HIV/AIDS Skepticism

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

Posts Tagged ‘misconceptions about science’

Science Studies 101: Why is HIV/AIDS “science” so unreliable?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/07/18

Recent comments and e-mails reminded me of my career change, about 3 decades ago, from chemist to science-studies scholar. I had begun to wonder: What is it exactly that has made science so strikingly reliable?

(This is a long post. If you prefer to read it as a pdf—of course without hyperlinks to some of the on-line references—here it is: sciencestudies101).

Over the years, teaching chemistry and publishing research in electrochemistry, I had become increasingly aware that research practices and practitioners differ significantly from the ideal images that had attracted me (1). My education, like that of most scientists, had been strictly technical: chemistry, physics, math, biology, statistics. Recreational reading had added some history of chemistry, which also focused on the technical aspects—progress, discoveries, breakthroughs. We were not exposed to history, philosophy, or sociology of science in any meaningful way; nor are most people who study science even nowadays.

Mid-20th century, that lack of exposure to the context and significance of scientific activity was partly a matter of Zeitgeist, I recognize in hindsight. Philosophy of science was rather in flux. History of science as a whole was not so different in approach from the history of chemistry I had read—and perhaps not so different from how history in general was being taught: as milestones of achievement made by great individuals (largely, of course, men). Sociology of science had been founded only in the late 1930s. It was the 1960s before historians of science and philosophers of science began to engage seriously with one another, an engagement illustrated by Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Sociologists of science, too, began to engage with the historians and philosophers of science.

Following World War II, some scientists and engineers were looking for ways to make their knowledge an effective influence in public policy. Emblematic of this quest was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Starting about 1960, there were founded a variety of free-standing academic courses, a few research centers, and some organized academic programs under the rubric of “science and society”. These science-based ventures and the history-philosophy-based ones soon recognized each other as concerned with the same issues, yet even after a half-century, no truly integrated multi-disciplinary approach to understanding scientific activity has matured into an overall consensus (3). There persists a distinct internal division between those whose backgrounds are in the practice of science and technology and those whose backgrounds are in the humanities and social sciences (3, 4, 5). But despite differences over modes of interpretation and what is most worth looking into, there has accumulated a body of agreed facts about scientific activity. Most important for the present purpose is that many of those facts about science are at variance with commonplace conventional wisdom. Misconceptions about scientific activity are pervasive, not least among practicing scientists and medical practitioners.

I was lucky enough to participate in the early days of one of the first programs in the world in what has become known as “science and technology studies” (STS). At Virginia Tech, we began with physicists and chemists, economists and sociologists, mathematicians, statisticians, political scientists, and other as well, telling one another how we thought about science. We scientists learned to be less sure that our research reveals unchanging, objective, universal facts about the real world. The humanists and social scientists learned that the physical and biological sciences uncover facts about the real world that are more trustworthy than the knowledge accessible in such disciplines as sociology. We learned also how different are the viewpoints and intellectual values to which we are schooled in the various disciplines: in a sense, the differences are not so much intellectual as cultural ones (6,7, 8). I learned even more about such cultural differences between academic fields through having responsibility for the variety of disciplines embraced by a college of Arts & Sciences (10).

A salient fact is that “the scientific method” is more myth than reality (2, 11). What makes science relatively reliable is not any protocol or procedure that an individual scientist can follow, it is the interaction among practitioners as they critique one another’s claims, seek to build on them, and modify them, under constraints imposed by the concrete results of observations and experiments. Because individual biases predispose us to interpret the results of those observations and experiments in congenial ways, the chief safeguard of relative objectivity and reliability is honest, substantive peer-review by colleagues and competitors. That’s why I was grateful to “Fulano de Tal” when he pointed to errors in one of my posts: we rethinkers do not have the benefit of the organized peer-reviewing that is available—ideally speaking—in mainstream discourse [see Acknowledgment in More HIV/AIDS GIGO (garbage in and out): “HIV” and risk of death, 12 July 2008].

Because proper peer-review is so vital, conflicts of interest can be ruinously damaging (12, 13). Recommendations from the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are too often worthless—worse, they are sometimes positively dangerous (14)—because in latter days the advisory panels are being filled overwhelmingly with consultants for drug companies. That’s not generally enough appreciated, despite a large and authoritative literature on the subject (15-20).

Lacking familiarity with the findings of science studies, scientists are likely to be disastrous as administrators. It was a Nobel-Prize winner who relaxed the rules on conflicts of interest when he headed the National Institutes of Health, with quite predictably deplorable consequences (21). There have been many fine administrators of technical enterprises, but few had been themselves groundbreaking discoverers. To convince the scientific community of something that’s remarkable and novel, a scientist must be single-minded, captivated by the idea and willing to push it to the limit, against all demurrers—very bad qualities in an administrator; the latter ought to be a good listener, an adept engineer of compromises, an adroit manager able to stick to principles with an iron hand well masked by a velvet glove.

Those who have the egotism and dogmatic self-confidence to break new ground also need luck to be on their side, for—as Jack (I. J.) Good likes to point out—geniuses are cranks who happen to be right, and cranks are geniuses who happen to be wrong: in personal characteristics they are identical twins (22, 23). This role of luck has important implications: it’s why Nobel-Prize winners so rarely have comparable repeat successes, and why they should not be automatically regarded as the most insightful spokespeople on all and sundry matters.

HIV/AIDS vigilantes like to denigrate rethinkers for not having had their hands dirtied by direct research on the matters they discuss. Historians and sociologists of science, however, know that some of the most acclaimed breakthroughs were made by disciplinary outsiders, who were not blinkered and blinded by the contemporary paradigm (24, 25).

Self-styled “skeptics” (26) like to denigrate heterodox views as “pseudo-science” just because those views are heterodox, ignorant of the fact that there are no general criteria available by which to judge whether something is “scientific”; and they tend to be also ignorant of the fact that “scientific” cannot be translated as “true” (2, 27, 28).

Most relevant to the question of the “truth” of scientific knowledge is that science and scientists tend to occupy something of a pedestal of high prestige in contemporary society; perhaps because when we think of “science” we also tend to think “Einstein” and other such celebrated innovators. But nowadays there are a great many run-of-the-mill scientists, and even considerably incompetent ones: “Science, like the military, has its hordes of privates and non-coms, as well as its few heroes (from all ranks) and its few field marshals” (29)—which serves to explain, perhaps, some of the examples of sheer incompetence displayed in HIV/AIDS matters (30). Pertinent here is the fact that much medical research is carried out by people trained as doctors; training for physicians’ work is by no means training for research.


Those are some of the ways in which the commonplace conventional wisdom is wrong about science, but there are plenty more (24, 25, 32, 33). Those misconceptions play an important role in the hold that HIV/AIDS theory continues to have on practitioners, commentators, and observers, and they need to be pointed out in answer to the natural question often put to rethinkers: “But how could everyone be so wrong for so long?”

That’s why Part II of my book (31) has the title, “Lessons from History”, with chapters on “Missteps in modern medical science”, “How science progresses”, and “Research cartels and knowledge monopolies”. (About research cartels and knowledge monopolies, see also 34, 35). I’m enormously grateful to Virginia Tobiassen, the fine editor who helped me with the book, not least for the opportunity to augment the technical Part I with this Part II and the Part III that recounts the specific details of how HIV/AIDS theory went so wrong.

I’ve come to understand a great deal more since the book came out, among other things that perhaps the crucial turn on the wrong path came when Peter Duesberg’s rigorously researched and documented argument against HIV/AIDS theory went without comment, even in face of an editorial footnote promising such a response (36). Just as virologists ignored Duesberg’s substantive critiques, so epidemiologists ignored the informed critiques by Gordon Stewart (37) and immunologists ignored the fully documented questions raised by Robert Root-Bernstein (38); and just about everyone in mainstream fields ignored John Lauritsen’s insights into data analysis and his insider’s knowledge of interactions among gay men (39).

Peer review in HIV/AIDS “science” lapsed fatally from the beginning and has not yet recovered. Thus the only real safeguard of reliability was lost, it sometimes seems irretrievably.

1. “Are chemists not scientists?”—p. 19 ff. in reference 2.
2. Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
3. —— , A consumer’s guide to science punditry, Chapter 2 in Science Today: Problem or Crisis?, ed. R. Levinson & J. Thomas, Routledge, 1997.
4. —— , Two kinds of knowledge: maps and stories, Journal of Scientific Exploration 9 (1995) 257-75.
5. —— , The anti-science phenomenon in science studies, Science Studies 9 (1996) 34-49; .
6 —— , Disciplines as cultures, Social Epistemology 4 (1990) 215-27.
7. —— , Barriers against interdisciplinarity: Implications for studies of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), Science, Technology, & Human Values 15 (1990) 105-19.
8. Chapters 11, 14, 15 (in particular) in reference 9.
9. Henry H. Bauer, Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science, Paraview, 2001.
10. Chapters 15, 16 in Henry H. Bauer (as ‘Josef Martin’), To Rise above Principle: The Memoirs of an Unreconstructed Dean, University of Illinois Press.
11. Chapters 4, 5 in reference 9.
12. Chapter 5 in reference 2.
13. Andrew Stark, Conflict of Interest in American Public Life, Harvard University Press, 2000.
14. Joel Kauffman, Malignant Medical Myths: Why Medical Treatment Causes 200,000 Deaths in the USA each Year, and How to Protect Yourself, Infinity Publishing, 2006.
15. John Abramson, Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine, HarperCollins, 2004.
16. Marcia Angell, The Truth about the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do about It, Random House, 2004.
17. Jerry Avorn, Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs, Knopf, 2004.
18. Merrill Goozner, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth behind the Cost of New Drugs, University of California Press, 2004.
19. Jerome Kassirer, On the Take: How Medicine’s Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health, Oxford University Press, 2004.
20. Sheldon Krimsky, Science in the Private Interest, Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
21. David Willman, Los Angeles Times, 7 December 2003: “Stealth merger: Drug companies and government medical research”, p. A1; “Richard C. Eastman: A federal researcher who defended a client’s lethal drug”, p. A32; “John I. Gallin: A clinic chief’s desire to ‘learn about industry’”, p. A33; “Ronald N. Germain: A federal lab leader who made $1.4 million on the side”, p. A34; “Jeffrey M. Trent: A government accolade from a paid consultant”, p. A35; “Jeffrey Schlom: A cancer expert who aided studies using a drug wanted by a client”, p. A35.
22. Henry H. Bauer, “The fault lies in their stars, and not in them — when distinguished scientists lapse into pseudo-science”, Center for the Study of Science in Society, Virginia Tech, 8 February 1996; “The myth of the scientific method”, 3rd Annual Josephine L. Hopkins Foundation Workshop for Science Journalists, Cornell University, 26 June 1996.
23. Chapters 9, 10 in reference 9.
24. Ernest B. Hook (ed.), Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect, University of California Press, 2002.
25. Henry H. Bauer, The progress of science and implications for science studies and for science policy, Perspectives on Science 11 (#2, 2003) 236-78.
26. The mother of all “skeptical” groups is CSICOP, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer; see George P. Hansen, “CSICOP and the Skeptics: an overview”, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 86 (#1, 1992) 19-63.
27. Chapters 1-3, 6, 7 in reference 9.
28. Henry H. Bauer, Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press, 2001.
29. “Science as an institution”, pp. 303-6 in Henry H. Bauer, Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
30. Pp. 110, 192, 195 in reference 31.
31. Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007.
32. Chapters 1, 4, 6, 7 in reference 2.
33. Chapter 12 in reference 9.
34. Chapter 13 in reference 9.
35. Henry H. Bauer, Science in the 21st century: knowledge monopolies and research cartels, Journal of Scientific Exploration 18 (2004) 643-60.
36. Peter H. Duesberg, Retroviruses as carcinogens and pathogens: expectations and reality, Cancer Research 47 (1987) 1199–220; Human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: correlation but not causation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 86 (1989) 755–64.
37. Gordon T. Stewart, A paradigm under pressure: HIV-AIDS model owes popularity to wide-spread censorship. Index on Censorship (UK) 3 (1999).
38. Robert Root-Bernstein, Rethinking AIDS—The Tragic Cost of Premature Consensus, Free Press, 1993.
39. John Lauritsen, The AIDS War: Propaganda, Profiteering and Genocide from the Medical-Industrial Complex, 1993, ASKLEPIOS. ISBN 0–943742–08–0.

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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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