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Dissecting the Frog (3):who knows best?

We like generals with medals too, but will they say the Emperor is naked?

Henry and Gordon teach Tara science history

When the credentials issue is a red herring

bigfanfaretrumpet.jpgGetting back to our curmudgeonly dissection of the recent loud, off key trumpet blast in defense of the HIV/AIDS paradigm, HIV Denial in the Internet Era, at the NSF Public Library of Science by the trusting Tara C. Smith of Iowa and her helpful older colleague Steven P. Novella of Yale, we now examine the largely spurious issue of credentials, since after the title, the next thing mentioned are Tara and Steven’s credentials to pontificate on the web pages of the NSF Library of Science on how the eternal verities of paradigm challenges in the history of science can be applied to the critics of the HIV∫AIDS paradigm. That’s the one that states that HIV is the indisputable single cause of the most variable global disease of all time.

For the paper comes with the following author attribution:

Tara C. Smith, to whom correspondence should be addressed (email: is with the Department of Epidemiology, University of Iowa College of Public Health, Iowa City, Iowa, United States of America. Steven P. Novella is with the Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America.

Why is the issue of credentials spurious? Let’s see. Credentials imply a reason to be believed, on some level. But is this relevant to paradigm disputes? We would say not, since those with the “best” ie biggest pile of conventional credentials – positions with leading institutions, prizes awarded by committee, funding awarded by peers, textbooks contributed to, and so on, very often are the same people who subscribe to a paradigm by reflex, knowing which side their bread is buttered.

Foot soldiers of conventional belief

smith-and-novella-groupvvv.jpgBoth Tara and Steve are fully paid up junior members of the established order willing to prove their loyalty at any juncture, judging from their appearance. In fact, we imagine that you can gather a good impression of Tara and Steven’s mental styles simply from their publicity photos, which establish both scientists as very presentable – in Tara’s case, undeniably pretty, scrumptious as a sponge cake with icing in a wholesome and trustworthy way, in Steven’s case, strikingly personable and strong featured, and well situated in a Yale office in a white coat, ready to win funding, do neurological research on neuromuscular disorders and teach the young ‘uns what has been achieved so far.

We are suitably impressed, for sure. These are the kind of conformists you can trust, who know their conformist stuff. They are the faithful torch bearers of science, who study their material well, and know how to behave at meetings and conferences. Not just impressed, we lik’em! No trouble will come from Tara or Steve for the current paradigm in any field, we imagine. They can be counted on to defend it strenuously, even if a conference is called specifically to examine whether it as true or not.

For what else do they know? Their skepticism is exclusively reserved for the unconventional. These are journeymen scientists, constitutionally incapable of questioning what we all “know”, in the Einstein, Feynman or Duesberg mode. They are the scientific equivalent of government officials and corporate executives, whose testimony in favor of their boss or their product is uncrackable.

Hold on, you might well object, we can’t have this. We have no right to speculate so cynically without more data. You can’t tell much from a photo, or even several. You need much more data. Agreed, we apologize. But look what further research reveals.

Novella is a skeptic!

Turns out that assistant Yale professor Steven Novella is known as a skeptical investigator of paranormal research, and any other fringe shenanigans he can get his hands on. He is the co-founder and president of the New England Skeptical Society, associate editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, a weekly podcast discussing paranormal topics, pseudoscience, and skepticism. He is a member of the Advisory Board of Quackwatch and the American Council on Science and Health.

A true skeptic, you might say, well qualified to evaluate HIV=AIDS skepticism without prejudice. Well, the problem is that he is the other kind of skeptic, very willing to practice his skepticism but only on the favorite targets of the entrenched establishment. Such men win the accolade of “skeptic” in the safest possible way, “inside the tent pissing out”, as Lyndon Johnson might have put it.

But he is not, evidently, willing to turn the eagle eye of his skepticism on an established belief, certainly not in this case, that’s for sure. We find such people not very helpful, because they wear blinkers which prevent them from fully understanding the crucial point about scientific skepticism. It is not merely for protecting conventional wisdom.

Yes, in the name of good science we want to defend sense from the nonsense, and protect hard won knowledge from the crackpots and the charlatans and the honestly mistaken who challenge it, who are simply, provably wrong. These are the easy targets.

But there is a more fundamental task for skeptics in science in the opposite direction. We want to maintain a certain skepticism about what most of us already believe. This is because fundamental scientific progress is only won through originality that improves and replaces conventional wisdom. The ruling paradigm in science is by definition what gives way when a real leap forward in understanding occurs.

Flouting the lessons of history

emperornoclothes.jpgThe ruling belief is what needs to be protected from artificial preservation from insiders in science, those who are so fond of the status quo that they are psychologically blinded to the merit of new ideas, or the defects of old ones. They cannot evaluate new knowledge objectively if it threatens their stock in trade, and what they often do as in Tara and Steven’s case is take the easy way out, automatically assuming that anything outside common wisdom and consensus must be suspect.

They don’t open the door to review wide enough, if at all. They may even slam it shut.

Judging from their demeanor and their arguments, Tara and Steven are this conservative type – upholders of scientific tradition, and suspicious of change. Nothing wrong with that on the face of it, but good science demands something more complex if it is to flourish, and if bad paradigms are not going to be kept long past their due date. stinking like rotten fish but with the Taras and Stevens of the world impervious to the smell because it is what they are used to.

This kind of reflex conservatism can be a real problem. It particularly burdens alternative medicine, whose contributions are often overly resisted and repressed in favor of the outmoded treatments they might replace. The briefly successful effort to expand the attention of the NIH to alternative medicine, for example, seems to have degenerated into little more than a takeover of its funding by established institutions pursuing relatively unoriginal avenues which don’t threaten established regimens and treatments.

Thus at Sloane-Kettering, we hear, public funds are said to be used to treat the stress of cancer with music therapy and aroma therapy in a department that spends more than a million dollars of public money annually, and then charges patients on top of that (a CD of Tibetan music and a can of scent spray would do just as well, our disgruntled critic claims, instead of spending “big money on something that won’t help the cancer”) while nutritional approaches are relatively ignored, since they tend to be advocated as alternatives to chemotherapy and surgery, rather than supplements, and therefore threaten the status quo.

Defending Daddy to the utmost

freud.jpgSpeculating again without enough data, we fancy this defensiveness translates psychologically into love for the establishment as a father substitute, in line with the religious impulse which commentators such as Tara and Steven seem to be taken over by in defending the status quo in HIV/AIDS without troubling to go deeply into the subject.

Truth be told, it is a sign of the stark bankruptcy of the HIV=AIDS paradigm that so many lay people outside science whose professional qualifications are so far from the specialty of retrovirology see and understand the problems so well after teaching themselves what is going on.

We suspect that this is the reason that both these highly presentable and reliable scientists have only thought in shallow terms about the big issues they are trying to deal with in HIV∫AIDS in this notably unsuccessful essay, which exactly proves our point. The tract is exhibit #1 if you want to demonstrate a reflex and presumptive response to paradigm dissent, in this case the glaringly flawed premise of HIV/AIDS, that a virus is the culprit.

That consideration defeats any attempt to go by credentials in weighing what scientists say when they dispute a big paradigm, since position and respectability flow a lot more freely to supporters of conventional wisdom than they do to critics and original minds like Richard Feynman and Peter Duesberg, not to mention Galileo Gallelei, who try to replace it.

villagestocks.jpgThey are liable to end up in the village stocks having turnips thrown at them by the peasants, if they manage to escape the Inquisition. That is, until they win out and are awarded the Nobel for their new view, and the old one is consigend tio the dustbin of history. Then the world reverses its spin and rotates around them and their ideas for a change, without anyone bothering to apologize for the roadblocks put in their way.

Unfortunately this doesn’t happen when paradigm publicists such as Anthony Fauci of NIAID lead the attack on paradigm critics by successfully stifling coverage of their ideas, and promoting the ideas of defenders, resulting in this kind of essay, more or less a collection of turnips, ending up at the National Science Foundation’s Library of Science, instead of one by Peter Duesberg, which would be a lot more educational, since it would be by one of the most distinguished, original and courageous minds in science, who has never been shown to cultivate one turnip in his garden of publications, which to some connoisseurs of literate science might be seen to include intellectual roses.

varmusbush.jpgBut then, who is the man behind the Library of Science other than Harold Varmus, whose Nobel for modest accomplishments was won at the expense of Duesberg’s, some critics say. Possibly to Varmus the credibility of Duesberg is a giant turnip, we wouldn’t know. All we do know is that when you mention to Varmus the view that oncogenes may not be all that they are cracked up to be, he is liable to answer, “Oh, so you are a Duesbergite!”

Why no credentials may be the best credentials

Anyhow, this is why credentials are not something which occupies intelligent people very long when paradigm replacement is being discussed. So when we read further along in the essay that

Indeed, many of the signatories to this statement (in support of paradigm review) lack any qualifications in virology, epidemiology, or even basic biology.

we don’t pay much attention. Truth be told, it is a sign of the stark bankruptcy of the HIV=AIDS paradigm that so many lay people outside science whose professional qualifications are so far from the specialty of retrovirology see and understand the problems so well after teaching themselves what is going on.

Credentials have their place, of course. Like Tara, we like to include the credentials of the speaker or writer is gauging what weight to give their data and opinions, if they are new to us. When seeking sources on any topic we like to deal with experts, and respected generals of a field, because they are more reliable – on the conventional wisdom – seem ideal.

However, when the wisdom is disputed, it is much likely to be improved by the maverick and the outsider than the trusted curators of the standard belief. All those investigating a disputed paradigm in science have to remember that.

Henry Bauer nailed it in new book

bauerbook.jpgIn fact, as Henry Bauer suggests in his fine new book, the Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory (McFarland, 2006, unfortunately $35 because it is a “textbook”), this factor plays a big role in holding back the big advances of science. His Chapter 15 is titled Maintaining the Monopoly and has many sections which apply to the Tara Tantrum, as the publication under discussion might be named – Controlling the Data, Censoring, and Evading, Misrepresenting and Ad Hominem Attacks included.

In Ignorance of How Science Works, Bauer notes this:

Researchers are typically unaware that unorthodox views should be attended to precisely because they might hint at an important advance.

Maybe Tara and Steven should read that chapter, which also notes that

Public controversies might generate more light and less heat if there were a wider undertsanding of how science progress.

See also Henry Bauer’s Preface to his book.

All this is not so surprising, after all. Naturally newcomers to a field can view beliefs with a fresh, objective eye which reveals flaws and promising new avenues hidden from insiders who conform socially and emotionally to a shared ideology as their given stock in trade, one in which they are heavily invested, which tends to lend their proclamations of its inviolable truth a heartfelt sincerity the naive can easily mistake for genuine belief in its indisputable validity.

Beliefs which are needed for membership of your institution and for the emotional and financial support of your family cannot safely be objectively assessed by any member without inheriting money, saving up for twenty years or winning the lottery or a stock market gamble first, or some other way of gaining financial independence. Apparently this cynical consideration hasn’t yet penetrated the innocent minds of Tara and Steven, possibly because they are already wrapped by the many silken strands of this influence, which we have included in the logo of this blog. So their essay arises from it, being prompted consciously or not by the urge to polish apples for the teacher.

That presumably is what prevents such fine and well tutored minds, including a trained epidemiologist, after all, from perceiving the outrageous inconsistencies with science and common sense flaunted by the HIV∫AIDS wisdom they love so well. How else can you account for the fact that a highly vocal, shoot from the hip young epidemiologist has not been able to detect that there are gaping chasms in the epidemiology of HIV∫AIDS, even if she cannot see the impossibilities of the virology. Does she really not see that New York City and subtropical Africa are enduring quite different phenomena? Does she honestly believe that a gay disease in two continents can be heterosexual in the other three?

Meanwhile Gordon Stewart, a consultant to the World Health Organization and a first rate epidemiologist, concluded long ago that HIV is not a credible cause of AIDS, and in 1989 made accurate projections showing no spread of AIDS in the UK outside the risk groups, but the WHO, or the Royal Society or the Royal Statistical Society when they requested them. Stewart is quoted by Bauer as saying that

The censorship maintained by the international consensus of experts in the main research councils, learned societies, official committees, and WHO is unyielding; so also are the main channels in radio, television and the press….In my 57 years as a professional, I have never encountered anyhing like it nor did I ever think that I would in the world of medical science where, as in all other science, difference of opinion is the sine qua non of all advance.

Of course, what Stewart and other idealists overlook in judging others by their own gentlemanly ideals is the long litany of human foibles emblazoned on the banner logo of this humble blog (see top of the page), which account for modern misbehavior, such as hatred of whistleblowers, vindictive pleasure in squashing those out of step, and so on, in modern systems of organization, of which science is now one.

In fact, it is now appropriate to perceive this field of science as a global corporation, and its leaders as equivalent to the tobacco executives swearing to a Congressional committee that they believed smoking is good for you, and no harm had ever been shown. That is what HIV∫AIDS leaders now say about drugs, with equal justification ie none at all (see previous post).

Credentials may not be relevant

So to summarize: what are the real conclusions here?
(Please forgive the writer for repeating things, this is for the benefit of newcomers to this arena, who like a member of the press on the phone today, may arrive with this level of understanding of the issue: “But is there a debate? Surely it is a virus, they have seen it in the microscope!”:

1. Credentials are not necessarily relevant as long as outsiders can understand what is said and written. This is not a credentials battle, but a battle of reason and data. Credentials weigh on both sides of the balance of a paradigm dispute. As science advances, by its very nature it topples the current paradigm and all the bemedaled science generals who invented it, adopted it, researched it, preach it, teach it and live by and on it. High credentials in a field are as much grounds for suspicion as for credibility, when leaders are heavily invested in the ruling belief.

2. Lay commentators have in this issue have contributed a great deal to the understanding of the suspicious origin of the paradigm and its enduring flaws. Not surprisingly, since there is plenty of other professional expertise (market research, statistics, investigative journalism, political savvy) that can be brought to bear with advantage, not to mention sheer intelligence, and the advantages of outsider objectivity, many outsiders have come to see that HIV∫AIDS is suspect. Lawyers, for example, and insurance experts we have always found have no trouble at all in rapidly appreciating the outlines of this folly when we mention it.

3. Peter Duesberg’s qualifications remain supreme, as the one scientist in the world with a fine mind who has had the courage to research the entire range of possibilities and maintain against the heaviest possible opposition and sanctions his original conclusion and arguments against all attempts to undermine him and put him out of action in science. In other words, there is no other person on the planet who has devoted so much careful analysis to the paradigm and its supposed justifications, and the quality of his thinking is readily apparent to anyone who reads his fine papers (see for yourself at
In its precision, coverage and literacy, his work speaks for itself, in its superiority to the replies of his oppnents, and would be sufficient credential in itself even if this excellent scientist wasn’t a California Scientist of the Year, an NIH Outstanding Investigator, a member of the National Academy at 50, and the originator of two fields in modern scientific research, one of which he renounced as inaccurate (oncogenes), the other a new path now being adopted in cancer by his elite peers, and public spirited in the extreme ie even at the cost of loss of all public funding and a Nobel prize to boot.

Not to mention having to suffer the indignity of numberless local yokels throw turnips at him.

Sorry to say it, but judged on the basis of credentials alone (which we would never advise) the likelihood of the two authors of HIV Denial in the Internet Era being right in their assumption that he is wrong is about the same we calculate as the sun failing to rise in the East tomorrow.

turnips.jpegSpecial note to subscribers: We will continue with our analysis of the turnips in the next post on the topic of Tara and Steven’s Frog, which will finally deal with the content, having now got past the authors’ names.

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