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Review of a Review

In response to:

Truth and Heresy About AIDS from the May 23, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Richard Horton’s review article “Truth and Heresy About AIDS” [NYR, May 23], with its many footnotes, gives a false impression of scientific scholarship. Horton’s selectivity did not properly allow readers to evaluate (a) the books under review; (b) the relative merits of competing hypotheses with the orthodox hypothesis that HIV is a cause of certain diseases; (c) the positions of a number of scientists who have challenged the orthodoxy. I documented these assertions in a 14-page “Review of a Review,” rejected for publication by The New York Review. However, Horton’s reply of August 8 introduces a major new issue, namely Horton’s ad hominem attack on Duesberg, which I address separately here. Horton endorsed a suggestion of self-experimentation, made by Barry Bloom, whom Horton characterized as “a respected investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York.” Thus Horton appealed to an authority figure. Horton wrote:

Here is a startling challenge. Duesberg accuses me of using “the argument of fear.” If there is nothing to fear from HIV, he can easily prove it. If Duesberg seriously believes that HIV is harmless, let him inject himself with a suspension of the virus.

Horton’s logic is deficient on several counts. First, self-experimentation by Duesberg would not “prove” (let alone “easily prove”) anything about a virus which is supposed to take ten years to achieve pathogenic effects. Second, the negation of one extreme is not the extreme of opposite type. There may be many possibilities in between. For example, there may be something to fear from “poppers” (amyl nitrites)or AZT, as well as HIV.

Horton’s reply with the above challenge to Duesberg pushed the discussion to extremes in an unscientific and ad hominem manner. He turns the discussion to considerations of beliefs, rather than facts. (“If Duesberg seriously believes…”) But it is not a question what “Duesberg believes.” What is involved scientifically are, among other things:the possibility of making certain experiments (some of them on animals); whether certain data (epidemiological or laboratory) are valid (e.g., properly gathered and reported); whether interpretations of the data are valid; the extent to which certain hypotheses are compatible with the data; and whether specific objections to specific scientific articles are legitimately or substantially answered, if answered at all.

As a scientist and as a professor, I object publicly and vigorously to the Bloom-Horton ad hominem challenge, which I do not respect.

I object to his making it appear as if the scientific community respects the position he has defined about self-experimentation, by invoking a “respected investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.”

I object to the Bloom-Horton position, that raising scientific objections in a situation when medical factors are involved requires self-experimentation to give credibility to one’s objections.

As things stand, Horton in the journalistic context of The New York Review shifted the discussion from what might have been a scientific exchange to an ad hominem exchange. Unfortunately, Duesberg wrote back directly to Horton that he is willing to inject himself with HIV if Horton could arrange the funding for such an experiment. Thus Duesberg caved in (under journalistic and psychological pressure) by accepting the legitimacy of Horton’s point, although Duesberg’s reply made the situation somewhat more complicated by suggesting that responsibility for such self-experimentation was to be shared institutionally. I object not only to Horton’s unscientific journalistic and rhetorical thrust, but also to the fact that Duesberg did not reject outright the terms Horton was setting for the discussion.

It remains to be seen whether the Bloom-Horton challenge to Duesberg, that he engage in self-experimentation to give credibility to his scientific objections, is respected by the scientific community.

Serge Lang
August 2, 1996
Mathematics Department
Yale University

Richard Horton replies:

My reply to Dr. Duesberg’s second letter, published in the September 19 issue, was written subsequent to the letter from Professor Lang printed above, and deals with the questions he raises.

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