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Fantasy debunked with fantasy at New York Mag

April 27th, 2005


Media skeptics might get their facts straight about what they do believe as well as debunking what they don’t



On the subway today we saw a young man standing on the platform reading New York Magazine. The cover headline in black capitals: Sex + The Supervirus.



With a world weary sigh, we fired up the New York Magazine newyorkmetro.com website when we got home to find, to our pleasant surprise, what seemed to be not the expected sensational salute to a renewed dire AIDS threat to Gotham but the sophisticated reassessment of David France’s The AIDS Superbug – How Sexual and Medical Politics Combined to Creat a Phantom Epidemic.



Or so we thought. Unfortunately, it turned out to be that France’s coolheaded skepticism was merely a veneer, and under it when scratched was revealed the same old inconsistent fantasy of infectious AIDS swallowed whole, with its worn out tale of contracting the virus in a moment of drug fueled gay abandon, Larry Kramer screaming that gays were murdering gays, celebration of the heroic research valor of David Ho, and so on.



The standard thoughtless, anomalous cliches of standard AIDS-think, in other words, are used as a platform for a pose of sophisticated deconstruction of thoughtless, inconsistent AIDS alarm.



It would be less annoying if the pretense of thinking for themselves was not attempted at all by New York Magazine editors and writers, rather than disappoint us in this manner. The effect with the public is to doubly reinforce the AIDS HIV paradigm against questioning by implying that sophisticated mainstream skeptics, not easily bowled over by new alarms, can use it as a trusted touchstone by which to judge supposed new dangers.



Deconstructing deconstruction



Let’s attempt our own deconstruction of this piece which purports to deconstruct AIDS sensationalism, according to the different view of AIDS that comes from HIV skeptics.



What we learn in the article, “The Invention of Patient Zero: How crystal-meth-fueled promiscuity, AIDS medical politics, and one very sick man combined to create a phantom superbug,” by David France, is that the new Patient Zero, as it were, was involved in “a weekend of crystal meth and multiple sexual encounters” last October, and was used as a “bottom” by seven or eight partners one of whom was HIV-positive…..



According to Dr. Larry Hitzeman, a colleague of the New York patientÂ’s doctor at Cabrini Medical Center, the man had by then negotiated a long courtship with crystal meth. “For five years, he took it one time a month on average,” Hitzeman said at the FIT meeting on the case. “He was taking it every weekend for the past two years.”…. Crystal, for most, is one of the most dangerously addictive substances around. It is also a powerful disinhibitor, with a remarkable ability to concentrate the attention on sex for hours at a time. …. Among gay men, stories echoing the New York patientÂ’s headlong collapse into addiction are commonplace.



Hmm… Just applying every day common sense, one wonders here which is more likely to cause an eventual collapse in health—a steady diet of crystal meth over years, or one night’s engagement in “bottom” activity with seven or eight partners who test positive for antibodies to a retrovirus that cannot be demonstrated to kill cells?



The 46 year old was a shadow of his former self by mid-November and by January, “tests showed him resistant to most AIDS drugs. On February 11, the New York City health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, called a press conference to alert the world to the case. “WeÂ’ve identified this strain of HIV that is difficult or impossible to treat,” Dr. Frieden announced ominously. “Potentially, no one is immune.”



Supervirus superalarm



On the evidence of this one case, which would thus be termed anecdotal evidence by any scientist, we suddenly had a whole new supervirus, untreatable and, according Dr. Frieden’s imagination, causing AIDS immune system collapse in mere weeks, rather than the decade that is the average for HIV. Small wonder there were headlines round the world, including twelve stories in the New York Times within a week. Even William Buckley rose to the occasion. “Murderers need to be stopped,” he editorialized in National Review. Gay men raced to their doctors and gay activists blamed the complacency that had set in with the advent of drugs that “managed” the disease.



The only problem was that the “new” virus could not be located in any other body, and by March it had to be announced that the patient was responding to treatment. Meanwhile other AIDS scientists were skeptical.



“When I first heard this, I said, Holy shit—there is no evidence,” says Dr. Robert Gallo, an eminent virologist. “Clearly, conclusively, scientifically, it was inappropriate to make that statement.”



If this sounds like professional penis envy, the New York Times thought so too, in general, as evidenced by the Larry Altman piece we covered earlier. That is to say, the motivation for correcting the alarmist response seemed to be less in the cause of truth than “NIH”, as in “not invented here”. Didn’t make it any less correct, though, or any less refreshing to hear Robert Gallo calling for reality based science.



The responsibility for this medical panic attack is spread widely: from the patient to the reporters who made him a caricature, to the city health commissioner for terrifying the city and the scientists who characterized the case, most notably Dr. David Ho, the top researcher at the world-renowned Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Rockefeller University, and his deputy, Dr. Marty Markowitz, who warned of a “silent tsunami” of new infections spreading undetected across the land.



Fair enough, it seems. New York health officials jumped the gun, and the scientists should have known better.



In fact, examining the tale more closely, we see that much of it was woven from questionable belief rather than data.



On October 22, the patient was still sinking into the drug’s grip. He remembers staying up all night and through the next day, thanks to crystal. “He believes this was the night,” Dr. Markowitz told a group of AIDS doctors in February. His last HIV test was on May 9, 2003—like four previous tests, it was negative and his immune system tested normal.



His doctors have tended to credit his own theory of when he contracted the virus, in part because two weeks later he suffered severe flulike symptoms, suggestive of what is called acute seroconversion illness. About half the people experience these symptoms following initial exposure to HIV. By mid-December, he was rapidly losing weight, and his fatigue kept him in bed. Concerned, on December 16, he saw his doctor.



Finally, we get to the key data.



The news came back almost two weeks later, and it was bad: a massive viral load of 280,000 copies per milliliter, and a near total T-cell obliteration. A normal T-cell count is 700 to 1,200; he had just 80. It meant that just two months after his presumed exposure, he had developed full-blown AIDS.



Here, it seems to present some difficulties for the AIDS skeptics. A massive viral load and near total T cell obliteration. This contradicts the peer reviewed articles which state that it is antibodies rather than viral load per se that is seen in patients, in whom levels of active virus do not exceed 1 in 10,000 T cells, and inactive 1 in 300-400 T cells. Presumably this titer, if it is a fact, reflects the recent arrival of the virus in the man’s blood, when there is measurable virus until the antibodies multiply. Because according to the peer reviewed critique of HIV-AIDS, there is typically little or no actual virus to be found in AIDS patients of whatever stage of decline.



As to the low T cell count, the HIV skeptics also loudly argue that low counts do not necessarily indicate a weak immune system, since these counts vary among and within individuals without much correlation with the resilience of their system.



Both these points need to be checked with authoritative sources to be clarified and confirmed. Let’s call on Harvey Bialy in Mexico and see what he has to say. The author of Oncogenes, Aneuploidy and AIDS: The Scientific Life and Times of Peter Duesberg (North Atlantic Books, 2004, see post below entitled Bialy’s Bombshell Book) is the prime source on Duesberg’s reviews of AIDS-HIV, as his book demonstrates.


Harvey replies: “This is all basically true. The figures given apparently contradict the literature, as you point out. The operative words are “low” and “unnecessarily”.” But he himself won’t grant the quoted claims the honor of treating them as credible and working out what distortion, manipulation or misinterpretation is or was involved.



The heroic Ho



The article continues:



Mullen referred his patient to doctors at Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, among the most highly regarded facilities in the field. Under the direction of Dr. David Ho, the center has scored some of the most spectacular advances of any AIDS research team. Ho discovered the triple-drug-cocktail approach to treating HIV, credited for turning AIDS from a fatal illness into a chronic disorder, saving tens of thousands of lives. In 1995, nearly 50,000 Americans died of the disease; in 2003, approximately 18,000 succumbed, a fraction of the approximately 850,000 living with HIV. For his efforts, Ho was named Man of the Year by Time in 1996, famously edging out the likes of Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa.



This seems to establish the heroic status of David Ho, but there is a difficulty in that the AIDS skeptics claim that the efficacy of the drugs cocktail has not beeen established in scientific studies, despite the consistent reports in the media (and, I find, among friends of patients) that once given the cocktail medication, AIDS patients such as Zachie Achmat of South Africa leap out of bed and climb mountains, or at any rate, return to work and get back to living a fairly normal life.



In fact, in Peter Duesberg’s seminal paper in June 2003, written for the Indian Academy of Sciences Journal of Bioscience, there is a specific reference cited for the statement that those patients treated with David Ho’s protease inhibitor cocktails actually die at about four times the rate as those who escape such medications.



On the other hand, there is a widespread belief that they are effective and the media so report. A year ago, James Watson, asked by this writer why he believed the current theory in AIDS was correct despite the long peer reviewed critiques of Peter Duesberg, replied, “Because the drugs work, don’t they?”



Ho, who with his supposedly breakthrough cocktail treatment managed to attract copious funds and a position heading up a whole new research institution in Manhattan, the Aaron Diamond Center, as the piece notes, and ended up beating out Clinton and Mother Theresa for the cover of Time as 1996 Man of the Year, seems to have sunk in the professsion’s regard since. Other AIDS scientists now seem to think his focus on the virus is too narrow and pulls research away from the other factors that govern the decline of patients, the article states.



Some doctors say this approach deemphasizes the immunological issues involved, or whether environmental factors, like drug abuse, might be contributing….(More recently he) has quietly changed focus from basic research to vaccine investigation, a field that has not produced promising news in two decades.



Any AIDS skeptic can agree with this. Any vaccine hunt would, according to AIDS skepticism, by definition be a total wild goose chase, since the virus, according to the traditional view of immune response they subscribe to even in the case of HIV, already does exactly what a successful vaccine would—stimulate enough antibodies to get rid of HIV and inoculate the body against any fresh incursion.



The article goes on to note that funding is running lower for AIDS research now that affluent Americans are no longer scared of AIDS, viewing it as a manageable disease.



In IRS filings, Aaron Diamond reported $9.4 million in donations and research grants in 2003, the last available year, down dramatically from $20 million in 2000.



However, Ho’s rising income has not been interrupted.



Ho’s compensation package, meanwhile, has gone in the other direction—in the last reported year it was $518,000. With the stipends and consultancy fees from pharmaceutical firms, he is one of the highest-compensated medical researchers in the world.



Criticism is focused on Ho, apparently, because of his famously “poisonous personality with little patience for dissent.”



Some wonder if he didn’t see potential in the mysteries of this new case. “David Ho has a huge shop that he has to maintain,” says Dr. Cecil Fox, an AIDS pathologist and veteran of many skirmishes, who owns a biotech company in Arkansas. “If he finds a new phenomenon, naturally he’s going to jump on it with all four feet.”



What true skeptics would say



All this is music to the ears of AIDS skeptics who have argued for years that it is the rewards rather than good science which drives most of the king pins of AIDS science, from Gallo to Max Essex, Ho and Anthony Fauci.



AIDS skeptics would not simply blame crystal meth for the man’s decline, it seems sure. According to a Ho collaborator, the handsome homosexual “had thousands of sexual contacts over the past three years. I said it right. Thousands.” In fact, the article continues,



While the rate of HIV transmission seems to have dropped in each of the past three years, case reports of syphilis and drug-resistant gonorrhea are soaring among gay men, suggesting more people are having unprotected sex.



Precisely how this statistic manages to gallop off in opposite directions at once, is not explained. If condom use is down, why is HIV transmission supposedly down? The answer would seem to be that this is yet another indication of how barely infectious HIV is, and at the same time, an indication of the many assaults on the immune system that are endured by gays following this drug-fueled, physically exhausting life style of crystal meth, high activity and very probably low nutrition and rest.



One thing it is evidently not is an issue of safe sex versus unsafe sex, pace the activist playwright Larry Kramer, who is quoted fuming that it is another case of an irresponsible gay man threatening the loves of others and ruining the image of gays: “We are murderers, we are murdering each other.” His new book, The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, was published this month.



Finally we reach the crux of the matter, the supposed extremely mutated virus that was so different from the usual HIV that it resisted 19 of the 21 approved AIDS drugs.



Markowitz had never seen a more resistant strain….But that alone didnÂ’t cause Markowitz great concern. What worried him was the fact that this mutated virus seemed to cause disease so rapidly. On average, HIV needs about ten years to bring on full-blown AIDS, though in a small percentage of infected people—perhaps 45 in 10,000—it progresses in under a year. …. Here was a mutated and fast-progressing virus, a frightening combination… Markowitz came to the frightening conclusion that he was looking at a deadly new viral subspecies. “If you canÂ’t see the horse and you want to see a zebra, thatÂ’s your prerogative. But the data here is incontrovertible,” Markowitz said.



Most leading researchers, however, were not so quickly convinced. Many viewed MarkowitzÂ’s analysis as overly influenced by the Aaron Diamond CenterÂ’s preconceptions……At the Retrovirus Conference in Boston… it was decided, after a peer-review process, that the results were not significant enough to be discussed on a panel… Markowitz reportedly became furious….he began work on an emotional op-ed piece he hoped the Times would publish—and when the paper chose not to, he began to circulate it himself: “As I write, the extent of this potential, silent tsunami is being defined,” he warned. “This untreatable virus with an aggressive clinical course can bring us back to the eighties and early nineties—the truly darkest years.”



Lacking more evidence than this questionable anecdotal saga, however, other AIDS “experts” said, quite properly,”Not so fast.” (I put the word “experts” in quotation marks out of a sense that it is questionable if one is truly an “expert” in any real sense in a field if one cannot explain its apparent contradictions).



… many AIDS experts have questioned why news of this middle-aged manÂ’s declining health went any further than this…


At first, Commissioner Frieden was skeptical of the supervirus case…. He also challenged the conclusion that the patient was newly infected. What if the patientÂ’s flu symptoms were caused by something else—something as simple as the flu?



This tiny blip of healthy skepticism didn’t last too long, however, and soon Friedan was sending a “blast fax” warning a network of doctors. Then someone had the sense to google “AIDS and superbug”and found it had all happened before, in Vancouver, where two “superbug” cases were reported in 2001, where a doctor had said “In a matter of months, these people have gone from totally asymptomatic to very low immune systems.” Further research revealed that both Canadian patients responded well to treatment and now have fully suppressed viral loads. After he learned of this, , Friedan was red of face and somewhat chastened, David France explains later.



He then notes an interesting fact. HIV of the usual kind is also increasingly rated as drug resistant, whatever that means and however it is measured. AIDS skeptics, of course, will ask how a retrovirus which is hardly present, and whose particles are inactive save for one in ten thousand, can be shown to be either drug resistant or drug responsive.



Unfortunately, according to data generated by HoÂ’s institute, drug resistant HIV is now commonplace: Nearly 30 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases are resistant to at least one AIDS drug, and 11 percent are resistant to drugs in two or more drug classes.



Just how strong the personal element is in all these discussions supposedly dedicated to saving people lives, now emerged in all its gory splendor in the New York piece, not to mention the hidden selfish advantages that network secretly behind the official idealism of some of the scientists in this line of work:



In much of the criticism, there was an undercurrent of resentment toward Ho. Many saw the announcement as grandstanding. Michael Petrelis, an AIDS activist and blogger from San Francisco, fanned the flames with revelations about Ho’s links to Frieden (who sits on the Aaron Diamond Board of Directors) and the San Francisco laboratory that does the resistance testing, ViroLogic (as a scientific adviser, he receives a stipend and stock options). “I’m not saying any of that is wrong, or undermines the concern that Ho or others have about this mutant strain. I’m saying, we should know these things as we consider this case. That’s all I’m asking for: Give us all of the facts.”



From there it gets worse, with France vouchsafing his own “relevant history”(volunteering for an AIDS services agency that has criticized Frieden), Ho smearing back (“I think it is only a couple individuals working really hard to spread bad news about us. Whenever there is some news surrounding me or our institution, the usual suspects emerge—itÂ’s not surprising to me,” and Ho’s deputy Marty Markowitz stoutly asserting that “This is not for amateurs…you must also yield to the expertise of people who do know better.” The circus expanded into a South Park episode featuring a supervirus, and a doctor in Connecticut claiming he was treating the couple that infected MarkowitzÂ’s patient in the first place. But in the end, on March 29, Frieden announced the investigation had failed to find any other case of the fearsome new mutation.




According to France, the problem is of crying wolf, and people paying less and less attention. Condoms are just as rare and drugs just as available at the mass gay revels as they ever were. All of the alarm, once punctured, leads to complacency. Dan Carlson, co-founder of the HIV Forum, says gays “need to talk about what HIV means to us.”



Meanwhile the dangers of meth are recognized, for a brief moment in the article—”on one level, the case is a cautionary tale about the dangers of meth, unprotected sex, and complacency” but then it passes smoothly on to inform us that the unfortunate patient Zero is “taking a lot of drugs” ie is injected twice a day, and “there are toxicities. He was short of breath for some time.” But he is responding to medications and heÂ’s back at work in a “slow return to health.” Perhaps, the piece ends, he will end up like the last patient to suffer from a “superbug” variant of HIV in 1998, a 39 year old who is now “doing welll on medication” and tending bees in Texas.



The clear implication is that all’s well that ends well if the superbug was a false alarm and the patient responds normally to medications, which, it has to be assumed, are the protease inhibitor drug cocktails Ho invented and which are the standard treatment, effective enough it appears to allow one to go back to work or retreat to a bee farm.



OK, fair enough, let’s agree it was a false alarm, and David France and New York magazine are entitled to note that it resulted from bad science and poor behaviour of a suspiciously careerist nature. And if his admirable skepticism in the face of bureacracy and petty scientific motivations stops short at that point, and otherwise swallows the general AIDS ideology as if it was gospel, that is not unexpected. New York is not a magazine that investigates scientists or science.



A forgotten challenge



Yet there is one fact of which most readers were unaware, and which is worth contemplating. In 1998, David France did a piece for New York which asked what is in many ways now the final question in AIDS, whether these protease inhibitor cocktails really worked as well as advertised.



In Cocktail Hangover, France reported a grim tale in which early euphoria over the new regimen had crumbled as the drugs failed to work their promised wonders. “Alarming new problems with the miracle protease inhibitors suggest that the euphoria over the end of the AIDS epidemic was premature” ran the subhead. France continued:



In fact, when the curtain lifts on the International AIDS Conference in Geneva later this month, there is going to be some surprisingly gloomy news. Researchers will present evidence that not everybody taking the new protease inhibitors is responding miraculously. According to two surveys, more than 50 percent still have detectable virus. Even many of those who saw an initial drop in their viral load and an increase in their T-cells are now watching that progress slowly reverse itself. “Christ Almighty, we had people thinking the cure was in hand,” says Dr. Bob Gallo, the co-discoverer of HIV. “This is wrong.”



The report went on to detail bizarre new side effects, from heart disease and diabetes to “lipodystrophy”—a nasty accumulation of fat on the back and stomach, accompanied by wasting of the arms and legs—and at best a failure rate of 20 percent. In those who had taken many drugs previously, 70 percent. Moreover, the cocktails weren’t reaching HIV in “reservoir cells” in previously undiscovered crannies of the immune system. And the medications might be too toxic for lifelong use:



“Even if they want to stay on drugs that long, we don’t know if they can,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s sobering.”



Yet the drugs had achieved a lot, France hastened to assert.



This is not to dispute the fact that the cocktails — introduced so stunningly at the last world AIDS conference in Vancouver in 1996 — have changed the course of the epidemic entirely. Opportunistic infections that had once defined the disease are disappearing: 70 percent fewer cases of AIDS-related pneumonia; 83 percent reduction in CMV retinitis; Kaposi’s sarcoma practically vanished. Death rates have plunged, and Lazarus stories have literally reached biblical proportions (last month, Magic Johnson’s wife told 60 Minutes that prayer, not protease pills, had “cured” her husband).



Dr. William Paul, chief immunologist at NIAID, even expects to see reports in Geneva of rare patients who, thanks to a mysterious immune response in their own bodies, have gone off the pills and remain free of HIV. “I have heard of such spontaneous responses,” he says.



What’s the truth about the effect of these drugs then? Did these fears vanish as the record improved in the last eight years? As noted above, no less a figure that James Watson, renowned as the discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, told me a year ago that this was the reason he believed that AIDS theory was correct. “The drugs work, don’t they?”



When I double checked the latest paper by Peter Duesberg, summarizing his view of HIV as a nonviable candidate for causing AIDS, however, I found that, on the contrary, there was a referenced statement in the peer reviewed paper that the drugs in fact did not work. According to the study referenced, the patients who take them die four times as rapidly as those that don’t.



Tomorrow I will search out the reference and note it here. But for the moment, let’s point out that David France raised skeptical questions in 1998 about the most important point in AIDS, the one reason above all others that despite all the anomalies HIV continues to be accepted by thoughtful minds as the cause of AIDS.



In a future post I shall report on my investigation of this point which I intend to carry out by a) calling up David France and asking him to explain his current view on this topic, and b) by following up on the claims by a man who was at the Evidence of Harm dinner (see the “Evidence of Harm in Autism” post below) who told me that he had had a friend who had been an adamant supporter of Duesberg’s view rejecting HIV, until he finally grew so ill that he gave up and decided to accept the medications, whereupon he miraculously recovered.



Anecdote or not, this kind of report demands an explanation, since it occurs frequently. Most of all, however, the question of how this all-important issue—whether the drugs do “work”—has been buried needs to be answered if anyone is to believe in the HIV skeptics.

CDC, power and money

April 25th, 2005

The CDC is one of the most familiar acronyms these days, standing for the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s power to escape review is less discussed, however, as is its extraordinary size and budget.

The letter from its boss this week announcing the reorganization of its battalions into different groupings gives the game away to some extent. You can find it at CDC reorganization approved by Congress, and see how Julie Louise Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., currently directing the entire CDC megastructure, blames the “challenges of the 21st Century” for the need to establish Coordinating Centers to help the Centers and their army of contractors to communicate with each other.

Some might wonder why the challenges of the 21st century are so vastly expanded from those of the 20th century, in which, after all, more health challenges were scotched for good than ever before. Could it be that Julie, like Bill Gates, has been taking Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague home for her bedtime reading? Given its theme of finding a new threat to global health in every African and Asian’s carry on bag, we would not be surprised if she had bought one for every employee and every Congressperson

In passing, she mentions with pride that the CDC of 28 years ago, a mere 4,000 employees in size on a starvation budget of $300 million ($75,000 each) has now grown into a splendidly formidable 15,000 employees (including contractors) with $8 billion to spend (over half a million dollars per employee every year).

This is only one more example of how scientific and medical institutions have grown to enormous sizes in recent years. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is celebrating its 200th birthday this week with an annual budget of $1.5 billion, and 6,000 employees who “deal with issues as varied as monitoring the quality of X-ray machines and ensuring the safety of day care centers” according to a Times report today (April 24, 2005) by Marc Santora, Forged by Fire.

And, of course, new local variations of HIV which kill more rapidly than ever before, at least in conjunction with large quantities of crystal methamphetamine. One wonders if Marc, like Larry Altman, with whom he shares reporting on the deadly new HIV species, is also a graduate of the CDC.

Of course, the leading behemoth of science and medicine is the National Institutes of Health, the NIH. By 2003, it had become so large and unwieldy that a year long study by The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science (NAS) recommended a major reorganization.

The 2005 budget provides $28.6 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), after an unusually small year-to-year increase. But this levelling off comes after the budget was doubled in 15 percent increases for each of the five years between 1998 and 2003. Almost all of the money will go to research grants, and the scramble for these funds remains intense. Judging from last year, nearly four times as many grants will be proposed as will be granted.

The huge amount of money involved, and the even bigger appetite for it which goes unslaked, goes a long way towards explaining why any action from outside the established order to reassess a paradigm which is part of its blueprint for progress (and the current key to its money flow) is likely to get nowhere fast.

It suggests that the chances that those who want an official reassessment of the current AIDS theory are slim. This, despite the fact that the idea of HIV as the cause of AIDS has ruled for 21 years yet thus far achieved no explanation of how the virus works its supposed damage, no cure and according to peer reviewed literature and contrary to media claims, no alleviating medicine.

There are just too many people living off it—with their wives, husbands, sons, daughters, dogs, cats, cars, medical bills, family vacations and entire careers hinging on their faith. Expecting them to listen to a challenge to their faith is rather like asking the staff of the Vatican to reassess Catholic dogma.

Meanwhile the funds available for the critics of the paradigm, the scientists or the journalists who are needed to explain to the public that the issue is even alive, are about as tiny as the funds for the promulgation of the ruling paradigm are vast. One well known, very talented and dedicated journalist whose life has been devoted to examining the claims for AIDS science was reduced at one point to washing dishes in a New Jersey hotel. Challenging the received wisdom in AIDS is not the path to success in science or in the media.

Peter Duesberg, the establishment reviewer who eviscerated the rationale for HIV as the cause of the supposed new disease in 1987 and in many peer reviewed articles since, was a consistently successful applicant for NIH grants in his career up to that point. Since then, he has not been able to get a single grant approved at the NIH, and his lab has only survived through grants from private donors.

Some say that Duesberg should have waited for the Nobel that he was sure to get, according to received opinion, including a letter in Nature that said exactly that. Then he could have spoken out without fear of being cut adrift.

Others, however, doubt that he would have been any more welcome than the proverbial skunk at the garden party. He attempted, after all, to put a stick through the spokes of the front wheel of one of the grandest bandwagons that has ever rolled through biological research. Estimates of the amount of money spent on AIDS research so far under the current HIV-focused paradigm range past $140 billion.

Even the still shining respectability of the leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, is tied to publishing thousands of articles on this unproven and so far unjustifed premise. Yet reversal of the thinking on AIDS would at this point involved repudiating the work of so many researchers and peer reviewers it would amount to a scientific 9./11.

On the whole, these days, the Davids of science are equipped with pea shooters against Goliaths that have the power to drop cluster bombs from 20,000 feet. If the AIDS issue is, like other challenges to powerful paradigms in science, a test of truth, the challengers are heavily handicapped.

The CDC, paradigm power and money

April 24th, 2005


The sheer size and power of the CDC, let alone the NIH, is not recognized as a potential problem



The CDC is one of the most familiar acronyms these days, standing for the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s power to escape review is less discussed, however, as is its extraordinary size and budget.

The letter from the CDC boss this week announcing the reorganization of its battalions into different groupings gives the game away to some extent. You can find it at CDC reorganization approved by Congress, and see how Julie Louise Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., currently directing the entire CDC megastructure, blames the “challenges of the 21st Century” for the need to establish Coordinating Centers to help the Centers and their army of contractors to communicate with each other.

Some might wonder why the challenges of the 21st century are so vastly expanded from those of the 20th century, in which, after all, more health challenges were scotched for good than ever before. Could it be that Julie, like Bill Gates, has been taking Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague home for her bedtime reading? Given its theme of finding a new threat to global health in every African and Asian’s carry on bag, we would not be surprised if she had bought one for every employee and every Congressperson



In passing, she mentions with pride that the CDC of 28 years ago, a mere 4,000 employees in size on a starvation budget of $300 million ($75,000 each) has now grown into a splendidly formidable 15,000 employees (including contractors) with $8 billion to spend (over half a million dollars per employee every year).

This is only one more example of how scientific and medical institutions have grown to enormous sizes in recent years. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is celebrating its 200th birthday this week with an annual budget of $1.5 billion, and 6,000 employees who “deal with issues as varied as monitoring the quality of X-ray machines and ensuring the safety of day care centers” according to a Times report today (April 24, 2005) by Marc Santora, Forged by Fire



And, of course, new local variations of HIV which kill more rapidly than ever before, at least in conjunction with large quantities of crystal methamphetamine. One wonders if Marc, like Larry Altman, with whom he shares reporting on the deadly new HIV species, is also a graduate of the CDC.

The leading behemoth of science and medicine is the National Institutes of Health, the NIH. By 2003, it had become so large and unwieldy that a year long study by The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science (NAS) recommended a major reorganization.

The 2005 budget provides $28.6 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), after an unusually small year-to-year increase. But this levelling off comes after the budget was doubled in 15 percent increases for each of the five years between 1998 and 2003. Almost all of the money will go to research grants, and the scramble for these funds remains intense. Judging from last year, nearly four times as many grants will be proposed as will be granted.

The huge amount of money involved, and the even bigger appetite for it which goes unslaked, goes a long way towards explaining why any action from outside the established order to reassess a paradigm which is part of its blueprint for progress (and the current key to its money flow) is likely to get nowhere fast.

It suggests that the chances that those who want an official reassessment of the current AIDS theory are slim. This, despite the fact that the idea of HIV as the cause of AIDS has ruled for 21 years yet thus far achieved no explanation of how the virus works its supposed damage, no cure and according to peer reviewed literature and contrary to media claims, no alleviating medicine.

There are just too many people living off it—with their wives, husbands, sons, daughters, dogs, cats, cars, medical bills, family vacations and entire careers hinging on their faith. Expecting them to listen to a challenge to their faith is rather like asking the staff of the Vatican to reassess Catholic dogma.



Meanwhile the funds available for the critics of the paradigm, the scientists or the journalists who are needed to explain to the public that the issue is even alive, are about as tiny as the funds for the promulgation of the ruling paradigm are vast. One well known, very talented and dedicated journalist whose life has been devoted to examining the claims for AIDS science was reduced at one point to washing dishes in a New Jersey hotel. Challenging the received wisdom in AIDS is not the path to success in science or in the media.

Peter Duesberg, the establishment reviewer who eviscerated the rationale for HIV as the cause of the supposed new disease in 1987 and in many peer reviewed articles since, was a consistently successful applicant for NIH grants in his career up to that point. Since then, he has not been able to get a single grant approved at the NIH, and his lab has only survived through grants from private donors.

Some say that Duesberg should have waited for the Nobel that he was sure to get, according to received opinion, including a letter in Nature that said exactly that. Then he could have spoken out without fear of being cut adrift.



Others, however, doubt that he would have been any more welcome than the proverbial skunk at the garden party. He attempted, after all, to put a stick through the spokes of the front wheel of one of the grandest bandwagons that has ever rolled through biological research. Estimates of the amount of money spent on AIDS research so far under the current HIV-focused paradigm range past $140 billion.



Even the still shining respectability of the leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, is tied to publishing thousands of articles on this unproven and so far unjustifed premise. Yet reversal of the thinking on AIDS would at this point involved repudiating the work of so many researchers and peer reviewers it would amount to a scientific 9./11.

On the whole, these days, the Davids of science are equipped with pea shooters against Goliaths that have the power to drop cluster bombs from 20,000 feet. If the AIDS issue is, like other challenges to powerful paradigms in science, a test of truth, the challengers are heavily handicapped.

Scientists are animals though some don’t know it

April 19th, 2005


Animals have emotions too—and may sometimes act on higher moral plane than many scientists



Plenty of material tonight (April 18) for anyone who suspects that scientists are just as clueless as anyone else when it comes to their own untested general beliefs and perceptions. Is AIDS any different?

PBS 13 in NYC is showing the documentary Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry # 102 about non-human animals having—shock, horror!—emotions. Lot of cute segments of animals getting excited in various social scenes—elephants grouping to rescue an infant from quicksand mud, chimps comforting a friend who got the worst of a fight, paying respects to a dead leader, choosing a civil leader instead of a tyrant, showing gratitude, grief etc. Dogs which search for human bodies after earthquakes get so depresssed if they don’t find anyone live that at the end of an unsuccessful day the trainers set up an artificial rescue, just to stop them feeling so bad.

Very heartening to those like yours truly who never had any difficulty understanding that our fellow animals feel emotions. What is surprising is evidence that some animals feel moral ie self sacrificial emotions more strongly than most humans.

All in all, I would say, a depressing comment on how utterly obtuse most scientists are and have always been, since it is clear that even today many are “backward” as the documentary puts it in understanding this simple fact of life, which is no more than we are animals and animals are us.

Surely the motivation behind this distortion of vision is misplaced human pride in fantasizing that somehow we are supra-animals, better than the others, is the familiar motivation that makes knuckleheads resist Darwinian evolution. The fact that any scientists still subscribe to this nonsense thatt animals don’t feel emotion is a disgrace to the profession as a vocation, but it seems clear from the treatment of lab animals that many do. It reminds one of those who claim that newborn babies don’t feel the end of the skin of the penis being chopped off.

The documentary shows that in fact animals can be better in terms of social sacrifice than many human beings. One moving incident recounted is where a dog raced alongside a truck trying to get it to stop, and the unbelievably dumb (ie typical human) driver didn’t understand him until too late. The dog finally ran under the truck and was killed, when the “superior” form of animal stopped the truck and finally understood. Just beyond a rise lay the driver’s brother, who had fallen off a bike and was immobile—and in the path of the truck, which would have hit and probably killed him instead of the dog.

The documentary ended with the very nice quote as follows:

We need another and wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves, and therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, They are other Nations. Caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

It’s from The Outermost House:A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod, a book by Henry Beston about Cape Cod which some call the best book on nature ever written.

Sex differences and unscientific ideology

April 18th, 2005

In what is now a famous affair, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, was mercilessly trounced by the feminist-PC brigade at Harvard recently for daring to suggest there were perhaps innate differences in math and science abilities between the two sexes. Or rather, that the issue was still open to research.

Summers apologized—some might say groveled—in apology after the storm blew in, for the large portion of the Harvard faculty that object to what they feel is his high handed style used it as a club to beat him into submission and win a vote of no confidence in his Presidency.

Now, however, we have discovered a cultural backwater where the science of sexual differences is happily unrestrained by PC politics – Australia. Possibly Mr Summers would like to consider moving down under if his fortunes continue to decline in the US. Apparently science is still somewhat separated from social politics there, at least judging from htis story.

Here is the clip. All those who say Vive La Non-Difference can read it and weep. The rest of us can once again revel in our delight in the difference between the sexes. At least, we can according to a Dutch psychologist, Martine Delfos, who arrived in Melbourne to address a conference on boy’s education recently.

Jennifer Buckingham, Schools editor of The Australian, reported the story on April 05, 2005, ‘Gender divide’ in road of learning as follows:

“It’s all in their brains – boys just can’t help arguing with their teachers, while girls are determined to impress them. The innate differences in the thinking of our children are so stark, according to researchers, that educators need to develop a completely different approach in the classroom.

“Boys preferred a competitive environment, to be challenged, and to have frequent changes of activity to “turn their brains on”, according to Dutch psychologist Martine Delfos. “In school, boys need competition in order to feel stimulated and to know their place in the hierarchy,” she said yesterday.



“The strategy of girls is more often to please the teacher, whereas that of boys is more to compete with the teacher.”



“Dr Delfos, who will address a boys’ education conference in Melbourne today, said the instinctive male response to anxiety or danger was to take action, while the female response was more likely to be passive. Research shows boys tended to externalise their anxiety and girls to internalise it. “The most important problems for boys at the end of primary school are behavioural; with girls, the most frequent problem is tummy ache,” Dr Delfos said.



“Boys have a tendency to action and need action in class. A variation between movement and sitting still is more important for boys than for girls.” Dr Delfos also believes that many diagnoses of behavioural disorders are normal externalised behaviours to anxiety-generating social experiences – “only a boy reacting in a ‘sane’ way to an ‘insane’ situation. Boys need an educational surrounding with more possibilities to express their energy and their discomfort,” she said.

“Her advice for educators is based on her development of the new concept of “preference behaviour. Men and women, boys and girls, are capable of doing the same things but they have preferences linked to their evolutionary gender roles. From the first day of life, boys tend to look longer at objects, girls look longer at faces. Boys have an orientation toward understanding the working of things while girls are oriented to relating.

“After a long period during which there was much resistance to the idea of brain-based differences between the sexes, especially among educators, there has been growing international interest in Dr Delfos’s work.

“There has also been a change in Australia, said Deborah Hartman, manager of the Boys in Schools program at the University of Newcastle. “If we actually acknowledge there might be some differences between boys and girls we might be able to tap into those strengths.” She said a lot of progress had been made in the past decade. “We’re really starting to see the benefits now of a shift in thinking in boys’ education. “We’re noticing in those schools their behavioural statistics are improving and we are also starting to see evidence that boys are more engaged in lessons, including a shift in literacy results.”

“But it would be quite a few years before results would be known, Ms Hartman said. “The main objective now is for the schools that are doing really good work to share their ideas and results.”

What are we to make of this bold, forthright and unabashed assertion that the two sexes are in fact different in their behavior? Some might find it a relief from the widespread notion in the US that, apart from obvious physical differences, the two sexes (if there are still two—some might say we are up to five now in advanced countries – male, female, gay male, lesbian, and transgender) would behave in the same way except for cultural indoctrination. Surely anyone who is married knows better!

The serious point here is that in this field, like so many others in the US, politics is warping science. While it is obviously true that we shall never know precisely how much influence nature has compared with nurture—individual genetic variation is evidently great, and there is probably no way of controlling for the innumerable subtle social influences—research in this field must be liberated from gender politics if it is to tell us whatever it has to tell us.

By all accounts, Larry Summers was speaking in this spirit when he made his notorious faux pas in January. Much of the reaction seems to have been opportunism on the part of the many professors that dislike his highhanded style, who now use it as a stick to beat him with.

Politically, they may have a point, since justice demands as the first priority that in selecting professors, musicians or any other kind of intellectual performer we must never prejudge performance on the basis of sex. One German orchestra proved this in a famous instance where they moved each of the cellists auditioning for an empty seat in their orchestra behind a curtain to demonstrate their skills, and to the surprise and chagrin of the conductor the top three choices all proved to be women, when not a single female had ever been chosen to play under him before.

But society also needs to know what research can tell us, if only to remove whatever false expectations and biased treatment may still distort the social politics. Larry Summers was right. Equal opportunity politics must not be allowed to gag what science has to tell us, especially when talent comes in so many different forms and must be enhanced by education in so many different ways which only science can elucidate.

The group mind is the enemy of truth seeking in science, whether in sex research, AIDS, or any other research topic.



A book that collects the latest in science on this topic is Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven Rhoades. The Amazon review chain offers instructive and entertaining examples of how ideology clouds the issue with politics.

Science bamboozles the left

April 14th, 2005


One of the oddest things about the whole HIV-AIDS affair is the fact that the instinctively free thinking, anti-authoritarian types who question the paradigm find themselves in bed with the right wing.



This is the fate of anyone who takes a skeptical view of science these days, or so it seems. From AIDS to global warming to the effects of DDT, all the questioning and second thoughts, all the skeptical realism, seems to come from the dark side, politically speaking.



Skepticism about science does not come from the angels of leftist rhetoric, not even from Noam Chomsky, who we otherwise salute for the graceful decency which imbues his rhetoric. We often listen to Chomsky not so much for his predictable, blame-the–USA angle on world events, as simply a soothing balm for the soul. While Chomsky speaks, conscience lives.



But it’s not from the likes of Chomsky that we hear anything about the issue of whether all is well in politically relevant fields of science. This by itself is surprising, given his work as a theorist of language and brain structure. Perhaps Chomsky has commented on the politics of science, but not in our hearing. (Edit: After this was written, we were told that in the mid nineties Chomsky in an interview did make a mild comment in support of an investigation into AIDS if, as he was told, some prominent scientists disagreed with the ruling theory).)



Instead, we hear from novelist Michael Crichton, science fiction writer James Hogan, 20/20 host John Stossel of ABC, or other skeptical writers and reporters in the pages of the American Spectator, Policy Review (of the Heritage Foundation), the Wall Street Journal or the New York Sun. Rightists all, making fun of the lame brained left for stampeding in panic whenever a scientific doomsayer comes along.



Pity the rare liberal or leftist who likes to double check the facts when it comes to scientific and medical alarms. He has to climb in with the folks at the opposite end of the political spectrum. So what’s going on? What is it about the left that crumples up and dies at the touch of a scientific fact?



Take AIDS, for example, and the dispute over whether HIV is really the cause of the fatal immune dysfunction. Many readers of the New York Times say they have no idea that this dispute existed. Not surprising, since the Times has mentioned it in barely seven pieces in fifteen years. The readers of the American Spectator are familiar with it, however, from Tom Bethel’s penetrating coverage over the years. Meanwhile the liberal and left wing media have been bamboozled into treating any such enquiry as an affront to decency and common sense.



In fact, there have been only a handful of professional journalists in the last fifteen years who have looked into this question from both sides, and reported accordingly. Given the powerful political forces at work devoted to protecting the ruling view, this is not so surprising. But what is remarkable is the fact that typically only the right leaning and conservative press have had the guts to second guess the science establishment on this and other issues.



Perhaps the petty cynics are right in AIDS and the right wing found the anti-HIV idea useful as a club to beat gays over the head with, while the liberals toed the gay party line. And in environmental issues, possibly Republicans are too growth minded for the world’s good. But now all these problems are fully globalized one would have expected such trivial and provincial attitudes to be set aside. Instead, the concerned left make a living out of irresponsibly dire predictions while the conservatives are inclined at least to double check them.



Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most accomplished reporter of this neglected issue is politically beyond such labels. The independent minded Celia Farber, whose columns bashing the current belief about HIV AIDS in Spin magazine are legendary, has complex sociopolitical views, rooted in her experience growing up partly in Sweden as well as the US. But one thing is sure, she is no right winger. Yet having written for fifteen years for SPIN and lately the New York Press on the questions surrounding HIV, she deplores the wilful blind eye that liberals and the left have otherwise turned towards the many anomalies in the science of AIDS.



Even with a multitude of lives at stake, including hapless infants, not to mention billions in health spending that could be put to better use if HIV AIDS science is the scam that so many say it is, the left prefers to wallow in righteous identification with the victims rather than grasp the nettle of the case against HIV, which has survived hostile peer review in respectable journals for over 15 years. In fact, liberals flock to join in the suppression of the heresy, as if the leading scientists were priests in some church. The critics, they bleat presumptuously, “endanger lives.”



Perhaps the truth about people and their ideological alignment these days is too complex for simple labels, and the umbrella terms of left and right are now outmoded, like the once proud banner of liberalism, which conservatives have reduced to a liability. But crude or not, it appears to us that the conservative and right wing of the US press are consistently tougher minded in dealing with science than the left. However intellectually brilliant, the left typically run in fear from science. They simply can’t handle it.



In fact, the graduates of arts and literature at the helm of political and general interest magazines in the US are as quickly reduced to terrified jelly by science as the arts crowd in England were back in the fifties, when C.P. Snow wrote his famous thesis on the topic of the great separation between the arts and science. Mention to the editor of Poz that the science of AIDS is possibly wrong, as I did recently, and he will gape at you as if you had just dropped down from Mars, or were claiming you had.



This applies even to those who write entire books about the AIDS “crisis”. Take the youthful Greg Behrman, scion of a Wall Street family of South African origin who after Princeton and a Rhodes scholarship turned his Oxford thesis into a book, last year, “The Invisible People: How the US Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time”. Asked about the scientific basis for the statistics in his doomsday critique, Behrman, now an AIDS policy coordinator at the Council of Foreign Relations, says he relied on the conventional science and had no inclination to question it.



For someone who conducted 200 interviews for a 352 page book and who has lived in South Africa, the only country whose government has resisted accepting the science before the dispute is resolved, this indicates a naive lack of curiosity, to say the least. More important leaders of opinion such as Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton, and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia, all of whom add the weight of their full support to AIDS aid without any interest in the truth of the matter have more to explain, especially when responsible critics say that the very medications they want to help send to Africa and Asia are lethal.



In my own case I recall fifteen years ago that a prominent and respectable magazine in the US, of long and admirable heritage and wide current renown. agreed to assign me a review of the situation in AIDS, after I told the haute WASP editor that I had detected very serious shenanigans going on in this arena of science and medicine, which indicated that people might be suffering and dying needlessly.



Having spent more than two years researching the situation, including attending two AIDS Conferences in Montreal and San Francisco where the behavior of the scientists who were leading the field resembled the antics of the Nazis in Nuremburg, as well as an exclusive, insiders meeting of scientists in Washington run by the inimitable Robert Gallo, I reported a lengthy piece suggesting that venality rather than truth seeking ruled the day, and that all indications were that the sociology as well as the science demanded review.



At first the editor and his junior editor assigned to the piece were thrilled, the great man at the helm opining no less than this piece was the kind of story that “we should be running”. After an interval where the draft was circulated for comment around the office for group reassurance, however, I was taken aback one day to receive a less than-forthcoming call from the junior editor. They were not going to run the piece after all, he said apologetically.



It took all my skill at flattering this careerist to tease out what had happened. Seems that he (the junior editor) had passed a newstand that morning, where the views of the renowned, highly credentialed scientist who had first questioned the HIV–AIDS paradigm had found their way onto the front page of a think tank journal of especially right wing flavor, the above mentioned Policy Review, in fact.



This had immediately put a spanner into the works, and there was no way of extricating it, it seemed. The liberal, patrician editor of the said journal was probably not of a mind to find himself at Manhattan cocktail parties of his fellow literati, being hailed with irony as a political bedmate of their most prominent enemy. So that was that.



I was reminded of all this today (April 14) when I read in the New York Sun the op-ed piece by John Stossel titled “The Alarmists Never Stop”. In it Stossel, famous for his asking befuddled bureaucrats with nasal irony to “Give Me A Break”, the title of his recent book, replies to an inevitable storm of email roused by his support of Michael Crichton’s view that we need not worry as much about global warming as the hand wringing Cassandras would have us do.



Typically charming excerpts read: “Boy when you sell out, you really sell out don’t you? ” and “All of the cow flatulence in the world can’t equal the effect of the odiferous steam rising from the pile of bull— that you lay down.” Most were copied from a Web page quoting the UN and the National Academy of Science, the Pew Center and the Union of Concerned Scientists on the “consensus” that “global warming is a scientific reality”. The writers seemed unaware that Crichton, Stossel and everybody else accept warming as fact; the issue is how much of it is human in origin, and whether huge sacrifices to curb the human portion are needed.



Stossel detects decidedly left wing interests in the concerns of the Concerned Scientists, which rather misleadingly demands no particular degree or experience to join, he points out. He replies to the chief concern of the critics, that scientists and other skeptics on global warming are paid by the energy industry which uses fossil fuels—true in some cases—by saying it is “nowhere near as ‘generous’ as the millions the scaremongers collect…. Suggesting corruption is just another smear.”



He goes on to point out that the Web page involved is “Media Matters for America” run by the David Brock who oddly enough in a previous, right- leaning life wrote “The Real Anita Hill.” About that time Newsweek was writing a piece titled “The Cooling World” and predicting a drop in food output by 1985 as temperatures dropped. “Just 30 years ago, scaremongers were telling us about global cooling. The alarmists never stop.”



If Stossel is correct, then, in scientific matters the left is driven by fear and smear, and the right by facts. This is not a happy situation, given the world as it is, growing more complex and changing by the week. Policy makers need to have the best information on what prospects we face, for there are huge economic choices to be made. What do we really have to sacrifice to save the world in respect to the environment, or to AIDS? Maybe it is less than we think.



Certainly, liberal leaders should be as concerned as the right to have their scientific “facts” (claims) doublechecked. In the case of AIDS, if the HIV critics are correct and the paradigm is nonsense, every million sent to sub Saharan Africa will help kill rather than cure Africans of what ails them.



It is time for the left to engage science. If liberals continue to make fools of themselves by leaving science to the scientists, and relinquish realistic thinking to the right, what kind of world do they expect to end up with?

The Times is far too cosy a berth for science reporters

April 13th, 2005


How well do the media do in covering science and explaining it to the public, let alone catch scientists out in lies and bias? If AIDS is the fantasy that critics say it is, this question is vital. Lacking expertise of their own, reporters assigned to difficult fields will just copy out whatever scientists, or corporate or government press releases, tell them. That the New York Times science reporting suffers from this handicap might seem unlikely, given the Grande Dame of Times Square’s substantial resources. But is it ruled out? Apparently not.



Last night a female science writer and sometime editor of the New York Times, one Cornelia Dean, turned up at the New York Academy of Science at 2 East 63rd Street in Manhattan to talk the Use and Abuse of Science in American Public Life, under the auspices of the Center for Inquiry Metro NY, whose Director is Susan Jacoby (http://www.cfimetro.org 212 265 2877).

This is one of the charms of New York, that those who otherwise are buried deep in the fortresses of our major institutions sometime emerge to talk about their jobs and answer questions in intimate settings, often revealing either surprising talent or surprising ignorance and irresponsibility. Dean gave a half hour talk on how little science Americans know, and what can be done about it, if anything—her answer was that scientists should talk more to the press—and then answered questions. In the end, what she revealed was debatable, and quite possibly helps to account for the ignorance and irresponsibility of the Times coverage—gross lack of it, in fact—of the AIDS theoretical debate.



The talk was well timed, since Dean’s profile was published yesterday of Evelyn Fox Keller, a grand dame and sociologist of science who wrote “A Feeling for the Organism”, the biography of Barbara McLintock who discovered jumping genes in maize, in 1983, before McLintock won the Nobel for it. Keller herself was divorced, had two children to raise, and experienced “professional isolation”, so she put some of her anger at this injustice into a book on “Reflections on Gender and Science.” Most recently she wrote a book about genes in 1992, “Making Sense of Life”, and gave a talk at Harvard last week on “Innate Confusion: Nature, Nurture and all That”.

Keller packed the hall at Harvard on this currently very hot topic, but judging from Cornelia Dean’s article Theorist Drawn Into Debate ‘That Will Not Go Away’ what she said added up to no more than some of it’s nature, some of it’s nurture, and we don’t yet know how much of either, according to Cornelia Dean. “”When we talk about innate and acquired it’s rarely clear where to draw the line.”



Not as original and illuminating as one might hope, perhaps. After all, everyone has been waiting for the last word on la sexual difference ever since Larry Summers, president of Harvard, rather too straightforwardly said in January at a private meeting that he didn’t think the matter had been researched enough for us to be sure yet that there weren’t in fact innate sexual differences in aptitude in mathematics or science.



This was apparently a misstep in PC terms, and it has been a club that his enemies have been bashing him with ever since. That’s why the talk was crowded, with people standing along the walls. Yet according to the Dean profile, she didn’t say anything illuminating after all these years she has been obsessed with gender injustice in science.

Or perhaps she did, but Dean missed it. Maybe it is just that Cornelia Dean is not really very into science herself, at least, not as much as one would like, or the public interest would seem to demand. That, at least, is the impression she gave at least one member of the audience, in recounting her background and credentials to undertake her Times assignment, which is apparently not only to report on science and also at times to edit other reporters.



In her remarks she seemed to embody all by herself the chief reasons why the media are so bad at covering science, to the detriment of public understanding of it, even as she was complaining about both. The most striking thing she said was that journalists can’t be expected to get things right without the help of scientists because how could they train for all they had to cover? If they studied physics they might have to cover biology, she pointed out.



On the face of it, this is a sad admission that even at the Times they cling to the old fashioned way of doing things, which is to trust the basic intelligence and talent of a reporter can be applied with success to almost any topic. That used to be the way things were done in journalism around the world, and to some extent it made sense. After all, the reporter is .is a surrogate for the reader, who in daily journalism is assumed to know very little about the field of science being reported upon. But things are a lot more complex now. At the very least, one would hope that if a reporter is trained in physics or biology he or she might be assigned to the area of his or her expertise.

But Dean said she had studied American civilization at college (Brown, someone said afterwards) and she hadn’t ever studied science then or since, and seemed to be proud of it. Naturally I raised my hand at question time and asked if she didn’t think science journalists had to know a bit about their field these days, especially when she had acknowledged in her talk that in recent years scientists had changed from telling the truth as they knew it to playing politics with what they told journalists. Surely if scientists were going to try to pull the wool over journalists eyes, reporters needed to know what was going on in the field? But no, Dean, not seeming to get the point, said she didn’t think so, no.



I got the distinct impression she lived such a cosy, collegial existence in the heart of the Establishment fortress that she hadn’t quite caught up with the idea that scientists might mislead her or her reporters from venal motives. She apparently imagined that any manipulation they might indulge in was simply to beat back Bush and the evangelicals on stem cells and other policy issues. But what this blithe confidence seems to overlook is that the amount of money pouring into scientists’ pockets from commercial sources these days is very large, both from biotech and other investment sources and also from drug companies and others interested in medical research.

I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity after her talk to ask if she knew how badly the Times has fallen down in covering the controversy over the cause of AIDS, although I knew the answer. Just as Nicholas Wade answered the same question in public ten or more years ago, Dean said she wasn’t aware of it as deserving any more than the few reports they had given it. I said I hoped she wouldn’t live to regret those words, as I think she might.



Sooner or later the dam will break on that one, I intimated, without going further. What I could have told her is that a very long article being edited right now for a major national magazine will probably do the trick, and break the dam of debate in AIDS like the bombs of Britain’s famous Dam Buster squadron in World War II smashed the Ruhr dams in enemy territory with enormous ‘bouncing’ bombs in a night attack. Why do I think so? Because I have read the article in final draft, and I have never seen such a powerful piece.



But it wasn’t the moment to inform her about that, and anyway I didn’t want to tell her about it since she so obviously relied on other people for her judgement and vision of the material she was writing and editing. She admitted as much, saying her writers knew so much more than she did about matters that she had actually ordered them to come into the office to work, so she could draw on their expertise!

So this is the quality of expertise of a reporter and editor of science at our leading newspaper. Very suitable for the old days, but if the Times hasn’t woken up to the fact that we are in another century where the word of scientists can no longer be taken as disinterested either politically or financially—Dean seems to acknowledge the first but not the second—then it needs to be told.


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