HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

Posts Tagged ‘John Ziman’

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 [1961] 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 [1949] 567). But I’m still inclined to think that Jonathan Swift, or perhaps George Bernard Shaw, said something along those lines.

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Posted by Henry Bauer on 2007/12/03

I referred less than respectfully to “experts” both unnamed and named, in my “LIES” post of 2 December. Contributing in an important way to the HIV/AIDS mess is the uncritical adulation extended by media and (therefore) public to “experts” bearing the brand of medicine or science, who are wont to advertise their status by wearing white coats for photo-ops. I believe that a significant reason why HIV=AIDS continues to be accepted, despite all the evidence against it, is that media and public cannot conceive that authoritatively and officially promulgated views could be so wrong. So it’s good to be aware of rampant misconceptions that foster this state of affairs.

You should of course ask, what makes Bauer think he’s qualified to discuss misconceptions about science ?

In high school, I became captivated by science in general and chemistry in particular, and later taught chemistry and did research in electrochemistry for a couple of decades. I started to wonder about gaps in what science concerns itself with, and the role that heterodox claims play, and how to distinguish between real science and pseudo-science. So I switched from chemistry to the then-fledgling field of “science studies”, which incorporates approaches from history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, and other fields as well. What I learned is described at some length in several books (1, 2), which have detailed discussion and supporting citations for the assertions I’m going to make here and that are particularly pertinent to what goes on with HIV/AIDS. The most authoritative and comprehensive descriptions of all facets of scientific activity are by John Ziman (3).

I haven’t lost my fascination with science or my respect for science; it’s as noble and worthwhile an activity as human beings can aspire to (though not necessarily more so than some others). But I’ve learned that science can be only somewhat better than its practitioners and institutions, and that if those practitioners and institutions become sufficiently incompetent or corrupt, then the whole enterprise can let us down as much as can a corrupt commercial enterprise (an Enron, say) or a corrupt government (a Stalin, say). Science and medicine are not exempt, either, from being taken over by fads, fashions, and bandwagons that the experts approve right up until the moment that the bubble bursts, as with the financial bubbles that burst periodically. (On the latter, essential reading is J. K. Galbraith’s [1990/93] A Short History of Financial Euphoria.)

* * * * * *

Science is not infallible. It progresses by trial and error. Theories are never true in any absolute sense, they are just convenient temporary summaries of what has so far been learned. They are helpful as guides to further research, and that further work then brings modifications or total abandonment of the pre-existing theory that stimulated the work.

Scientists range widely in competence. Individual scientists are much more fallible than science as a whole, because facts don’t become part of “science” until there is reasonably wide agreement about them. Agreements are reached better and more reliably, the more honest and competent are the scientists who are involved. Conflicts of interest can be very damaging. Deliberate cheating is far from unknown, especially in recent times where the competition for grants and positions has become intensely cutthroat: presently the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of grants for research in biology and medicine, funds only about 1 in 5 grant applications (4)–and for young researchers, getting grants is usually necessary for job security and advancement.

There is no impersonal “scientific method” that automatically makes reliable whatever a researcher does. The “scientific method” consists of the interaction among scientists.

Medicine is not science. It’s related to science rather like engineering is related to science. It’s concerned with what works, not why it does.
Corollary: Medical doctors are trained to apply existing agreed-on knowledge, they are not taught to question it. Scientists are trained to question existing knowledge in order to contribute to correcting it and expanding it.
Caveat: Some MDs do become first-rate researchers.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that a high proportion of HIV/AIDS researchers are MDs–for example, the statistically illiterate ones mentioned in the “LIES” post. Among those who question whether HIV = AIDS there is a high proportion of research-trained PhDs.

Institutions of medicine and science are not doctors or scientists. They are bureaucracies, whose primary aim is aggrandizement: increasing their own importance, their size, their status, their prestige. The media should be as searching of reports and press releases from institutions of science and medicine as they are of reports and press releases from commercial enterprises, government agencies, and political entities.

Administrators are not doctors and they are not scientists, even if they once were. Their primary role is to administer, to safeguard their territories, and that takes priority over caring for patients or furthering science. The media should be as searching of statements from administrators of science and medicine as they are of administrators or spokespeople for commercial enterprises or government agencies.

Scientists vary widely in competence. The greatest successes in science tend to come from single-minded obsessive work, so the most accomplished scientists are not necessarily the most intelligent, practical, judicious, or sensible. The winner of a Nobel Prize might make a good administrator–but probably not; or a good advisor on public policy–but often not.

Serendipity, luck, being in the right place at the right time with the right tools is a significant factor in success in science (5), just as in many other fields of human activity. The most brilliant success in science does not bespeak some overall inherent brilliance or even competence: Nobel Prize winners rarely win a second such Prize. An analogy might be the mutual-fund managers who top the rankings in a given year; they rarely repeat, because the insight that brought success was right just for a particular time and set of circumstances.

My distinguished friend Jack (I. J.) Good is fond of pointing out that geniuses are cranks who happen to be right, and cranks are geniuses who happen to be wrong: they are stubborn, obsessive, impervious to criticism. If their obsession is with something that turns out right, they are likely to be ranked as genius; if their obsession is with a phantom, they are likely to be remembered as cranks; see chapters 9 and 10 in (2) for illustrative examples.

There is no reliable guide to deciding beforehand or at the time, whether one’s interest is in a genuine phenomenon or an illusory one (6-8). So herds of researchers can be chasing what later turns out to have been a phantom: cancer-causing viruses, say, or vaccines against HIV. Some maverick claims are later vindicated, others not (6); some accepted “scientific truths” remain useful for a long time with relatively little modification, others suffer sudden, often unforeseen eclipse in a “scientific revolution” (9).

That science and medicine are replete with jargon and technicalities does not mean that they cannot be assessed by outsiders. Just as with politics, finance, or any other specialized activity, outsiders can judge whether statements are self-consistent, whether they offend common sense, whether questions are evaded rather than answered, whether promises or predictions come to pass. Media and public should treat doctors and scientists as human beings who happen to have some particular knowledge and abilities but who remain fallible even in their area of expertise. Media and public should be as skeptical of administrators and institutions of medicine and science as they are of company executives and commercial enterprises. If that had been the case with HIV/AIDS, then the bandwagon would not have been able to evade such issues as:
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that a positive HIV-test means that infectious virus is present?
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that HIV causes AIDS?
— What are the specific scientific publications proving that the proteins and genes taken to be the characteristic constituents of HIV are actually present in whole infectious particles of retrovirus?
— What was the basis for expanding the set of “AIDS-defining” diseases beyond the opportunistic infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma that caused AIDS to be identified and defined in the first place?
— How could something (HIV) spread in epidemic fashion when it is apparently transmitted sexually at an average rate of only 1 per 1000 acts?
And that, of course, hardly exhausts the possible list.

(1) Bauer (1992) Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method
(2) Bauer (2001) Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science
(3) John Ziman, especially Real Science (2000) and Prometheus Bound (1994)
(4) Daniel Greenberg, “So many labs, so little money”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 September 2006, B20.
(5) Paula E. Stephan & Sharon G. Levin (1992) Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place, and Time
(6) Bauer (2001) Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies
(7) Bauer (1984) Beyond Velikovsky
(8) Bauer (1986) The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery
(9) Thomas S. Kuhn (1962/70) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,

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