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Wangari Maathai

From the November issue of EphNotes:

HONORARY DEGREE RECIPIENT WINS NOBEL PRIZE

Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8 for her efforts to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural change. She received an honorary degree from Williams in 1990.


Maathai is an interesting person, well-deserving of her honorary degree from Williams. My personal politics also puts her in the top 1/2 of Nobel Peace Prize winners, but your preferences may differ. Most fascinating, though, are her views on the origins of the AIDS epidemic.

Just a day before she is scheduled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai tried Thursday to defuse a controversy over reports that she said “evil-minded scientists” in the developed world intentionally created AIDS to decimate the African population.

Being a free-thinker, I am sympathetic to Maathai’s plight. Just because 99%+ of the experts on a given topic believe that X is true, does not guarantee that they are right (although the wise Eph probably bets that way). But in the specific topic of HIV/AIDS, I am more of a Duesberg man myself.

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#1 Comment By Aidan On January 7, 2005 @ 9:08 am

are you fucking mental? I don’t even believe that this idiotic comment of yours should be dignified with a comment. But, maybe I shouldn’t be shocked that you’re an AIDS skeptic, a position, I might add, that is roughly as respectable as “Holocaust Denier.” I don’t want any truck with a website that spreads such dangerous, evidence-free, conspiracy theories. I think you should remove this comment, or revise it to suggest that you aren’t some tin-foil-hat nutjob.

#2 Comment By Aidan On January 7, 2005 @ 9:16 am

Moreover, being a “free-thinker” doesn’t mean you take positions contrary to overwhelming evidence. Taking positions contrary to overwhelming evidence makes you an idiot, or a crank. Being a “free-thinker” means you are capable of thinking outside the box, like Luther, or Darwin, or Gregor Mendel, and that your thought is actually capable of solving previous mysterious data (see Einstein, and the solar eclipse of 1905). Being a contrarian (or worse!) is hardly evidence of being a “free-thinker.” Rather, it is evidence of subtle, and not so subtle, forms of racism, paranoia, conspiracy-minded-thinking, ignorance, and absolute blindness. In my personal opinion, it is absolutely outrageous that a fear-mongerer like Maathai was allowed anywhere near a major prize, but then again, when you join a fraternity of winners including Yassir Arafat, how discriminating can the judging be?

#3 Comment By (d)avid On January 7, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

Duesberg?! Kane, you have got to be kidding (I will hope that you were being ironic). The Swift Boat Veterans lunacy was one thing, but the relationship between AIDS and HIV is pretty well established. Duesberg’s theory that AIDS is caused by recreational drug use and AZT doesn’t withstand even the simplest scrutiny. Millions of people in Africa are dying — largely because they don’t have access to AZT (nor is there a sufficiently widespread culture of drug use). AZT was clinically tested: the treatment group exhibited LOWER mortality from AIDS, not higher. Medical workers exhibiting no risk factors accidentally exposed to HIV have developed AIDS.

The NIH has posted a point-by-point refutation of Duesberg here and here.

Please confirm that you were joking. Discussing your favorite type of anti-scientific argument about AIDS could be funny in theory, but your post didn’t come across as a joke.

#4 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 7, 2005 @ 6:15 pm

The Conscience agrees with Aidan- Kane, what exactly are you suggesting? I’ll leave flaying you for expressing irresponsible beliefs regarding the medical origins of AIDS to the more scientifically inclined, but I can elaborate on Aidan’s second post.

You indicate Maathai is virtuous for adopting a position that has inadequate factual support simply because it’s highly unorthodox and probably wrong. But in doing so, you conflate the virtue of free thinking with the right to license in expression. Free- as in original and independent- thinking can be immensely important and powerful, but must be distinguished from foolish or irrational positions that individuals have the right to espouse because of protected speech.

The *right to protected speech* in and of itself is a good, and can certainly facilitate free thinking, but that does not mean that any act that can be done only because of protected speech is necessarily a good. To invoke a most basic point, merely because something *can* be done doesn’t mean it *ought* to be done.

And don’t give us any ‘Well, people would have said the same thing to Copernicus and Galileo’ crap. Go read Kuhn’s ‘Theory of Scientific Revolutions’ if you have to; those two were at the edge of a real shift in forms of cognition. Denying there’s a connection between AIDS and HIV is simply ignorant and irresponsible in a very immediate way.

#5 Comment By David Kane ’88 On January 7, 2005 @ 11:12 pm

AC writes:

You indicate Maathai is virtuous for adopting a position that has inadequate factual support simply because it’s highly unorthodox and probably wrong.

No. I think that Maathai is virtuous for having the courage of her convictions, the willingness to say what she honestly belives. I happen to disagree with her. I highly doubt that Western scientists created HIV, either purposely or by accident. In fact, if the current scientific consensus is ever found to be wrong about HIV/AIDS, I would suspect that the truth will be closer to Duesberg’s opinion than to Maathai’s.

Fortunately, I am glad to learn from my fellow EphBlogians that such an event is inconceivable. There is no chance — zero, nada, zippo — that the current scientific consensus concerning the origin of HIV/AIDS is incorrect, just as there was no chance 20 years ago that the scientific consensus about the cause of stomach ulcers was incorrect, just as there was no chance … INSERT YOUR FAVORITE EXAMPLE HERE. This is reassuring. I occasionally labor under the misperception that man is fallen and therefore fallible. Thanks to all for clearing that up.

But in doing so, you conflate the virtue of free thinking with the right to license in expression. Free — as in original and independent — thinking can be immensely important and powerful, but must be distinguished from foolish or irrational positions that individuals have the right to espouse because of protected speech.

I’ll avoid the obvious cheap shot of asking for a listing of the “foolish or irrational positions” that I should avoid mentioning on EphBlog. I am not claiming that all positions are worthy of equal consideration. But when a point of view is espoused by serious people like Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis and South African President Thabo Mbeki, I tend to not dismiss it as the work of fruitcakes.

Call me skeptical of the AIDS-skeptics skeptics. It is not that I necessarily agree with Maathai or with Duesberg or with Mullis or with Mbeki or with whoever. On many dimensions, they disagree among themselves. But I do value a diversity of viewpoints, about matters scientific as well as political.

#6 Comment By David Kane ’88 On January 7, 2005 @ 11:27 pm

Ignoring for a minute the value, or lack thereof, in the writings of someone like Duesberg, I want to address why I think that such a link is a appropriate here. I am, however, ready to be convinced that it was inappropriate. My reasoning is:

1) It is good to link to news about Maathai, an (honorary) Eph, especially when that news comes to us in an official publication of the College.

2) It is good to link to the views of Maathai (as in the New York Times article) even if those views are controversial and, depending on your point of view, “dangerous, evidence-free” and derived from “racism, paranoia, conspiracy-minded-thinking, ignorance, and absolute blindness”. Eph news is Eph news, whatever my personal opinion on the substance.

3) It is reasonable, having mentioned such unusual views, to provide one’s own views on them. EphBlog, like many blogs, is partly purely informational — here is this news story — and partly opinion/commentary. I think that it is OK, even desirable, for authors to give their personal opinions on topics that they blog about.

4) It is desirable to bring up other pointers and/or mention other related topics. Of course, if you believe that AIDS skeptic == Holocaust Denier, then you might think take exception in this case. But any view that is held by a Nobel Prize winner and a tenured professor at a major university strikes me as fair game.

Again, I am ready to believe that I crossed some line with regard to points 3 and 4, and that EphBlog would be a better site if I did this sort of thing less often, but I am still waiting for a clear case to be made.

#7 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 8, 2005 @ 3:17 am

DK,

Perhaps I should have inserted ‘dangerous’ as another precondition along with ‘foolish or irrational.’ The problem with the AIDs crisis is that it is pressing and inadequately addressed in Africa, and given the current evidence, adopting positions (particularly such as Duesburg’s) that work against improving treatment and prevention is harmful. This ain’t the ‘Creationism vs. Evolution’ debate, or even the ‘Should Evolution be taught in schools’ debate- this is the ‘Should millions of lives be saved through available medical treatment’ debate.

There are countless examples of this throughout history. Imagine being a person of intellectual authority acting as an opponent of the use of sterile instruments and antiseptic during surgery during the 19th century (?); is that person ‘courageously’ advocating an alternative viewpoint, or a real threat to human wellbeing? I’d argue the latter. And while that person shouldn’t be prevented from expressing such viewpoints except in cases of inflicting immediately criminal harm, I think intelligent folk such as ourselves need to avoid *celebrating* or condoning such statements. What would you say to an influential figure who earnestly belived blacks were an inferior race back in the 1950s/1960s, and attempted to sway public opinion against civil rights? Is that person courageous or misguided and immoral? Your previous posts would indicate the latter.

The point is, AIDs is a very real problem. Maybe not for you with your Williams wife and soon to be Williams kids (you pro legacy tips, DK?), and maybe not as much for the US as a whole, but it sure is a freakin’ problem for Africa, and the fact that there’s so much obstructive (psuedo-)debate over the nature of the disease is a real, immediate impediment to improving policy. I think you need to stop living and thinking in the post-Williams bubble, and attempt to consider issues from a more universalist perspective.

#8 Comment By AC On January 8, 2005 @ 3:30 am

Correction- by ‘latter’ at the end of the second paragraph, I mean ‘former.’

Gotta lay off the Jim Beam…

#9 Comment By Jeff Zeeman On January 8, 2005 @ 6:38 am

Just want to pipe in with one quick comment. I don’t think the fact that a view is held by a nobel prize winner and/or a tenured professor makes it any more palatable / intelligent / worthy of discussion. As noted above, Yassir Arafat is a Nobel Prize winner, but I don’t think that somehow legitmizes his view that all Jews should be killed and pushed into the sea, or that it’s a good idea to kidnap Israeli Olympic athletes and murder them on national TV, or that the aspirations of the Palestinian people should be screwed over so he can enhance his wealth and prestige. And it would be all-too-easy to find scores of tenured college profs with views that are, ummm, unworthy of celebration. Not to mention, folks with Eph connections or even attended Williams who are absolutely bonkers.

I’m not opining on whether or not you should DESCRIBE a viewpoint on here. If someone was, say, an administrator at Williams, I’d be curious if they were publically articulating a really bizarre position. I think it’s very unusual that information about someone’s opinion, disceminated solely to inform that such opinion is out there, would be unhealthy.

But describing, and more or less endorsing, are two very different phenomena. I tend to evaluate a position, if it’s in the scienctific arena, based on actual evidence (if in the philosophic arena, then based on actual logic; if in the artistic arena, then by how weird the hair of whoever provides the opinion) rather than by whether someone has a PhD or not, or was recognized by a body as capricious as the Nobel committee or, heaven forbid, the tenure committee at a major university.

#10 Comment By (d)avid On January 8, 2005 @ 10:25 am

Kane, I think the first two-thirds of your post was great. Maathai was given an honorary degree by Williams, so she falls within the realm of “all things Eph.” Pointing out her views on AIDS is also interesting and informative. Williams certainly didn’t trumpet that side of Maathai when awarding her the degree. Great stuff.

My problem came with your endorsement of Duesberg. Aidan and AC are right: AIDS is an important topic and being a free thinker doesn’t mean going against the grain for the sake of going against the grain. The fact that Duesberg disagrees with 99.9% of AIDS researchers isn’t important to me. What bothers me is that his theory flies in the face of 99.9% of the available evidence (and any public policy adopted on the basis of his theories would have disastrous consequences for public health at home and abroad). Your ulcer example is a good one, the available theories of what caused ulcers in the early 80s didn’t explain much of the observable data. Marshall’s theory that Heliobacter pylori caused ulcers was at least as plausible. When he stood on stage on drank a liquid containing Heliobacter pylori and developed ulcers, that was fairly convincing evidence (note: this might represent the first time being the son of a microbiologist has come in handy). Experts disagreed with Marshall, but the evidence supported him. The same was true for Galieo, Darwin, and any other revolutionary thinker you want to point to. The revolution is against received wisdom, not objective reality.

Ephblog certainly isn’t going to influence the decisions made by the World Health Organization, but that doesn’t mean Ephblog is free to promulgate ignorant and dangerous theories.

#11 Comment By David On January 8, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

AC notes that “adopting positions (particularly such as Duesburg’s) that work against improving treatment and prevention is harmful.” True enough. But I was not arguing that he or any Eph should adopt Deusberg’s positions! I do argue that a wise Eph should consider a variety of viewpoints about important topics of the day, with a special focus on opinions that differ from his own. If you believe in free trade, you should read The Nation; if you are in favor of the minimum wage, you should read The Weekly Standard, at least once in a while.

Of course, there are only so many hours in the day and many, many nut-jobs competing for our attention. But, in my own professional (social science type) work, I make the time for at least some of them. I make the time to read the opinions of people who are a) smart and b) completely disagree with me on important topics. I spend more time reading the academic work of people who I agree with, whose approaches I think are the best ones for the problem at hand. Yet I still take the time to consider the Duesberg’s of the financial world. I recommend the same to all Ephs.

To be clear: I celebrate (and try to practice) an active consideration of intelligently presented views from a highly diverse set of perspectives on all matters philosophical and scientific, both in my private life and on EphBlog. If you happen to be certain about what the truth is on a specific topic, you are apt to find this habit annoying and, possibly, counter-productive. I mean no offense.

I also believe, although I am ready to be convinced otherwise, that a sub-optimal amount of this sort of wide-ranging consideration goes on among smart people in general and at Williams in particular. But that is a rant for another day.

#12 Comment By David On January 8, 2005 @ 3:07 pm

(d)avid suggests that it is a bad thing to “to promulgate ignorant and dangerous theories.” I guess that this is true in theory but, in practice, I have a lot of trouble knowing for sure which theories are ignorant/dangerous and which are not. As a rough and ready guide, I tend to believe that any theory espoused by at least a small number of smart, sensible accomplished people is not so ignorant/dangerous that I should decline to mention it on EphBlog. Does anyone disagree?

I happen to believe that rent control laws are ignorant and dangerous. I believe this with at least as much fervour and conviction (and knowledge of the relevant technical literature) as (d)avid has with regard to his beliefs about the cause of AIDS. But I also recognize that there are smart, accomplished people who disagree with me, who believe that rent control is a good thing.

I think that the way to deal with this conflict is to actively link to them, to go out of my way to consider their arguments and urge others to do the same.

Perhaps the key word in (d)avid’s complaint is “promulgate” — to state, proclaim or pronounce. When I say that I am a “Duesberg man” — indeed, when I link to anything not directly-related to Williams — what I mean to proclaim is that this link is interesting, intelligent and well-done, considered within the appropriate reference set. That is, if you want to spend some time following up far-out theories about HIV/AIDS like those of our fellow Eph Maathai, I would recommend that you start with Duesberg.

I would not have brought up Duesberg (whose work I have followed for more than a decade) if the topic of the day were not Maathai’s views. I agree that I, and other authors, should refrain from bringing up such outlier views/topics unless there is an Eph hook to connect them to. If, however, there is an Eph hook, I am in favor of learning about the best and brightest arguments that are being made for theories that I personally find ignorant and/or dangerous.

#13 Comment By (d)avid On January 8, 2005 @ 4:14 pm

David, you honestly don’t see a difference between rent control and the HIV/AIDS link? The data on rent control and its consequences are entirely observational and numerous theories can explain the variance in outcomes across cities (and even if policy outcomes could be agreed upon, then whether the outcomes or desirable or not would depend upon your politics).

In contrast, the data linking HIV and AIDS is the result of experimental manipulation. The virus has been isolated, introduced into new cells, and randomized controlled experiments on the effects of AZT have been conducted. The literature is absolutely enormous. There is room for debate within the HIV/AIDs literature (e.g., whether vaccines are the best way to combat it, is it possible for the virus to die out in the body), but Duesberg is simply wrong that HIV is irrelevant and that AZT causes AIDS.

There are nutjobs who still believe the Earth is flat, the Sun revolves around the Earth, and that the Earth was created roughly 7,000 years ago. I’m all for exploring unconventional ideas, but certain ideas are simply false and do not need to be re-explored. “I am a Duesberg man” implies a lot more than, “well, if you want to waste your time on conspiracy theories, here is a slightly more plausible one.”

I have no problem with Ephblog stretching the definition of all things Eph, but at least make such digressions potentially true (as opposed to obviously false and offensive — not everyone who has died of AIDS used recreational drugs, and Duesberg’s claim is not far off).

#14 Comment By Loweeel On January 8, 2005 @ 5:44 pm

As for Nobel prizes and validity of views, I think we need to (1) see whether the views are within the field for which the prize was given, and if so, whether it’s related to the specific subfield of the utteror’s expertise and then (2) check the falsifiability of the field.

I’d give a lot of weight to the views of the physics and chemistry winners in their own fields. I’d at least give the benefit of the doubt to the Econ winners whose current positions I disagree with (like Stiglitz) if I’m not up-to-speed on the particular issue. However, the opinions of the literature prize winners, and of the peace prize winners lately, probably aren’t even worth the opportunity cost in time it takes to hear them.

#15 Comment By Aidan On January 9, 2005 @ 12:58 am

David Kane, you are an idiot. I’d like to explain to you why that is, in a couple easy steps.

1. You conflate opinions, and especially wishy-washy social science opinions that lack data, and upon which there can be rational debate, with scientific fact. The medical understanding of HIV/AIDS is not a subject that can be seen, like rent control, from the perspective of the Nation or the National Review. Science, unlike other human endeavours, is evidence based. Opinions without evidence (such as Duseberg’s rantings) are not science and should not be treated as such. One fine commentator once said that “opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one, and they all stink.” Well, your opinions are just as smelly, distateful, and ugly as those of Peter Duesberg or Maathai or Adolf Hitler or Yassir Arafat or any other numbskull that wants to demean and hurt other human beings.

2. You have a strange way of validating sources. In the sciences, publication in a peer reviewed journal is the gold standard. Duesberg has not published his insane AIDS theories in any reputable journal. This means that his theories, as one review article stated, lack even a wisp of “empirical evidence to support…politically motivated theory.” (Genre, 1994 19:39-43) Again, it is fine for Duesberg to believe personally that AIDS is a joke, but it is improper for him to use his position as a tenured professor (albeit a disgraced tenured professor) to promote crackpot opinions he lacks evidence for. Moreover, your respect for elected officials of corrupt third world countries (South Africa, Rwanda? Zaire?) and their “scientific” opinions borders on the ludicrous. I don’t particularly care–and neither should you–if the President of South Africa stated that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS: he was roundly abused for the statement, which was wrong, both factually and also from a public policy perspective in a country with an unimaginably high infection rate. The statement was baseless, moronic, and harmful because it was not only groundless but also actively harmful. Many leaders have made unconscionable statements over the years–not so long ago a certain Chancellor of Germany was suggesting that jewish people were vermin. Should that statement be valorized because of the rank of the source?

3. Your tacit approval of statements that minimize the pandemic nature of HIV/AIDS or help to stigmatize AIDS sufferers–what about those infected via blood transfusion, Mr. Duesberg?–are bigoted and certainly racist. I’m personally appalled that you hold these views. Duesberg certainly implies that recreational drug use (is this code for homosexuality?) is the root cause of AIDS, and denies any link between the (gay?) infection in the US and the (straight, poor, black, universal?) disease in the rest of the world. I’m sorry Kane, but you are totally out of line on this. There are reasonable things that reasonable people can agree on–rent control, hectoring Morty, your disgust with public education, your incescant toadying and your absolute blindness to any changes that have happened at Williams since the halcyon days of the late ’80s–that’s all fine, and that’s something we can all forgive you for, you big-hearted, small-brained blowhard. But I will not tolerate you using this bully pulpit–which also has my name on it–to spread disengenous lies, poison, and shameful inuendo.

You can believe what you like about AIDS, of course. I’m sure the degenerates get what they deserve, of course. But I don’t want to be part of any website that so actively stands against rational thought, scientific understanding, and a helpful, open, and well-reasoned view of the world. If you want to slop around with men of Duesberg’s ilk–Holocaust deniers, men like Fred Phelps, the rabidly slavering madnen that haunt the fringes of civil society–you’ll get up with fleas.

I’m sorry Kane, but you’re an idiot. Please ppologize, and keep your ugly theories to yourself in the future.

#16 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 9, 2005 @ 1:26 am

DK,

Well, Aidan’s thrown down the gauntlet, now I’m gonna polish it nice and shiny bright.

In addition to Aidan’s core critiques, there’s a contextual problem here. You talk about an *exigent crisis* with a tone befitting the Cubs-White Sox rivalry, and throw around irresponsible theories like a 3rd rate cosmologist. That’s fine when discussing Morty’s compensation or drinking policies at Wilyums, but not here.

The AIDs crisis is arguably the great global crisis of our generation- Africa is being depopulated. For you to adopt such a casual tone is insulting; and for you to endorse theories that undermine treatment of that crisis is not merely fatuous or irresponsible, but immoral. If this were KaneBlog, you would just be a whack job; but it’s Ephblog, and as I have emphasized before, you are the person who acts as its public face.

Moreover, I feel that the life of privilege (basically offered to all Williams students) has thoroughly distorted your perception of reality, and in particular granted your attitude a type of relativism that is thoroughly distasteful. Mathaai’s views might not be so ‘fascinating’ if you were living in an African nation that is being ravaged by AIDs. By speaking so glibly, you show an implicit but uncondonable disrespect.

#17 Comment By Todd On January 9, 2005 @ 2:39 am

Hooray for aiming higher, Kane. You’ve shot yourself in the face instead of the foot this time.

Aidan: For the record, Duesberg actually HAS published (even w/respect to his AIDS work) in reputable publications and peer-reviewed journals. His first article on his AIDS theories was published in Science, which is arguably tops (See here for a list). This hardly mitigates the fact that he’s been discredited by almost the entire rest of the scientific community, had his funding cut off from all respectable grant sources, and been completely disgraced since then, though. The fact that the folks at Nature had a special committee to refute his arguments should really be evidence enough. I’m definitely with you on the rest of your points.

I agree wholeheartedly that this site in its current form and run by David Kane should not be called EphBlog. You really ought to distance yourself from that title, David. Set up another blog in which you discuss the re-creation of Williams in your image and your harebrained theories. I don’t care about that. But this site has my school’s name on it and you’re reducing the value of my degree.

#18 Comment By Loweeel On January 9, 2005 @ 2:40 am

At least he has the balls to put his name on his opinions, distasteful they may be, Eisler Aidan’s Conscience…

#19 Comment By Loweeel On January 9, 2005 @ 2:41 am

Aww man, the “Strike” tag doesn’t work!

#20 Comment By Aidan On January 9, 2005 @ 2:57 am

Todd,

looking again at PubMed, all the citations I found were either comments, letters, or reviews. I don’t have access at home to the original (1988) Science citation, but I’m not sure if it was a letter or actually a peer-reviwed report. Letters, for obvious reasons, have far less stringent standards of publication.

I see no evidence for his theories, and he looks to be one of the most classical of all academic phenotypes: the crank.

thanks for factchecking on that, though.

second the motion that EphBlog is a misnomer. It is KaneBlog, and the Ephness is a pneumbra or an emanation, at best.

#21 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 9, 2005 @ 3:08 am

Congratulations, Lowell. How long have you been working on a supposition you have the resources to neither confirm nor support? And regardless, it seems to me like your libertarian ideals would seem compatible with the notion of anonymous expression.

Now go reward yourself with a nice game of Chrono Trigger, just like a big boy.

#22 Comment By Todd On January 9, 2005 @ 3:10 am

First, sorry about the wrong link above. I just made a blog entry and the pasted link was left over from that. Here’s the actual link to Duesberg publications. The Science letter (and I think Aidan’s right that it’s a letter — it’s really short) is here, along with responses from other scientists.

I fail to see where there aren’t obvious holes in his ideas (all already mentioned here). I stand with pretty much all the biologists on this one. It’s the HIV, stupid.

#23 Comment By Todd On January 9, 2005 @ 3:11 am

One more time. The actual link. Damn the lack of preview on this blog.

#24 Comment By Loweeel On January 9, 2005 @ 3:26 am

Eisler, I’m totally comfortable with anonymous expression.

But giving it equal validity is something else entirely. That’s why Wikipedia gives different edit/revert deference to registered users as opposed to anonymous ones who just post as their IP address.

You totally have the right to be anonymous if you want. But you don’t have the right to be anonymous and have your claims, opinions, and writings treated as seriously as a person who’s willing to stand beside them with a name and contact info. You can’t eat your cake and then still have it.

#25 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 9, 2005 @ 3:32 am

Where did I ever say I wanted my comments treated totally seriously? My name, my language- it’s playful, Lowell. Believe it or not, this is pretty low on my priority list, somewhere way below flossing and just above, um…shaving.

And in any case, who are you to judge what should be taken seriously? And why does anonymity *necessarily* entail less serious treatment? Your position seems to have no merit. Shouldn’t the force of the ideas themselves be the criterion?

#26 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 2:57 pm

Almost the only empirical claim that AC makes in the midst of his gauntlet-polishing is that “Africa is being depopulated.” This is simply not true. The population of Africa has increased significantly in the last 20 years, even in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Of course, population statistics for Africa are estimates at best, but similar increases, not decreases, have occurred in South Africa, a country with probably the highest quality data.

If I were smart, I would invoke Goodwin’s Law and retire from the debate. But I can’t help it. I get depressed when smart and intelligent Ephs like AC accuse me of being “fatuous” and “irresponsible” when they don’t even know whether or not the population of Africa is increasing or decreasing.

Again, I have no problem if AC prefers to go with the overwhelming scientific consensus that HIV is harmful. I have no problem if AC does not want to spend time learning about the specifics of the debate. I have no problem if AC recommends that others do the same.

I object to AC’s claim that Duesberg/Maathai/Mbeki/Mullis are all idiots to even be skepitical of the scientific consensus on HIV/AIDS even though he doesn’t know something as basic as the population trends in Africa. This excessive-regard for one’s own opinions — fervently held though they may be — was the single most annoying aspect of public debate at Williams 20 years ago.

It is nice to see that some things never change!

;-)

#27 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 4:01 pm

Aidan’s most recent comments deserve a long response, but, for now, I’d just like to focus on his point 2). Aidan writes that:

You have a strange way of validating sources. In the sciences, publication in a peer reviewed journal is the gold standard. Duesberg has not published his insane AIDS theories in any reputable journal.

Again, I would have a lot more respect for the other side of this debate if they would stop making factually incorrect statements. Here are a sampling of references:

  • Duesberg, P., Koehnlein, C. and Rasnick, D. (2003) The Chemical Bases of the Various AIDS Epidemics: Recreational Drugs, Anti-viral Chemotherapy and Malnutrition. (J. Biosci. 28: 383-412)
  • Duesberg, P. H. and Rasnick, D. (1998) The AIDS dilemma: Drug Diseases Blamed on a Passenger Virus. (Genetica 104: 85-132.)
  • Duesberg, P. H. (1993) The HIV gap in national AIDS statistics.
    (Biotechnology 11: 955-956)
  • Duesberg, P.H. (1987) Retroviruses as Carcinogens and Pathogens: Expectations and Reality. (Cancer Research 47: 1199-1220)

Among others. So, I agree with Aidan that publication in peer-reviewed journals is the “gold standard”. I think, therefore, that it is unhelpful to group Duesberg et. al. with the Holocaust Deniers and Flat Earthers because the latter have failed to so publish. I would take Aidan (and Todd’s) dismissals of Duesberg much more seriously if they stopped getting the basic facts wrong. (Note, in contrast, how (d)avid is able to make the same point without making incorrect claims about Duesberg’s research.)

Now, just because something appears in a peer-reviewed journal (or is written by a tenured professor) does not mean that it is true. It is also obvious that, although all those journals are peer-reviewed, the prestige of the journals in which Duesberg et. al. publish has decreased over the last 15 years.

The main point, however, is that Aidan et. al. have worked themselves into high dudgeon even though, or perhaps because, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Again, it is not necessary to read Duesberg in order to disregard him. We all rely on the experts from time to time. But you should not make claims about Duesberg’s publication record unless you know what you are talking about.

A decade ago, I was much more of a Duesberg fan than I am today. [Full confession: I assigned his articles (and replies from his critics) in class.] I find the rebuttals pointed out by (d)avid to be quite impressive.

But the issue is not my personal beliefs on HIV/AIDS. Although the opinions of Maathai/Duesberg/Mbeki/Mullis and others are far outside the scientific consensus, it is not unreasonable to argue, as I have, that those views — given that they have met the “gold standard” of publication in the peer-reviewed literature — are worthy of at least consideration.

Of course, it is fine for Aidan/AC/Todd to disagree, to claim that these particular opinions are so nuts as to not be worth even a moment to think about (although I would find their case to be more compelling if they at least got the basic facts correct). But I think that they go too far in asserting that I am some sort of misguided monster for even mentioning that these views exist.

#28 Comment By Rory On January 9, 2005 @ 4:05 pm

Full disclosure: For this post and the one on affirmative action, I’ve written and deleted about five responses and deleted them all because I much prefer conversations (or even arguments or debates, but posting just seems so ineffective a means for disagreement to me. a personal preference).

David, I hope you understand that you’re non-response to the bulk of the criticism of your view is mostly a sleight-of-hand trick. And honestly, for me, that slight of hand (let’s not focus on the issue my opponent made, let’s just focus on one stupid mistake no matter how tangential) was the most irritating aspect of debate at Williams. We always wanted to be so right, we often (myself included) never bothered to spend the time to try to understand someone we disagreed with (yes, I ended the sentence with a preposition. Don’t bother to consider it, because it is grammatically incorrect!!!).

Anyway, by focusing on AC’s mistaken minor statement (had he qualified that with something like describing the depopulation as “the relative depopulation of healtyh working age people of both sexes compared to the overall population” then he’d be making an empirically correct and very damning statement) you disregard his main point, which is that engaging nutty views of AIDS (as he and I both find Duesberg’s and Maathai’s) is actively harming populations. Further, as Aidan and Todd note, Duesberg hasn’t published a full article in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Unless you’re arguing that the peer-review journal system is inherently flawed, that’s a damning point to make that has not been addressed. Nor has Aidan’s point that Duesberg and other’s theories all have disturbing homophobic and/or racist themes in them, either blatantly (Maathai’s evil western scientists) or slightly more subtly (Duesberg’s theories) But thank god we know that Africa’s population is rising.

There’s also an interesting meta-analysis here between this post on AIDS and Kane’s willingness to be skeptical of the evidence and the Affirmative Action data that Michael posted. Should we be skeptical of that and just think Sanders has it wrong? Or is his evidence from one cohort in 1991 more conclusive than the amazing amount of evidence linking AIDS and HIV? How so? The one comparison I can make is that in both cases, the post was in support of a more conservative viewpoint (and yes, supporting Duesberg against the scientific establishment is a more conservative point as it argues that the scientific community got AIDS wrong, that therefore retrovirals and funding is not the answer to the crisis in Africa, and a little bit of the very disturbing “they got what’s coming to them” ideology that harkens back to the concept of “the gay man’s cancer”). That’s no longer surprising at ephblog…err…kaneblog…err…conservative-views-on-williams-and-tangentially-related-things-to-williams-blog, but it is disappointing.

Though, I must say, Mike, as he traditionally does, was generally very appropriate about how to present and defend his views. I disagree with them, but at least we can have a conversation. Perhaps I’ll join it after reading 117 pages. Or I’ll just move to Barcelona (actually, I am moving to Barcelona. Anyone got suggestions on places to go???)

#29 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 4:15 pm

Because of timing issues, Rory’s comment:

Further, as Aidan and Todd note, Duesberg hasn’t published a full article in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Unless you’re arguing that the peer-review journal system is inherently flawed, that’s a damning point to make that has not been addressed.

appeared after my demolition of that point. See above.

I am a big fan of the peer-review journal system. Again, the claims of Duesberg et. al. meet that standard and, therefore, may reasonably be linked to and discussed. That does not mean that they are true, but they do not deserve to be placed in the same category as Holocaust Deniers and the like.

#30 Comment By Aidan On January 9, 2005 @ 4:26 pm

Duesberg has not published an ARTICLE in a peer-reviewed journal concerning his AIDS theories. He’s published letters or submitted comments, and in a couple cases he’s provided a review, but he has not submitted a peer-reviewed ARTICLE. I’m sorry, but until you grasp the difference between these forms of communication (and the different evidenciary standards that are attatached) you just aren’t getting the point.

#31 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 4:46 pm

Ah, the wonders of the web. Readers may go here and see the table of contents for themselves. I guess that Cancer Research might be using terminology that Aidan does not agree with when they call this an “article” — albeit without ALL CAPS. Perhaps they are deceiving us when they claim to be peer reviewed. Similar links are available for the other articles cited.

#32 Comment By Aidan On January 9, 2005 @ 4:58 pm

is this article in Cancer Research concerning Duesberg’s “AIDS theories?” Maybe you could start with reading my posts.

#33 Comment By (d)avid On January 9, 2005 @ 5:30 pm

Not really worth my time, but I thought I’d chime in.

Peer review is a good indication of quality, but …
a) Mistakes are made;
b) Not all journals are created equal. You can see an old list of scientific journal rankings here.

Looking over the articles that Kane listed, only one of them, Cancer Research is from a journal in the top 200 journals and that article was published in 1987. A man of Duesberg’s earlier pedigree (he did great work on retroviruses in the 70s, which was why people initially listened to him). A professor of Duesberg’s age and status should be publishing regularly in top flight journals, not in obscure Indian journals with official sounding names like Journal of Bioscience.

Given the hot topic, AIDS, and the splashiness of the findings, even moderately plausible arguments would find a place in a decent journal. Editors like controversy because it boosts citations and readership. But the controversial work has to pass peer review and that is apparently a difficult threshold for Duesberg.

#34 Comment By (d)avid On January 9, 2005 @ 5:35 pm

Is Aidan right that the Cancer Research article isn’t even about AIDS? Ouch. I’m not seeing a credible peer reviewed article supporting Duesberg’s case.

#35 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 6:03 pm

Aidan is wrong. Ouch, indeed.

Full article from Cancer Research is conveniently available from Duesberg’s website. Beginning of the abstract is here. While I am not biologist, my understanding is that Duesberg claims that retroviruses, like HIV, are never harmful.

I have sited 4 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Others are available. If (d)avid does not find these “credible”, then I am not sure what else there is for me to say. While the Journal of Biosciences may be “obscure” to him, I would wager that every single member of its board of editors knows more about biology than he does.

That does not mean that they all agree with Duesberg. But if the “gold standard” is publication in a peer-reviewed journal, than Duesberg passes the standard. If anyone would like to propose a different standard, please do so.

#36 Comment By Aidan’s Conscience On January 9, 2005 @ 9:17 pm

Thanks for the defence, Rory, but by using the same annoyingly picky techniques as Kane, I can show my original statement is perfectly accurate.

http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=depopulation

There’s MW’s definition of ‘depopulate’- ‘to greatly reduce the population of.’ The definition of the word says nothing about the *relative* change in population.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50811F8385A0C7B8EDDA80994DC404482&incamp=archive:search

And there’s the NYTimes story that describes the effects of AIDS upon an African village as a mechanism for examining its overall effects upon Africa. If you really doubt it describes depopulation, feel free to buy the story. Or look up some peer reviewed journal articles. Regardless, I don’t think there’s *any* reasonable way to deny that Africa is being depopulated by Aids.

And with that, it’s time for me to vanish like Hamlet’s Dad after finishing his time in purgatory (That allusion’s for you, Aidan)).

#37 Comment By Aidan On January 9, 2005 @ 10:19 pm

spell my fucking name right, numbskull.

the Cancer Research article is not about HIV but rather about retrovirial involvement in cancer. That’s a completely seperate issue.

#38 Comment By David On January 9, 2005 @ 11:20 pm

Apologies to Aidan for misspelling his name. There really is no excuse for such sloppiness. I have corrected the mistakes, in this thread at least.

As to Aidan’s claim about the topic of the Cancer Research article, I can only quote the abstract:

Indeed the virus [i.e., HIV — DK] is not sufficient to cause AIDS (a) because the percentage of symptomatic carriers is low and varies between 0 and 5% with the risk group of the carrier, suggesting a cofactor or another cause; (b) because the latent period for AIDS is 5 years compared to an eclipse of only days to weeks for replication and direct pathogenic and immunogenic effects; and (c) because there is no gene with a late AIDS function, since all viral genes are essential for replication. Moreover the extremely low levels of virus expression and infiltration cast doubt on whether the virus is even necessary to cause AIDS or any of the other diseases with which it is associated.

Aidan is correct to note that the article also discusses Duesberg’s claim that retroviruses are not involved in cancer, but it is one of the canonical references to his argument that HIV is harmless. Being 17 years old, the article is quite dated. Interested readers should consult his more recent work.

Apologies for repetition, but if the “gold standard” is publication in the peer-reviewed literature, then the HIV/AIDS skeptics have met that standard.

#39 Comment By Aidan On January 10, 2005 @ 12:05 am

this is still a review article, Kane, he’s simply remanding other people’s research. To make it simple: letters Democratic Underground that has a bunch of looney left wing types. A majority of these people seem to believ that the “government” directly caused 9/11. They cite “data” and “evidence” and have “opinions.” Now, we all instinctively recoil from this madness, and really, how is suggesting the “government” caused 9/11 any different from Maathai claiming that “western scientists” caused AIDS? Both claims suggest that large, amorphous, impersonal groups are going about, doing secretive harm. These are both, classically, conspiracy theories–paranoia.

So why bring this up? Well, you don’t invite conspiracy theories into your house, and you certainly don’t act like you approve of them. I’d leave a dinner party if my host suggested that a missile or something hit the pentagon (as some nuts have claimed) or that the twin towers were brought down by “planned demolition” or such craziness. I would have no way of trusting my erstwhile host to have not put rat poison in my food.

Duesberg, fine, he’s a formerly respectable scientist turned madman. Moreover, whatever claims he had, and I’m not going to argue that in 1987 there might not have been some acceptable degree of scrutiny or legitimate scientific curiosity about the AIDS virus and its etiology and epidemiology, have been thoroughly and completely debunked. Duesberg’s original questions might well have had merit, but over the intervening 17 years his position has been routed.

Now, I can understand reading someone, academically, as part of a history of a disease–didn’t people think witches caused plague at some point?–but my objection has always been that instead of referring to Duesberg as a historical curio, a “fellow traveler” for an obviously derranged Kenyan woman, you have given him tacit and now open support.

Well, Kane, we may all believe in the marketplace of ideas, but some ideas, I’m sure we’ll all agree, get consigned to the dustbin of history. I think Duesberg’s opinions on the AIDS epidemic are about as valuable as V.I. Lenin’s opinions on economics. You want to be a Leninist, fine, you certainly have the right. But you aren’t welcome in polite company with those views, and you should probably keep them to yourself.

This gets, I suppose, to the heart of my problem with your new formulation of EphBlog. You seem to valorize intellectual discourse as only being able to occur, secretly, between Ephs. You suggest that a “wise Eph” won’t talk with his employer or coworkers about his ideas. I always thought that was funny, until now. Of course you don’t talk about your personal beliefs, Kane, because of all of us, you’d be fired on the spot (if you worked for someone other than your Dad)! Please! Let’s drop this. Stop being so obdurate on a position that is no longer even remotely defensible. Duesberg, and Maathai, and Mdeki, and whatever other loons are out there, stoney-faced and denying the evidence and devastating results of the AIDS epidemic, are not to be heralded as “free thinkers” or sympathized with as pariahs persecuted for unpopular belief but rather castigated as the fools, charlatans, and frauds that they are. Because, as my conscience would no doubt point out, these might be academic questions for those of us with health insurance and complicated retroviral drug cocktails that cost well over $100,000 a year, but they are unequivocal doom for the unlucky sub-saharan Africans that have lost a generation in the worst pandemic in human history.

#40 Comment By David On January 10, 2005 @ 12:26 am

I will follow Aidan’s wise counsel and retire from this debate now. Just for the record, I should note that, although it would be great fun to work for my father, I never have.

#41 Comment By Todd On January 10, 2005 @ 1:16 am

David: note that I pointed out to Aidan that Duesberg HAS been published in major journals, and then agreed only that his FIRST publication on AIDS was a letter in Science. Sorry if that wasn’t clear enough, but even a letter in Science is still pretty reputable. Also note that I (albeit after some difficulty) provided a link to the full list of Duesberg publications, and that, as David points out, it’s been a downward spiral for Duesberg since the letters in Science. I do not think I’ve made any factually incorrect statements here. The man is disgraced in the scientific community.

Also:

Fortunately, I am glad to learn from my fellow EphBlogians that such an event is inconceivable. There is no chance — zero, nada, zippo — that the current scientific consensus concerning the origin of HIV/AIDS is incorrect, just as there was no chance 20 years ago that the scientific consensus about the cause of stomach ulcers was incorrect, just as there was no chance … INSERT YOUR FAVORITE EXAMPLE HERE. This is reassuring. I occasionally labor under the misperception that man is fallen and therefore fallible. Thanks to all for clearing that up.

For someone who makes as many references to the value of statistics, and to statistical computation packages such as R, you sure do know how to argue for that .01% chance that Duesberg is right and the rest of the scientific community (including the people publishing in Nature NOW) might be wrong. That’s a pretty strong “might”.