HIV/AIDS Skepticism

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

Posts Tagged ‘scientific illiteracy’

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.

Posted in experts, Funds for HIV/AIDS, HIV does not cause AIDS, HIV skepticism, HIV/AIDS numbers, uncritical media | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments »

Scientifically illiterate science pundit: Ben Goldacre

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/01/18

My previous post, “Scientific illiteracy, the media, science pundits, governments, and HIV/AIDS” (15 January 2009),  had taken on a life of its own after starting out as a comment on Goldacre’s error-filled piece about Christine Maggiore. Now back to Goldacre.

Scientific literacy means to have learned the salient findings of history of science and related fields, for example, that a mainstream consensus is sometimes wrong, especially when it comes to novel matters. Scientific literates know that one cannot accept a mainstream consensus without further ado. Scientific literates know that if a mainstream consensus is challenged by competent people, one then needs to burrow fairly deeply into the actual evidence before reaching an eventual judgment about where the best case probably lies, with the mainstream or with the challengers.

Science pundits who talk about pseudo-science should know that the problem of defining pseudo-science has never been solved. They should know that philosophy of science concluded, after decades of intense effort, that there are no logical definitions or formal descriptions by which “real” science can be distinguished in principle from non-science, or false science, or pseudo-science. Those who label a subject “pseudo-science” should know that some topics so labeled later became accredited parts of mainstream science, while some matters long regarded as “scientific” were later relegated to the rubbish heap (see Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies).

It requires detailed and comprehensive knowledge of each specific controversial claim to reach a reasonably informed estimate as to whether it’s likely to be lauded or dismissed in the scientific future. Scientifically literate pundits who do have such detailed knowledge, and who are also without vested self-interest pro or con, are unlikely to call something pseudo-science if distinguished scientists claim to discern some merit in it; at most they might spell out why it seems possible, or perhaps even likely, that these competent people have gone wrong this time. Above all, a genuinely informed science pundit will hesitate for a long time before making an assertion that presupposes 100% certainty — and 100% certainty is asserted when something is called pseudo-science.

Ben Goldacre carries the mantle of science pundit for a newspaper widely regarded as respectable and perhaps even generally reliable (Guardian, UK). I admit, though, that I hadn’t heard of him before his recent piece about Christine Maggiore appeared. It’s a shoddy, uninformed disgrace to journalism which exposes Goldacre as a scientific illiterate.

Goldacre transgresses what ought to be a sine qua non of science punditry and responsible journalism by feigning knowledge that he doesn’t possess. His ignorance about Maggiore is illustrated in the very first paragraph when he describes her as “lauded in the American media”. Perhaps he has never come across the Los Angeles Times, published in Christine’s home town, where she has been roundly maligned, indeed persecuted. All the information is readily available online,  including a complete file of the material about Maggiore and her daughter in the Los Angeles Times.

The second paragraph by Goldacre describes Maggiore as HIV-positive, when anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with her experience knows that she suffered a succession of positive, negative, and inconclusive tests, the very experience that led her to look into what’s actually known about HIV/AIDS. In the same paragraph, Goldacre asserts about breastfeeding that it “has been shown that this increases the risk of maternal transmission” — when the very opposite happens to be the case, to the considerable and ongoing consternation of mainstream researchers (“More HIV, less infection: the breastfeeding conundrum”, 21 November 2007).

About Maggiore’s daughter, Goldacre is sure enough right, that “The coroner attributed the death   to Aids” [sic, British usage], but he fails to mention that this coroner was long infamous for incompetence or corruption or both, that he made the “AIDS” diagnosis in a way that suggests it was only because he had come to know who the mother was, and that there is a still-pending law-suit against the coroner for disseminating his conclusion without proper evidential basis.

“Maggiore’s views on HIV were driven by the work of Peter Duesberg” is also untrue. Parroting the description of Duesberg as an “AIDS denier” illustrates how Goldacre simply repeats sound-bites unthinkingly: Duesberg has never denied that AIDS exists, in fact he has offered explanations for what brought it about. Nor has Duesberg done “very well with journalists”. Neville Hodgkinson did not learn from Duesberg, he discovered for himself in Africa that HIV/AIDS there is a colossal mistake; Hodgkinson was instructed by people like the Krynens, who had gone to Africa as conventional AIDS charity workers and then discovered at first hand that HIV/AIDS theory is wrong.

One can, I suppose, excuse a Pommie (Englishman) who calls Nature “probably the world’s most important academic journal”, but a scientifically literate pundit would not do so, recalling perhaps the words of Nobelist Paul Lauterbur that the history of science could be written in terms of paper rejected by Nature [“Nobel Prizes illustrate how research is done and evaluated”, 21 October 2008].

Goldacre is not alone, of course, in accepting results from a “demographic modelling study” as being so reliable as to be worth disseminating further; but, again, no self-respecting scientifically literate person should do so.

The peroration of Goldacre’s screed is, “Hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, have been lost because of a stupid idea, promoted by stupid people.”

No scientific literate would confuse being wrong on a matter of medical science with being stupid; by Goldacre’s criterion, he himself is stupid many times over. Nor would any thoughtful person label someone as stupid just because that person had an idea that might be called stupid; Goldacre’s clear implication is that he has never himself had an idea that might be called stupid, suggesting an infallibility nothing short of Pope-like or God-like.

I simply repeat Goldacre’s last two sentences, for they can be properly applied to the people who, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, continue to insist on HIV/AIDS theory:
“To the best of my knowledge, not one has either apologised or clarified their stance. Just don’t let anyone tell you pseudoscience is harmless.”

Indeed, much harm has been done in the name of the pseudo-science of HIV/AIDS [“HIV/AIDS and parapsychology: science or pseudo-science?”, 30 December 2008].


The only justification for disseminating what columnists, experts, pundits have to say is that the rest of us might learn something that we would be unlikely to know already. Goldacre merely repeats sound-bites, mis-information, and mis-interpretations that have made the rounds for a long time. He’s not doing his job.

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Scientific illiteracy, the media, science pundits, governments, and HIV/AIDS

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/01/15

“HIV/AIDS” is one of those “hard cases” that illustrate how disastrous can be the scientific illiteracy that is so widespread among science journalists (and among general journalists even more so), among self-appointed science pundits, among the science advisors to governments, among policy makers, and — last but far from least — within the scientific community itself.

Scientists often like to say that no one can understand science without actually having done some. There’s important truth to that. However, it’s also importantly true that you can’t understand science if all you know about it comes from having done some science. Working scientists learn a great deal about the leaves, roots, warts and microscopic components of the particular tree they happen to get fascinated by, but there’s nothing about doing science that automatically brings insight into the whole tree, let alone the forest of scientific activity, let alone the wider societal context with which that forest interacts.

A growing sense of the need for a comprehensive and contextual understanding of the proper place of science and technology in a modern society stimulated the emergence, during the last half century or so, of what has become the almost established yet little known field of “science studies” or “science and technology studies” (STS) — almost unknown outside academe, and within academe about as little known, understood, or appreciated as are, say, departments of religion or theology or religious studies. Two streams of endeavor are at the foundations of STS. One came from technologists, scientists, political scientists, and others concerned that inventions like the atomic bomb, with incalculable potential impact on humanity, could be handled sensibly only by a polity and governance that understands science and technology in all their aspects and implications. The second stream emerged from a recognition among philosophers of science, historians of science, and sociologists of science that their disciplinary insights were inadequate to grasp the totality of scientific activity and scientific knowledge and scientific theories. Thus STS is an inescapably interdisciplinary endeavor, fraught with all the extreme difficulties that attend attempts to bring coherence to a multidisciplinary  collection of biases, cultures, and ideologies. Still, despite the lack of a consensual governing paradigm within STS, a few insights are shared across the spectrum of differing approaches, for example:

1. Science and technology are not the same thing. Advances in science will not necessarily lead to important technology.

2. Future knowledge is unforeseeable; future science is unforeseeable. It is paradoxical and counterproductive to aim to support potential breakthroughs by awarding funds to ‘projects’ assessed in the light of the current conventional wisdom.

3. Specific technologies can sometimes be foreseen, but the implications of technology are unforeseeable; and it is virtually certain that any new technology will have unforeseen, unforeseeable, and unwished-for consequences.

4. Because living systems, including human societies, harbor complex interrelationships, even apparently simple individual factors have a multitude of consequences. There is no such feasible thing as ‘only’ wiping out mosquitoes, for example — other living species will be affected; nor can one ‘only’ clean up the environment — the standard of living measured in conventional economic terms will be affected; nor will there be a miracle drug to lower blood cholesterol and leave the rest of a human organism working as before; nor will it make sense to transplant organs until the immune system is understood rather than seen as an enemy to be immobilized.

5. Some of the most worrisome social questions cannot be answered unequivocally. The best available evidence in social matters will always be statistical, and statistical inferences always have a residual uncertainty. Above all: correlations do not signify causation.

6. Science is fallible — individual psychology, social forces, and historical influences affect the direction and performance of science. Nevertheless, science is enormously reliable under normal circumstances.

7. The distinction is vital between frontier science, where much is uncertain, and textbook science, where relatively little is uncertain (within the boundary conditions under which the knowledge was gained). Humanists and social scientists tend to understand the fallibility and contingency of science at the frontier, but tend also to have little if any feel for the enormous reliability of thoroughly tested science; by contrast, engineers and scientists know the enormous reliability of what’s in their texts and reference works without realizing that the same reliability does not pertain to recent discoveries, let alone to extrapolations from them. (For a survey of viewpoints within STS, see A Consumer’s Guide to Science Punditry.)

8. Science is a social activity. As such, it is inherently conservative. Breakthroughs occur despite scientists, not because of them: they occur when reality refuses to have itself molded to current theories. At the same time, the reliability of science depends on the conservatism of science.

It should be evident that at least some of this understanding contradicts directly what “everyone knows” about science — “everyone” including people who imagine themselves competent to hold forth about matters scientific.

Perhaps most pertinent to HIV/AIDS is the little-recognized distinction between frontier science and textbook science. Everything in HIV/AIDS theory is as uncertain and fallible as anything that has been newly observed in a laboratory or in a doctor’s office. “AIDS” was without precedent, and even the now-unquestioned interpretation that it represents a general “immune deficiency” was never established by differential diagnosis, let alone by continued assessment of evidence. Understanding of the immune system at the cellular level was barely beginning in the early 1980s, and the now-unquestioned interpretation that a deficiency of CD4+ cells is crucial has never been established by continued assessment of evidence. Retrovirology was a new specialty. “HIV” is credited with a whole range of unique characteristics for which independent evidence has never been produced. Antiretroviral drugs are introduced with the barest nod to testing their safety and efficacy, and the only valid approach — blinded clinical trials against placebo — is not used.

Despite how tentative remains the basis for much of HIV/AIDS activity, that researchers treat their results as definite until proven otherwise is not particular to HIV/AIDS, it’s in the nature of scientific activity; as also is the fact that researchers treat new publications by others as to-be-relied-upon until proven otherwise. In science, the kudos go to those who push ahead, not to skeptics who try to clean up behind the ground-breakers, who question and quibble and try to prove others wrong in the endeavor to bring genuine reliability to the whole enterprise. What happened with HIV/AIDS is not, on the whole, particularly atypical in principle, it stands out “only” in magnitude and the terrible harm done to many people. All the incentives in science point to going with the herd, and for every maverick who is responsible for an eventual scientific revolution there are untold would-be mavericks whose careers get nowhere. Most scientists, as in most other professions, choose to follow a low-risk path that guarantees a respectably successful career. All budding researchers know that the grants go to those who base their proposals on the prevailing mainstream consensus. Whistleblowers are no more welcome in science than elsewhere. As Sharon Begley noted in a recent article,  even when scientists write about having changed their minds, it’s rare that they changed them significantly — the typical “changes” are modifications that overturn no apple-carts. That overall approach, that routine functioning of the scientific system, has served science and society well in most cases, and it’s whistling in the wind to suggest otherwise. STS understands that the big advances come from the headstrong, ambitious, creative bulls-in-the-china-shops among researchers, not from the scholarly, carefully appraising, skeptical scientists who think before they leap. Science is not done by “the scientific method”, even if it might seem like that by long superficial hindsight that overlooks all the trial-and-error mis-steps along the way — see Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method .

The basic problem with HIV/AIDS is that the scientific system that works so well on routine tasks is wide open to catastrophe when something quite new crops up. It’s somewhat analogous to the trade-offs between freedom and security in a democratic society. To ensure that no terrorist events could ever happen, society would have to be as controlled as in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the dictatorships envisaged by George Orwell; but to allow complete freedom to all would mean little or no safety for anyone.

So one cannot blame the scientific system as such for the tragic mistake of HIV/AIDS and thereupon conclude that the system needs to be changed in some fundamental way. What went wrong is owing only in part to the virologists and their cohorts and the official institutions. There have certainly been rather spectacular displays of incompetence, sloppiness, apparently willful ignoring of evidence, and the like, on the part of a few identifiable individuals. Such institutions as NIH and CDC have displayed bureaucratic deficiencies much more than accountability, competence, efficiency, or due diligence in exercising oversight. Nevertheless, I think a great part of the blame can justifiably be laid at the feet of hordes of ignorant science pundits and science administrators. If there’s one thing that those who manage science and grants should know, the very same thing that every science journalist and science writer should know, it’s the difference between relatively reliable textbook science and utterly unreliable frontier science. REAL SCIENCE ISN’T NEWS.  A fundamental problem is that reporting science in a responsible way is incompatible with the media concentration on what’s new and remarkable. No “scientific breakthrough” announced by an individual researcher, a laboratory, an official agency, or a corporation should be accepted with more trust than should be granted to the promises made by campaigning politicians. Even when an announcement is made in relatively good faith, with subjective belief in its essential accuracy, it’s at least partly self-serving and, most important, not informed by the understanding that no new “discovery” can be relied on until it’s been re-discovered and re-re-discovered and has served to guide, successfully, a certain amount of further research that depends on the validity of that claimed discovery.

That’s not difficult to understand. The reasons for it are not difficult to understand. Indeed, every science pundit is likely to hold forth at length about the necessity of peer review. Yet that’s lip service only, not applied in practice. Routinely, press releases from drug companies, directors of federal laboratories, individual researchers and laboratories, are treated as reliable and worthy of disseminating to the general public without further ado. Press releases from politicians and political parties are treated with well-deserved skepticism, but not anything that has to do with “science” or “medicine”; in those connections, our media swallow and regurgitate conscientiously what in better days most people would have recognized immediately as snake oil — say, a vaccine to safeguard against cervical cancer, peddled on the basis that a small number of strains of a particular virus are often associated with cervical cancers. Where’s the understanding that association doesn’t prove causation? Where’s the skepticism that an association with a small percentage of something makes causation even a plausible interpretation? Where is the collective memory of the “gene for breast cancer”, that’s associated with a small percentage of breast cancers but whose detection makes women contemplate disfiguring major surgery as prophylactic?

Illiteracy about the nature of scientific activity is a clear and present danger in this self-styled “scientific” and “modern” age, and innumerable “science bloggers” and science pundits illustrate that daily in their uninformed herd-like comments about HIV/AIDS. Scientific illiteracy isn’t about knowing what a molecule is, or a retrovirus; it’s not realizing that science isn’t done by a “scientific method” ; it’s about knowing that science can’t be guaranteed to deliver what it promises any more than a politician can; it’s about realizing that scientists are super-specialists blinkered to anything outside their immediate interest, and that the best people to consult about science policy and the assessment of a scientific consensus are historians of science, sociologists of science, ethicists and philosophers of science, especially those who have also done some science themselves at one time or another. Presidential science advisors and congressional advisors about science and technology should be drawn to a major extent from the young community of STS — as was indeed the case with the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which was disbanded out of nothing short of political spite after partisan disputes over access to it.

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