HERESY! THREE MODERN GALILEOS
By Anthony Liversidge
Omni, June 1993
Last autumn, at long last, the Catholic Church confessed. The New York Times'
front page headline read: "After 350 Years, Vatican Says Galileo Was
Right: It Moves." Following a 13-year investigation by an expert panel
of scientists, theologians, and historians, Pope John Paul II was prepared
to correct the record.
In 1632, Galileo wrote that he had evidence that the earth moves around
the sun rather than vice versa. He should not, today's Pope now acknowledges,
have been hauled before a tribunal, threatened with torture, forced to
recant, banned from publication, and banished for the rest of his life
to his country estate. As the Church panel now confirms, Galileo was right
on the money all the time.
Stale news for most of us. Moreover, the story of a great scientist
battling established religion seems irrelevant to the modern world-or is
Some leading scientists claim that the repression of Galileo's ideas
only foreshadowed the politics they have to contend with today. They insist
that another church has established itself, a more insidious enemy to truth
seeking than the Catholic Church of old. This time the church shutting
out new ideas as heresy and blocking the march of truth is the scientific
The modern iconoclasts aren't New Age freaks, homeopaths, or astrologers-outsiders
typically hostile to scientists who scorn them. They rank among the most
distinguished and productive men and women in American science and include
Nobel laureates. They are, you might say, the "modern Galileos."
If they're right, the Popes and Cardinals of modern science are turning
a deaf ear to potential breakthroughs in cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and
the global energy crisis. Even if they're wrong, their claims that a heretic
in science, however well qualified, can't gain a fair hearing if he or
she threatens the status quo often seem justified.
Take Linus Pauling, the best known of these iconoclasts. He's a household
name as a world-famous scientist and talk-show author of a popular book
on diet, How to Live Longer and Feel Better. Pauling remains the only person
in the universe to have won two unshared Nobel prizes: for Chemistry in
1954 and the Nobel Peace prize in 1962 for his crusade against nuclear
weapons, James D. Watson, the decoder of DNA, joins many other top scientists
in calling Pauling "the greatest of all chemists."
Pauling is hale and hearty at 92. His cheeks are rosy and his twinkling
blue eyes clear and sharp. He seems the very picture of health despite
a brief bout with prostate cancer last year, now under control, he claims.
The only sign of age is a quaver in his voice. Pauling can brief journalists
from memory on his latest work, quoting a slew of facts and dates without
missing a beat.
What Pauling is asked about most often is his favorite theory: that
vitamin C in large doses not only wards off colds, but also the major afflictions
of Western man-heart disease and cancer.
The spry Pauling seems a living testimonial to his own advice. He stirs
a whopping 18 grams of vitamin C into his orange juice every day, he says.
But how about the prostate cancer? Pauling believes he delayed its progress
by 25 years. Yet even as research piles up to suggest Pauling is correct,
the medical establishment has scoffed and blocked publication of his theories
in a top journal.
The Proceedings of the National Academy is the publication of the most
exclusive club in science. Pauling, a member since the Thirties, was first
prevented from publishing an article in it on vitamin C and colds 20 years
ago. The editor was adamant, although Pauling objected that he was curbing
a right all members had to publish in the Proceedings without prior review
A new rule was speedily cooked up, clearly to justify blocking Pauling.
All articles that might be "of significant potential harm to the public
welfare" would now be reviewed before publication. Under this rule,
Pauling's theory of how taking vitamin C helps prevent heart trouble was
also rejected in 1991. There was grave danger, the editors felt, that the
public might be influenced by the authority of the Proceedings to challenge
their doctors' advice.
Censored by the Proceedings, Pauling published in a friendly journal,
quoting Galileo: "Verily, just as serpents close their ears, so do
men close their eyes to the truth."
A recent review from Finland of all studies done so far backs Pauling
on vitamin C and colds, and evidence now seems overwhelming that vitamins
C and E do have value in preventing cancer. A big study by Dr. James Enstrom
from UCLA reported recently that large daily doses of vitamin C cut heart
disease deaths by nearly half in men and one-fourth in women. adding more
than five years to life expectancy. It seems that vitamin C works this
magic by stabilizing cholesterol at optimum levels and also by preventing
it from hardening in the arteries.
None of this has made life much easier for Pauling. He won the Vannevar
Bush prize in 1989 from the National Science Foundation, but that same
year, the same institution turned down his grant request for an assistant
and a computer. Pauling's aim was to pursue his new ideas in the nature
of chemical bonds in metals and alloys, the field that won him the Nobel.
One reviewer suggested the money "would be better spent on creative
young investigators, less fixed in their ways." Another accused him
of "fiddling with the numbers . . . to come out with the right answer"
in his grant application, Pauling answered that the reviewer was ignorant
of one of his (Pauling's) own discoveries 55 years earlier. The four other
reviewers were complimentary and recommended funding, but that wasn't enough.
"If a scientist tries something original, he will have trouble
getting grants and getting papers published," says Pauling philosophically.
"Most say I have been right so often in the past, I am probably right
about vitamin C, too. I don't have any trouble with them. It's the physicians
who don't have open minds. There is a real bias on the part of the medical
establishment about megavitamins."
Their prejudices exist, he believes, because doctors confuse vitamins
with the drugs that have proved effective against disease in small doses
and which are toxic in large doses. They fail to understand that while
small doses of vitamin C are needed to prevent scurvy, larger doses might
be beneficial, too. "Authorities who have lectured on nutrition to
students for fifty years saying higher doses of vitamins have no value
don't want to say they are wrong."
The National Academy of Sciences, in response to complaints from Pauling
and others, has, however, set up a committee to review the books and articles
it publishes that condemn megadoses of vitamins out of hand.
Pauling's frustration is typical of science in general judging from
the long list of latter-day Galileos who have been first trashed and then
vindicated. The most famous is German meteorologist A. L. Wegener whose
1912 theory of continental drift met with generalized hostility and rejection.
Wegener eventually gave up the struggle, complaining of scientists' "partiality"
to the reigning paradigm, and pursued other goals. Fifty years later, mechanisms
of plate tectonics and seafloor spreading were detected, and he's now admired
as a revolutionary thinker.
But some of the blindest fanaticism in favor of the received wisdom
seems to come in medicine. Louis Pasteur won honors, wealth, and fame for
proving that microbes cause disease and ferment beer, but only after weathering
public attacks from his friends in the French Academy.
The most blatant case of medical blinkers is that of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.
In 1847, the young Viennese doctor simply proposed that his colleagues
wash their hands with disinfectant after dissection, before they delivered
babies. His program cut the death rate of mothers in hospital ward from
16 percent to less than 2 percent. Semmelweis, only the equivalent of an
intern, was hounded out of Vienna by his superiors. After applying the
same regimen with striking success in a provincial city for some years,
he himself died from a dissection wound and the very puerperal fever he
had shown how to curb.
Knowledgeable observers are wondering whether Peter Duesberg of the
University of California at Berkeley is another Semmelweis if not a Pasteur.
An establishment heretic, Duesberg has run into a wall of rejection by
scientists in his field, by the medical profession, and by the media. One
reason is that his most sensational claims involve the highly politicized
field of AIDS. Unlike Semmelweis, however, Duesberg has long been very
prominent in his field. He is a virologist who specializes in retroviruses,
the group of microbes to which the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) belongs.
HIV is the virus almost universally thought to cause AIDS.
While he's never studied HIV in the lab, Duesberg's credentials to inspect
the evidence for this dogma seem impeccable. The 55-year-old professor
has belonged to the exclusive National Academy since 1986 for achievements
which include being the first to decode the genes of retroviruses. He also
identified the first of the oncogenes held to cause cancer. A letter in
Nature said he deserved the Nobel Price for his oncogene work. Others have
won Nobels for cancer-gene research, but not Duesberg. One reason may be
that he's now notorious for his skepticism about human oncogenes. Although
the field is fashionable and well funded, Duesberg himself has renounced
any belief that such oncogenes have ever caused cancer in humans.
"There is no evidence or proof that a gene of a cell ever caused
cancer," Duesberg says flatly. "Not one. The only proven oncogenes
are carried by rare animal retroviruses and, fortunately, are very unstable."
Even the possibility is "frankly very implausible. A true cellular
cancer gene would be found in each of the 100 trillion cells in the human
body, and we wouldn't be viable organisms. One would be activated far too
often for us to live as long as we do."
Already distinctly unpopular for this view, Duesberg became a pariah
when he turned to AIDS. Attracted by the rise in funding going to AIDS
research, Duesberg visited the library to examine the data behind the belief
that AIDS is an infectious disease caused by HIV. He reached a startling
conclusion and published it in Cancer Research, a leading journal, in 1987.
HIV was not the cause of AIDS, in his judgment, and the evidence indicated
that AIDS was not infectious. The symptoms, he concluded, were caused by
drugs, disease, and other conventional assaults on the immune system.
His retrovirology colleagues at first refused to argue, claiming that
such doubt was absurd. A smattering of press coverage forced a response,
however, and Science featured a limited, four-page debate between Duesberg
and his detractors in 1988. Each side was allowed a statement and rebuttal,
but further argument was sharply cut off.
Duesberg turned to the Proceedings of the National Academy to press
his case. Among many reasons for skepticism, he argued that the actual
virus was virtually absent from the bodies of AIDS patients, even those
who were dying of the disease. Moreover, lab work failed to show that HIV
would kill the immune system's T cells, the loss of which is the hallmark
of AIDS. He noted that predictions of huge rises in AIDS cases have consistently
failed to come true in the United States, especially for heterosexuals.
To date, he's published two articles, some 15,000 words, in that prestigious
journal, and it's been an uphill battle all the way. The editors of the
Proceedings enlisted a phalanx of special reviewers--26 at last count-to
criticize his three submissions. None could identify a single uncorrectable
flaw in fact or logic, as the editors acknowledged, only a difference of
opinion. Nonetheless, this year the Proceedings refused publication of
his third paper in the series, "The Role of Drugs in AIDS." Duesberg
was forced to publish it in a French journal.
Naturally, Pauling was used as a precedent for censoring Duesberg, with
the Proceedings editors invoking the principle of protecting the public
from his logic. Members are normally free-since they are all leading scientists,
by definition-to publish whatever they wish, as long as they run it by
one knowledgeable colleague who is not a coauthor.
To Duesberg, it seemed obvious. The enlisted reviewers freely used blanket
statements to damn his points, quoting little if any of their own evidence
to contradict his more than 600 references to published evidence. "The
response is unscientific, biased, and discriminatory," he says. "It
violates academic freedom and the founding principle of the Academy, to
evaluate and disseminate knowledge."
The leading HIV proponents seem to have trouble in genuinely answering
Duesberg. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute was expected to
reply to Duesberg in the Proceedings, but in three years has never done
so. Gallo eventually dismissed Duesberg in his autobiography, a forum in
which, skeptics pointed out, he was safe from his own peer review. Luc
Montagnier, the discoverer of HIV, likewise promised the editors of a French
journal to answers Duesberg, but never delivered.
Since the major media inevitably follow the party line of their scientific
sources in dismissing Duesberg, his views have won only limited coverage
compared with the flood of news and opinion articles and government ads
and TV films that drum the official message home. Behind the scenes, however,
Duesberg has gained scientific support. Nobel Price winner Walter Gilbert
of Harvard, one of the most respected names in U.S. biology, agrees that
Duesberg's arguments are strong and as yet unrefuted. "I would not
be surprised," he says, "if there were another cause of AIDS
and even that HIV is not involved." More than a hundred other biomedical
researchers around the world have joined the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal
of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, which is publishing its own newsletter, Rethinking
In a sizable book with the same title, published by MacMillan Free Press
in March, professor and MacArthur fellow Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan
State University in East Lansing also argues that scientists must look
beyond HIV for other causes of AIDS. Root-Bernstein indicates that the
spread of AIDS hasn't followed the HIV-only model and that medical history
shows myriad AIDS look-alike cases without HIV infection. Even Luc Montagnier,
the Pasteur researcher who discovered the "AIDS virus" now says
that HIV is harmless by itself and has identified a cell-wall-missing bacterium
called a mycoplasma as the essential cofactor.
Meanwhile, Duesberg has lost his exceptional $300,000-a-year Special
Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of
a handful awarded to the most distinguished scientists in the United States.
Ironically, the recipients were specifically urged to use the award to
"ask creative questions" and "venture into new territory."
The ten-member review panel who turned down the renewal mostly included
scientists making a living off theories Duesberg is undermining. With the
help of a letter from his local congressman, Duesberg has succeeded in
getting the NIH to reopen the case.
Duesberg is more provocative than Pauling in explaining his treatment.
He suggests that the ruling paradigm is consolidated by patronage. "People
naturally reject a challenge to orthodoxy," he says. "They always
did. But the scale is larger than ever. The orthodoxy never had $4 billion
[of annual AIDS expenditure] in their court and a terminated grant in the
other!" The huge inflow of funds has resulted in "totalitarian
science," he says. "I am not aware of anything in history so
Another example of a modern Galileo where there's a great deal at stake
is Thomas Gold, the Cornell cosmologist. His original ideas have been over-opposed
throughout his career, despite a tendency to prove valid.
For his master's thesis, Gold worked on the theory of hearing, proposing
the idea that the inner ear generates its own tone. The ridicule of medical
specialists forced him from the field. Thirty-six years later, he was the
guest of honor at a conference of cochlea specialists. Studies found one
family emitting sound from their ears loud enough to be heard without instruments.
Gold was also the first to interpret pulsars as rotating neutron stars.
When pulsars were found, the organizer of the first conference on the objects
refused to allow Gold floor time, calling his analysis "crazy."
Later, the same man began a paper with these words: "It is now generally
considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars"!
Still hotly debated is Gold's long-running theory of the origin of petroleum,
which turns conventional wisdom inside out. Every school text tells us
that oil and gas are produced biologically, the residue of plant life eons
ago, crushed and fermented, so to speak, in the interior of the earth.
Gold says this is quite wrong. The origins of oil and gas are purely geological
and not biological, he says. Oil and gas were formed as the planets cooled
and should be found far outside the normal locations of drilling.
Fellow scientists and petroleum engineers greet his ideas with rage
and spite, he says. "People shake their fists at me!" he reports,
"And the venom-you have no idea! It's incredible! If they could, they
would burn me at the stake, like Savonarola," the monk who briefly
held sway over fifteenth-century Florence. To Gold, the evidence is obvious.
"You find methane and ethane on Titan and Pluto," he says, and
it emanates from comets. "It is ludicrous to say this is biologically
Acrimony arises because the majority in the field have "built an
enormous construct and they cannot conceive that it is wrong," Gold
says. "They have added on a huge edifice of supplementary notions
to hold their theory together." That tendency has been noted since
the Ptolemaic astronomers, who developed ever-more sophisticated mathematics
to hold back the heresy of Copernicus in 1543 that the earth orbited the
sun, not the other way around. Only Galileo and his telescopes finally
demolished their defense.
Gold tried to explain this scientific boneheadedness in a paper called
"The Inertia of Scientific Thought." Why, he asked, is all criticism
reserved for the new idea, while the old idea is automatically defended
and any conflicting evidence simply brushed aside? Gold blamed a scientific
"herd instinct," where safety and prosperity lie in running with
the pack. This phenomenon is magnified, Gold argues, by the peer-review
system. When as many as seven respected colleagues turn thumbs up or down
on grant applications or on articles for publication, herd decisions are
virtually guaranteed. "It is virtually impossible to depart from the
herd and continue to have support." Once a herd view becomes entrenched,
says Gold, it becomes almost impossible to dislodge, as it becomes harder
and harder for anyone to admit that a mistake might have been made.
Gold quotes Tolstoy: "Most men . . . can seldom accept even the
simplest and most obvious truth if it obliges them to admit the falsity
of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which
they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven thread by
thread into the fabric of their lives." There is also laziness, Gold
notes. "Staying with the herd needs no justification: ~Doesn't everybody
Ray Erikson, a distinguished Harvard biologist, says the public should
understand that "scientists protect their turf like everybody else."
But "the quality of data is what matters nowadays. People expect clean,
crisp data, and when they see it, they can flip-flop very fast."
James Watson, now director of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory on
Long Island, agrees. He points to Barbara McClintock. Her Nobel Prize-winning
theory of "jumping genes"-genes that move from site to site on
the chromosome-was so at odds with conventional wisdom when she first worked
it out in the Thirties that she delayed its professional publication for
ten years. After a wait of 30 years, the difficult theory, says Watson,
had been "shown to be true by new types of evidence which was overwhelming,
and no one could doubt it." McClintock died recently a heroine of
science, the New York Times quoting one scientist who called her "the
most important figure there is in biology."
Watson agrees that scientists may have a built-in prejudice against
new ideas that challenge the status quo. "There is always some of
that." But the real reason, to Watson's mind, why Pauling and Duesberg
still hit a wall of indifference, is lack of "convincing evidence.
People still get colds and cancer when they take vitamin C. Then it becomes,
~Has it made the cold less severe?' I take vitamin C myself to make my
wife happy, and I still get colds, but I don't know if as many!" Likewise,
"People [Duesberg] hasn't come up with any smoking gun. You can give
all the reasons [for doubt], but most of us tend to believe the simpleminded
interpretation." Duesberg responds that this ignores the evidence
that nearly all AIDS victims are involved with drugs in one way or another.
Gold is now pursuing his own irrefutable evidence in a Swedish oil well,
where he reports finding methane at levels equaling those of good Oklahoma
producers. If he's right, those who have stood in his way will have much
to answer for. His theories promise a huge boost to global petroleum reserves,
since oil and gas will be found far beyond the usual drilling sites.
With so much at stake, if there's even an outside chance that a reputable
heretic is right, the public interest demands open-minded assessment, however
critical. Anything less may let policy makers pour billions into wrong
solutions. Science is not a democracy. One bright Galileo can be right
and ten thousand traditionalists wrong.
Could lawyers sort out the disputes? They're outsiders trained in logical
argument, after all. One law professor, Philip E. Johnson of the University
of California at Berkeley, wrote a book recently, Darwin on Trial, which
cheekily did just that-came in and castigated Darwin's theory of evolution
as the unproven sacred cow of biology. But even Johnson thinks review panels
of lawyers would be a bad idea. "External regulation would be too
cumbersome. Scientists just have to learn to develop a cultural resistance
to a few dogmatic voices cutting off lines of inquiry." Thomas Gold
suggests that a panel of top scientists outside the field would do the
Duesberg, like many, says that divorcing funding from reigning theories
could help. "Take the huge sources of income away and make science
small and honest again," he suggests. "You can't expect millionaires
to ask unorthodox questions. If I had a company paying me millions for
counseling on HIV, I should probably be silent, too. Poverty makes you
Short of these changes, a modern Galileo, as Pauling says, must simply
wait. He quotes Max Planck, the German who won the Nobel Prize in 1918
for quantum theory: "Important scientific innovation rarely makes
its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does
happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation
is familiar with the idea from the beginning." *