Sunday, April 22, 2007

Scientific American defends Duesberg article

Or rather the choice to bring the article.

When Pariahs Have Good Ideas

Even mentioning the name Peter Duesberg inflames strong feelings, both pro and con. After gaining fame in 1970 as the virologist who first identified a cancer-causing gene, in the 1980s he became the leading scientific torchbearer for the so-called AIDS dissidents who dispute that HIV causes the immunodeficiency disorder. To the dissidents, Duesberg is Galileo, oppressed for proclaiming scientific truth against biomedical dogma. A far larger number of AIDS activists, physicians and researchers, however, think Duesberg has become a crank who refuses to accept abundant proof that he is wrong. To them, he is at best a nuisance and at worst a source of dangerous disinformation on public health.

I think this can be said to be a fairly reasonable summary, except the don't mention the fact that Duesberg's claims flies in the face of all evidence. It could also have been good if the Scientific Amercian had explained why Duesberg is competely and utterly wrong.

Readers may therefore be shocked to see Duesberg as an author in this month's issue. He is not here because we have misgivings about the HIV-AIDS link. Rather Duesberg has also developed a novel theory about the origins of cancer, one that supposes a derangement of the chromosomes, rather than of individual genes, is the spark that ignites malignant changes in cells. That concept is still on the fringe of cancer research, but laboratories are investigating it seriously. Thus, as wrong as Duesberg surely is about HIV, there is at least a chance that he is significantly right about cancer. We consider the case worthy of bringing to your attention, with the article beginning on page 52.

Wouldn't Medical Hypothesis be a more suitable place for Duesberg's article than Scientific American? At least until there is some evidence of his hypothesis?

Thousands of scientific papers appear in technical journals every month; why do some rate more fame and journalistic attention? It helps for science news to have dramatic relevance to human affairs: Is there strong new hope for curing a disease, transforming the economy, building a better mousetrap? Alternatively, reporters and editors may gravitate toward new science that easily inspires the public's sense of wonder, as so many astronomy stories do. And reports that appear in certain major scientific journals tend to get more play because those publications have a self-fulfilling reputation for releasing the most noteworthy papers. (It doesn't hurt that those journals have particularly strong public relations departments, too.)

When we look at submitted manuscripts from scientists, we consider it a reassuring sign when the authors forthrightly acknowledge both their collaborators and their competitors and note potential conflicts of interest before we ask. If we see that they are describing the science of their rivals fairly, we can have more confidence that they are being similarly candid about their own work. (Still, the old nuclear disarmament treaty maxim applies: trust, but verify.) We typically steer away from controversial ideas too new to have much supporting evidence. Those that have lasted for years and accumulated some substantiation have earned consideration. Our judgments are imperfect, but they tend to mirror those of the scientific community.

Since there doesn't seem to be any evidence yet for Duesberg's ideas, I fail to see why they then included the article. And what in Duesberg's recent track record shows that he has any ability to evaluate scientific work done by others? Or by himself for that matter?

Blots on a researcher's history often should bear on regard for his or her new work. Scientists who have intentionally published fraudulent papers, as the stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang so notoriously did two years ago, may be irredeemably tainted. But to dismiss a scientist solely for holding some wrong or controversial views risks sweeping away valuable nuggets of truth. We respect the opinions of any readers who may criticize our choice to publish Duesberg in this case but hope they will nonetheless evaluate his ideas about cancer on their own merits.

It's not the fact that Duesberg holds wrong or controversial views that should keep him away from the journal's pages, but the fact that he demonstrately cannot recognize flaws in his own science. His "research" on HIV/AIDS has been shown to be wrong numerous times, and yet he persists in insisting on it, and even try to affect African policy on the issue. Something which not only endangers people, but which my surely have resulted in unnecessary deaths.

By bringing an article by Duesberg, Scientific American lends credibility to Duesberg - not only on the hypothesis discussed in the article, but also on his other dangerous ideas. That's why the article should not have been brought, unless there is some evidence of his ideas being right.

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Anonymous SLC said...

Recognizing that Scientific American is not a peer reviewed journal, this comment, which mirrors others on other blogs, raises the following question. Suppose that Prof Duesberg submits a paper to a peer reviewed journal. Is it Mr. Wagers' position that the paper should be summarily rejected without troubling to have it peer reviewed because Duesberg is a whackjob on the subject of HIV/AIDS? My position is that the paper should be subject to peer review just as any other paper submitted to that journal, with the proviso that it be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny because of Duesbergs' crackpot views relative to the connection of HIV and AIDS. If it is found scientifically sound, it should be published without apology.

April 22, 2007 7:21 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

If Duesberg submitted an article to a peer-reviewed paper, the objection about the lack of evidence for his hypothesis would not apply, because such an article would never make it through peer-review. So, of course, such an paper should be treated like any other such paper, with exstra care, due to the scientist involved.

My objections to the Scientific American article is that it's about one of Duesberg hypothesis before there is any supporting evidence has come to light. That lends his hypothesis an unwarrented shine of credibility, which might rub off on his HIV/AIDS "research".

Can anyone think of any other scientist who get their ideas published in the Scientific American without any evidence supporting them?

April 22, 2007 7:43 PM  
Anonymous SLC said...

The attached link has come comments on the substance of Duesbergs' article. The jist seems to be the following

1. The theory is not off the wall, but as Mr. Wager has stated, the evidence is supporting it is sparse.

2. Many of the commentators claim that Duesberg is taking credit for a hypothesis that is not new.

3. Many of the commentators, particularly Dr. Orac, point out that Duesberg is overselling his hypothesis. In fact, Orac says he may comment on the article after having had a chance to read it. I would put considerable credence in any review of the article by Dr. Orac, who is a surgical oncologist.

The bottom line here is that the article should be judged on its own merits, if any, not on the fact that Duesberg is a crank on the subject of HIV/AIDS.

April 22, 2007 11:37 PM  
Blogger ERV said...

Hey thanks for the rundown Kris, and the link, slc.

I saw lincoln posted a link to the SciAm article on Taras blog, but I shrugged it off :)

April 24, 2007 12:38 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

I have just deleted a typical AIDS/HIV-denial post by Jasper Barre, since it was basicly just an appeal to authority and contained personal attacks on me. The later was what got it deleted.

Feel free to disagree with me, but don't just parrot the same old lines about Duesberg having proven what he says. Duesberg's ideas might have had some merits to them back in the days, but now there is overwhelming evidence that he is wrong, and no supporting evidence to his ideas.

And don't imply that I am dishonest (the part in question was: "So, you if you are an honest man, you should retract your false statement"), or generally insult me.

Jasper Barre is welcome to comment again if he can keep personal attacks out of it (and preferably stop making HIV/AIDS-denial talking points). As the comments by SLC shows, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me.

April 25, 2007 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Jasper Barre said...

Mr. Wager wrote:

My objections to the Scientific American article is that it's about one of Duesberg hypothesis before there is any supporting evidence has come to light

This is another false statement.

Much evidence has come out to support the aneuploidy hypothesis.

Dr. Duesberg has published at least 10 or so papers in the peer-reviewed literature on the subject over the past 10 years. Here's a particularly good one.

April 25, 2007 6:45 PM  

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