Collective Fallacy

By Stefan Lanka

Continuum Sept./Oct. 1996

It is a dire example of how a distinguished scholar who has contributed much to the advancement of science, now impedes further progress by his stubborn adherence to a dogma of his own creation. If he did not feel himself obliged to repeat things, that are untrue just because they were once said, they would have become quite different people.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, Texstelle 586.

Readers will be aware that there have been a number of claims for, and responses to, Continuum's offer of a reward for "The missing Virus." These have ranged from requests for clarification as to the type of proof required, through dismissive comments that the proof sought was an irrelevance, to an outright claim to the prize by Professor Peter Duesberg. Readers will recall that the point of the whole exercise was consistent with my article explaining that HIV does not actually exist, as opposed to the more frequently asked question whether HIV is responsible for AIDS or not.

The distinguished Australians led by Dr Eleopulos-Papadopolus have already provided a detailed reply to the Duesberg claim, so I shall endeavour to explain how the erroneous concept of retroviruses brought about the present situation.

Duesberg's enormous services to mankind are beyond dispute. It is he who for nearly 10 years now, has steadfastly and at great personal cost, been the anchor of sanity and decency in a world driven mad by the simple-minded HIV theory. Whether HIV exists and whether it causes AIDS is largely academic: when did you last come across a "normal" heterosexual-someone who does not derive his living from perpetuating the panic-who takes the slightest notice personally of the official story? In practice, Duesberg's claim to our unqualified gratitude has been his long standing and unwavering opposition to AZT (and its analogues), whose use always ends in death.

That said, it is unfortunately also true that Duesberg is himself the victim of another collective fallacy (the Denkkollektiv of Ludwig Fleck), which he himself helped to formulate and which he is now apparently locked into.

Retroviruses were postulated as being that species of micro-organism which caused reverse transcription to occur, which, as a working hypothesis at the time in the early 1970s, was entirely reasonable. The mistake was to elevate the hypothesis to a dogma. Early gene detection techniques lent some credence to the existence of an entity that could be transmitted from one cell to another, which was unfortunate, because this, too, turned out to be wrong. Errors of this kind occur whenever technology makes available for general use a new experimental procedure, which propels a whole army of researchers into mass producing experimental data, heedless of what the biological significance, if any, of their work might be. Even worse, is the habit of making countless ad hoc adjustments to the original theory, which completely distort the original hypothesis. Correct science demands that there should be a radical re-think when this happens. If there isn't, as in this case, a fundamentally flawed concept goes haywire ending in disaster. Duesberg went along with mainstream AIDS researchers, limiting his objections to the relatively minor aspect of whether HIV could cause AIDS or not, whereas he really ought to have smelt a rat regarding the whole concept of retroviruses, given his earlier, courageous stance in admitting the mistaken role of retroviruses in causing cancer long before anyone else did even though he was deeply enmeshed for a long time in that fallacy, too. In my view, he could reasonably have been expected to satisfy himself that there was in fact no such an entity as a retrovirus at all. Instead, he has allowed himself to be bedazzled by the technical feat of "retrovirologists" who manage to reproduce in a consistent manner certain phenomena peculiar to particular biological constituents of cells. In so doing, he allowed himself to be misled into believing that this was due to a virus. It is a complete non-sequitur. This lack of intellectual rigour has, in a contemporary metaphor, debased molecular biology to a virtual science, leading to the deplorable state of having a disease (AIDS) with a virtual definition, due to a virtual pathogen (HIV). Unfortunately for humanity, AIDS is not unique in this regard, but represents merely the tip of a much larger iceberg.

To the astute observer, it should have been apparent as early as 1973 that the working hypothesis of ascribing the experimentally observed phenomenon of reverse transcription to retroviruses had become untenable, when it became known that reverse transcription was anything but rare; by 1980 at the latest, the hypothesis should have been abandoned by everyone. Indeed, the extraordinarily artificial and circumscribed conditions under which reverse transcription could be induced in the laboratory should have alerted everyone to the extreme improbability of such exclusively laboratory conditions having any bearing whatsoever on naturally occurring phenomena. All the more so, as no retrovirus was ever shown to exist-for example, by being able to isolate and characterise it, and to demonstrate its transmissibility. These failures (obviously not for want of trying) should have sufficed to kill off the whole concept. It may be hard to believe that all maps purporting to represent a whole retrovirus, including HIV, are always compilations, many bits and pieces cobbled together by their authors to the best of their beliefs. They are collages. No complete retrovirus nor its RNA in its entirety has ever been proved to exist either in vivo or in vitro.

A further difficulty for the hypothesis was that it had never proved possible to show that the experimental observations attributed to retroviruses were exogenous to the cells used in experiments, i.e. that they came from outside of the cell; indeed, all the evidence pointed to the opposite, i.e. that they were endogenous (inherent) to the cells themselves. Part of the evidence was that the so-called retroviral activity could only ever be induced experimentally in one type of cell, whereas HIV is supposed to infect many different types of cell in the body. The two contentions are clearly incompatible. The whole theory is rendered even more implausible when it is remembered that retroviral concentrations are always extremely low, which is why a huge excess of cellular material from "patients" is needed to be able to demonstrate any replicating virus at all. This, incidentally, is also the basis for the claim that HIV has only a low rate of infectivity: a much more rational explanation is that there is no virus there at all.

History furnishes an unhappy precedent for this form of research. At the turn of the century experiments were conducted using highly in-bred laboratory animals. Under strictly circumscribed conditions, these displayed higher disease susceptibilities than animals which were not in-bred; the phrase 'highly in-bred' was forgotten about, and generalisations about viral infectivity were made which turned out to be wrong, from which medicine has not recovered to this day.

In like manner, experiments are nowadays performed with cell cultures instead of whole animals, for the very good reason that they greatly speed up experiments. The disadvantage is that this limits experimentation to just one of a few cell lines, which are always cancerous, because only they will grow continuously in the laboratory. History is repeating itself: generalisations are made about the behaviour of normal cells on the basis of results obtained from highly abnormal cells.

Such cells can incorporate extraneous pieces of DNA (into their own DNA) when added to growth medium (as normal cells can, too, only more slowly). Cells, which have incorporated such DNA, will obviously manifest characteristics for which the DNA coded, making it appear that a virus had been at work, when nothing of the sort had happened. It is easy to see, therefore, how the bizarre notion of 'infectious' DNA arose, and to conclude (wrongly) that a virus, in the conventional use of the word, is involved. The whole argument collapses, however, when it can be shown that non-viral DNA can be made to do this too, both in vivo and in vitro. If that DNA happens to be DNA arbitrarily defined to be HIV DNA (or part thereof), then clearly the cell, which has incorporated the DNA, will behave as if it had been infected by HIV.

Yet this is the basis of Duesberg's claim. In his retrovirological zeal he does not seem to appreciate that 'infectious DNA' is a contradiction in terms. For what else is a virus but that? Folded up DNA wrapped in a protein coat so that the DNA can be transmitted from one cell to another, is what is normally called a virus. A loose strand of DNA could not do this by itself; it would be exposed to enzymic degradation; it would become entangled with other components. How would it identify its target; how would it get there; how would it enter it without a specific mechanism?

A man of Duesberg's abilities should need no prompting that replicating (=cloning) something in a test tube and then detecting that something (=molecularly cloned DNA), in a place where you have previously put it, is a circular argument, and therefore no argument at all. But then, tautologies are an indispensable part of all retrovirology, as I was at pains to point out when explaining the fallacy inherent in HIV antibody tests.


The rules demonstrating the existence of HIV (and retroviruses in general) were never adhered to by those who devised them nor were they ever validated. It is now easier to understand why people felt it necessary to enquire of this magazine what the rather self-evident term 'isolation' meant: suitable synonyms might be 'pure' and/or 'free of contaminants.' They clearly had a slight worry at the back of their minds all along that the term was used in retrovirology rather as in Alice in Wonderland-"it means what I say it means."

Until AIDS was invented, retrovirologists were a minority sect who were happy to accept each others' flights of fancy without being too critical. They could fiddle around to their hearts' content, safe in the knowledge that "retroviruses were the least dangerous of all viruses." Well-meaning and credulous colleagues, as well as aspiring virologists, journalists and, through them, laymen were mesmerized by incomprehensible jargon into believing that the mass of data on HIV and retroviruses somehow meant something. Each property relating to HIV, and retroviruses generally, can be shown to pertain to the cells used in the co-cultivation experiments. At no time have there ever been any credible grounds for thinking that these properties and components had anything to do with viruses in general, nor with "HIV" in particular.