THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE
In science, as in life, truth is not always value-free
A case study in careerist politics
By Anthony Liversidge
The Cultural Studies Times, Fall 1995
What science is, is a slippery topic, as the science wars show. According to some, it
is a religion, ripe for deconstruction as a myth-making cultural activity. Well, fine.
That strikes a chord with anyone familiar with the way scientists operate in real life,
and as even the clear headed Karl Popper remarked, "science must begin with
myth, and with the criticism of myths." Others say that, on the contrary, science is
an internal process insulated, if done well, from social and even psychological
influence, and therefore from such analysis. That argument, too, seems undeniable.
Perhaps it simply boils down to which science, and which scientist, one is talking
about. Sciences vary. As do scientists, a species that includes, as Peter Medawar
observed, "collectors, classifiers, and compulsive tidiers up; many are detectives by
temperament and many are explorers, some are artists and other artisans. There are
poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics."
The practice of science varies according to which community one is considering. At
one end, there is mathematics, clean and tidy and a law unto itself, its results
immune to culture, unaffected by human foibles and prejudice. Then there is the
rest of science, in various degrees hypothetical, uncertain, and open to interpretation,
and thus influenced by human psychology, sociology, politics, and
other corruptions. "All the sciences aspire to the condition of mathematics," as
Santayana observed, but they rarely make it. Personally, I love the scientific ideal,
and wish all scientist were pure as mathematicians. But since they aren't, I
welcome the attention of science studies professors.
Any fresh way of scrutinizing science, and drawing attention to the difference
between the naive ideal and the more complex reality, can only be helpful.
Sometimes this gap is a chasm. Scientists rule without much challenge as the high
priests of today's popular faith, and they do so by virtue of their monopoly on
expertise, which outsiders are ill equipped to dispute. A little demystification never
does any harm, where there is self-serving arrogance to be deflated.
There is one dim corner of science in particular, where there is every sign that the
public interest is being mugged daily by the arrogance and bias of scientists, and
even science editors. I refer to the science of AIDS. What has happened over the
past decade in AIDS is a tutorial in how supposedly ideal science as practiced under
modern conditions may be massively subverted by careerist politics and possibly
To understand how this can happen, one has to realize that much of science is
more open to extraneous influence, and internal manipulation, than pure
mathematics. When Andrew Wiles announced his solution of Fermat's Theorem
after over 300 years, he produced his written proof, it was gone over by his expert
colleagues and he was sent back to his attic study to labor for a further year before
the major kink the reviewers had found could be smoothed out. In physics too,
when cold fusion in a jar was announced, it took only a few weeks worth of
independent checking in other laboratories to indicate that journalists could begin
writing interesting books on how scientific ambition feeds self-delusion. Even
Einstein's most radical ideas were validated by observations and the paradoxes of
quantum mechanics deconstructed in experiment. Among the tracings of linear
accelerators you can even see subatomic particles that have, in theory, traveled
"backwards in time". This is not to say that paradigms won't be overturned, as
understanding is improved with fresh evidence, and even more brilliant hypothetical
speculation to fit the jigsaw together. But at least in such cases the ideas are wide
open to inspection, they can be tested with repeatable experiment, and one can
confidently say, with Karl Popper, that the test of theory is 'correspondence with
the facts'. It is hard for the orthodox or the unorthodox to maintain a position for
very long with hocus-pocus, bluff, bluster or influence.
But why then did Popper also say that the task in science is to separate bias of any
kind from scientific results. ("Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism
of myths.") Because in science, as in life, truth is not always made apparent in
black and white. To a greater or lesser extent, it is a matter of inference, and
interpretation of incomplete evidence. Many results, particularly in certain fields,
are wide open to different interpretations, and thus to human bias, witting or not.
Who can deny a sophisticated awareness of external mental influences at work in
the less certain fields of medicine, biology, paleontology, zoology and the like,
where limits to experiment so often confound certainty? No one can travel to
examine a pulsar close-up or revisit past eras to see the incomplete fossil record, or
the broken finds of archaeology, in life. Evolution can't be rerun to test a new
theory of life's beginnings, or the development of wings. Truth is inferred,
provisional, the best guess.
Nowhere is this difficulty more obvious than in medicine. The results of health
studies, for example, are often extremely provisional, as the day's news often
teaches us (as I write, we are being told that eggs, bad for us last year, have just
been rehabilitated). So much depends on epidemiology, the statistics of disease, and
on studies where all the variables cannot all been controlled at once, and
experiments (testing candidates for fatal disease on humans, for example) cannot
always be done. Scientists who cultivate these vineyards must go with what
incomplete evidence they have. Opinions and informed judgments replace verifiable
fact, and this room for interpretation opens a Pandora's Box of anti scientific
forces, from government interference to commercial influence and self interest,
whether unconscious or not.
Just how far from the purist ideal the practice of science really is has been clear
since Jim Watson's account of the discovery of DNA, but science as careerist
struggle was most exhaustively portrayed by David Hull in Science as a Process
(University of Chicago, 1988). Hull concluded that while scientists cooperate well
enough, the very engine of scientific achievement is the competitive urge which
won't let them sleep till they have bested their rivals. Historians of science find
many examples of corners being cut as scientists compete. Just recently, research
on the papers of as great a hero of science as Pasteur has revealed claims which
anticipated proof. All in all, science in practice is not always a gentlemanly
What this all means is that overturning the orthodoxy is no easier in science than
other disciplines, despite the professed open-mindedness of science as a vocation.
As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, updating the received wisdom in a science is
typically a no holds barred struggle where all the forces of bias and entrenched
interest are brought to bear against the challenger, at least until the weight of logic
and evidence becomes overwhelming, and perhaps even beyond that point. The
opinion, for example, that the blueprint of life was contained in a protein, rather
than the simpler molecule of DNA, lasted well past firm evidence to the contrary.
The proof was dismissed as a mistake. Talk to any Nobel prize winner, and he/she
will tell of the prejudice and closemindedness which met their novel publications.
The establishment reviewers will strenuously resist a new interpretation, and it
doesn't take a cynic to suspect they are rationalizing their stake in the old paradigm,
even if the motivation is unconscious.
Which brings us to the latest and greatest example of paradigm protectionism, the
sputtering, almost suppressed challenge to the ruling notion in the science of AIDS:
the hypothesis that the syndrome is an infectious disease caused by the notorious
retrovirus, HIV. What is still not widely enough appreciated is that there is
substantial doubt among some well-informed scientists and commentators that this
simple retrovirus is the right answer to the puzzle of AIDS, that is, the severe
immune collapse and its many attendant diseases, which are called AIDS if HIV is
present. But over the past decade this doubt has been largely stifled, and prevented
from attaining a full airing in the science journals and in the media.
There are many reasons for the doubt, not the least of which is that the theory was
announced before compelling evidence was in. In fact even today, despite the
theory's universal adoption by virtually all of the scientists in the field (those who
publicly think otherwise cannot obtain federal funding), there is no published paper
any scientist can point out as quotable proof that HIV causes AIDS (A
Conversation with Kary Mullis, California Monthly, Sept 1994, p. 16). Tens of
thousands of published papers assume the notion as a premise, and thus appear to
bolster the paradigm beyond dismantling critique. The very name of the retrovirus
Human Immunodeficiency Virus suggests certainty about its role. Yet,
critics point out that, after a decade and some $25 billion worth of investigation,
convincing lab proof for how HIV might induce immune collapse on the molecular
level is still missing. Another indication of a problem with the current hypothesis is
that it has "failed to produce public health benefits, as no antiviral drug, no vaccine,
and no efficient prevention have been developed. Above all, the HIV-AIDS
hypothesis has failed to make valid predictions, the acid test of scientific
hypotheses. For example, the prediction that AIDS would spread exponentially in
the general population proved to be flawed." (P. Duesberg, Genetica, Vol. 95, No.
13, March 1995, p.3).
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the ruling paradigm is that the evidence that HIV
is the cause of AIDS remains purely epidemiological, an association of HIV with
AIDS that doesn't prove it is the cause, because correlation does not prove
causation. This sole exhibit of the prosecution is vitiated by a circularity; according
to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), if HIV is present, the disease symptom
(for example tuberculosis) must be AIDS, and if it isn't, then it's not. To add to the
illogic, critics count more than 4000 references in the scientific literature to patients
whose symptoms were classified AIDS although HIV was absent, and the CDC
acknowledges that a positive test for HIV has not been documented in over 43,000
of the 253,000 cases registered in the US by 1992. (Genetica, Vol. 95, Nos. 13.
March 95, p. 84).
Year after year, the position that HIV is the cause of AIDS is maintained by the
scientific establishment in the teeth of a gale of findings that cast doubt on the idea.
Among the latest is a new probable cause of Kaposi's Sarcoma, the rare purple skin
cancer that was originally the prime marker for what was eventually named AIDS.
Now mainstream researchers believe it is not caused by HIV, but a new virus (L.
Altman, The New York Times, 16 Dec. 1994). Another concern is the accuracy of
both the Elisa and Western Blot blood test, which have proved to cross-react with
an abundance of other diseases including malaria, casting grave doubt as to the
reality of any AIDS epidemic at all in Africa (AIDS in Africa: Distinguishing Fact
from Fiction, World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, 1995). Whether
the skepticism is ultimately vindicated or not is beside the point here. What is
important is that it is clearly well-founded, and the history of the early suffocated
debate perfectly illustrates that enormous pressures can be brought to bear against
dissent, even when the challenge comes from the ranks of the leadership in a field.
In this case, the chief exponent of review was a senior, prize winning retrovirologist,
who first urged reassessment in Cancer Research, a leading journal, and then at
exhaustive length in what is arguably the most reputable scientific journal in the
world, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, eight years ago.
(Both articles are so far without reply in the same journals, though at the time of
the Proceedings article Robert Gallo, the NIH scientist who invented the HIV-AIDS
theory, promised the editors a refutation).
The Berkeley professor of retrovirology who so rashly took on this role was and is
one of the most prominent figures in retrovirology, blessed at the time with one of
the richest federal grants ($350,000 a year) in science to pursue research avenues
wherever his mind led him. Today, however Peter Duesberg is virtually without
grants, graduate students or influence, prevented from replying to his critics in
leading journals and routinely ignored or detracted in the mainstream press. The
Nobel he was expected to win for his earlier work has gone to others, and coverage
of his ideas in the science news journals and in the mainstream press has been
fitful, gratuitously antagonistic and uniformly disparaging of the heresy and heretic
All this, despite the plain fact that Duesberg's doubts have not been satisfied in any
respect, his credentials are otherwise unsullied, and his hundreds of scientific
supporters now include at least three Nobel prize winners. Of his two most
influential opponents on the issue, one (Gallo) barely fought off public censure for
stealing credit for the discovery of HIV, and the other (David Baltimore) was
forced to resign a prestigious university presidency after unsuccessfully resisting the
retraction of a false research article to which his Nobel-prize winning name was
None of that affects the scientific argument, of course, but it does raise questions
as to why the media has proved so reluctant to cover the dissent. The New York
Times, for instance, which systematically refers to HIV as the virus that causes
AIDS, has covered the Duesberg dispute with only five brief stories in nine years.
A string of mainstream magazines have assigned pieces only to kill them and
coverage by network television has been non-existent until recently, owing to
pressure from scientists at the NIH. (B. Ellison and P. Duesberg, "Why We Will
Never Win The War On Aids", Inside Story Communications, 1994 and Regnery
Blatant, even admitted censorship has also been seen in the coverage of the dispute
by the most widely read general news journals in science, Science and Nature.
Science early on published a four page exchange between Duesberg and his
opponents, but then cut off the debate and, apart from a sprinkling of letters, has
published only tendentious news articles since, casting Duesberg and his ideas in an
unfavorable light, quoting his critics liberally and limiting his replies. Nature has
three times published unreviewed 'correspondence' claiming to refute Duesberg's
ideas, and remarkably, has then explicitly declined to allow Duesberg to respond in
full. Indeed, editor John Maddox advertised the censorship in a full page editorial
entitled "Has Duesberg a Right of Reply?" (The answer was no).
The peculiar extent to which Nature is willing to head off Duesberg's views was
further exhibited when the Sunday Times of London printed extensive coverage of
the unorthodoxy and of what it called "The Conspiracy of Silence" last year.
Maddox wrote an editorial blasting the newspaper, and advising his readers not to
buy the paper. The episode was reminiscent of an incident earlier when a NIH
bureaucrat important in AIDS warned that reporters who covered Duesberg "are
going to find their access to scientists may diminish." (The AAAS Observer, Sept.
1, 1989, p. 4)
Paradigms are not overthrown save by new ones, and Duesberg has argued
exhaustively that drugs are the prime candidate for a cause of AIDS. His latest
work on the topic, refuting a study published in Nature which claimed otherwise, is
in Genetica, a journal published in the Netherlands, which has devoted a special
issue to alternative AIDS hypotheses, intended to redress the balance in the debate.
Experimental work on such hypotheses remains limited, however, by the monopoly
of federal funding by the AIDS establishment. Duesberg has applied for numerous
grants to carry out experiments exploring the drug hypothesis but has always been
turned down even, as in the latest instance, when his proposal had the strong
support of the editor of Science.
Thus the Galiliean challenger is censored, and the 20th Century Church of the
science establishment maintains its hegemony as effectively as the Church of Rome
did in the 17th. In modern times the repression is abetted by an uncritical press, and
the cooperation of funding officials who have an incestuous relationship with the
ruling scientists. Then there is the power and influence of the drug companies, on
which the few investigative reporters in the field have had nothing good to report.
All this difficulty in overturning the entrenched orthodoxy may be nothing special to
AIDS, or to science in general, but it hinges on a close-mindedness, a psychological
and perhaps even venal attachment to the status quo that is contrary to the values
professed by scientists as vital to good work. Is it naive to demand better? Much of
the philosophy of science, and much of what has been written about the way
science and scientists work, seems to argue that this behavior is inevitable as long
as scientists are human, and anyway not entirely a bad thing. I once asked Thomas
Kuhn whether the political battle forced on every reformer of orthodoxy in science
was not contrary to the professed ethic of scientists, and he gave the question short
shrift. Without such an obstacle course, he demanded, how otherwise would the
new paradigm be tested?
Such philosophical equanimity might fit with Kuhn's essential point that we must
understand science as realpolitik, but I suggest that its force dissipates in an instant
if one asks the obvious question: would Kuhn feel the same way if his own doctor
informed him that his blood had tested positive for HIV? It is hard to imagine that
he would not quickly develop a consuming, not-so-philosophical interest in seeing
what conclusion might be reached freed of all political, cultural and psychological
And that's my point. We need cultural studies in science because some science isn't
being practiced as good science. The philosophers may be right in saying that
ultimate reality is forever beyond our grasp. The pragmatists may be right that
complete objectivity is impossible for any human. But the aim, at least, should be
good science, as far as we can achieve it. The public interest demands that
scientific method in practice has to try, at least, to bring the fantasy of theory as
closely in accord with reality as humanly possible. To that end, scientists should be
ashamed of restricting the free flow of information and debate which is the
lifeblood of good science. So should the science editors who abet them.
In the end, the best definition of science may be Peter Duesberg's. He has
sacrificed much material advantage to a sense of public responsibility and to an
ideal of science which is simple, straightforward, has absolutely nothing worldly
about it, and no mystification either. "Science", Duesberg has written, "is the search
for the ultimate match between facts and theory." Science studies may, ironically,
help to educate scientists, the press and the public to restore this fundamental
notion to primacy by suggesting that scientists have their moral obligations as well.
They do, when lives hinge on truth.
Anthony F. Liversidge is a writer and contributing editor at Omni magazine with a special
interest in the ideas and behavior of leading scientists. He lives in New York City.