Science under Attack

By Michael Edmonds 29/01/2011 23

Bryan Walker’s post on the new BBC documentary, “Science under Attack”, was so interesting I sat down and watched all 6 parts on youtube. While I would recommend watching them all, I found part 5 quite interesting for a number of reasons.

Part 5 includes Sir Paul Nurse talking to a somewhat belligerent James Delingpole, the journalist who broke the “climategate” story. Freely admitting that he has no science background, Mr Delingpole says he doesn’t have time to read peer reviewed papers but instead sees his job as an “interpreter of interpretations”. Of course this begs the question, how does he decide whose interpretations are worth paying attention to? Indeed his approach reminds me of a character in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series who believes that science is not about experiment and observation but simply involves reinterpreting the work of previous scientists. (Sounds like very boring “science” to me).

Sir Paul then talks to Tony Lance, a quiet spoken, free-lance writer who believes AIDS is not caused by HIV, but by a severe imbalance of intestinal micro flora. Mr Lance describes reaching this conclusion through reading, self-analysis and “observing the gay community.” I found his comments really interesting in that his beliefs seem to be a result of his frame of reference. As a gay man he has observed certain sexual behaviours and has linked them to AIDS by proposing they result in disruption of intestinal microflora. A look around youtube provides a clip of him explaining this hypothesis,  however it doesn’t effectively explain why AIDS occurs in many other populations. I think Tony demonstrates how many people interpret science. When the subject is very complex, like HIV/AIDS, it is easier to suggest an alternative cause based on one’s own anecdotal experience, cherry picking out other information that fits. His talk also demonstrates how believers of “alternative” hypotheses may construct conspiracy attitudes towards mainstream science.

Some of Sir Paul’s comments on the need for scientists to communicate more effectively with the public also made me reflect on my own feelings about scientific communication. Sometimes I find myself thinking there must be a secret to how to do it easily and persuasively. However, I am coming to realise that science communication is very much like science – results are only achieved by working hard, being persistent and coming up with, and testing, new  and creative approaches.

23 Responses to “Science under Attack”

  • thanks for the link Michael – very interesting. It would have been good if Sir Paul had touched on some of your observations above in analysing what Denningpole and Lance told him. Instead they go largely unchallenged and Lance, while totally opposed in his views, is at the end of the “spectrum” where he can talk to Sir Paul. Big deal, he’s still basing his theory on his particular frame of reference as you say, and that should have been pointed out to him.

  • Judging from this article by Tony Lance, I’d say he does explain the prevalence of AIDS in other communities! He mentions specifically Africa, where gut infections are common, and he asserts that these act rather in the same way as gay sexual practices. This also explains why African AIDS is spread across both sexes.

    I don’t know who is right, but your dismissal of his theory seems rather casual, when you compare it with the level of detail in his article!

    • David,
      Thank you for the link you provided. Because the post you are responding to covered several topics there wasn’t time to go into detail about the evidence which supports HIV as the cause of AIDS or the problems with suggestions that AIDS is result of imbalances in microflora.

      Here are a couple of points you might want to think about:
      1) Patients who are given HAART when diagnosed with AIDS undergo a rapid improvement in health and after a number of months of diligetn use of the therapy their viral load is virtually undetectable.
      2) In the article you provide it makes the following description
      “Two papers released in 2008 offer further evidence that probiotics are useful to those who are “HIV+.” One asserts that Lactobacillus supplementation might reduce the viral load of vaginal secretions in “HIV+” women (74). And most remarkable of all, Dr. Kingsley Anukam, a Canada-based African researcher, published a study in the Journal of Gastroenterology which found that probiotic supplementation relieved diarrhea in “HIV+” women and stabilized CD4 counts. He wrote, “This is the first study to show the benefits of probiotic yogurt on quality of life of women in Nigeria with HIV/AIDS, and suggests that perhaps a simple fermented food can provide some relief in the management of the AIDS epidemic in Africa” (75).”
      Look at the terminology “might reduce the viral load” and “relieved diarrhea”. “might” is not a very convincing term in any sort of clinical trial and also if one believes that HIV is not causing the disease why would you be monitoring the viral load anyway? Also “relieving diarrhea” is certainly not the same as curing AIDS! Any disease that affects the gut might benefit from probiotics to help with the gut sympotoms but this does not mean that the underlyign disease has been cured.
      3) The hypotheses put forward by Duesberg and the “Perth group” about how AIDS might develop in gay populations are based on a very bigoted and demonised view of “gay sex” and I have never seen them provide any evidence which supports some of their statements such as
      “The only sexual act, in both gay and heterosexual sex, which is related to the appearance of AIDS and a positive antibody test is receptive anal intercourse”
      4) Furthermore, the claims made by these groups, don’t hold up in explaining cases of HIV and AIDS that have resulted from blood transfusions.
      5) Despite all of the talk about probiotics, vitamins etc being used to treat AIDS, those pushing this view have provided no evidence that this can affect a cure, something which we seem to be a fairly logical test for this hypothesis. Furthermore, it is worth noting that a number of proponents of these “cures” make money off of the sales of vitamins and other so-called treatments of AIDS.

  • Thanks for responding so fast!

    He does deal with your first point – arguing that the HAART drugs act to suppress fungal disease. He also asserts that the improvement associated with these treatments is often much faster than the reduction in viral concentration, or improvement in the CD4 counts!

    As far as probiotic yoghurt goes, I haven’t a clue, but is this used to settle gut infections?

    Leaving the possible cure out of the discussion, the really important question, is whether there is any possibility that AIDS is not caused by HIV!

    I am totally heterosexual, but not in any way critical of those who aren’t. However, I think the question of whether particular homosexual practices are dangerous, is quite separate from questions of homophobia.

    Is he right that most (Western) heterosexual AIDS is among people who practice anal intercourse of one kind of another?

    I agree AIDS transfer by transfusion isn’t obviously covered by this theory (has it happened often – i.e. is it possible that it could be a statistical fluke), but I guess an important question is what happens when primates are infected with HIV? I don’t like to think of that happening, but even so – do they develop full AIDS at the end of the latent period, or just end up with circulating viral particles in their blood?

  • “Is he right that most (Western) heterosexual AIDS is among people who practice anal intercourse of one kind of another?”
    I don’t think there is any evidence to support this at all. And as he is the one to make this assertion he should be backing it up with such evidence.

    “I agree AIDS transfer by transfusion isn’t obviously covered by this theory (has it happened often – i.e. is it possible that it could be a statistical fluke)”
    Unfortunately, before HIV/AIDS was understood many people were infected as the result of blood transfusions. Another area to consider is that without the use of antiviral drugs, the likelihood of transmission from an HIV positive mother to child is much higher.
    The mechanism by which HAART drugs work is generally well understood. It is highly unlikely that they are acting as antifungals (if they did I suspect the drug companies would be selling and using them for that as well). This highlights one of the issues with websites such as the one you linked to – it is so easy for someone to state that the drugs must be acting to suppress fungal disease but they never provide any reliable evidence to support it, they are creating a very unequal playing field – they poke small holes in very thorough research which by its very nature tends to produce more questions, though the research itself supports that HIV is the causative agent of AIDS all while proposing hypotheses that they have no evidence to support. (Note – many of the references included in the link you provide are not scientific papers but magazine and non-scientific literature. Those that are scientific papers do not support the hypothesis the HIV does not cause AIDS but rather talk about peripheral issues e.g. probiotics reducing diarrhea).
    Finally, on a more personal note I remember quite vividly someone I knew dying of AIDS in the early 1990’s before HAART therapies were being used and it was a terrible way to die. If I thought for one moment probiotics, vitamins or magic crystals would work, I’d be behind it 100%.
    These days I know several people who are HIV positive and the effect of HAART therapies is absolutely astounding, and unlike the claims in made in the link you posted I am very sure one of them did not use “poppers” thereby ruling this out as a cause.

    Now back to a pile of paperwork and marking which I dare not ignore anymore

  • Just had another thought, which I need to check when I get the chance but those on HAART therapies can still develop fungal diseases which need to be treated with anti-fungal drugs. If HAART drugs worked as untifungals then this shouldn’t occur.

  • Just a few points:

    That paper is awfully detailed, and he does give references (66 and 67) to the idea that HAART can act against fungal infections – he didn’t just invent it! Here is what he says:

    “The protease inhibitors (PIs) introduced in the mid-’90s have strong antifungal properties. PIs target secretory aspartyl proteases (SAP), and fungi have SAP. Cassone et al. wrote, “…patients receiving PI therapy may benefit from a direct anticandidal activity of these drugs” (66). Atzori et al. stated: “…it is conceivable that PIs had other beneficial effects, including direct activity against Pneumocystis [PCP]” (67).”

    He gives a lot of references into the medical literature for almost all his points – indeed, I was quite amazed to discover at the very bottom that he is not in fact a researcher in this area!

    I didn’t see the Horizon program, but in my experience, these tend to simplify complex issues. He clearly didn’t have time to present even a small fraction of the information in his article!

    I don’t know whether you have the background to evaluate his paper properly (I don’t, I did a PhD in physical chemistry, but that was many years ago), but if you do, I think you should read his paper very carefully, and follow through some of his references to the literature.

    I can’t seem to find references to HIV in primates – all references seem to be to the related SIV virus. As I say, the orthodox position would look a lot stronger if primates infected with HIV, do get something like AIDS.

    I have also seen some literature by Henry Bauer concentrates on the strange epidemiology of AIDS. I think at its simplest, he is saying that the apparent level of HIV infection in the past, and in the West, doesn’t correspond to the relatively small number of AIDS cases now

    Knowing people who died of AIDS must have been intensely upsetting for you, but it doesn’t really impact on the question of whether HIV is the cause.

    Finally, I note that the Nobel Prize winner, Kary Mullis (inventor of the PCR process) has his doubts about HIV/AIDS:

  • HIV = human immunodeficiency virus ie it’s a form of the virus that’s peculiar to humans. Hence you would not find reference to it in other primates. SIV – the simian form – is well-known to produce AIDS-like disease in non-human primates (eg DNA sequence analysis shows that the 2 are closely linked in evolutionary terms, with HIV having evolved from a strain of SIV after the latter jumped to humans early in the 20th century. There’s a good (& well-referenced) account here:, and David Quammen’s latest book, “Spillover”, also describes how our current understanding of the evolution of HIV has developed.

  • David,

    “That paper is awfully detailed”

    Just because something is detailed doesn’t mean it is true. And it is a blog post not a paper (as far as I can see it hasn’t been peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal.
    With regards to the references quite a few are to magazine articles, books, newspaper reports, blogs so have not gone through scientific peer review.
    Many of those that are from peer reviewed journals are on subjects that do not support the “HIV does not cause AIDS” hypothesis, rather they just cloud the argument. To me this is always a warning sign – good science writing should be concise and only reference relevant scientific papers.

    And my mistake about the antifungal activity of the PI’s that is an area of research I wasn’t aware of.

    Mentioning that I know people who are HIV+ and who have died of AIDS was to demonstrate that I have a genuine interest in work being done to treat and cure HIV infection. Too often “dissidents” (the term used in the link you provided) claim scientists do not care about people and are in it for the money. I just wanted to allay any concerns in that area, as I am very serious about a cure being found and I don’t receive any money linked to HIV research.

    Kary Mullis is an interesting man, the work he did developing PCR was an incredible breakthrough in science. However, if you read the wikipedia link you provided on him you will also see he is described as believing in astrology, does not believe in climate change, and has been spoken to by a glowing raccoon.
    This is a good reason why arguments from authority can be a dangerous position to base an argument on.

    The most obvious evidence that would support the hypothesis that AIDS is due to “intestinal dysbiosis” would be having people who have been diagnosed as HIV+ undergo dietary/probiotic therapies to fix the intestinal dysbiosis. It would seem to be a fairly straightforward approach to testing this hypothesis. Yet no studies have been done/published.

  • “Just because something is detailed doesn’t mean it is true. And it is a blog post not a paper (as far as I can see it hasn’t been peer reviewed and published in a scientific journal.
    With regards to the references quite a few are to magazine articles, books, newspaper reports, blogs so have not gone through scientific peer review.”

    The detail connects his hypothesis with other observations, and shows clearly the overlap between his hypothesis and the conclusions of other research. As I understand it, people with alternative views about AIDS, simply cannot get their work peer reviewed – which produces an absurd catch 22 situation.

    I’d say no more than 1/3 of the references were to popular publications.

    “The most obvious evidence that would support the hypothesis that AIDS is due to “intestinal dysbiosis” would be having people who have been diagnosed as HIV+ undergo dietary/probiotic therapies to fix the intestinal dysbiosis. It would seem to be a fairly straightforward approach to testing this hypothesis. Yet no studies have been done/published.”

    Again, possibly because it is impossible for these people to get funding or ethical permission to do the work!

    As I say, I am not taking sides on this – it is not my subject – the orthodox position may be right – but I do think the lockout and denigration of alternative ideas is really unfortunate. Perhaps the media are at fault here, because a published paper championing an alternative theory would get enormous exposure whatever its merits.

    I’ll bet the Horizon program in which Tony Lance appeared, gave no indication that he was as knowledgeable of medical science as that article would indicate.

    If animals can get AIDS by infection with HIV, I’d say the orthodox position would be unassailable, but if they can’t (and it is hard to find anything definite on that, but this rather old article suggests maybe there are no animal models), you must admit it does explain why there is some doubt about this

  • David Bailey,

    There’s no need to invent a conspiracy. There’s no ‘lock out’ of ‘alternative’ ideas. (There’s even the very famous case of PNAS — a top-end journal — publishing a paper of Duesberg’s contrarian views on AIDS. [It’s a long story – it was given negative reviews by all the reviewers.])

    There are filters for bad ideas and bad work – and so there should be. In practice, people can and do publish ‘lesser’ work by sending it to bottom-end journals or vanity journals.

  • David,
    You suggest that the “detail connects his (Tony Lance’s) with other observations” in supporting his intestinal dysbiosis hypothesis but seem to be overlooking some obvious flaws in his blog post. While at the same time raising questions about the conventional HIV causes AIDS theory which have fairly straightforward answers.
    For example with regards to HIV existing in other species, Alison is right that as a Human Immunodeficiency Virus it is specific to humans, but analogous viruses are found in other species e.g Simian Immunideficiency Viirus in primates.
    Wikipedia has an interesting post summarising some of the links between HIV in humans and SIV in primates and possible way the virus “jumped” species.

    Also when the cause of AIDS was first being worked out how do you know that intestinal dysbiosis or a similar cause was not considered and then ruled out because the evidence eventually led to HIV? In the early stages of studying most diseases many causes are considered and then slowly eliminated based on the evidence.

    With regards to Tony Lance’s article, I do not claim to be an expert in HIV or AIDS but there are parts of his article which do not hold up therefore his hypothesis has major flaws, for example he makes many statements which are not supported by the evidence and for which he provides no references to support his statements. These include

    “Why do some HIV+ people thrive without medication?”

    “Why did it originate in some gay communities?”

    “bear in mind the connection between receptive anal sex and the propensity to these HIV+” (this statement as well as having no reliable evidence to support it also completely ignores other forms of transmission)

    “Trauma associated with anal penetration and the effect of sexual lubricants …. might plausibly be implicated” (not only is there no reference to this statement, the phrase “might plausibly” sound more like “we are just making this up”

    This article also focuses on some of the more extreme sexual behaviours which occur in the gay community, often implying that they are common behaviours, when they are not.

    “most dissidents believe KS, once considered the hallmark of HIV?AIDS, to be caused by nitrile inhalants” there is no reference or evidence provided to support this statement, and as KS occurs in heterosexuals including children suffering from AIDS I find it to be a rather bizarre suggestion. But then this article is full of such bizarre suggestions.

    “With gay men the problem is even worse than heterosexuals because of anal sex ….. And if you’ve got everybody having 200 or more partners per year” Seriously, he is stating that every gay man has 200 or more partners a year? As far as I’m concerned this statement best reveals an underlying bigotry and homophobia permeating this article, as well as not providing a reliable reference to back it up

    “Oral sex: Truly sexually transmitted diseases such as syphiis and gonorrhea are easily passed via oral sex, yet oral sex carries little or no risk for the transmission of HIV. Naturally not: intestinal dybiosis is not transferrable through oral contact”
    First, syphilis and gonorrhea are bacteria, HIV is a virus! The modes of transmission are different and quite clear. Also this last sentence glosses over the fact that HIV can be transmitted through oral sex if there are cuts in the mouth, and that this is explained by the conventional HIV causes AIDS theory.

    As to scientific journals keeping “alternative theories” out, if someone provided a study which either argued against HIV causing AIDS or supporting intestinal dysbiosis with THE EVIDENCE to support this it would be published.

    Note, the above are only some of the flaws I’ve found in this article. Others would take a little more time to explain and I just dont have the time at the moment.

  • Well SIV seems to cause AIDS-like disease in some primates:

    This may well confirm the orthodox position, although I am not clear if this has been replicated in the laboratory – away from the stew of other pathogens that wild animals must encounter – maybe someone here knows?

    Remember, I am not an ‘AIDS denialist’ – I am an ex physical chemist – I am just amazed that two very prominent scientists (and other less prominent ones) are shut out of publishing or presenting at conferences, in their very speciality!

    Given the millions treated with ARV drugs, and all the money spent, a mistake would obviously be excruciatingly embarrassing. That unfortunately creates an obvious motive to shut up dissenters.

    If the case is cut and dried, wouldn’t it have been better to let these people make their case, and just gradually realise they were wrong, and move on?

    I think arguments about homophobia only weaken your case – scientific discussion about the consequences of particular behaviour, are simply not about morals. Anyway, I assume that Tony Lance is himself gay, because he seems to be reporting first hand knowledge of the gay scene!

    • David Bailey,

      “I think arguments about homophobia only weaken your case “

      While scientific arguments should be about the best interpretation of the facts, and understanding of the underlying biases of an author can be useful

      “Anyway, I assume that Tony Lance is himself gay, because he seems to be reporting first hand knowledge of the gay scene!”

      I’ve noticed you seem to do quite a lot of assuming in your comments. Have you ever considered reading a book or two on HIV/AIDS?
      Also just because someone is gay doesn’t mean they can’t suffer from homophobia. There are a number of politicians and christian conservatives who are good examples of this.

      Also, suggesting that Tony Lance is right because he has “first hand knowledge of the gay scene” is nothing more than anecdotal.

      However, putting aside my view that the article has underlying homophobia issues, you have not commented on all of the statements in the article that I have pointed out are not backed up by evidence.

      “That unfortunately creates an obvious motive to shut up dissenters.”

      As a scientist, do you not find this argument the least bit insulting? I became a scientist for two main reasons – 1) to better understand the world around us and 2) to make the world a better place. A survey in New Zealand showed that the majority of my scientific colleagues have similar drivers in electing science as a career. In making this argument you are implying that their are thousands of scientists in HIV research who might be willfully doing research that makes not sense.
      Tell me, as a scientist, could you willingly work on a hypothesis that you KNEW was wrong?

  • David,

    I suggest you read the article linked in my previous comment, which gives a light introduction to how HIV has been shown to be chimpanzee SIV adapted to humans, to the point that it’s been traced to come from chimpanzees in one region. (This isn’t my field – the writer there works in a virology research.)

    The ‘motive to shut up dissenters’ thing is a tired conspiracy line. There is never much reason to consider arguments that are not sound, especially if a good understanding is already at hand.

  • Grant,

    Doesn’t your link answer a different question – where does HIV come from? I mean presumably nobody doubts that these viruses exist, and are evolutionarily related! As I understand it, Duesburg simply claims that they don’t cause AIDS!

    I am very curious if there is an AIDS model in animals (SIV or HIV) – because I am sure a lot of effort must have gone in this direction.

  • David,

    You’re now mixing up different things. You’re also pushing a case whilst clearly not having a background in the subject. (Regards your plead that you’re not an AIDS denialist, what your background is doesn’t affect that – what you do does.)

    You asked: ‘Doesn’t your link answer a different question – where does HIV come from?’

    I responded to a point you wrote, not introducing ‘something different’. You wrote: ‘If animals can get AIDS by infection with HIV, I’d say the orthodox position would be unassailable’. In other words, if you can show this I accept the orthodox position. (Ironically, I don’t think it’s the right argument but that’s your call.)

    I and Alison explained this. Chimpanzees do an HIV infection. Their SIV is the precursor of HIV. By your judgement then the orthodox position is unassailable.

    While the bit about the virus causing AIDS in other species is a bit red herring, really, as it’s common for different species to have different reactions to same infectious agent but as it happens that‘s covered too.

    Game over by the measure you offered as a standard.

    I could stop here, but just to be complete:

    You tacked on: ‘As I understand it, Duesburg simply claims that they don’t cause AIDS!’

    Forgive me, but this playing games. You know I referred to him as an example of alternative ideas being published, nothing more, but here you try put another meaning on what I wrote.

    Last you write: ‘I am very curious if there is an AIDS model in animals (SIV or HIV) – because I am sure a lot of effort must have gone in this direction.’

    Yes, of course, but—and excuse me for this—why don’t you do you own homework on this? You’re admitting a lack of background and yet you are trying to push a position. If you don’t already know this sort of thing (or the origin of HIV, etc), then your background understanding is really too thin to be pushing a position.

  • however it doesn’t effectively explain why AIDS occurs in many other populations..
    What are you talking about? AIDS is restricted primarily to gay men living highly unhealthy life styles and intravenous drug users.
    I am afraid the one who is ignoring the scientific facts here is yourself. The evidence is overwhelming. Where is the heterosexual pandemic we were terrorised into believing was imminent 30 years ago? HIV/AIDS , like man-made global warming, is a political movement where many parties have made an awful lot of money at the expense of the health of hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s lives.They belong in Gaol.

    • Kevin,
      AIDS occurs in a number of different populations. In Africa, the majority of those with HIV are heterosexual, and there are numerous examples of heterosexuals contracting HIV through unprotected sex in other countries around the world. Similarly there clear evidence for HIV transmission through blood transfusions.
      The mechanisms of HIV infection are quite clear, as is the fact that modern HIV treatments very effectively extend life expectancy and enhance quality of life.
      The argument that AIDS is due to “unhealthy life styles and intravenous drug users” is not supported by the vast amount of scientific evidence which has been accumulated over the past 25 to 30 years.
      On the other hand using the phrase “unhealthy life styles” could suggest an argument which is motivated by homophobia rather than by science.

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