Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

HONOR ROLL OF SCIENTIFIC TRUTHSEEKERS

Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.
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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

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Larry Altman unfairly accused of rushing to judgment on HIV


The young correspondent did a fine job after all in 1984 – but what happened since to him and Wade?

So why is it that the distinguished, humanitarian and responsible Nicholas Kristof, and other important Times reporters who touch on AIDS, perform no better in taking the lid off the HIV?AIDS scientific scandal than the ex-President, the philanthropic robber baron, the ex US representative at the UN, the glamorous humanitarian rock star and other apparently uninformed players in the currently hot political game of pushing HIV?AIDS drugs in underdeveloped countries?

Is it perhaps because they defer to the Science desk at the Times, led by the celebrated Larry Altman, graduate of CDC training, or the Editorial department, where Nicholas Wade roosts, apparently having forgotten his youthful idealism as the co-author of Betrayers of the Truth?

As a matter of fact, Wade as the co-author of Betrayal of the Truth was on the job in earlier days at the Times, calling attention to scientists’ reluctance to correct false claims as far back as 1988. Somehow since then he appears to have forgotten what he wrote in “The Editorial Notebook; The Unhealthy Infallibility of Science” on June 13, 1988 (see “show” below), since by his own admission to us a few months ago he has left Duesberg’s 2003 Biociences paper, one of the most important papers published in the last ten years, unread:

A woman contracted the AIDS virus merely by kissing, a group of researchers reported in 1984. This ominous finding is still being cited as fact, yet the authors have long known it is incorrect. Further tests showed the woman had not been infected after all, Lawrence Altman reported recently in The Times. But it was not until four months ago that the original error was acknowledged, in the footnotes of another scientist’s article.

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“The Editorial Notebook; The Unhealthy Infallibility of Science

By NICHOLAS WADE (NYT) 641 words Published: June 13, 1988

Some strangled sounds have been emerging recently from the community of academic scientists. They’re the noise of errors that no one wants to correct. Scientific leaders, loath to address the causes of poor quality in research, have not seriously begun to develop efficient methods for correcting erroneous claims.

A woman contracted the AIDS virus merely by kissing, a group of researchers reported in 1984. This ominous finding is still being cited as fact, yet the authors have long known it is incorrect. Further tests showed the woman had not been infected after all, Lawrence Altman reported recently in The Times. But it was not until four months ago that the original error was acknowledged, in the footnotes of another scientist’s article.

In April, a House committee under John Dingell investigated fraud and misconduct in science, including an article on immunology, published by scientists at M.I.T. and Tufts University, that had been challenged on its reporting of data. A Congressional committee is not the ideal forum to adjudicate scientific claims. Yet the dispute landed there because of repeated failures to resolve it within scientific channels.

Why is it apparently so hard for scientists to retract or modify a published claim? Published papers help secure Federal grants and academic tenure, boons that might be impeded by frequent corrections and retractions. Though more responsible journals try conscientiously to screen out flawed articles, the rejected papers simply get printed elsewhere. To oblige credit-seeking authors, some 40,000 scientific journals are now published. Quantity is routing quality.

Researchers who want to pad their resumes with long lists of mediocre articles can easily evade the present quality control system. For two years Robert Slutsky, a medical researcher at the University of California, San Diego, published papers at the extraordinary rate of one every ten days, many in leading journals. Instead of questioning his remarkable productivity, his colleagues happily shared in the credit by letting him add their names to these works. When it was finally discovered that Mr. Slutsky was reporting data without the tedium of doing experiments, a faculty committee was asked to investigate. ”The academic review process admired quantity at the expense of quality,” the committee concluded in a 1986 report.

The quality of scientific literature could be improved by some simple expedients. One would be for universities to require researchers to preserve the data on which published articles are based. Surprisingly, this is not current practice. Scientists should be expected to make their data freely available to others, without challenging the seeker’s motives or credentials. This hardly revolutionary principle might encourage researchers to report their data objectively.

Journal editors could discourage the widespread and corrosive practice of honorary authorships by requiring each author’s contribution to be stated explicitly in a footnote. If journals reserved regular spaces for corrections, like those found in newspapers, statements of error might become less traumatic. Federal agencies could enhance the quality of the scientific literature by reducing indiscriminate subsidies for the printing and purchasing of scientific journals.

Many researchers, with some justice, consider erroneous claims in science to be a trivial issue. Most scientific papers, right or wrong, are quickly forgotten; progress builds only on the best. But without effective quality control or mechanisms for correcting errors, bad science can pollute the good, at least for a time. Congress is puzzled at the persistent trickle of scientific fraud and scientists’ insouciance about it. The appearance of infallibility ill befits an enterprise meant to flourish by self-correction.

Why is Larry late to the notHIV party?

On the basis, however, of medical correspondent Larry Altman’s past performance over the last two decades in reporting the inconsistencies of HIV?AIDS, paradoxes which loom as large as elephants to outside observers but are apparently as invisible to him as they are to the scientists who promote the paradigm, it seems plausible that Kristof, if he bothered to read Celia Farber’s piece in Harper’s with any attention at all in March, then asked either Wade or Altman about it, and was told to ignore it as old hat and disproven years ago.

The supporters of the dissent in HIV?AIDS science certainly believe that is likely. They count Larry Altman as the one reporter most responsible for the twenty years debacle whereby the entire world has adopted a belief that HIV is “the virus that causes AIDS” despite the complete absence of scientific grounds for thinking so, either then or since.

For it was Larry who in 1984 failed to appreciate that even the self promoting Gallo had not dared to use a phrase stronger in his soon-to-be-published papers than “strong evidence of a causative involvement of the virus in AIDS”, and “the data..suggest that HTLV-III is the primary cause of AIDS”. The NCI press release was similarly retrained: “Scientists at the National Cancer Institute have strong evidence that variants of a human cancer virus are the primary cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).”

A more alert correspondent might have asked himself, and perhaps Robert Gallo at the press conference, how likely it was that viruses whose variant caused cancer – cell multiplying, in other words – would cause the death of human T-calls – cell killing, in other words. Or even more pertinent, why it was that HIV, which made a very poor showing, having been found in only a third of the cases Gallo had tested, was the culprit, when cytomegalovirus was found in 97 per cent?

But the CDC trained Larry was apparently too anxious to rush to his typewriter and gain the front page of the Times to think of such quibbles. Indeed, such was his enthusiasm that he wrote that the soon to be celebrated Gallo had found “the cause of AIDS”. Under the sober headline “New U.S. Report Names Virus That May Cause AIDS”, a cautious phrase that des credit to whoever wrote it, the lead was “Federal researchers announced today that they had found a virus that they believe is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.” Within a couple of paragraphs this had morphed into “the virus that causes AIDS ” as in “the Federal researchers said they had developed a test that could reliably detect the virus that causes AIDS in blood that is donated.”

But is this the whole truth? We believe that inside the imperturbable CDC-NIH defender that is Altman in most of his columns for the Times there is a small wild-haired dissenter trying to slip his manacles, however subtly.

For example in this first account, the seminal story of the continuing saga of HIV?AIDS that ensued, an entire paragraph followed making the point that the findings had yet to be confirmed, and saying that Luc Montagnier’s LAV, already announced the previous summer, could be one and the same virus.

Even as the French and American researchers’ confidence has grown steadily in recent weeks, a degree of uncertainty still clings to the findings, and the tension of the exhaustive search was apparent in interviews and visits to the research facilities. There was a sense of quiet triumph in the halls of the Atlanta centers last week, but the euphoria that might have been expected was tempered by the knowledge that months of research are still required to firmly ascertain whether LAV and HTLV-3 are the same, and whether the virus is the cause of AIDS. Dr. Robert C. Gallo of the National Cancer Institute, who headed the team that is reporting its findings in four papers in the journal Science, said that if the two viruses ”turn out to be the same I will say so.”

In fact, to give him his full due Larry made it uncomfortably (for Gallo) clear that Montagnier had precedence in the discovery, having said in the third sentence of the article that

The announcement follows the attention recently given to the discovery of a virus called LAV by researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The head of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said over the weekend that he believed the LAV virus was the cause of AIDS.

and that Margaret Heckler, the Secretary of Health, thought the viruses were the same.

Margaret M. Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said today that she thought the two viruses ”will prove to be the same.”

Having worked at the Times throughout this entire affair of HIV?AIDS and its supposed pandemic threat, which is according to a careful reading of its literature now exposed rather embarrassingly as possibly the biggest scientific bandwagon and boondoggle ever, Larry is hardly likely not to appreciate that the whole thing smells wrong, even if he knows that it would be very difficult for the Times to cover it if the NIH was alienated by new coverage of Duesberg and his allies, of which there has been remarkably little over the decades in the Times.

And of course with every passing year it becomes more and more deadly to the Times to have to admit that their coverage in two decades of the front page medical and policy issue of HIV?AIDS has on the face of it reflected a culpable lack of curiosity, intelligence and sophistication hardly excusable in a student at the Columbia School of Journalism, one which has if the HIV?AIDS theory is an unfounded as the scientific literature has long said it is, cost many people their lives through mismedication.

But on the other hand, as we say, it is difficult to believe that Altman has not knowingly sold out in this manner, because he has shown a remarkably even handed tendency over the years in his copious coverage (over 700 stories mentioning AIDS) of HIV?AIDS to let the doubts about the science peep through – doubts about the new superstrain of HIV, the AIDS conference as a ‘political circus’, or The AIDS Questions That Linger , and a handful of others that suggest he is not excusively the handmaiden of the paradigm. But perhaps we are imagining things, for he otherwise consistently serves as a conduit for anything officials or scientists like to announce.

Recently, moreover, he covered the problem of prejudiced and inadequate peer review (see May 2 post, Sleepy gatekeepers: Times’ Larry Altman covers the problems of peer review) and demonstrated a sophisticated appreciation of that problem, which is one that underlies the whole scientifically absurd structure of HIV?AIDS ideology. For if mainstream papers in the field had been given the same excessively rigorous inspection that Peter Duesberg’s papers on the topic of HIV-is-not-the-cause-of-AIDS received, we can be sure that fewer of them would have been published, and Robert Gallo would not have been the most referenced scientist in the world in the late 80s.

But Altman is without question aware of all the pressures and flaws which can derail good science, as his fine Gatekeepers essay three weeks ago showed. What happened since 1984? In all these years, according to the Times search “Lawrence Altman Duesberg”, he has mentioned Peter Duesberg precisely once, in a co-authored report from South Africa at a moment when the Times was forced briefly to recognize the continuing life in Duesberg’s challenge to the consensus wisdom.

Yet it seems to us that then too Altman’s report was balanced and fair under the circumstances – though once again one has to ask, unless Larry in the most incurious of reporters, he must (unless he merely rewrote Rachel Swarn’s report in his chair at Times Square) have familiarized himself with the force of the Duesberg critique, and been moved to write about it – and therefore since he did never did, politics must have stepped in the way, via his editors or via his own discretion relative to Anthony Fauci, and the rest of the signatories of the infamous Durban Declaration of the same moment, which by the way without doubt is still the most blatant signal of the decline of science, and its transformation from a vocation to a profession in its attitudes and politics, that has been seen in this era.

The declaration was intended as a scientific statement, Dr. van der Horst said. But he said the South African government viewed it as a political statement. After the declaration was released last week, a spokesman for the president, Parks Mankahlana, said it should be thrown in the dustbin.

(See AIDS Forum in South Africa Opens Knotted in Disputes,

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July 10, 2000

AIDS Forum in South Africa Opens Knotted in Disputes

By RACHEL L. SWARNS AND LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN

Opening the first international conference on AIDS held in a developing country, President Thabo Mbeki today singled out extreme poverty, rather than the disease ravaging his country and continent, as the leading killer both here and across Africa.

South Africa is the country with the largest number of people infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS — 4.2 million. And its president, who has become embroiled in an international dispute over the disease, pledged to intensify his response to the AIDS epidemic. But he dashed the hopes of thousands of participants, and noisy protesters, who wanted to hear him state clearly that H.I.V. causes AIDS.

Instead, President Mbeki skirted the discussion that has arisen because he has questioned the use of certain drugs in treating H.I.V. and has even questioned whether the virus causes AIDS.

Among the many researchers he has contacted in his quest to understand the epidemic are two American biochemists, Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick, who argue that poverty and malnutrition, not H.I.V., cause AIDS. When word of this consultation became public, international consternation arose.

As Mr. Mbeki described his attempts to understand how one of the worst epidemics in history had enveloped his country just as it had freed itself from apartheid, he reflected on AIDS and a long list of other diseases afflicting his country.

”As I listened and heard the whole story told about our own country, it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus,” Mr. Mbeki said.

The 13th international conference on AIDS is being held here as United Nations officials have been intensifying the alarm about H.I.V., which infects 34.3 million people in the world, mostly in Africa.

Minutes after Mr. Mbeki finished, Dr. Peter Piot, the head of Unaids, a United Nations program that monitors the spread of AIDS, said it would require at least $3 billion a year to take basic measures in Africa to deal with the disease and tens of billions of dollars more each year to provide in Africa the standard drugs used in developed countries.

The $3 billion figure is 10 times what is now being spent in Africa, Dr. Piot said. Unaids estimates that 90 percent of people with H.I.V. do not know that they are infected.

”We need billions, not millions, to fight AIDS in the world,” Dr. Piot said, and ”we can’t fight an epidemic of this magnitude with peanuts.”

In news conferences and interviews, Dr. Piot said he welcomed a pledge of $500 million from the World Bank this weekend as a positive step. The rest, he said, needs to come from the affected African countries and the developed countries.

He urged developed countries to cancel the $15 billion in debt repayments that African countries owe each year, so the countries could use the money for health care and social services for AIDS and other diseases.

But political will is as important as money in stopping the AIDS epidemic, he said.

In the last six years, scientists and AIDS activists have repeatedly accused South African leaders of a lack of leadership in combating the AIDS epidemic. In 1993, H.I.V. infected 4 percent of South Africa’s adult population. Now, the figure is 20 percent.

Tonight, as those taking part in the conference drifted out of the cricket grounds where Mr. Mbeki spoke, many left feeling disappointed.

”We, the majority of South African scientists, would have liked a clear, unequivocal statement about the relationship between H.I.V. and AIDS rather than the hints he made,” said Alan Whiteside, who heads the AIDS research program at the University of Natal in Durban.

Mr. Whiteside and others said they were encouraged by Mr. Mbeki’s pledge to intensify his recently announced program to encourage safer sex practices and to sponsor additional research into drug therapy and a possible vaccine.

Thousands of people held a protest rally at City Hall before the meeting opened, with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and others in the crowd berating the government for failing to speak frankly about the link between H.I.V. and AIDS and lagging in its efforts to fight the epidemic.

”AIDS exists,” said Mrs. Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela and a political leader in her own right. ”H.I.V. causes AIDS. We cannot proclaim this century the African century and then ignore the AIDS pandemic as some political leaders are.”

Mr. Mbeki did speak about the heavy toll that H.I.V. and AIDS take on young people. He also spoke about the toll from malaria, cholera, syphilis and ”other illnesses with complicated Latin names,” along with vitamin A deficiency, which he said were among the diseases of poverty.

The text of Mr. Mbeki’s remarks released in advance of his speech said: ”The world’s biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill health and suffering across the globe, including South Africa, is extreme poverty.”

He omitted that passage when he spoke but cited a 1995 report by the World Health Organization that described poverty as the world’s largest killer. ”Five years later,” he added, ”the essential elements of this story have not changed.”

A strong hint that Mr. Mbeki would disappoint most of those taking part in the AIDS conference in not saying that H.I.V. causes AIDS came earlier in the day when scientists canceled a news conference because of what they said was pressure from the South African government.

The news conference had been scheduled to discuss a statement signed by 5,000 scientists around the world, known as the Durban Declaration. It affirmed that scientific evidence supporting the link between H.I.V. and AIDS was ”clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous” and was published in the July 6 issue of the scientific journal Nature after review by scientific peers.

But the news conference was unexpectedly canceled minutes before it was to have begun. The reason was that ”the South African government put pressure on us” and threatened to dismiss any signer who worked for the government, said Dr. Charles van der Horst, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina who signed the declaration.

In an interview, Dr. van der Horst declined to name the government official who had made the call and said the South African scientist who had received it was a signer of the declaration. Dr. van der Horst said he had been told that the official had spoken on behalf of Mr. Mbeki.

Tasneem Carrima, a spokeswoman for Mr. Mbeki, denied knowledge of any such threat. ”We certainly would not threaten anybody,” she said.

The declaration came in response to Mr. Mbeki’s decision to appoint a panel to review the claims of dissidents who do not believe that H.I.V. causes AIDS, Dr. van der Horst said. The panel included such dissidents as well as signers of the declaration.

”We thought no one would give the denialists credence, and we were wrong,” Dr. van der Horst said.

He criticized the scientific community for not having published a summary statement earlier of all of the scientific evidence that H.I.V. causes AIDS. Now, by giving a platform to a small group of dissidents, Mr. Mbeki has helped to divert efforts to fight AIDS, Dr. van der Horst said.

Several scientists say that becoming embroiled in new arguments over the causes of AIDS diverts attention and resources from finding a solution.

The declaration was intended as a scientific statement, Dr. van der Horst said. But he said the South African government viewed it as a political statement. After the declaration was released last week, a spokesman for the president, Parks Mankahlana, said it should be thrown in the dustbin.

This week, Mr. Mbeki’s government tempered its stringent criticism of anti-H.I.V. drug therapy by announcing that it had reversed its view about AZT, a drug it had deemed unsafe for pregnant women.

In discussing his administration’s plan to battle AIDS and responding to critics, Mr. Mbeki said that ”there is no substance to the allegation that there is any hesitation on the part of our government to confront the challenge of H.I.V-AIDS.”

Dr. Piot said developing countries, though poor, would have to spend more on AIDS, because ”it is about the survival of the nation.”

Mr. Mbeki and Dr. Piot are leaving the conference early to attend a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Lome, Togo, at which AIDS is to be discussed.

Correction: July 13, 2000, Thursday An article on Monday about the opening of an international conference on AIDS in South Africa misspelled the surname in some copies of a scientist who signed a statement affirming the link between H.I.V. and AIDS. He is Dr. Charles van der Horst, not van der Host.

Here is his key “Science’s Gatekeepers” piece again:

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The New York Times

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May 2, 2006

The Doctor’s World

For Science’s Gatekeepers, a Credibility Gap

By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, M.D.

Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in medical and scientific journals have called into question as never before the merits of their peer-review system.

The system is based on journals inviting independent experts to critique submitted manuscripts. The stated aim is to weed out sloppy and bad research, ensuring the integrity of the what it has published.

Because findings published in peer-reviewed journals affect patient care, public policy and the authors’ academic promotions, journal editors contend that new scientific information should be published in a peer-reviewed journal before it is presented to doctors and the public.

That message, however, has created a widespread misimpression that passing peer review is the scientific equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Virtually every major scientific and medical journal has been humbled recently by publishing findings that are later discredited. The flurry of episodes has led many people to ask why authors, editors and independent expert reviewers all failed to detect the problems before publication.

The publication process is complex. Many factors can allow error, even fraud, to slip through. They include economic pressures for journals to avoid investigating suspected errors; the desire to avoid displeasing the authors and the experts who review manuscripts; and the fear that angry scientists will withhold the manuscripts that are the lifeline of the journals, putting them out of business.By promoting the sanctity of peer review and using it to justify a number of their actions in recent years, journals have added to their enormous power.

The release of news about scientific and medical findings is among the most tightly managed in country. Journals control when the public learns about findings from taxpayer-supported research by setting dates when the research can be published. They also impose severe restrictions on what authors can say publicly, even before they submit a manuscript, and they have penalized authors for infractions by refusing to publish their papers. Exceptions are made for scientific meetings and health emergencies.

But many authors have still withheld information for fear that journals would pull their papers for an infraction. Increasingly, journals and authors’ institutions also send out news releases ahead of time about a peer-reviewed discovery so that reports from news organizations coincide with a journal’s date of issue.

A barrage of news reports can follow. But often the news release is sent without the full paper, so reports may be based only on the spin created by a journal or an institution.

Journal editors say publicity about corrections and retractions distorts and erodes confidence in science, which is an honorable business. Editors also say they are gatekeepers, not detectives, and that even though peer review is not intended to detect fraud, it catches flawed research and improves the quality of the thousands of published papers.

However, even the system’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that peer review does not eliminate mediocre and inferior papers and has never passed the very test for which it is used. Studies have found that journals publish findings based on sloppy statistics. If peer review were a drug, it would never be marketed, say critics, including journal editors.

None of the recent flawed studies have been as humiliating as an article in 1972 in the journal Pediatrics that labeled sudden infant death syndrome a hereditary disorder, when, in the case examined, the real cause was murder.

Twenty-three years later, the mother was convicted of smothering her five children. Scientific naïveté surely contributed to the false conclusion, but a forensic pathologist was not one of the reviewers. The faulty research in part prompted the National Institutes of Health to spend millions of dollars on a wrong line of research.

Fraud, flawed articles and corrections have haunted general interest news organizations. But such problems are far more embarrassing for scientific journals because of their claims for the superiority of their system of editing.

A widespread belief among nonscientists is that journal editors and their reviewers check authors’ research firsthand and even repeat the research. In fact, journal editors do not routinely examine authors’ scientific notebooks. Instead, they rely on peer reviewers’ criticisms, which are based on the information submitted by the authors.

While editors and reviewers may ask authors for more information, journals and their invited experts examine raw data only under the most unusual circumstances.

In that respect, journal editors are like newspaper editors, who check the content of reporters’ copy for facts and internal inconsistencies but generally not their notes. Still, journal editors have refused to call peer review what many others say it is — a form of vetting or technical editing.

In spot checks, many scientists and nonscientists said they believed that editors decided what to publish by counting reviewers’ votes. But journal editors say that they are not tally clerks and that decisions to publish are theirs, not the reviewers’.

Editors say they have accepted a number of papers that reviewers have harshly criticized as unworthy of publication and have rejected many that received high plaudits.

Many nonscientists perceive reviewers to be impartial. But the reviewers, called independent experts, in fact are often competitors of the authors of the papers they scrutinize, raising potential conflicts of interest.

Except when gaffes are publicized, there is little scrutiny of the quality of what journals publish.

Journals have rejected calls to make the process scientific by conducting random audits like those used to monitor quality control in medicine. The costs and the potential for creating distrust are the most commonly cited reasons for not auditing.

In defending themselves, journal editors often shift blame to the authors and excuse themselves and their peer reviewers.

Journals seldom investigate frauds that they have published, contending that they are not investigative bodies and that they could not afford the costs. Instead, the journals say that the investigations are up to the accused authors’ employers and agencies that financed the research.

Editors also insist that science corrects its errors. But corrections often require whistle-blowers or prodding by lawyers. Editors at The New England Journal of Medicine said they would not have learned about a problem that led them to publish two letters of concern about omission of data concerning the arthritis drug Vioxx unless lawyers for the drug’s manufacturer, Merck, had asked them questions in depositions. Fraud has also slipped through in part because editors have long been loath to question the authors.

“A request from an editor for primary data to support the honesty of an author’s findings in a manuscript under review would probably poison the air and make civil discourse between authors and editors even more difficult than it is now,” Dr. Arnold S. Relman wrote in 1983. At the time, he was editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, and it had published a fraudulent paper.

Fraud is a substantial problem, and the attitude toward it has changed little over the years, other editors say. Some journals fail to retract known cases of fraud for fear of lawsuits.

Journals have no widely accepted way to retract papers, said Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, after the it retracted two papers by the South Korean researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, who fabricated evidence that he had cloned human cells.

In the April 18 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, its editor, Dr. Harold C. Sox, wrote about lessons learned after the journal retracted an article on menopause by Dr. Eric Poehlman of the University of Vermont.

When an author is found to have fabricated data in one paper, scientists rarely examine all of that author’s publications, so the scientific literature may be more polluted than believed, Dr. Sox said.

Dr. Sox and other scientists have documented that invalid work is not effectively purged from the scientific literature because the authors of new papers continue to cite retracted ones.

When journals try to retract discredited papers, Dr. Sox said, the process is slow, and the system used to inform readers faulty. Authors often use euphemisms instead of the words “fabrication” or “research misconduct,” and finding published retractions can be costly because some affected journals charge readers a fee to visit their Web sites to learn about them, Dr. Sox said.

Despite its flaws, scientists favor the system in part because they need to publish or perish. The institutions where the scientists work and the private and government agencies that pay for their grants seek publicity in their eagerness to show financial backers results for their efforts.

The public and many scientists tend to overlook the journals’ economic benefits that stem from linking their embargo policies to peer review. Some journals are owned by private for-profit companies, while others are owned by professional societies that rely on income from the journals. The costs of running journals are low because authors and reviewers are generally not paid.

A few journals that not long ago measured profits in the tens of thousands of dollars a year now make millions, according to at least three editors who agreed to discuss finances only if granted anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak about finances.

Any influential system that profits from taxpayer-financed research should be held publicly accountable for how the revenues are spent. Journals generally decline to disclose such data.

Although editors of some journals say they demand statements from their editing staff members that they have no financial conflicts of interest, there is no way to be sure. At least one editor of a leading American journal had to resign because of conflicts of interest with industry.

Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry, say Dr. Richard Smith, the former editor of BMJ, the British medical journal, and Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, also based in Britain.

The journals rely on revenues from industry advertisements. But because journals also profit handsomely by selling drug companies reprints of articles reporting findings from large clinical trials involving their products, editors may “face a frighteningly stark conflict of interest” in deciding whether to publish such a study, Dr. Smith said.

And here is his original Virus That May Cause AIDS report from April 24, 1984:NEW U.S. REPORT NAMES VIRUS THAT MAY CAUSE AIDS

By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, M.D.:

(show)

April 24, 1984

NEW U.S. REPORT NAMES VIRUS THAT MAY CAUSE AIDS

By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN, M.D.

Federal researchers announced today that they had found a virus that they believe is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

They called it HTLV-3 and said they had developed a process to mass-produce it for the purpose of developing the tools needed to finally conquer the mysterious disease that has afflicted more than 4,000 Americans.

The announcement follows the attention recently given to the discovery of a virus called LAV by researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The head of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said over the weekend that he believed the LAV virus was the cause of AIDS.

Margaret M. Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said today that she thought the two viruses ”will prove to be the same.”

With the new process, the Federal researchers said they had developed a test that could reliably detect the virus that causes AIDS in blood that is donated for a wide variety of uses, including the treatment hemophilia. They said they applied for a patent on the process today and that they expected the test to be widely available within six months.

The optimism surrounding the American and French research appears to reflect a high point in what has been one of the most challenging international scientific efforts to battle any modern disease.

Finding the cause of AIDS will not necessarily lead to any treatment of the disease soon, nor will it necessarily result in a method of prevention. But the finding led the American researchers to express the hope that a vaccine would be developed and ready for testing ”in about two years.”

Even as the French and American researchers’ confidence has grown steadily in recent weeks, a degree of uncertainty still clings to the findings, and the tension of the exhaustive search was apparent in interviews and visits to the research facilities. There was a sense of quiet triumph in the halls of the Atlanta centers last week, but the euphoria that might have been expected was tempered by the knowledge that months of research are still required to firmly ascertain whether LAV and HTLV-3 are the same, and whether the virus is the cause of AIDS. Dr. Robert C. Gallo of the National Cancer Institute, who headed the team that is reporting its findings in four papers in the journal Science, said that if the two viruses ”turn out to be the same I will say so.”

Dr. Gallo said he had isolated the virus from more than 50 patients and had detected evidence of antibodies that are a kind of record of the existence of the virus in the blood in about 85 percent of patients with AIDS and in about 80 percent of patients with a condition he called pre-AIDS.

After the first cases of AIDS were recognized in New York and California in 1981, Federal researchers quickly identified homosexual and bisexual males as the primary group affected. Epidemiologists also identified intravenous drug users, people of Haitian descent and hemophiliacs as other groups at risk of AIDS.

Early in the course of the investigation, Federal epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta determined that a transmissible agent was the only plausible factor that could satisfactorily explain the cause of AIDS in such widely different risk groups. The researchers said they strongly suspected that the transmissible agent was a micro-organism and they presumed it was a virus.

After initial tests failed to identify any known virus – or any other micro-organism – as the cause, researchers turned their attention to a new group called retroviruses. Retroviruses are so named because they contain an enzyme called reverse transcriptase that can copy the RNA of the virus into the DNA form, thus reversing the usual direction of the flow of genetic information.

By May 1983, researchers from the National Cancer Institute, the Harvard University School of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Kimron Veterinary Institute of Israel, New York University, the New York Veterans Administration Hospital, Litton Bionetics Inc. of Maryland and the Raymond Poincare Hospital in France published several reports in Science about a retrovirus called HTLV-1, which was put forward as the leading candidate as the cause of AIDS. HTLV-1, initially reported in 1981, had been found to cause a rare type of leukemia in southern Japan and the Caribbean islands. HTLV originally stood for human T-cell leukemia virus but now the initials are used for human T-lymphotropic retroviruses to broaden the name.

In the same issue of Science last May, a team from the Pasteur Institute in Paris reported the discovery of the LAV virus. LAV stands for lymphadenopathy-associated virus. The French researchers had isolated LAV from one of the many swollen lymph nodes in the body of a French man who said he had more than 50 homosexual partners each year and who had traveled to many European countries, North Africa, India and the United States. His last trip to New York was in 1979.

At the time of the first LAV report, Federal and other researchers said they were not excited by the prospects of that retrovirus as the cause of AIDS.

The significance of LAV began to become apparent for two reasons. One was that researchers could not detect HTLV-1 in all AIDS cases and because AIDS was rare in Japan. The other reason was the progress made by the French researchers who were expanding their studies on LAV.

The turning point came at a meeting in Park City, Utah, last January, according to one of the participants in the meeting. ”We all got very excited” at the French presentation, the scientist said. Until then, some researchers believed that the LAV was not a retrovirus but a member of an entirely different family.

Dr. Luc Montagnier said his Pasteur Institute team has isolated ”about a dozen” viruses that are either identical to or similar to LAV according to electron microscope and immunologic studies.

The viruses have been isolated from patients with AIDS or from members of the high risk groups who have swollen lymph glands throughout their body. The condition is called lymphadenopathy, and many doctors suspect that it is a form of AIDS that cannot be now diagnosed as such because of the lack of a diagnostic test.

The patients have included French men as well as people from Haiti and Zaire, two countries where large numbers of AIDS cases are being diagnosed.

One of the many challenges facing AIDS researchers is to determine why the tests for the LAV or HTLV-3 were negative in some cases of patients presumed to have AIDS.

One thesis advanced by Dr. Montagnier is that the tests themselves may not be able to detect LAV at a certain stage of the disease. Another is that the technology of LAV testing is still too crude to detect all cases.

It remains remotely possible that the viruses observed by French and American researchers are not the cause of AIDS, but part of it. They could be just a newly recognized opportunistic infection of the type that afflict AIDS victims. Opportunistic infections are those that are caused by micro-organisms that usually do not make ill those people whose immune systems are working properly.

Dr. Montagnier said that his team considered that possibility ”unlikely” because LAV was isolated from a patient whose immune system was not depressed and because similar isolates have come from people who had no evidence of a reversal of the so- called T4-T8 lymphocytes that seems to develop in patients with AIDS and suspected of having it.

After the Pasteur Institute team reported its findings with LAV, it began sending samples of the virus to any other scientific team that asked for it. As of today, Dr. Montagnier said the number of laboratories was ”about 10” and they were located throughout the United States and Europe.

Cooperation between labs was further indicated today by Dr. Gallo, who recalled that one of the French researchers had trained in his laboratory in Bethesda, Md.

The French virus was sent to Dr. Gallo at the National Cancer Institute last July, Dr. Montagnier said, ”but he told me this isolate did not work, so we sent it again in September.”

It is customary for researchers to send specimens of new organisms to other laboratories interested in the problem. But in the words of Dr. Donald Francis, who heads the Centers for Disease Control team of virologists investigating AIDS: ”Not many people are calling the French every week asking for that virus. You have to be cautious about working with what you think is the cause of AIDS.”

Because the disease at present is so insidious and incurable, it generates some fear among the public and considerable concern even among the scientists working with it.

One of the classic ways to determine if a micro-ogranism causes disease is to inject into animals. Thus, researchers at the Atlanta centers, the Pasteur Institute and elsewhere have injected the AIDS-linked viruses into animals but, as of today, none have shown any evidence of AIDS.

If the suspect viruses become indisputably linked to AIDS and a test to detect the virus in blood for transfusion is successfully developed it would be applied an estimated 23 million times a year for the 3 million blood transfusions given in the United States each year, the researchers said today.

The risk probably was not great in any case. Reassuring data already comes from tests the French researchers have made on blood donated for transfusions in France. Dr. Montagnier said that the team could find evidence of LAV in ”only one out of more than 100” units of blood tested.

Researchers are hoping that the LAV and HTLV-3 are the same. Dr. James Curran, who heads the Atlanta centers’ AIDS investigating team, said that if tests show the viruses to be different in major ways, ”then something is wrong because one virus causes AIDS.”

Dr. Curran said that there may be several other so-called co-factors involved in explaining why some who are exposed to the virus that causes AIDS get it and others do not. ”Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer,” Dr. Curran said.

It is possible that genetic factors or certain infections could act to increase the vulnerability of an individual to the virus.

Research growing out of the new work may help explain why AIDS has such a long incubation period – a period that can range apparently from nine months to more than five years.

5 Responses to “Larry Altman unfairly accused of rushing to judgment on HIV”

  1. Martin Kessler Says:

    I can’t believe that the “journalists” at the NY Times aren’t paying attention. I believe they are deliberately ignoring anything that eliminates HIV from the constellation of AIDS causes. Both of the headlines above refer to articles that (I believe because I haven’t access to the articles) do not refute HIV as the cause of AIDS and may acutally “strengthen” the premise. By this I mean that showing that this or that portion of the research has been shown to be either flawed or wrong, means that the “scientific” process is working and the the fundamental premise that HIV causes AIDS remains intact. I would believe that the NY Times “filters” any potentially dissident article to prevent looking like they might be skeptical about the HIV/AIDS paradigm.

  2. Robert Houston Says:

    Both the historical documentation and the text of this post do not appear to support the headline (“Larry Altman unfairly accused of rushing to judgment on HIV”) nor the subheadline (“The young correspondent did a fine job after all in 1984”). In fact, these headline claims are contradicted by several distortions in Dr. Altman’s article of 4/24/84, some of which are pointed out by Truthseeker himself in the first five paragraphs after the subheading “Why is Larry late to the notHIV party?”

    For example, Truthseeker properly points out significant discrepancies between Dr. Altman’s wording that “they had found the virus that they believe is the cause of…AIDS” and the actual press release and scientific papers. The NIH press release used the term “primary cause” – thus allowing co-factors, and the scientific papers spoke of “evidence of a causative involvement of the virus in AIDS.” These qualifications were ignored by Altman, who soon condensed the description into “the virus that causes AIDS.”

    In saying that Altman was unfairly criticised, Truthseeker is ignoring why he was criticised and implying that the basis was false. One of the main critics was Dr. Peter Duesberg, who in his 1996 book, Inventing the AIDS Virus, specified the crux of the problem. At the NIH press conference, the virus was announced as “the probable cause of AIDS”, whereas Altman in the Times dropped any such qualifier and called it “the virus that is the cause of AIDS.” Is Truthseeker suggesting that Duesberg misrepresented the press conference? If so, let me remind him that Peter Duesberg is an impeccable scientist who does not make careless mistakes. Furthermore, anyone who watched the TV special “The Age of AIDS” (PBS, May 30-31, 2006) would have seen HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler at the actual 4/23/84 press conference announce: “First, the probable cause of AIDS has been found, a variant of a known human cancer virus.”

    Truthseeker himself points out another serious problem with Altman’s report: “A more alert correspondent might have asked himself, and perhaps Robert Gallo at the press conference,… why it was that HIV, which made a very poor showing, having been found in only a third of the cases Gallo had tested, was the culprit…” Instead, the medically trained Altman did not even go so far as to raise the obvious question of what proportion of patients had the virus. Instead he participated in the cultivated cover-up of this information by Gallo and the NIH, stating that Gallo “had isolated the virus from more than 50 patients.” The impression was left that the virus was found in all AIDS patients tested; the reader would not know that it was found in only a minority: 26 of the 72 AIDS patients (36%), as Truthseeker discussed so well in a prior post (“How Gallo proved that HIV was not the cause of AIDS”).

    In his article, Dr. Altman also mentioned that antibody to the virus was found in about 85% of AIDS patients, without informing the readers that antibodies only indicate prior exposure, not current presence, and that higher antibody rates of other viruses are found in AIDS patients. Dr. Altman also misrepresented the facts, then and since, by constantly referring to HTLV-III as a single virus. In actuality, both the scientific papers and the NIH press release referred to a group of viruses that collectively were termed HTLV-III.

    Truthseeker suggests that Altman should be excused since he mentioned the prior French discovery of LAV and because years later he reported on problems in HIV research. I submit that none of this excuses the distorted reporting in his 1984 HIV=AIDS article, which set in print a number of false assumptions from which the world has yet to recover.

  3. truthseeker Says:

    Perhaps you have been distracted by the delightful co-eds near you at your favorite research post, Professor Houston, but you seem unaware of the playful subtlety of the headline, which is partly incredible as it should be, but can nonetheless still be taken straight as far as its main point is concerned, contrary to your last paragraph, even though there are the many key oversights that Altman made – like simply asking how the paper proved HIV was the cause if it was only in one third of the samples, as we pointed out – which result in him scoring high on the naughty scale nonetheless, as you repeat from our post.

    But when you write

    At the NIH press conference, the virus was announced as “the probable cause of AIDS”, whereas Altman in the Times dropped any such qualifier and called it “the virus that is the cause of AIDS.” Is Truthseeker suggesting that Duesberg misrepresented the press conference? If so, let me remind him that Peter Duesberg is an impeccable scientist who does not make careless mistakes.

    raising the alarming possibility that we have made a careless mistake and the headlines and the whole post are ill founded, we can only refer you back to our post which as precisely as we could manage pointed out that Larry did not move in that way from “probable cause” to “the cause” until way into the article, and then only twice, and otherwise used many cautious qualifiers after that, as the headline writer correctly reflected by using the word “May” as in “May Be The Cause of AIDS”.

    So he really cannot be counted as having being responsible in this, his first Times HIV?AIDS article, for converting the Gallo/NIH claim of “probable cause of” into “is the cause of” as Duesberg claims, and others have mistakenly repeated, without checking Duesberg, because he is usually so very reliable.

    Thus the usually impeccable Duesberg is wrong in giving that impression, though he is right to say that Altman did move in that direction by saying “the cause of AIDS” without any qualification twice among these relevant phrases, which otherwise in seven more instances correctly leave the matter uncertain:

    “THAT MAY CAUSE AIDS” (headline)

    “found a virus that they believe is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome”

    “believed the LAV virus was the cause of AIDS.”

    ” a test that could reliably detect the virus that causes AIDS”

    “Finding the cause of AIDS will not necessarily lead to any treatment of the disease soon”

    “a degree of uncertainty still clings to the findings,”

    “months of research are still required to firmly ascertain whether LAV and HTLV-3 are the same, and whether the virus is the cause of AIDS.”

    “It remains remotely possible that the viruses observed by French and American researchers are not the cause of AIDS, but part of it.”

    “If the suspect viruses become indisputably linked to AIDS”

    The only other mention of the virus as unequivocally the cause of AIDS is not Altman’s but belongs to James Curran, head of the CDC team. He says “”then something is wrong because one virus causes AIDS.”” But this is a QUOTE from James Curran, who then is reported as saying that “there may be several other so-called co-factors”.

    The evidence thus shows that, rather than Truthseeker’s slightly ironic headlines being misleading, Altman did a darn good job of including the possibility of the claim not proving out. They also show that Truthseeker (to his surprise) is the impeccable researcher, at least in this case, and not Duesberg and sorry to say, not even Houston, although the track records of both the latter sources are exceedingly fine according to our NARBS meter, which has not yet even trembled let alone moved above zero for either researcher.

    The only new point we can recall in your lengthy post (we certainly hope that this bad habit of Truthseeker to be too discursive is not catching on among those to whom we normally look to set a good example that we try in vain to follow) is that HTLV-III as mentioned by Gallo was a bunch of related viruses and not just one. OK, but so what? He was clearly trying to fudge the issue of whether HTLV-III was really LAV. Who knows what he really had in hand? Presumably a single variant of LAV, judging from the subsequent investigation. The whole matter of what precisely is being discussed here remains obscure even today, as far as we are concerned, even though we put our money on Duesberg’s assurance that HIV is demonstrated as a specific retrovirus with repeatable evidence of fixed genetic mkeup.)

    But you also emphasize that Altman downplayed the low proportion of samples that yielded evidence of virus, and surely you are right, and the claim, which many find hard to believe anyway given Gallo’s lab shenanigans exposed later, that he found it in the blood of 50 patients should have had the number of samples he didn’t detect it in, should have been fully described in a phrase like “50 out of X” patients.

    But the bottom line is that your statement, on the “the probable/the cause of AIDS” issue, that

    “These qualifications were ignored by Altman, who soon condensed the description into “the virus that causes AIDS.”

    is inaccurate, you must agree. Twice in nine times is not an overall change. Houston, I am afraid you are caught short here, which is astonishing, given your record of precision. But just as surprising is that Duesberg was also caught in the web of this myth.

    How was Duesberg caught short? We suspect that Duesberg was simply relying on the reporting of his original co-author, Bryan Ellison, when rewriting his book as sole author. He obviously didn’t check the article again himself.

    You were caught short, I presume, by relying on Duesberg, which is normally a perfectly sensible position.

    But perhaps there is another reason for this almost unique lapse in the widely renowned Houston performance. Perhaps you feel strongly that the respect afforded by Altman to Robert Gallo was shamefully exaggerated in the first place, as he abdicated the responsibility of a truly professional journalist independently to assess claims made by scientists and other experts, who may be taking advantage of the layman, rather than just transcribe them, and put them into context, however carefully.

    Sure. Altman should have used his intelligence and his experience to formulate the obvious questions, as we like to think we did ourselves in our earlier post pointing out that Gallo deserves credit for being the first to demonstrate that HIV is clearly not the cause of AIDS. Otherwise, if their chief medical correspondent wishes to treat pronouncements from scientists as Biblical, why doesn’t the New York Times simply hire a graduate student to transcribe NIH press releases and scientists’ claims with no more critical assessment than a stenographer? Why pay Altman?

    If that’s why you can’t bear to let Altman off the hook for his irresponsibility and lack of professionalsm, we wholeheartedly agree with you. But that was the intended point of the rather rambling post, in the end. His accurate reporting of the caveats on HIV as the cause of AIDS was admirable, contrary to the false accusation that he solidified the claim in that way. But it is not enough to excuse his willingness to go along with the claim without examining it critically, in what has become his standard spineless fashion, even if the little tiny wildhaired dissenter in him is very occasionally spotted peeking above the sandbags surrounding his Times desk.

  4. Martin Kessler Says:

    Sorry about that post – it was intended for the Nicolas Kristoff post – I had lost my internet connection and when I got it back it was reset to the first and I hit send.

  5. Robert Houston Says:

    Thank you, Truthseeker, for your cogent discussion of my comment regarding Lawrence Altman’s early report of “the virus that causes AIDS” (NY Times, 4/24/1984). He used that wording near the beginning of the article, in the 6th sentence. Apart from that one clear lapse, however, his other mentions of the NIH claims seem to have been properly qualified, as you showed in listing them. You made some excellent points, and overall, I find your analysis convincing.

    In the original post, your critique of the Altman article was so trenchant and incisive that the headlines exonerating him seemed rather baffling, at least to this reader. On reconsideration, however, it’s true that Altman did take pains to point out that the findings were not conclusive and that the French scientists had beaten Dr. Gallo to the punch by reporting a similar – and probably identical – virus a year earlier.

    In the 1996 book Inventing the AIDS Virus, Dr. Peter Duesberg correctly wrote of the April 23, 1984 press conference that “Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services…officially declared this new virus was probably the cause of AIDS, a conclusion dutifully reported by the media.” Duesberg went on to say, however, that “By April 24, EIS member Lawrence Altman had dubbed it the ‘AIDS virus’ for the readers of the New York Times.”

    This was mistaken: nowhere in that Times’ article did Altman use the term “AIDS virus.” The error is repeated in Duesberg’s June 2003 paper (p. 388). In both cases, the citation is: L. K. Altman, Researchers believe AIDS virus is found; New York Times, April 24, 1984, p. C1. The title of Altman’s article of that date was actually, “New U.S. report names virus that may cause AIDS.” It’s possible a reprint in another newspaper may have had the other title, but this would not be Altman’s fault.

    A computer search of the NY Times database found that a similar title did appear for an article by another writer 18 months later (Philip Boffey, “Researchers report progress in fight against AIDS virus,” NY Times, 10/10/1985). It was also Boffey who first used the term “AIDS virus” in the NY Times — one week after the press conference (“A likely AIDS cause, but still no cure,” NYT 4/29/84). Dr. Altman first mentioned “AIDS virus” in an article three weeks after the news conference (“Red Cross evaluates test to detect AIDS in donated blood,” NY Times, 5/15/1984).

    My investigation has found that the first to use the term “AIDS virus” was not Altman nor the NY Times, but the National Cancer Institute in it’s 4/23/84 press release entitled “NCI Isolates AIDS Virus” (click HERE to see it). The first major newspaper to use the term in a title was the Los Angeles Times (“Suspected AIDS virus identified by scientists,” Harry Nelson, 4/24/1984). Nelson, who was their longtime medical writer, said that it was announced as “the probable cause…of AIDS.” He also checked the Science papers and reported that it was isolated in “26 of 72 patients with…AIDS”. I conclude that he did a better reporting job on this issue than Dr. Altman.

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