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Yale’s Serge Lang, a firebrand of idealism, is lost to the academy and to science

This morning (Fri Sep 16), we hear the unhappy and shocking news that a shining hero of truthseeking in the US academic and journalistic universe died on Monday (Sept 12) in his apartment in Berkeley. The French-born Serge Lang (1927-2005) went there from Yale last weekend, and after he failed to make an appearance his body was discovered on Wednesday. He was a heart patient.

The loss to the truthseeking community in the world is enormous. Serge Lang had no equal in the fierceness of his unrelenting battle for higher standards of accurate expression in the professional statements and behavior of establishment academics, editors and publishers, whether they were colleagues or not.

As a Yale professor of renown and enormous energy and productivity even at age 78, he was unusual if not unique in being an establishment critic within an establishment usually clubby enough to put collegiality before truth.

Lang was what all truthseekers should aspire to be, a one man anti-aircraft missile against nonsense and self-serving misstatements from on high in the academic world, publishing, or in one important case in science, AIDS. He thoroughly exposed the statistics and data in AIDS as poorly prepared and offering no persuasive evidence whatsoever for the ruling paradigm that the immune deficiency syndrome is caused by the retrovirus HIV.

Serge was vehemently against misleading statements and information, concealed falsehoods and professional hypocrisy of any kind in the public arena of academia and publishing. In a way this was natural since he was one of the leading mathematicians of his generation, a prolific writer of leading math textbooks and an uncompromising teacher who loved the role but did not stint on his demand that his students share the same high standards of accuracy as he did. But few have pursued an ideal in social behavior in any part of life as energetically, methodically and irresistibly as he did in trying to purify academic discourse, always sticking to the high standards he urged on others. Even his interviewers had to tread carefully.

Needless to say, his unrelenting efforts to change the behavior of his establishment colleagues in the academy and of other highly placed miscreants in the editing and publishing world met with dug-in resistance and appeals to collegiality which got nowhere with Serge.

His persistence in getting his target to retract misleading statements and inaccurate reporting was legendary, and when the correspondence reached a conclusion, whether success or stalemate, he would publish it in a “File” on the topic which would be distributed through the mail at his own expense to a hundred or so players in key positions in the information arena in the US. This included several editors and reporters at the New York Times who have to take responsibility for having failed time and again to inform their readers of issues which Lang exposed.

The accumulating Files resulted in a selection of the most important being published in “Challenges” (Springer Verlag, 1998 ISBN 0-387-94861-9)), a priceless guide to the distortions induced at the higher levels of science, academia and journalism by the incompetence, careerism, laziness and/or irresponsibility of the subjects of Lang’s attention. Probably no more authoritative and factually based expose of what goes on offstage in the offices of universities, journals or government will ever be done. Lang’s approach has always been more effective in revealing the abuse of truth in these circles than any Congressional investigation, for he got people to provide the very exhibits that condemned them in the letters they wrote to him.

Responsibility for their statements and actions in suppressing or misrepresenting facts was what Lang forced on officials, professors and editors, whom he would often castigate as being unable to tell a “fact from a hole in the ground”. In doing so he exposed the petty evasions and manipulative ploys undertaken by people in high position when caught misleading the public while politicking and networking at the expense of their professional and public responsibilities.

Thus in this office we received only a few days ago the latest instalment of his grand File on AIDS, a sub-file named “The NAS File”, which concerned the fate of two articles that Serge had submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as a member of that club. The National Academy is an elite institution in the US in which a new member is voted in by the other members already installed. Rejections of the aspiring member sometimes follow, as in the case of Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, whom Lang famously blackballed a couple of decades ago on the basis of Huntington’s use of poor mathematics and spurious economic reasoning in his sociology texts comparing nations.

Traditionally all submissions to the Proceedings by members were once accepted without peer review except for a cursory reading by a friendly colleague, but since Linus Pauling and Peter Duesberg disturbed the political waters with submissions on vitamins and AIDS that attracted hostility the editorial reviewing of articles for signs of political embarrassment seems to have escalated somewhat, and Lang has been caught in this trap.

The two papers he submitted were accompanied by a review from Berkeley emeritus professor of molecular and cell biology Richard Strohman who concluded: “In my opinion the two papers submitted by Professor Lang constitute an excellent basis for reexamination of the standard theory of what is called HIV/AIDS.” In fact, Strohman stated that “I have reviewed the two papers submitted by Serge Lang and have reached the firm conclusion that their publication in the PNAS is not only merited, it is essential.”

Predictably the PNAS Editor in chief, Nick Cozzarelli, after sniffing the political wind, curtly rejected the articles as unsuitable, stating the transparently false excuse that they were “opinion pieces” and not “research articles”, according to “experts on the PNAS board” that he had consulted. The insulting brevity of the letter, and its lack of grace, suggest to us that Nick Cozzarelli was seriously afraid of providing any opportunity whatsoever for Lang to engage him in dialogue, and it is worth quoting in full:

“Dear Dr Lang:

I have consulted with experts on the PNAS Editorial Board and we cannot accept either of your articles for consideration in the journal. Neither of them are research articles. They are instead opinion pieces.”


Nick Cozzarelli

16 Barker Hall, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology,

University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley Ca. 94720

Short, sharp, and entirely disrespectful, this is the letter of a coward and a scoundrel, we would like to say, borrowing for a moment the fierceness of Lang. Except that Serge would never concern himself with personal motives or politics, or bother to discern the kind of man he was dealing with. Following his own ruling principle, he would keep the discussion on the very firm, steel rails of objective facts. What was the misstatement he was objecting to, and when would the person who made it acknowledge the error and correct it?

His driving concern was correction, not condemnation, and he could not be diverted into discussing or even acknowledging politics and personal advantage, those great distracting and distorting influences in modern knowledge. Such objectivity wasn’t easily believed by his victims, who naturally viewed him as narrow and uncollegial, in other words, unfriendly if not obsessive. But anyone who got to know Serge found that he was a warm and cheerful soul, who would end most of his observations with a giggle. But as a mathematician and as a truthseeker, he was principled and perfectionist.

This kind of scientific objectivity freed of politics and personality is precisely the aim of this AIDS science news blog, of course, though we admit to occasionally lapsing into personal ridicule as the absurdity of small minded people clothed in the power of position and dignity of high office overtakes us, since humor serves to lighten the otherwise deadly earnestness of taking exception to their foolish and in the case of AIDS ultimately murderous mistatements.

Characteristically in the case of the Proceedings rejection of his AIDS papers at the end of this May, Lang immediately answered the wretched Cozzarelli with a firm response:

“My two papers consist almost entirely of factually verifiable statements. They provide original sources to document the contradictions within the establishment position concerning “HIV/AIDS” and the toxic, pathogenic effects of anti-HIV drugs on people.

Just how great a loss Serge Lang will be to the truth seeking community in the world is emphasized by this personal style, in which he strictly adhered to the standards he sought to persuade others to follow, namely, in an issue of disputed truth, to stick to “factually verifiable statements”.

Nor would Lang ever give up easily, or leave any part of his case unsaid. Thus Cozzarelli’s dismissive letter, which would have silenced most other supplicants, provoked two pages of evidently angry but coolly reasoned, single spaced rebuttal from Lang, including the following paragraphs:

I submitted the papers as “social science” because the main thrust involves people, how they fulfill their scientific (partly medical) responsibilities, and how they deal (or don’t deal) with the contradictions. Your invoking “experts on the PNS Editorial Board” confirms the extent to which the Editorial Board and yourself have missed the point: Experts about what? To what extent can we trust what so-called “experts” say in the scientific establishment, concerning both “HIV/AIDS” as a presumed disease and the establishment’s position about “HIV/AIDS”? My documentation shows in particular how “experts” contradict each other, so evaluations have to be based on actual evidence. not what “experts” say.

Since you gave no evidence for the extent to which I wrote “opinions” rather than facts, I have to make an ad hoc decision how to deal with your sweeping characterizations. How much of my article do I repeat to counter your sliver about my articles being “opinion pieces”? I choose to mention summarily a few titles of topics: The circularity of the CDC definition of “HIV/AIDS” (holding that only HIV-positive cases of 29 AIDS-defining diseases are called AIDS), the toxicity of anti-HIV drugs as stated for example in the “Boehringer-Ingelheim Medication Guide”, the CDC double U-turn (2001 and 2005) concerning the use of these drugs, the defective statistics, the recognition of the deficiency of the HIV-antibody tests by Harvey Fineberg (current president of the IOM) are not “opinions”. The quotes I used from Fineberg came from an interview with the journalist Jon Rappoport. I wrote to Fineeberg about this. I sent you a copy of my letter to him, and its enclosures. I have not had a reply from Fineberg. You don’t even give any evidence that you read my articles. I urge you to do so if you have not done so, to understand the substance behind the above titles.

The plot thickened as the unfortunate Cozzarelli tried to ignore this unanswerable complaint, and Lang expanded his File with a letter to Bruce Alberts, then the President of the national Academy of Sciences. Alberts hastily wrote back that he would put the matter before the NAS Council, but Lang should know that he was exiting as President before that meeting would take place, effectively handing off the hot potato to Ralph Cicerone at the end of June.

We will describe more of this File in a following post, but the point is made. Lang’s ability to stand up to his peers and insist they meet their public responsibilities in the accuracy of their factual research and the truth of their official statements, and not restrict free speech and twist the truth for their own ends, is going to be sorely missed. There is no one on the landscape with the established position, precision, commitment and passion to replace him.

AIDS heretics will be most at a loss, for apart from Peter Duesberg he was the only participant in the widening battle to open up the paradigm to serious review who possessed the talent, resources and moral courage to challenge his establishment colleagues with the kind of superlative rigor that nailed the CDC, in particular, for providing statististical nonsense in support of “HIV/AIDS”.

As he recently joked on the telephone to this writer, echoing the remark of President Johnson about why he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover (“Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in!”), “I am the only person who is inside the tent, pissing in!”

Here is this morning’s Yale Daily News front page story:


Published Friday, September 16, 2005

Math professor Serge Lang dies at age 78

Lang is remembered for significant academic contributions, dispute of link between HIV and AIDS


Staff Reporter

Serge Lang, a noted mathematics professor emeritus and the most prolific modern writer in his field, died Monday at the age of 78.

Yale President Richard Levin said he did not know the circumstances of Lang’s death, but a colleague said he had been suffering from health problems. Lang, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who retired from Yale last year, was known for his activism in mathematical education and his controversial disputation of the link between HIV and AIDS.

“He was a forceful advocate for causes he believed in,” Levin said. “Sometimes he regarded himself as the conscience of the University.”

Mathematics professor Peter Jones said the volume of Lang’s work is believed to have surpassed that of 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler, who held the record for total number of words written. Lang’s work includes hundreds of articles, books and textbooks, as well as “The File,” an anthology of academic inconsistencies that he distributed to friends and colleagues.

Economics professor John Geanakoplos, Lang’s longtime acquaintance and colleague, said “The File” was only part of his lifelong crusade against inaccuracy.

“There were famous people and causes that he found intellectually unscrupulous, and he wouldn’t rest until he got to the bottom of things,” Geanakoplos said.

In perhaps his most controversial claim, Lang argued that a causal link between HIV and AIDS has not been definitively established. Lang frequently handed out pamplets on campus at talks dealing with AIDS.

But Lang had more success in his campaign against Samuel Huntington, a Harvard political scientist nominated to the National Academy of Sciences. In an unorthodox campaign, Lang defeated Huntington’s nomination on the grounds that he used spurious mathematical reasoning.

Lang even went so far as to administer a “Huntington Test” to dozens of his students each year, said Avidit Acharya ’06, his friend and mentee. Lang had the students comment on passages from Huntington’s work to determine, as he would put it, whether they could “tell a fact from a hole in the ground,” Acharya said.

Lang’s demanding personality extended into the classroom, said Timothy Brandt ’06, a former student. Though Lang befriended his students, sometimes taking his class out to dinner at Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant, he did not withhold his criticism from them.

“He wasn’t afraid to tell you that you didn’t know what you were talking about, that you were full of it,” Brandt said.

Lang’s career research focused on algebra — for which he won the prestigious Frank Nelson Cole Prize — as well as algebraic geometry, number theory, and analysis. Jones said that he often stayed at his office late into the evening, and did not stop theorizing even when he got home. For years at a time, Jones said, Lang would call him each night to pose mathematical problems without pausing to identify himself or say hello.

Many of their discussions centered around the “heat kernel,” a mathematical concept that Lang believed could be used to approach research and instruction across a variety of mathematical branches. As with “The File,” he made publicizing the heat kernel his personal mission.

Despite Lang’s prolific research, teaching undergraduates was his principal passion. Geankoplos met Lang as a freshman at Yale in 1971, when Lang was touring the dining halls of various universities to evaluate their job offers.

“He decided that the best way to find out what the school was like was to sit down and have meals with the undergraduates,” Geanakoplos said. “He was tremendously engaged in what his students were doing and thinking.”

2 Responses to “Yale’s Serge Lang, a firebrand of idealism, is lost to the academy and to science”

  1. Dean Esmay Says:

    It’s guys like this, and other science heretics, who I so admire–guys like Bjorn Lomberg, Julian Simon, Kary Mullis, Richard Feynman, who are fearless, care not a whit what others think of them, and are dedicated to the truth above all else.

  2. Darin Brown Says:

    Serge was one in a million, that’s for sure. Thanks to him, there is some kind of historical record of the behaviour of the science journals which cannot be easily explained away.

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