THE THINKING PROBLEM IN HIV-SCIENCE
By Phillip Johnson
16 Dec. 1994
Other[s] ... will be discussing the scientific evidence regarding HIV
and AIDS in detail. To avoid duplicating their efforts, and to make a contribution
appropriate for a Professor of Law, I will concentrate on the quality of
the reasoning employed in AIDS research. I have a healthy respect for scientific
methodology in its proper sphere. If I were persuaded that the scientific
method had been properly employed to determine what AIDS is, how it is
caused, and how many people are at risk for AIDS, I would happily accept
the judgment of the scientific profession on such matters. Unfortunately,
however, the scientific method has never been properly directed to determining
the cause of AIDS or the extent of the claimed epidemic. Instead of real
science we have had only HIV-science, which is something very different.
My starting point is a study of jury behavior, reported for the public
in a New York Times article by Daniel Goleman. To the surprise of no one
with trial experience, it seems that many jurors employ what the researchers
described as "faulty reasoning." Specifically:
These jurors decide on a version of events based on a preliminary story
they find convincing, often at the time of the opening arguments, which
then colors their interpretation of the evidence so much that they seize
on whatever fits their verdict and discount the rest. Such jurors tend
to make up their minds far earlier than others, and by the time they enter
the jury room for deliberation they cannot be budged.
The nearly one-third of jurors whose decision-making was most flawed,
the study found, also tended to be the most vehement about their certainty,
and tended to argue for the most extreme verdicts during the jury's deliberation.
This gave them undue influence in the final outcome. [N.Y. Times, Nov.
29, 1994, p. C1.]
The Times story was not so much about jury behavior as it was about
human behavior, behavior which is just as common in university faculty
meetings as it is in the jury room. Some people jump to conclusions early,
and are headstrong thereafter. They sometimes have excessive influence
over others because most people are followers, and tend to go along in
order to get along. Headstrong, domineering personality types are particularly
likely to be found in highly competitive situations, such as the worlds
of big business and big science. For example, a laboratory head has to
be first to publish a new theory or finding to get proper credit and funding,
and he has to have enough confidence in his judgment to pursue a promising
idea despite the usual experimental disappointments and discouraging evaluations
by journal referees. When a scientist races to put a speculative idea into
practice he may turn out to be ahead of his more cautious colleagues, and
then we will say he has positive qualities like insight, vision, and courage.
When the same qualities are carried too far they become pathological,
and we describe the individual as dogmatic or even willfully blind to nonconforming
facts. To keep dogmatism from getting out of hand we rely on the tradition
of criticism within the scientific community, and especially the all-important
requirement that scientific claims be based upon repeatable experiments.
The scientific method itself is trustworthy, when it can be properly applied.
It is in the method, however, and not the fallible human nature of the
scientists, that we should place our trust.
The importance of criticism was vividly illustrated by the notorious
"cold fusion" episode. The "discoverers" seem to have
been carried away by the magnitude of what they thought they had discovered,
and they were persuasive enough to induce eager university officials to
commit university resources recklessly to their cause. What kept things
from going too far was that the scientific community did not meekly accept
claims made at a press conference, but insisted upon seeing experimental
results that others could replicate. When such criticism and independent
reexamination does not occur, however, scientists are not necessarily more
trustworthy that other people. Like the domineering jurors in the study,
they may quickly adopt a theory they find appealing, and refuse to reconsider
it when the disconfirming facts start to pile up.
HIV-science began just as cold fusion, with a discovery announced at
a press conference by scientists and public officials eager for glory and
funding. The difference was that there was no follow-up investigation to
discern whether the discovery of "the virus that causes AIDS"
was genuine. In retrospect, it is clear that no proof that HIV is the cause
of AIDS was presented either at Dr. Robert Gallo's April, 1984, press conference,
or in the four papers his team published a month later in Science. All
Gallo claimed was that many, but not all, AIDS patients tested positive
for antibodies to the retrovirus Gallo was then calling HTLV-III.
Warning signs that Gallo's virus might not be the cause of AIDS were
abundant. Why wasn't the virus itself found in quantity in all of the AIDS
patients? How abundant and active was the virus? Mightn't the presence
of antibodies imply that the patients had developed immunity to the virus,
rather than that the virus was destroying their immune systems? Above all,
by what observable mechanism was this retrovirus not only destroying the
immune system, but also causing such disparate conditions as Kaposi's sarcoma
(hereafter KS) and dementia? The mystery was all the deeper because the
virus was supposed to perform its destructive work many years after infection
and after being reduced to near non-existence by the very antibodies that
provided the evidence of infection.
In a normal scientific atmosphere, all these issues would have been
debated for months (at least) in scientific conferences and journals before
the profession would seriously consider settling upon HIV as the cause
of AIDS. Gallo's logic amounted to this: "we have found antibodies
to a previously unknown retrovirus in many of our AIDS patients; therefore
this retrovirus causes all the cases of that vaguely defined syndrome we
have labelled AIDS." Why didn't the other scientists notice that this
reasoning was preposterous?
There can be no excuses for such a massive professional fiasco, but
there are circumstances that make it partly understandable. Scientists
customarily assume that papers published in leading journals like Science
had been subjected to thorough, critical peer review. In fact the papers
had obviously been rushed into publication. The haste was partly due to
the perceived extent of the public health emergency, and partly due to
the need to snatch credit for the discovery from the French, who had first
isolated the virus and trustingly sent a sample to Dr. Gallo. Once the
discovery was announced, the race was on to find a cure or vaccine, with
grant money and glory in prospect.
No grants were offered for efforts to disprove the official theory.
If anyone had stopped to investigate whether the virus really was guilty
as charged, he would have looked like a fool for wasting valuable time
that could be better spent looking for a cure. If such a researcher actually
did find reason to doubt the official theory, he could look forward not
to glory but to facing the wrath of disappointed colleagues. For cold fusion
there was an opposition party of skeptical physicists in place, eager to
debunk the pretensions of the chemists who claimed to have made the discovery.
AIDS research was a one-party state from the beginning.
The HIV theory was immediately triumphant because it was the kind of
solution to the AIDS mystery that all the major players wanted to see.
Virologists like Dr. Gallo, who had been unsuccessful in the search for
cancer-causing viruses, had found years of guaranteed funding for their
very expensive laboratories. Epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease
Control gained new importance and prestige. Political officials in the
Reagan administration, pummelled for their alleged inaction in the face
of the "pandemic," could point to a smashing success and predict
speedy development of a vaccine. Organizations of AIDS patients had cause
to hope for a cure, and they were assured also that, since "everyone
is at risk" for what would eventually be called "HIV disease,"
an unpredictable new virus and not their own conduct was to blame for their
condition. Drug companies -- especially the influential Burroughs Wellcome,
manufacturer of AZT -- stood to make a fortune. No one had a motive to
doubt, and so no one doubted.
No one, that is, until Peter Duesberg surfaced with his famous paper
in Cancer Research in 1987. By then it was too late for reconsideration.
The research community was totally committed to HIV and its prestige was
at stake. Moreover, thousands of patients were being treated with AZT,
a highly toxic drug whose presumed efficacy depended entirely on the premise
that it was killing HIV-infected cells. If the HIV theory was wrong, these
people were being poisoned. Those responsible for approving and prescribing
the drug were not eager to consider whether they might be guilty of such
irresponsibility. Even so, one might have expected the scientific community
to take such a challenge seriously. Duesberg was one of the world's most
prestigious virologists, and his logic was impressive. He pointed out that
retroviruses by their very nature do not kill the cells they infect, and
would become extinct if they did. That they must cooperate with the cells
in order to reproduce explained why they were suspected as possible cancer
causes -- cancer being a matter of the pathological growth and multiplication
of cells rather than their disappearance. How could the research community
be certain that HIV was the cause of AIDS if no mechanism of cell-killing
could be found, and if cell- destruction seemed inconsistent with what
was known about the nature of the virus?
Duesberg argued without significant contradiction that Koch's postulates,
the accepted standard for determining a microbial cause, had clearly not
been satisfied. HIV was not found in all persons with AIDS-defining conditions;
on the contrary, active virus was very difficult to find even in persons
dying of AIDS. The presence of antibodies is not evidence that a person
is currently being damaged by a virus; rather, it is evidence that the
immune system has successfully countered the infection. HIV had not been
shown to cause AIDS when injected in healthy subjects (experimental chimpanzees
infected with HIV). The probability therefore was that HIV was just one
of many "passenger" viruses that could be found in the bodies
of many AIDS patients. Where was the proof that it was the cause?
The research community simply ignored these trenchant criticisms for
over two years. When the HIV establishment finally did respond to Duesberg
in Nature in 1989, the paper by Robin Weiss and Harold Jaffe took HIV causation
for granted, defended the official position with a series of question-begging
arguments, and based its main line of argument on outright ridicule. I
The same method of argument has continued to the present day. Serious
questions are evaded with frivolous answers. Serious question: Does it
cast doubt on the HIV theory that HIV fails to cause AIDS in infected chimps?
Frivolous answer: That shows only that HIV causes AIDS in humans but not
in chimps. Besides, a different virus ("SIV") causes a different
syndrome in monkeys. Serious question: How can HIV deplete the cells of
the immune system when it infects only a small fraction of them? Frivolous
answer: Genetic sequences associated with HIV (not active virus) can be
found in relative abundance in the lymph nodes by use of the PCR technique.
Serious question: Why are there so many acknowledged cases of AIDS-defining
conditions like KS and low T-cell counts in the absence of HIV infection?
Frivolous answer: When HIV is present it is the cause of those conditions;
when it is absent, they are caused by something else.
I could go on and on with examples, but the reasoning is the same in
every instance. Serious questions are met with frivolous answers, because
HIV science is practiced by people like those domineering jurors, who made
up their minds before all the facts were in and then stopped listening.
The HIV theory has become axiomatic, and so even patently question-begging
answers will suffice to explain away disconfirming evidence. The HIV scientific
establishment gets away with this unprofessional behavior because AIDS
research is tightly controlled from the top, and because acquiescent science
reporters and editors have allowed themselves to be bamboozled by self-serving
propaganda. The HIV scientists claim that it is somehow "homophobic"
to question the HIV theory, or that reporters who publicize the mounting
reasons for doubt will be responsible for furthering the spread of the
epidemic. Few voices in the biomedical research community, which depends
on HIV money for its funding, are raised in protest. The example of Peter
Duesberg, who lost virtually all his funding as a consequence of his dissent,
stands as a warning to all the others.
I have been associated with Duesberg in the HIV/AIDS controversy for
about five years, as a law professor with a particular interest in scientific
reasoning. I first met Duesberg because he came to ask my advice after
he was refused renewal of his NIH Outstanding Investigator Grant. From
the context, it was apparent that a man who had formerly been a prince
of science was on a blacklist. Duesberg wanted to know if there was some
legal remedy, considering that the panels that had reviewed his funding
were composed largely of persons with personal and financial interests
in the theory he was questioning. I had to tell him that the courts would
defer to the collective judgment of the research community, and that he
would need to develop considerable support among scientists to have a chance
of prevailing in any legal or administrative proceeding. In the course
of these conversations, I gradually became more and more familiar with
the disputed scientific issues.
For some time I saw the controversy mainly as a free speech question:
a prominent scientist had voiced apparently rational dissent to orthodox
opinion, and instead of being taken seriously, he was being punished. I
thought he deserved a fair hearing, but was unsure about what the outcome
of such a hearing ought to be. Duesberg and other dissenters (like Harvey
Bialy and Robert Root-Bernstein) clearly had some good arguments against
the HIV theory, but they didn't seem to have a viable alternative. Duesberg's
alternative theory --that drug use was responsible for a good part of the
AIDS epidemic -- seemed to have its own problems. I was particularly concerned
by the apparent absence of documented cases of "full blown AIDS"
with no HIV infection, although there were rumors that such cases existed.
Two experiences in 1992 convinced me that Duesberg was right, at least
in the negative part of his case, and that an unbiased reexamination of
the whole AIDS phenomenon was overdue. The first was the emergence of the
"AIDS without HIV" cases at the international conference in Amsterdam
in the summer of 1992, and especially the dishonest handling of these cases
by the CDC and NIH. Given that the HIV scientists themselves were by then
admitting that the mechanism of HIV causation was a complete mystery, any
flaw in the crucial correlation evidence relied upon to prove causation
was of great significance. Clearly the revelation that persons apparently
mortally ill with AIDS sometimes had no HIV infection, even when the most
strenuous measures were employed to find the virus, called for a thorough
reconsideration of the theory.
The case for reconsideration was particularly strong because the acknowledged
cases of "AIDS without HIV" were probably only the tip of the
iceberg. It was difficult for such cases to be noticed due to the HIV-biased
definition of AIDS that was being employed. AIDS is not a disease defined
independently of HIV, but a syndrome of up to 29 previously known diseases
which are diagnosed as AIDS if there is also either the real or suspected
presence of HIV antibodies. If all antibody-negative cases of AIDS-defining
conditions were listed as "AIDS without HIV," the appearance
of a close correlation between HIV and AIDS would collapse altogether.
And yet the supposed correlation was the only proof that HIV is the cause
Instead of facing the issues squarely and publicly, the CDC representatives
at the Amsterdam meeting, who had previously known about some of the anomalous
cases but concealed their existence, buried the real issue under a flood
of bogus publicity concerning a feared "new virus" that might
be causing the anomalous cases. At this point I became convinced that we
were dealing with a scientific establishment that was intent upon preserving
a favored story regardless of the facts -- very much like those jurors
described in the New York Times report.
The second experience that brought me to a decision was that of participating
in the pre-publication review of Duesberg's major paper, "AIDS Acquired
by Drug Consumption and Other Noncontagious Risk Factors," which appeared
in the international journal Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 1992. Duesberg
had asked me to give a critical reading to an early draft of the paper,
and I was sufficiently interested to go through it line by line and source
by source. By accident I had an unusual additional role, because the supervising
editor for Duesberg's paper was Professor David Shugar of the University
of Warsaw, who could communicate efficiently with Berkeley only by email.
I was just then learning the ways of the internet, and Duesberg hardly
knew what email was, so I became by default the go-between for the author
and editor. Many criticisms came from multiple editorial consultants, and
all had to be considered. Through this process I became intimately familiar
with the jots and tittles of the HIV/AIDS controversy, and I became convinced
that Duesberg was practicing honest science and the HIV establishment was
What convinced me was not any single scientific point but the accumulation
of evidence from all directions, and particularly the monolithic refusal
of the HIV-scientists to take the evidentiary problems seriously. Duesberg
was engaged in the scientific process of testing the HIV theory, while
his opponents were ignoring the facts or responding to particular points
on an ad hoc basis with no concern for overall consistency. The African
statistics, for example, would be cited offhandedly to show that "worldwide,"
men and women are equally at risk for AIDS. (AIDS is almost 90 percent
male in the United States and Europe.) Whenever the African statistics
presented a problem for the HIV theory, on the other hand, they would be
just as offhandedly dismissed because "everybody knows" that
the African statistics are unreliable.
Even the admission that Kaposi's sarcoma is not caused by HIV did not
cause the HIV-scientists to pause for reconsideration, or to reexamine
the thousands of cases that were diagnosed as "AIDS" without
antibody testing, solely on the basis of KS. KS occurs frequently in HIV-negative
persons and in America is specific to gays rather than other HIV-infected
groups; hence something specific to this group, like the use of amyl nitrites
(poppers), must be the primary cause of KS. Virologists, who outrank toxicologists
in the hierarchy of HIV- science, prefer to attribute KS to a mystery virus
which has never been discovered. In any case, the virus is not HIV. KS
was the original AIDS-defining disease, and the discovery of KS in many
HIV-free gay males should have sparked a major reexamination of the assumptions
upon which the HIV theory was founded. It actually had no effect on HIV-science
whatever. Observing this consistent refusal to reason scientifically convinced
me that HIV-science is pseudo-science, and that its inflated claims are
unworthy of belief.
This pattern of irrationality and misrepresentation in HIV- science
has continued to the present. First example: official statistics show that
the total number of HIV positive persons in the U.S. population has not
increased an iota since antibody testing began; it has stayed at a flat
one million. Nonetheless, this figure is continually reported to the public
as if it were the result of a steady increase, and the same virus is reported
to be newly infecting millions of persons annually in places like Africa,
where reliable testing procedures do not exist.
A New York Times story by the well-connected Lawrence Altman reported
on March 1, 1994, that the CDC would soon amend the U.S. total from one
million to between 600,000 and 800,000, due to more recent studies that
supported a lower figure. The downward change has not been announced, and
there has been no public discussion of this important subject. Why not?
A candid discussion of HIV and AIDS statistics would make clear that the
extent of the "epidemic" has been exaggerated, and that the incidence
of HIV infection in the United States is not increasing. Public understanding
of the fact would damage the credibility of HIV researchers who have been
hyping a growing epidemic, and would inevitably generate skepticism about
whether HIV infection is truly skrocketing as claimed in Africa and Asia.For
similar reasons, the HIV establishment continues to advertise that "everyone
is at risk," and that "AIDS does not discriminate." The
experts know that AIDS remains confined to the original risk groups and
is not spreading to drug-free heterosexuals, but to admit this would be
to admit both that HIV- science is overfunded in comparison to far greater
threats to health, and that predictions based on the HIV theory have consistently
Second example: The HIV establishment has made much of a 1994 paper
by Dean Mulder et al in Lancet [vol. 343, p.1021], titled "Two-Year
HIV-1-Associated Mortality in a Ugandan Rural Population." This study
of Uganda villagers showed that those who tested positive for antibodies
had a much higher death rate than those who did not, especially in the
age group 25-34. Officials from the CDC and other AIDS agencies cite this
study as proving that an AIDS epidemic caused by HIV is ravaging Africa.
What the HIV propaganda does not say is that the subjects did not die
of AIDS. The cause of death was reported for 64 antibody-positive subjects,
and of this group only 5 were diagnosed as AIDS under the very broad "Bangui"
(African) definition, which requires only conditions like sustained weight
loss and persistent diarrhoea. Moreover, it is erroneous to assume that
the Ugandans who tested positive were actually HIV- infected, because on
antibody tests are common, particularly in Africa. That this finding of
mostly non-AIDS deaths among persons who may or may not have been HIV-infected
was claimed to support the HIV theory of AIDS and the existence of an African
HIV/AIDS pandemic is eloquent testimony to the closed mindset and intellectual
dishonesty that rules HIV research.
In fairness, I cannot say that all evidence presented in favor of the
HIV research establishment is that obviously illogical or that easily refuted.
It is said that over 100,000 papers on HIV/AIDS have been published, virtually
all of them funded by sources totally committed to the HIV theory. Some
of those papers claim a high correlation between AIDS-defining conditions
and HIV-positivity in certain populations, and an absence of correlation
with other suspected factors, such as drug use. Evaluation of specific
studies is a job for specialists with access to the raw data. A general
observer such as myself can only state the obvious: first, correlation
studies are only valid when the researchers are scrupulously careful to
control for all possible alternatives; and second, a research establishments
bent on supporting a theory and with billions of dollars at its disposal
will always be able to supply a few confirming studies. HIV-science has
demonstrated again and again that it does not deserve the benefit of the
In short, the problem with HIV-science is not that any single piece
of evidence conclusively falsifies the theory that a pandemic caused by
HIV is ravaging the planet. It is that evidence is piling up in all directions
that cumulatively calls every aspect of the theory in question. The HIV-scientists
respond with the usual weapons of pseudoscience: unexamined assumptions;
ad hoc, question-begging arguments; reliance upon the least reliable evidence
rather than the most reliable; manipulation of statistics, and even outright
misrepresentation. It is time for the scientific community to insist that
HIV- science be abandoned, and that real science take its place. *