes by. Spokespeople for science have no monopoly over facts or understanding.
Science journalism, unfortunately, draws almost entirely on statements from sources presumed to be authoritative. By contrast, journalists who cover politics or economics or the art world are familiar with the fact that equally qualified experts will deliver opposing views and focus on different facts, but journalists who cover science rarely understand that their authoritative sources are biased and that they should seek out the existing range of views among competent people. Duesberg is no less competent than Gallo, Montagnier, or Fauci; indeed, many insiders will in private rate Duesberg’s scientific competence far above those of the other three; yet so far as science journalism is concerned, Duesberg is “infamous” with respect to HIV/AIDS, and the facts he presents and arguments directly based on them are ignored as beyond the pale.
Sorely needed is science journalism by individuals capable of grappling with the substance of claims and of asking authoritative spokespeople the right questions. A persistent request for the precise proof that HIV causes AIDS would soon reveal the naked fatuity of the official stance.
* Richard Horton, Health Wars: On the Global Front Lines of Modern Medicine,
New York Review Books, 2003, p. 306