Book review.


Neville Hodgkinson, 'AIDS; The Failure of Contemporary Science' Fourth Estate, London UK 1996, 420 pages, ISBN 1-85702-337-4.


Einstein's special theory of relativity was fundamentally flawed, argued Herbert Dingle, the science historian, some 30 years ago. Dingle set out his views in both specialised journals and general magazines, where they were repeatedly refuted. Yet in 1972 he published a book, Science at the Crossroads, which represented the story of his campaign on that single issue as a crisis for the whole of science. Among those he attacked for ignoring or suppressing his criticisms were the Royal Society, Nature and its editor John Maddox.

Now Neville Hodgkinson, too, has written a book that assails the same three targets. It follows a campaign, waged principally in The Sunday Times between 1991 and 1994, challenging the expert consensus that Aids is caused by a virus (HIV), that it threatens heterosexuals as well as homosexuals and that there is a serious epidemic in Africa. Hodgkinson was repeatedly attacked by both scientists and journalists, not least over reporting that could endanger lives by undermining health advice designed to reduce the transmission of HIV.

Two years ago, Hodgkinson left the paper and went to a retreat centre near Oxford where he ''soon re-established peace of mind''. Now he has produced a portrayal of the HIV story as ''a classic example of the dangers of narrow-focus science''. Hodgkinson hopes that ''when the illusions are shed and a clearer picture of Aids finally emerges, the enormity of what went wrong will be turned to good advantage by the world of science, as a catalyst for a radical rethink about its own observational methods, assumptions, and institutional checks and balances''.

To his credit, Hodgkinson has allocated space to his critics. One is Angelo D'Agostino, a doctor in Nairobi who found fewer deaths than expected among HIV-positive babies in his care. When his comments appeared in a front-page story headed, ''Babies give lie to African Aids'', questioning the entire HIV theory, D'Agostino was angry. His riposte, reproduced here in full, clearly asserts that ''we believe there is a virus designated HIV which has been isolated and is responsible for the fatal disease called Aids''.

Hodgkinson, however, insists that D'Agostino changed his mind on the issue. He then tells us that ''an unfortunate piece of editing'' was also to blame, and attacks Nature for misreporting the Nairobi doctor's criticism of his journalism as ''terrible''. The adjective D'Agostino actually used was ''irresponsible''.

At the heart of the Aids story is the difficulty of proving that a microbe is responsible for causing a particular disease. Around the turn of the century, Elie Metchnikoff in France and Max von Pettenkofer in Germany, sceptical about claims over the discovery of the bacterium responsible for cholera, drank water containing the bacterium from the intestines of people dying of the disease. Although they suffered transient diarrhoea, neither scientist developed cholera. But this did not discredit the claims, it simply showed that illness does not always follow when a disease-causing microbe invades the body.

Aids is an unusual disease, the causation of which has been even more difficult to establish with clarity. HIV, for example, is not very infectious. This is why it has to be introduced into the bloodstream for the recipient to become HIV-positive. Second, not all HIV-positive individuals develop Aids. Hence the furore, much of it centred on the initially valuable critique of the Hill theory by American virologist Peter Duesberg, whose views Hodgkinson uses extensively.

Readers of this book will be able to discern the problems which various features of the virus and the disease have posed for scientists seeking to clarify their relationship. The analysis is, however, set in the context of Hodgkinson's disbelief. And it is accompanied by much disingenuous argument. Thus Nature is criticised for rejecting a paper arguing that drug abuse and anal intercourse were the primary causes of Aids. The journal's request for supporting evidence was ''an impossible demand'', we are told, because all Aids research had been based on the erroneous HIV theory.

Nevertheless, some of the conventional literature is cited here for readers to pursue. My own verdict is that HIV is indeed correctly described as the cause of Aids. I do not believe that microbiologists, the World Health Organisation, learned societies and the pharmaceutical industry have all been misled for more than a decade through ignorance, gullibility or conspiracy. Yet the peculiarity of this disease undoubtedly provides opportunities for those who wish not only to practise the essential art of criticism in science, but to deny the overwhelming weight of evidence and to try to discredit its practical implications. *

Review by: Bernard Dixon,
Bernard Dixon is former editor of New Scientist and the author of Power Unseen.
Source: Sunday Times (London), 2 June 1996