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Michael Specter’s Swiss cheese


List of flaws in fact and implication makes lovely AIDS piece look holey

Manhattan media’s enduring “AIDS denialism” is root cause of problems

Lynn Margulis chimes in, stunning Tara Smith

Perhaps the last two posts seem overkill in chastising Michael Specter for his reporting sins in producing his HIV∫AIDS masterwork, “Annals of Science: The Denialists: AIDS mavericks and the damage they do”, the deft but inaccurate and biased rundown on current HIV∫AIDS science politics in this week’s (March 12) New Yorker, circulation 940,000.

After all the piece is well shaped and nicely done, aside from its parade of error when parroting the paradigm promoters. But the otherwise affable Specter’s journalistic failure in this respect is so massive, and the propaganda value to the paradigm defenders so great, that the piece cannot be ignored with disdain, as John Strausbaugh has wittily done in John Strausbaugh: The New Yorker to South Africa: Shut Up and Take It this morning (Mon Mar 12) at You Bet Your Life, with the ex editor of the New York Press judging it merely as an obligatory move in the provincial politics of Manhattan media:

I read somewhere online that David Remnick’s New Yorker had finally ridden to the aid of liberal magazine media. It had given Roger Hodge’s Harper’s the thrashing it so long and richly deserved for running that dangerous AIDS article by that horrid Celia Farber last spring. The New Yorker article, boldly entitled “The Denialists,” was said to be a thorough rebuttal to Farber’s wild-hair rantings. Hodge’s Folly, the gaffe of all gaffes, had been redressed. It had taken a year, but order and balance were now restored to print media. Glossy liberal thumbsuckers were safe to read again. No received knowledge or consensus opinions will ever again be challenged. Sorry for the disruption. You can all go back to sleep now. Nothing to see here.

In this world weary response he is joined by Peter Duesberg, who in a letter to Harvey Bialy, editor of You Bet Your Life, which Bialy posts in his Comments, informs him reasonably that he did not think it worth writing a letter to the New Yorker correcting the reporting of Michael Specter, because it would inevitably be cut down, and then replied to by Specter in the usual manner where authors of misleading reports are allowed to defend themselves with further error as the last word with no recourse.

Celia Farber has adopted the same energy conserving approach of confining herself, in a brief letter posted in YBYL Comments to David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, to merely making a witty but cutting observation characterizing the piece, or rather the role of the New Yorker, as a belated “morning after pill” taken a year later in response to her piece in Harpers, which evidently still has Specter and others worried enough to cook up a reply lacking in both accuracy and conviction.

But working on a less celestial plane we wonder how many outsiders will recognize that crack journalist Specter is merely reaffirming an ignorant but deadly social bias that has spread throughout the world, courtesy of the propaganda and censorship perpetrated by NIAID under the guiding hand of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who from the beginning 22 years ago, has taken upon his well tailored shoulders the responsibility of preserving the paradigm from the “dangerous” efforts of critics?

How many otherwise well informed people even know that Fauci has gone to such lengths to head off any effort to undermine the total acceptance of the paradigm by the universe of scientists, officials, politicians, reporters, doctors, social workers, and charity donors who steer by its light, not to mention the patients and populations throughout the world who are willing to take expensive toxic drugs to ward off illnesses which they also take for granted are caused exclusively by the effects of HIV, once they test positive?

Hardly any, obviously. To most influential people reading the New Yorker piece, or as is often the case, just the cover headline (The AIDS Denialists) and subhead (Michael Specter on Bad Science that Kills), it will seem as authoritative a counter punch to the Farber as John Moore could possibly wish. Not to mention the other 939,850 subscribers.

This is especially true since over the past year, despite the copious exposure of the weakness of the paradigm on the Web at this blog and in scathing, expert and penetrating posts at You Bet Your Life, the pile driver group blog that Barnesworld/Barnesville has turned into under the expert hand of Harvey Bialy, not a single major magazine has had the sense and the guts to follow Harpers’ lead and open up this can of scientific and political worms to public view.

As Strausbaugh says, instead of an intelligent response to the Harpers piece, the world of Manhattan based media has spent the past year trying to quietly absorb and digest the pearl produced by Celia Farber in an effort to avoid upsetting the status quo and its shared conventional wisdom, perhaps because like the scientific and political community it is so invested in the idea of HIV∫AIDS after all these years of reporting that a turnaround would be as gutwrenchingly impossible as reverse powering the Titanic from hitting its iceberg.

Thus the brilliant and strong minded new young editor of Harpers, Roger Hodge, whose outstanding performance, right out of the starting gate, in publishing “Out of Control AIDS and the corruption of medical science” a year ago will eventually be recognized, we are sure, as one of his greatest and most daring coups, has apparently been slowly coopted by Pulitzer prizes for other Harpers achievements and other nudges into a tactical retreat from his social gaffe.

At least, we were sorry to hear Hodge at the Small Press Center, in a talk in November on his first year at Harpers, slipping in the phrase “Peter Duesberg is probably wrong but –” in a reply to a question on the journalistic justification of printing Celia Farber’s masterwork, whose mention of Duesberg’s ideas over several pages he suggested was only intended to stir debate, not as any kind of endorsement. Given the vapidity of most of the reactions to the piece, one can sympathise with him. Here is a prize specimen we came across today.

But lives are at stake here, not to mention a large amount of public money and the health of millions. So having made all these claims about Specter—™s article containing both unusually helpful and positive material but a large number of false paradigm claims pronounced from on high by Specter without references, we feel it is incumbent on us to slog through a few examples for the uninitiated.

Specter’s missteps

So herewith a short list of the scientific errors and other blunders and missteps in Specter’s piece, errors to which Specter “does not intend to respond”, he has informed HEAL San Diego board member Michael Geiger, even though they are easily debunked by the very mainstream literature which he has, apparently with the guidance of John Moore, trustingly assumed is in line with the claims of the paradigm, when in fact it is consistently at odds with it. We add the embarrassing corrections needed in every case – embarrassing, that is, to a magazine once renowned for its fact checking.

1) Misleading and prejudicial titles

Specter and/or the New Yorker editors mistake: The article is titled “Annals of Science: The Denialists: The dangerous attacks on the consensus about HIV and AIDS”, with a different subhead in the front index – “AIDS mavericks and the damage they do” – and another on the Cover ad flap on the newstands – “Michael Specter on AIDS science that kills.”

Embarrassing correction: The incessant use of the word “denialist” is a political and mind jamming smear which unjustifiably associates paradigm critics with the intellectually and socially disreputable Holocaust denialists who assembled in Teheran recently. Contrary to the implication that the “denialists” – read “paradigm critics” – include no one of any great stature, they include elite scientists Peter Duesberg, Serge Lang and Lynn Margulis, who is currently stating her support on a scienceblog, Pharyngula as follows:

What is an HIV/AIDS denier? Or HIV/AIDS denialist? Peter Duesberg is a fine scientist, I have read his book and examined some of the scientific papers upon which it is based. From the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta I have requested the scientific papers that prove the causal relationship between the HIV retrovirus and the IMMUNODEFICIENCY SYNDROME commonly known as AIDS. They have never sent even references to the peer-reviewed primary scientific literature that establishes the causal relationship because they can’t. Such papers do not exist.

I have seen all four of the films made by Coleman Jones and colleagues in Toronto. Film #3 in the series is most telling. Although no strong evidence exists for any simple causal relationship what is clear is that the HIV claim is erroneous by the standards of microbiology and virology.

When I saw the glowing review of George Miklos, a colleague and a fiercely honest scientist, of Harvey Bialy’s book on the scientific life of Peter Duesberg I bought and read Harvey’s book. I have also read Celia Farber’s superb article in the Lewis Lapham “swansong” issue of Harper’s magazine, last March, I believe. Rebecca Culshaw’s paper on why she quit AIDS statistical research and Dr. Charles Geshekter’s unpublished ms about African AIDS, accepted by the editor and then rejected both substantiated my reluctance to accept the glib “HIV/AIDS” term. I found all of these readings far more convincing than any literature proported to show a HIV-AIDS causal connection.

I heard a talk by a “medical scientist” from the Harvard Medical School at a meeting at Roger Williams Univ in Rhode Island from a supposed expert who attempts to design an HIV vaccine. He claimed the HIV virus mutates a billion times in 48 hours. It became clear that the HIV virus has no clear identity. The HIV tests, nearly always positive for pregnant women, that vary significantly in the US, Europe and Australia are particularly disturbing. My son-in-law, James di Properzio spent several months researching this story for the Common Review (the Great Books Foundation in Chicago). His findings were consistent with Celia Farber’s and after encouragement from the editor the board reviewed and rejected his draft.

“Science is the search for truth” said David Bohm, “whether we like it [the truth] or not. From my readings, discussions with knowledgable scientists close to the story, I simply conclude, as does Kary Mullis, the Nobel Lauriate who wrote a foreword to Duesberg’s classical work that there is no evidence that “HIV causes AIDS”. I have no special expertise. I simply seek the evidence for scientific claims, especially when they have dire consequences for the science itself and the treatment..not just medical..of so many people.

I have observed that the closer one comes to the study of humans the shoddier the quality of the scientific evidence. Maybe that is one of the reasons that I work with bacteria and protoctists (the eukaryotic microorganisms and their immediate descendants exclusive of plants, animals and fungi). The vast majority of these are harmless to human health.

Although I have written about the natural history of the anthrax bacterium, Beethoven’s and Nietzsche’s syphilis and the work of Hentry Taylor Ricketts with insect-borne pathgens (eg.g, ticks carrying Rocky Mt Spotted fever), in general I avoid the last 3 million years of evolution and any other studies that require detailed knowledge of mammalian, including human, biology. Why? Because political bias, hearsay and gossip are inevitable whereas in the first part of the evolution story (from 3800 until 3 million years ago) politics intervenes far less obtrusively. In pursuit of the story of life and its effects on planet Earth one can be more honest if the earliest atages of evolution are the objects of study.

And this way I can lay low and not be “name-called” (i.e., “denialist”) because I ask hard questions and require solid evidence before I embrace a particular causal hypothesis. Indeed, is not my attitude of inquiry exactly what science is about?

This typically forthright statement sparked a related comment thread at Tara Smith’s Aetiology, where the stunned blogger, still fetching in what looks like a bathing suit, calls it “incredible”.

Paradigm critics also include Nobel prize winners (Walter Gilbert and Kary Mullis), and a raft of academics, journalists and authors of intellectual and moral distinction (David Rasnick, Harvey Bialy, Rebecca Culshaw, George Miklos, Robert Root-Bernstein, Richard Strohman, Charles Geshekter, Roberto Giraldo, Etienne de Harven, Gordon Stewart, Claus Koehnlein, Andrew Maniotis, Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos, Valendar Turner, Rodney Richards, Mae Wan Ho, John Papadimitriou, Anthony Brink, Celia Farber, Michael Geiger, Stephen Davis, Jim Hogan, Liam Scheff, Elizabeth Ely, Jon Rappoport, Darin Brown, Jeffrey Dach, Robert Houston, David Crowe, Joan Shenton, Henry Bauer, Christine Maggiore, Neville Hodgkinson, Janine Roberts, Lee Evans, Dean Esmay, Claus Jensen and Anthony Liversidge amongst innumerable others).

Nor is the implication that it is proper to uphold the scientific consensus justified in the slightest. Consensus can and has been very wrong in the history of science, in several famous instances mistaking the toxicity of chemicals or bad diet causing illness for a disease caused by infection (Vitamin C deficiency causing scurvy, niacin deficiency causing pellagra, clioquinol or drug toxicity causing SMON syndrome in Japan). That this is what is happening again in AIDS is well argued in Duesberg’s book, “Inventing the AIDS Virus” (1996), with which no doubt Specter is still largely unfamiliar, but which is still completely current in its points.

2) Zeblon Gwala and his ‘rhino’ herbal potion

Specter reports: A hundred people a day are coming to the truck driver’s storefront clinic in downtown Durban, where he dispenses litres of herbal potion to cure AIDS, and reports that “people who were on the edge of death go back to work. It makes them feel better, and it gives them life.” Officials support the remedy, and the mayor of Durban buys it for a hospice, but Specter describes it as “untested”, and also disparages the beetroot, olive oil, garlic, lemons, and African potatoes advocated by Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, without stating, however, that they cause any harm.

Embarrassing correction: A very extensive literature shows that natural remedies are helpful to the immune system, whose weakness is the hallmark of AIDS, and to the liver, which is attacked by AIDS drug toxicity, often causing death. Herbs and the vegetables promoted by Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the Health Minister that Specter mocks, are a real source of the vitamins and minerals, as well as the fibres, oils and fatty acids, that benefit the immune system, especially the phytochemicals in plants whose health benefits have been demonstrated in the lab, animal and human studies (see “Nutrition and AIDS” (2nd ed.), edited by Ronald Watson, Chapter 5: “Use of herbs and non-nutritive supplements in HIV positive and AIDS patients” (by “non nutritive supplements” Watson means hormones such as DHEA).

3) South African officials criticise ARVs as toxic

Specter states without a source that ARVs have “proved to be the only successful treatment for the millions of people infected with HIV,” as if that was so well known that it doesn’t need a reference, and afterwards adds that “for years, Vilakazi, Mbeki, and Tshabalala-Msimang have used words like “damaging”, “toxic”, and “poison to decsribe ARVs””, as if this was fallacious.

Embarrassing correction: The orthodoxy claims AIDS drugs are a great success, and the patients are typically initially enthusiastic, though their welcome wears off and drug holidays are often prescribed, and eventually half the AIDS patients who die die of drug effects, not AIDS symptoms. The initial good impression is because ARVs do have an initial impact which feels beneficial, and this is naturally assumed to prove that reducing the presence of the virus to low or non existent levels counters its alleged decimation of the immune system. In fact, last summer’s JAMA (as we explained here previously) showed this was not so – the immune system of an individual does not respond to changes in the level of viral load to any great degree (4-5%). There was also the notorious report in the Lancet that the HAART drugs haven’t improved in life saving effect in the ten years since they were introduced, when their initial favorable results were likely the effect of reducing the dose of AZT by three times, since AZT is now acknowledged to be a most damaging medication.

The felt benefit of the drugs appears to be (no one has officially researched this, of course, because the irrational assumption of how they work only through reducing HIV is taken for granted) because they are toxic and bactericidal ie act as antibiotics poisonous to parasites which handicap digestion, restore proper levels of zinc, selenium and other trace elements vital to the immune system, and have an antioxidant effect, at least in the case of lamavudine (see Jean Chamoix ck Crowe’s site . Meanwhile, toxic drug effects (liver and kidney rot) account for half the deaths of AIDS patients who die in the US, not so-called AIDS symptoms.

All that aside, the remarkable thing about Specter’s omniscient and unsourced reporting is that he provides much anecdotal evidence that the nutrition approach does a world of good, even though the paradigm cannot explain why.

Meanwhile the South Africans’ description of ARVs as “damaging”, “toxic” and “poisonous” is perfectly accurate, according to the Physicians Desk Reference and the labelling and inserts of the drugs, as well as numerous studies (eg . J. Dieleman et al. Determinants of recurrent toxicity-driven switches of highly active antiretroviral therapy. AIDS 16:737-745, 2002.) Sigma Chemicals, the manufacturer of AZT, adds a dire warning (“wear suitable protective clothing”) and a skull and cross bones on the bottle, for instance, reproduced in Duesberg’s 2003 Biosciences paper.

There is no more convincing suggestion of the madness of dosing patients with AIDS drugs without being deadly certain that HIV causes immune damage than to read through papers, such as Strategies of HIV management – when to switch,discussing the reaction of patients to drugs and the attempts they make to escape them.

4) The Australian is unlikely to have infected his partners

Specter reports blandly that “A thirty five year old man who had unprotected sex with three women—”and infected one” was convicted in Australia , as if the fact that he infected the partner who discovered she was HIV positive was a given.

Correction: This is the claim of the prosecution of course, and Specter cannot be blamed for parroting it. But the fact remains that the biggest study of hundreds of discordant heterosexual couples (one positive, one negative in HIV tests) over six years with many (47) making no effort to prevent transmission, carried out by the mainstream HIV researcher and official Nancy Padian in San Francisco, recorded no transmissions whatsoever. The scientific likelihood of the one transmission claimed in this case is thus low to non existent.

5)Exaggerated, over the top AIDS estimates

Specter reports: “Five and a half million of the country’s 48 million people are infected with HIV (in South Africa) and …nearly a thousand people die of AIDS every day, and nearly twice that many are infected.”

Embarrassing correction: The statistics for South African AIDS have long been incredible, as critics have long pointed out. These HIV infection figures are prima facie extraordinarily suspect. The original figures for South Africa were drawn from maternity clinics where mothers-to-be tend to score positive for HIV at a four or even ten times times higher rate than the general population, and were unreasonably extrapolated to males and to the entire sub-Sahara. The incidence of HIV positives among prisoners in South Africa is less than 3 per cent, while in the prenatal clinics it is about 12% – the opposite comparative levels than would be expected. Recent figures for prenatal clinics from this avert.org page show the rate of 30 or even 40% in some areas, prima facie evidence of the tendency of pregnancy to trigger positive test results

Meanwhile there are great questions about whether the figure for AIDS deaths is accurate. Certainly a death rate of an additional 350,000 a year for AIDS in South Africa, which would erase a significant chunk of the 46 million population in short order, would be visible, if it was a genuine addition to the normal rate of deaths from the usual spectrum of African diseases, including TB, malaria, dengue fever and severely unhealthy conditions. The invisibility of the epidemic, which conflicts with sensational reports in the New York Times and elsewhere which have not held up when checked by investigators, suggests that the “AIDS epidemic” in South Africa and in the entire sub-Sahara is produced entirely by moving patients from one disease label, eg TB, to another, AIDS.

Certainly the figure of 1000 deaths a day claimed by Specter is entirely contradicted by official statistics. The South African government’s statistics, analyzed here at avert.org records that in 2004, there were 46 million people living in South Africa, but only 13,590 died from “HIV-related disease”. Even if the claim of the Medical Research Council are credited that this number is underestimated by 61% because HIV infection related deaths are not always reported as AIDS, the figure is clearly quite wrong. As to 2000 a day being infected, in a supposedly heterosexual pandemic, the Nancy Padian study of transmission and others conflict with this statement so powerfully as to render it obvious fantasy.

A writer of the sophistication, not to mention the powerful professional affiliation, of Michael Spector, has little excuse for not knowing about the questionability of African statistics for AIDS, or for not knowing about this stunning anomaly, and instead, merely passing along the incredible assertions of his friends among the paradigm promoters, without any reference or source, as if he was empowered by the New Yorker to pull claims from heaven.

A second post will continue this list of Specter’s sins of omission and commission.

3 Responses to “Michael Specter’s Swiss cheese”

  1. Dave Says:

    Great post, Truthseeker!

    I read the New Yorker several times, passed it on to several friends and colleagues for their thoughts.

    My conclusion: That’s it? That’s the great debunking of the Harpers piece? Boy, color me unimpressed.

    Specter is a bush-league, junior varsity reporter who couldn’t get his hands around a huge story. He reminds me of a Freshman pledge trying to suck up to the “cool” kids in a frat house.

    Fact 1: The number of yearly deaths in South Africa is about 9,000 (Pop. 44 million). (Source). Sorry, this ain’t no epidemic.

    Fact 2: Anti-retrovirals are highly toxic and cause enormous damage:

    a. In Reisler , the authors did a 5 year review (1996-2001) of about 3000 HIV/AIDS patients who took anti-virals. Here’s what they found.

    b. 332 patients suffered an “AIDS” event meaning some manifestation of the underlying disease.

    c. However, 675 patients suffered a “Grade 4” “event, meaning a life-threatening illness, attributed to the medicine, not the virus. The most common of these side-effects were

    1. Liver damage

    2. Neutropenia (white blood cell loss)

    3. Anemia (red blood cell loss)

    4. Cardiovascular, including heart attacks

    5. Pancreatitus

    6. Psychiatric

    7. Kidney problems

    8. Thrombocytopenia

    9. Hemorrhage

    How is it possible that Specter and his crack team of fact checkers at the New Yorker missed this paper?!?!

    Heck —” at least beetroot, garlic, herbs and spices don’t cause all these problems:)

  2. Dan Says:

    Looks like Mr. Specter’s “denialism” article rolled over and died…along with any impact it might have had. Any follow-ups?

  3. Truthseeker Says:

    Interesting point, Dan. Not too many bothering to jump on this bandwagon. Probably the topic seems irrelevant to Iraq etc, and since it deals with a minor and rather fetid backwater (AIDS) the mainstream rushes past, uninterested in taking the lid off this can of eels.

    But Google “new yorker michael specter aids denialism” and you will get a New Republic blogger cheer, one James Kirchink in The Plank being rude about Harpers and Celia as well, in a Google list headed by New AIDS Review.

    The smug certitude of the reflex responses to the despised “AIDS denialists” is nowhere better illustrated than Randall J. Scalise, Ph.D.’s AIDS “denialism” page, complete with cuckoo clock (he posts his affiliation and address unabashedly as Office: +1(214)768-2504 Department of Physics Dept: +1(214)768-2495 102 Fondren Science Building FAX: +1(214)768-4095 3215 Daniel Avenue Email: scalise@smu.edu Southern Methodist University http://www.phys.psu.edu/~scalise Dallas, TX 75275-0175).

    Scalise is the fellow who spurned Harvey Bialy’s offer of a free copy of his book “Aneuploidy, Oncogenes and AIDS: A Scientific Life and Times of Peter H. Duesberg”, saying that it was “worth every penny!”. For that he got trounced on YBYL. Scalise is delighted with the Specter piece, since he believes that “Duesberg alone has caused the deaths of millions in Africa by years ago influencing Thabo Mbeki’s policies”, even though he was originally unaware (“Show me an article in a peer-reviewed medical journal or SHUT UP!”) that Duesberg’s critique was first and foremost published in Cancer Research and the Proceedings of the National Academy, and in Biosciences most lately three years ago (“There is only one paper published this millennium! And even that one is from way back in 2003 and it does not appear in a tier-one medical journal.”

    One day we should post on how in this and every other debate there tend to be mirror images of each point brought forth by either side, in the replies from the other side. There is an endless hall of mirrors of point-counter point. Always another way of looking at it. Here, for example, the fact that there is nothing new for Duesberg to deal with over the years is reinterpreted by Dr Scalise as evidence Duesberg is out of date!

    Perhaps this points up the fundamental importance of attitude in weighing any argument. In the human mind, there is no such thing as objective data. It is all framed as it comes in. Dr Scalise is framing each data point coming into his mind with the preconception that the paradigm critique is “denialist”, ie they are framing the data in the wrong way.

    How can Dr Scalise escape from this dilemma, of not being able to assess the data because he is convinced that it is the framing of the denialists that is biased, and not his own? How about his looking at both sides of the question, and dispensing with the politics of bias, reducing everything to data stripped of framework, other than a purely scientific and factual framework? Is that so difficult for a physicist? One would think not.

    The first step would be to remove the framing assumption that the paradigm reassessment must be “denialists” and thus wrong. Even the AIDS Wiki on Denialism now politely calls it “AIDS reassessment”, we notice.

    Of course, that would demand removing his cuckoo clock from the page, unless it is interpreted as irony. Not half as entertaining and righteous.

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