HIV/AIDS Skepticism

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

Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize’

Nobel Prizes Illustrate How Research is Done and Evaluated

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/10/21

In the previous post [“Nobel Prizes Illustrate that Doctors are Not Scientists”, 19 October 2008], I emphasized contrasts between the Nobel Prize in Medicine and those in Chemistry or Physics. But the Prizes in Medicine and those in Chemistry and Physics also have much in common:
— Laureates almost never receive a second such award.
— Some of the awards came only after the lauded breakthrough had been desperately resisted or ignored by the mainstream.
— Some proportion of honored recipients of the Prize were later disparaged for some of their other ideas.

Those empirical facts illustrate important but little understood facets of scientific activity.

That Nobel laureates typically don’t later do further Nobel-worthy work demonstrates the importance of serendipity in scientific discovery. If there existed a “scientific method”, then those who had best mastered the method would always do the best work and would be awarded a succession of prizes; but there is no such method — or at least science is almost never done that way (see Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method).  Science is a communal activity. One of its greatest strengths is the communal activity of peer review — and when peer review fails (typically as a result of bias or incompetence), science becomes unreliable. Furthermore, the Zeitgeist — the contemporary communal context of knowledge and ideas — that any given generation of scientists experiences is an important determinant of when a particular advance will be made; hence the many instances of “simultaneous independent discovery” that can produce controversies about priority, about “Who did it first?”. That’s why awards singling out individuals make for a distorted view of science and of the characteristics of the individuals who are midwives to the great discoveries.

One of the least widely appreciated facts about science is that counter-mainstream evidence or theories are almost always fiercely resisted, even when those claims later become not only accepted but so highly valued as to bring Nobel awards (see Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 [1961] 596-602). There’s no difference in that respect between fields. A few examples in Physiology and Medicine include:
— Marshall and Warren (2005, bacteria as causes of ulcers).
— Paul Lauterbur (2003, magnetic resonance imaging) had his first paper about that rejected by Nature. He later remarked that “You could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature” (cited at p. 161 in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory).
— Stanley Prusiner (1997, prions as infectious agents); for many years he was sneered at for believing that proteins could behave like that.
— Barbara McClintock (1983, “jumping genes”).
— Peter Mitchell (1978); the prize was awarded in Chemistry, but really for physiological work, “for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemi-osmotic theory”, a view that had been pooh-poohed for years before he was vindicated.
— Einstein’s Prize Citation (1921) emphasized his work on the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion with only a very cautious mention of relativity as being controversial — still, a considerable advance over the earlier widespread and intense opposition to relativity theory.
— Planck’s quantum theory (1918 Prize) had been so thoroughly ignored or disbelieved for so long that Planck later enunciated what has become known within Science Studies as “Planck’s Principle”: new ideas don’t win by convincing the opposition, they win only as the opponents die off.

In Chemistry and Physics, the resistance to challenges to mainstream views has sometimes taken the form of asserting that something is totally impossible, so that very few people even try it, for example, superconductivity not only at temperatures appreciably higher than “absolute zero” but in ceramic materials rather than metallic substances (Physics Prize, 1987, Georg Bednorz and Alexander Müller); or the maser and laser (Physics Prize, 1964, Charles Townes) — in his autobiography, Townes relates how eminent elder statesmen in physics urged him to drop work along these lines because such devices were impossible and his efforts would bring the Department into ill repute.

Perhaps equally little known is the fact that Nobel laureates not infrequently are or later become proponents of claims that the mainstream promptly dismisses — sometimes justifiably, sometimes not (see especially Chapter 9 in Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science). Frequently these offbeat claims are in quite other fields than the Laureate’s award:
— C. G. Barkla, Prize in 1917 for work on X-rays, later “discovered” the non-existent “J-phenomenon” concerning X-rays.
— William Shockley, Physics Prize 1956 for work on transistors, became infamous for his notions about race, genetics, and eugenics, a throwback to
— Philipp Lenard , Physics Prize 1905, who enthusiastically supported Nazism by publishing Deutsche Physik, a textbook of revisionist physics that excluded all work by Jewish scientists (including Einstein).
—  Luis Alvarez (Physics, 1968) became an intemperate proponent of the asteroid-impact theory of dinosaur extinction, which most evolutionary biologists find overly simplistic or even quite wrong.
—  Hannes Alfvén received a Physics Prize in 1970 “for fundamental work and discoveries in magnetohydrodynamics with fruitful applications in different parts of plasma physics”, yet his application of those very ideas to cosmology has remained ignored, effectively dismissed by the mainstream.
— Brian Josephson, Physics 1973, believes that psychic phenomena are worthy of study, something dismissed out-of-hand as rank pseudo-science by science groupies.
—  Kary Mullis (Chemistry 1993) is widely disparaged because he recognizes that the Emperor of HIV/AIDS theory has no clothes.
— Linus Pauling (Chemistry 1954) was derided for his insistence on the benefits of “orthomolecular” medicine, in particular the desirability of vitamin supplements (especially vitamin C) considerably higher than the official “recommended daily amounts”; he has not even yet been properly credited for stimulating the general understanding of the benefits of anti-oxidants, of which vitamin C is one.

That Nobel laureates rarely win a second such award, and that on all sorts of topics they may harbor opinions that most people find obnoxious or silly, underscores the role of serendipity in scientific discovery. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right preparation (Paula E. Stephan & Sharon G. Levin, Striking the Mother Lode in Science: the importance of age, place, and time, Oxford University Press, 1992); “with very few exceptions, it is not the men that make science; it is science that makes the men” (Erwin Chargaff, “A quick climb up Mount Olympus”, Science 159 [29 March 1968] 1448-9). As the saying goes, Nobel laureates are often people who have learned more and more about less and less, at times rivaling idiots savant in their extraordinary abilities narrowly restricted to one subject. (Some laureates, of course, are sensible even outside their specialty, and some remain apparently unspoiled by their celebrity status.)

Less obvious aspects of Nobel awards lend insight into differences among the sciences, for example, some of the differing mindsets of chemists and physicists is illuminated by the fact that  “Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded about twice as often for experimental novelties as for theoretical ones, but in chemistry, experimentalists have been so honored five or six times as often as have theorists” (Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method p. 26).

It has highly unfortunate consequences that the public image of science is so largely colored by misguided beliefs about a “scientific method” that supposedly delivers reliable results no matter who the researchers happen to be, and the related belief that a few people so master “the method” as to be all-purpose wise men, and the implicit view that researchers are less subject to human fallibilities and failings than are businessmen and politicians. The most remarkable thing about science is that it has managed so often to become reliable despite being carried on by fallible individuals; for an analogy with the military, see pp. 303-6 in my book,  Beyond Velikovsky.

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Nobel Prizes Illustrate that Doctors are Not Scientists

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/10/19

The prestige associated with Nobel Prizes and similar awards is often excessive and sometimes quite misplaced, for a variety of reasons. There is no need to point out that a single Prize per year in Literature cannot be decided objectively — decisive are subjective taste and judgment and regional or ethnic or national biases. That ideological or political considerations enter the award of the Prize for Peace is obvious a priori as well as from the history of the actual awards. The Prize in Economics, too, inevitably entails a certain degree of subjective judgment, as would be true in any social science. That there are awards only in Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine means that a large amount of research in mathematical and physical science is simply not eligible.

The history of the awards in medicine and in science is also instructive about several aspects of these fields that are not widely appreciated. One of those provided the title for this post. The training of doctors is appropriate to their mission: to help suffering patients by applying the best available contemporary understanding. The training of scientists is also appropriate to their mission, but it’s a different mission: to advance understanding beyond the contemporary state, which means to discover things that reveal gaps or mistakes in contemporary understanding. That difference becomes of considerable practical significance when research in medical science is carried on by people trained as doctors.

Training for research in science begins only at the graduate level. Undergraduate science courses dogmatically instill familiarity with the present state of understanding. Only in graduate and postdoctoral work, as apprentice researchers, do neophytes begin to appreciate the fallibility of contemporary knowledge and to sense how ephemeral that knowledge is. Through actually doing research, one discovers errors in the published literature of research articles, reviews, monographs, and textbooks — sometimes quite fundamental errors. Through doing research, one learns to accept paradigms and theories only provisionally — though we tend to have that in mind more readily with the pet projects of our competitors than with our own scientific obsessions and passions. Doctors who venture into actually doing research do so without the benefit of an apprenticeship in research, and the consequences are sometimes all too obvious, as when MDs in the CDC assert in a formal publication that a correlation proves causation (pp. 194-5 in The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory).

So, in the HIV/AIDS context, it is far from irrelevant that those most responsible for making a dogma out of HIV/AIDS — notably Gallo and Fauci — are MDs, while prominent early skeptics were research scientists like Duesberg, Mullis, Gilbert, Root-Bernstein. As with all generalizations, of course there are exceptions: two of the most stubborn and extreme HIV/AIDS vigilantes, Moore and Wainberg, are PhDs, not MDs. But occasional exceptions don’t vitiate the explanatory utility of well-founded generalizations.

Another such generalization, also pertinent to the cases of Gallo and Fauci, is that the most capable researchers set their sights on obtaining academic positions, with the corollary that the overwhelming majority of outstanding work has come from universities rather than from industry, still less from government institutions — despite such exceptions as Nobel Prize work from Bell Telephone Labs or breakthroughs concerning trace-metal nutrients and leading work in radio astronomy from the government laboratories in the Commonwealth of Australia. One salient reason is that ambitious people seek the freedom to choose their own projects that academe offers (in principle!), whereas government-run labs are inevitably subject to a degree of bureaucratic control and hierarchic decision-making. Another practical reason is that academic researchers are in fierce competition for everything — grants, students, facilities — whereas researchers in federal laboratories experience nothing like that sort of competition. A sort of “natural selection” tends to bring the best and brightest to the fore in the intellectual free market of academe; whereas bureaucracy may supersede such “natural selection”, because researchers in government labs can’t always follow their best scientific judgment: they need to be on good terms with their bureaucratic superiors and may have to defer to their judgment. One visible consequence of these differences is that directors of government labs can accumulate staggeringly long lists of publications bearing their name even though their personal intellectual contributions may be meager.

There are quite objective indications, how different are the fields of medicine and of science: the recorded history of Nobel Prizes shows how much more often there have been mistakes in the Medicine Prize than in the Chemistry or Physics Prizes. In the latter, I have located no cases where a Nobel Prize was awarded for work that later turned out to be simply mistaken, wrong, and became generally repudiated; whereas in Medicine, there are a number of such instances or cases where the lauded discovery later turned out to be, if not entirely wrong, then seriously misleading or just not useful:
1903, Prize to Niels Finsen for light therapy as a cure for various conditions including tuberculosis.
1927, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, for treatment of mental illness by inoculation with malaria!
1949, Antonio C. de A. F. E. Moniz, for treatment of mental illness by surgery (lobotomy).
1975, to David Baltimore, Renato Dulbecco, Howard Temin “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell” — part of the red-herring search for viruses that cause human cancers, and responsible for the consequential error that reverse transcriptase activity demonstrates the presence of a retrovirus.
1976, to Carleton Gajdusek for discovering the first “slow virus”, which supposedly caused Kuru in humans and analogous brain disease in animals, for instance mad-cow disease. Since 1997 (Prize to Stanley Prusiner), it’s been believed that these diseases are not caused by viruses but by prions, a class of proteins.
1989, to Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus for the “discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes”.

It’s also in the nature of medical matters that some of the consequences of apparent advances may later turn out to be disadvantageous, as with DDT (Prize to Paul Müller, 1948); or with studies of the role of cholesterol (Prize to Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, 1985) that led to the mistaken belief that lowering blood cholesterol could prevent atherosclerosis (inflammation or abrasion inside arteries, and elevated levels of  the amino-acid homocysteine, are nowadays believed to be precipitating factors, not the mere presence of cholesterol).

At any rate, comparison of Nobel awards in chemistry and physics with those in medicine demonstrates that the fields differ significantly in the degree to which one can be certain about the long-term significance of an apparent advance that is lauded by its contemporary mainstream.

I believe that these generalizations provide a useful context for such controversies as those about HIV/AIDS; but a disclaimer is in order, since comments like the preceding ones can be readily misinterpreted if one is so inclined. Therefore let me re-emphasize that these, like all generalizations, are subject to exceptions. Further, I have enormous respect and endless gratitude to a considerable number of doctors who practice as physicians and surgeons and who have helped me remain active to a respectable age; as just one instance of several available ones, I was treated wonderfully well and had a splendid outcome in the first clinical trial of angioplasty at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, I would prefer that those valued doctors and surgeons not engage in research in retrovirology or statistical evaluation of data.

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Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/04/05

“In Search of Memory” is a memoir by Eric Kandel, who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of memory. I came to the book because of Kandel’s recounting of his childhood in Vienna in the 1930s and the influences on him of the Nazi takeover of Austria, experiences that I share. But I found the book highly interesting on several other counts as well. First, naturally enough, for Kandel’s explanation of his work, which brought astonishing insights into the biochemical reactions that are associated with memory. We are beginning to understand also the physiological or physical basis for the real differences between short-term and long-term memory (which unfortunately has practical significance for people of my age). I found particularly intriguing that Kandel combines radical reductionism—explaining mental functioning in chemical terms—with an appreciation of insights offered by psychoanalysis. The latter is often regarded as the very opposite of reductionist, but Kandel reminds readers that Freud himself believed that there are physical correlates to the processes he postulated as stemming from ego, id, and libido.

What prompts this blog entry, though, is Kandel’s story about Sir John Eccles, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1963 for elucidating the mechanism of synaptic transmission of nerve signals: electric impulses are carried across the gaps or junctions (synapses) between nerve cells by chemical messengers. Eccles had originally believed the transmission to be purely electrical, and had become thoroughly discouraged at being unable to prove conclusively that nerve signals cross synapses by “spark”, not chemical signals. Eccles was then working in New Zealand, where he met the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper explained to him that he should be encouraged rather than discouraged, that he should look as hard as he could for ways to disprove his theory, because that would also be a considerable scientific advance. Eccles followed his advice, disproved his own “electrical spark” theory, and thereby gained a Nobel Prize as well as increased scientific understanding.

That offers a lesson for the Pooh-Bahs* of the HIV/AIDS Establishment. Perhaps Gallo or Fauci or Montagnier might still win a Nobel Prize, by proving conclusively that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. After all, quite a lot of their work already points in that direction.


* When Barack Obama used this term a few days ago, many TV pundits seemed to be unfamiliar with it. Its origin is a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical, The Mikado, where Pooh-Bah is Lord-High-Everything-Else and exemplifies unwarranted and ostentatious pomposity.

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