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.

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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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New York Sun front pages the LA Times “superbug” critique

The New York Sun is a conservative daily started three years ago which has established a reputation for reporting and criticism which is often more incisive than the New York Times in politics and the arts. But it has seemed as hamstrung as other mainstream media when it comes to dealing with issues in science.

Today (Mon June 6) however, it picks up a story from the Los Angeles Times criticising the alarmist and publicity seeking behavior of scientists in the notorious “Superbug” affair, a scare based on a single case of the supposed new variety of HIV resistant to all the usual medications, which has since fizzled in the absence of any confirming evidence at all.

What’s interesting is that the Sun places this story top right on the front page with large headlines, including the rather damning subhead, “Warning, Says Doctor, Was Raised ‘Without a Shred of Evidence’.

Is it possible that the Sun might bring its magnifying glass closer to the overall story of AIDS if ecnouraged with a little background briefing, perhaps an op-edit? After all, conservative publications have always been

the ones that have carried the skeptical view on AIDS, just as they have on other liberal-progressive scientific sacred cows such as human caused global warming.

On the other hand, the New York Times—notoriously an establishment fellow traveler in AIDS as in other scientific issues—ran the same skeptical story a week or two after the Super HIV story broke (see Self-Serving Alarm at the Fierce Virus Feb 27 post below). It slammed the health officials and David Ho in much the same terms—well, perhaps more gently.

Here’s the full piece if you want to read it. Note that it reports that strains of HIV that don’t respond to many of the medications are common, and that the episode is treated as an opportunity to make self-promoting remarks by most of the sources consulted.

(show)

June 6, 2005 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

Doubts Now Emerging About AIDS Superbug Reported in February

Warning, Says Doctor, Was Raised ‘Without a Shred of Evidence’

NYC’s Announcement is Called Naive, Alarmist

BY CHARLES PILLER – Los Angeles Times

June 6, 2005

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/14901

The announcement from New York health officials in early February was chilling: A single patient had progressed from HIV infection to AIDS in months rather than years, and his strain of the HIV virus seemed impervious to normally effective medicines.

The patient, a gay man in his 40s, had unprotected anal intercourse with scores of partners. Headlines of a potential new killer spread around the world.

“This case is a wake-up call,” New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, said at a news conference where he issued a warning for physicians to prepare for a possible new phase in the epidemic.

Yet several AIDS experts immediately questioned the importance of the case and the strategy of publicizing it so widely.

Months later, those doubts seem to have been confirmed.

No super-strain has emerged. The patient, whose name has been withheld, has responded to drug therapy. No one – not even the man’s known sexual partners – was found to be infected with the same HIV strain.

Some AIDS specialists now say the New York announcement was scientifically naive and needlessly alarmist – risking the effectiveness of future prevention efforts.

“Does it do good to [mislead] people and exaggerate?” the co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS, Dr. Robert Gallo, asked. He condemned Dr. Frieden’s far-reaching conclusions as “scientifically, completely invalid, without a shred of evidence.”

Dr. Frieden and the director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Manhattan, Dr. David Ho, where much of the patient’s lab work was done, declined interview requests.

But Dr. Frieden recently defended his decision in a letter to the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

“We did not issue an alert to cause fear, nor do we think this was the primary result of our announcement,” Dr. Frieden wrote. “It would not have been appropriate to await additional cases before making an announcement. The goal of public health is to prevent, not describe, outbreaks.”

The patient’s condition did seem to encompass a frightening confluence of factors.

The presence of HIV in the patient’s blood reached high levels and essential immune system cells were severely depleted within 20 months after he was infected, rather than the typical several years. Three of the four major classes of antiretroviral drugs proved ineffective.

The patient was a user of crystal methamphetamine, an illegal drug that loosens inhibitions and can suppress immune response.

The seriousness of the alert was bolstered by the stature of the doctors behind it, some of whom were among the most respected in AIDS research. Dr. Ho, Time magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year for his AIDS work, lent a stamp of scientific certainty.

The February announcement included caveats about assuming too much from a single case. But scientific uncertainty can be a hard sell to the press, and the event seemed suffused with the subtext that this could be a turning point in the epidemic.

Hundreds of articles and broadcasts followed. Some took a hysterical tone – perhaps an overreaction by press outlets that were criticized for ignoring early cases of AIDS more than 20 years ago.

“New AIDS Super Bug – Nightmare Strain Shows Up in City,” trumpeted the New York Post. “New AIDS Peril Puts America on High Alert,” was how the Hindu, one of India’s large national newspapers, played the story. The New York Times headlined one of its several stories: “Chilled by Findings, Investigators Dreaded the Mounting Evidence.”

The problem, however, was that for many experienced AIDS workers, none of the conditions were new or particularly rare.

The director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Douglas Richman, said resistance to three classes of AIDS drugs was relatively common.

“Rapid progression occurs in a subset of people,” Dr. Richman, lead author of a study that showed widespread drug resistance similar to that of the New York patient’s, said. “High rates of promiscuity among men who have sex with men, especially those who abuse methamphetamines, is frighteningly high.”

“I didn’t see this as a new, master virus that posed a threat of a new epidemic,” Dr. Richman said.

Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, said the New York officials might have jumped to the conclusion that a single virulent infection would be easily transmitted.

The infection may say more about the individual’s susceptibility to the virus than about the virus’ ability to spread easily.

Canadian researchers Dr. Julio Montaner and Richard Harrigan at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS detected two similar cases in 2001, and those patients apparently did not pass along the virus.

“It wasn’t clear that there was a real public health benefit from the way the announcement was made, as opposed to investigating more details in advance,” the director of the Center for AIDS Research at UC San Francisco, Dr. Paul Volberding, said.

The New York case has reflected the fractured perspectives about how to combat AIDS in an era when the epidemic has lost some of its urgency.

Once AIDS was a virtual death sentence. Today, with appropriate care and drug treatments, most people in this country with HIV or AIDS live relatively long lives. But the improvement has fed a growing complacency among high-risk populations and the general public.

At the same time, widespread use of crystal meth and its tendency to promote unsafe sex has undermined recent progress – a message that advocacy groups and health officials have tried to convey with limited success.

The New York case offered a rare megaphone to wake people up. Several health officials and AIDS support groups agreed with the high alert.

“The time to issue a warning is when something bad might take place,” the AIDS prevention director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, said. “I don’t think it was counterproductive.”

Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a major New York service and advocacy group that receives health-department funding, was a key participant in the New York announcement.

Dr. Frieden “handled the announcement prudently,” the director of an AIDS prevention program for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Aids Project Los Angeles, George Ayala, said.

“We want to be mindful of where the epidemic is going and use these situations to remind ourselves about the seriousness of HIV and AIDS,” Mr. Ayala said.

But the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Matt Foreman, said the announcement was irresponsible and had damaged the credibility of the effort to combat AIDS.

“It had a very salacious overtone,” Mr. Foreman said. “What it did was feed stereotypes about gay men and their sexual behavior. … Another two weeks or three weeks to really understand the science and the implications of these findings would have been appropriate – not this rush to judgment.”

June 6, 2005 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

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