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Dissecting the frog (2): The real Denialists

Almost every line is misconception or misstatement, but none detected by outsiders

Tara and Steven could claim HIV was panspermia from the moon, and blind bloggers would chortle “Right on!” Why?

Smearing as giveaway

After the world record preamble of the previous post, we are ready to consider, how much of HIV Denial in the Internet Era, the essay at the Public Library of Science by the energetic Tara C. Smith of Iowa and her silver haired, white coated colleague Steven P. Novella of Yale, is valid?

Blind leading the blind: bloggers applaud essay

bblind.jpgAccording to bloggers who have picked up on a reference to it at Daily Kos, which has since removed any critical comment from “deniers”, we learned from Comments here, it all goes without saying, and without reading it with any critical faculty whatsoever, in the Hank Campbell mode. (Click the pic to enlarge a painterly vision of what is happening here)

Thus at Educated Guesswork, a site whose expertise lies in tech toys and networks:

This Public Library of Science article by Tara C. Smith and Steven P. Novella, paints a pretty grim picture of the HIV Denialist movement. Now, you may have thought that this was pretty much limited to Thabo Mbeki and Peter Duesberg, but no, it turns out that the world is full of whackjobs. Smith and Novella aren’t interested in arguing that HIV causes AIDS—a proposition which is fairly clearly true—as discussing how movements like this survive.

A “proposition which is fairly clearly true”… Hmm..We like the “fairly clearly true”. Since Tara Smith and Steven Novella imply it is true, and that denialists are wasting their time, it must be fairly clearly true? Why the pseudo-judicious “fairly”? We take it that this is the author’s impression, and he is sure, having no data on the issue whatsoever, that since it matches everything he has heard before, it must be true.

The blogger continues, with a statement that we agree with wholeheartedly, though possibly not in the way he means it:

This bit about “fair play” is really important. One of the underlying norms that makes science work is that people to some extent adjust their beliefs in response to contrary evidence. Obviously this doesn’t happen all the time, but when you’re dealing with someone who’s not interested in the evidence at all but merely
using it as a sort of prop to attempt to defend their position then that isn’t an argument, it’s just contradiction. At some point the proper response becomes to just ignore the offender, but then they claim that the orthodox community won’t listen to them. It’s obviously very hard for a layman to disentangle who’s right.

The one sided assumption that it is the “whackjobs” who need to adjust their beliefs is breathtaking. As it happens the paragraph is perfectly true, just not in the way that the author imagines. It applies very well to the paradigm.

As can be seen, this kind of facile blogger comment is vitiated by its unwarranted assumption that “denialists” must be wrong by definition, since they are opposed to the wisdom we know and love, as part of our identity, and bulwark against the chaos of an uncertain world. It is opinion based on emotion, not data, which according to some cynics and critics of the education system in this powerful country is typical for most political views here. In fact, some might say that virtually the entire population is artistic rather than scholarly in their approach to knowledge as a result of modern schooling, and that this training permeates even science. We have no opinion on this since since we have no data, but we have to say, if it is true, then this essay is a prime example.

The CIPIS “intellectual strategy” – to quote is enough to condemn

A similar behavior is seen at CapitalistImperialistPig, where there is no analysis at all in the mention of “Tara C. Smith and Steven P. Novella have an article on the subject in PLOS Medicine: HIV Denial in the Internet Era. (via DarkSyde at Daily Kos)”. After the quotes from the masterwork the single comment is

“The ocean of stupidity is wide and deep, and my spoon is so small.”

This confident insult follows three paragraphs quoted from tyro Tara’s treatise, and exhibits not only the presumption that all critics must be wrong if they question established science, but a more interesting and subtle implication that is also a chief feature of the Tara approach:

To indicate that a statement must be foolish and untrue, it is enough to quote it.

This principle provides the secure smugness of CapitalistImperialistPig’s dismissive line, since merely quoting ‘proves’ the rejection of the ‘denialists’ is right, since their statements must by definition be deluded, since they conflict with the conventional wisdom.

tarasmith.jpgAs it happens, this is precisely the logic followed by Tara (pic, left, the original blog self-portrait at Aetiology, which we love, but will consider any objections emailed to us) at many points throughout her treatise on “the current intellectual strategies used by the HIV denial movement”, as we shall see. We shall refer to it from now on as the CapitalistImperialistPig Intellectual Strategy, or CIPIS.

Unfortunately, though we always like to take short cuts we feel we cannot just quote the Library of Science Tara-Steven treatise and apply CIPIS to it, ie just assume that all readers will immediately see how specious and data poor it may be, although we know that all habitual NAR readers will instantly assess the true value of this historic contribution to an understanding of the paradigm critique of HIV∫AIDS.

The CIPIS approach is simply too complex for newcomers to understand, we believe. We are not sure, in fact, that we understand it ourselves. Does simple quoting a statement prove it incorrect? It is hard to see why.

So we are forced to explain precisely where things have gone wrong in the material worked up by the dynamic doctrinal duo defending against the devilish devious denialists attempted demolition of desirable dogma, and will now proceed.

The NAR-LOS Duck Shoot begins here

richard_feynman-big.jpgThe debating stance of the authors is marked by the following compromising flaws in perception and style:

1. Prejudicial language (“deniers”) betrays unscientific ethos:

Library of Science POLICY FORUM Open Access

The Policy Forum allows health policy makers around the world to discuss challenges and opportunities for improving health care in their societies.

HIV Denial in the Internet Era

Tara C. Smith*, Steven P. Novella

Here we have the conclusion in the title, “HIV Denial in the Internet Era”. Criticism of the paradigm is tarred as “denial”, ie reality, proven and immediate visible to all sensible people, is being psychologically “denied”, in the manner of Holocaust deniers, possibly with similar unsavory motives.

The word is mind numbingly disrespectful and any reader with an open mind in scientific discussion will object to having his prejudices made up for him before he reads more than the title. But of course, this is not an open discussion of the science, this is an essay by the converted preaching to the converted. This is propaganda, not objective analysis.

But this is typical behavior of the paradigm defenders in HIV∫AIDS. The supporters of the most questioned paradigm in modern science, HIV=AIDS, rush to defend it by smearing critical reviewers as “denialists” and “deniers” who perpetrate “denial” of truth supported by “overwhelming evidence”. They are represented as no better than those who rewrite Dachau as a holiday camp.

In fact, of course, the ‘denialists’ are nothing less than attentive critics who draw on the best peer reviewed literature to show that the paradigm is not supported by the record – exactly the opposite of Holocaust deniers, in fact.

HIV paradigm critics are simply arguing that the paradigm should be replaced by a belief system which is supported by the studies and data in scientific journals, not one based on the claims of a few scientists who have led the world like a Pied Piper over the cliff of unreason.

What smearing shows

What does this misapplied smearing suggest in a scientific dispute? Is it behavior that would arise from informed opinion based on a firm foundation of data which proponents feel is unassailable? Or does it announce a signal lack of confidence, a shortage of reason and evidence, and an urgent need to find emotional and political defenses against threatening reasoning and data?

Anyone who has difficulty in deciding the answer is not equipped to participate in any scientific discussion, we would suggest, or write about it.

That would be anyone who does not see that the title announces the essay is founded on the prejudice and politics that good scientists banish from sincere discussion about what is likely to be true. Question everything including yourself may be the central ruling principle of good science, as Richard Feynman said in so many ways.

All good scientists know that the prejudicial defense of the ruling paradigm with politics is often the biggest brake on scientific progress. Unfortunately the news doesn’t always reach the journeyman level occupied by the hard working average scientist in these days when vocation has largely changed to profession.

socrates_athens_square_park.jpgWhat they fail to realize is that among journeymen scientists, just like the lay public, automatic defense of any entrenched belief is swift and prejudicial, since entrenched beliefs are emotional pillars of the psyche, not to mention the career, bank account, club membership and status of the believer. Once well established around the world, every paradigm has a defense army ready and willing to fight intruders at a moment’s notice.

It is only genuine scientists and philosophers, with perhaps a few good lawyers and comedians, who don’t have the reflex built in, like some primitive instinct.

But scientists who smear and disrespect their critics with words are by definition shamefully unprofessional, for the first principle professed by true scientists is the one engraved on the Socratic touchstone, “Question everything, including oneself.”

2. Denying their own denialism

Moreover, who is denying what? If anybody is a denialist it is surely the proponents of the status quo, who deny there are any serious questions that need be dealt with, when the science of HIV∫AIDS has more critics high and low who have written more debunking articles and books on this than any other paradigm extant in science.

They deny science, they deny sense, they deny data, and they deny respect – to their very much more scientific critics.

That is the denialism we recognize, and deplore. Not that anyone asked us, of course. But, it seems, someone has to say it. Apparently it is not obvious to the widely respected and hard working Tara and Steven or the bloggers such as Hank, Pig or Educated Guesser who cheer them on.

Sorry, in our intended rapid despatch of this flawed masterpiece we seem to have stalled at the title. We will press on in the next post, humbly apologizing to all intelligent readers for trite corrections of trite error.

3 Responses to “Dissecting the frog (2): The real Denialists”

  1. vuurtor Says:

    You seem to be quite sure that ‘holocaust deniers’ are truely ‘deniers’, whereas ‘aids deniers’ are lovers of truth.
    But how do you now?
    Why couldn’t ‘holocaust deniers’ be motivated by authentic love of truth, just as ‘aids deniers’?
    Why joining the tarring of one brand of ‘deniers’, and at the same time complaining about being tarred as a ‘denier’ yourself?
    Looks like a double standard to me.

  2. hhbauer Says:

    Dear vuurtor:
    Of course, in principle and a priori, ANY “denier” of anything MIGHT be motivated by authentic love of truth–or by anything else. The devil is in the details. Half a century of discussion about the Holocaust is available, including umpteen volumes of transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. One can reach a conclusion by examining some sample of what’s available there.
    As to HIV/AIDS, one can examine the writings of the “deniers” and of those who detest them. My reading of the writings of the deniers Duesberg, Lauritsen, etc. etc. finds those writings dense with substance and citations to published literature. My reading of those who criticize the deniers finds them lacking in substance, lacking in citations to peer-reviewed scientific work, and replete with character assassination.

    Dear Truthseeker:
    Should you find your dissection of the frog reaching an end at some time, you might care to look at an article in Skeptical Inquirer (SI), September/October, about HIV/AIDS deniers, by Nicoli Nattrass. SI and its sponsoring organization specialize in knowing what is good science and what isn’t. I was intrigued by several allegations and mistakes that parallel some in the Smith-Novella tract. A delightful aspect of Nattrass’s piece is her approving repetition of remarks that molecular biologist and retrovirologist Duesberg, and biochemist and Nobelist-for-DNA-analysis-technique Kary Mullis, are not qualified to discuss HIV/AIDS matters because they have never gotten their hands dirty actually working in that field. Nattrass herself is described as a professor of economics.

  3. Chitachitamuchita Says:

    Are Tara and her co-writer Novela honest intellectuals?

    Prof. H. Bauer reminds us that their area of expertise is epidemiology and neurology. The first area has a strong interface with the HIV§AIDS, and the second with ARV§AIDS. Tara knows that it is not possible to have such explosion of HIV§AIDS in Southern Africa when the rate of heterosexually transmitted HIV is so low. Epidemiologically the present model looks very flaw.
    Novela is not worry that HAART increase glutathione deficiency an hallmark of AIDS, however he surely knows that lack of glutathione would increases neurologic problems of AIDS sufferers. But he apparently does not care….

    We can only speculate why Tara/Novela are trying to promote ideas that they knew to be wrong.

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