Saturday, 16 January 2010

Notturno on the Medical Hypotheses Affair

A comment by Mark A Notturno.

In recent years we have heard a lot of people talk as if the fact that two thousand scientists agree about something constitutes evidence, if not indeed proof, that it is true. So it may be a sign of the times that Elsevier is considering closing a scientific journal whose main sin is that it published an article that bucked the consensus belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Elsevier recently removed Peter Duesberg et al’s ‘HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS a new perspective’ from MEDICAL HYPOTHESES’ online website and left a notice explaining its action. It correctly stated that the editorial policy of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES is to consider ‘radical, speculative, and non-mainstream scientific ideas’ but went on to say that Elsevier had ‘received serious expressions of concern about the quality of this article, which contains highly controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS, opinions that could potentially be damaging to global public health’.

The fact that the article contains controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS is part of the reason why it is preeminently suitable for publication in MEDICAL HYPOTHESES. But the idea that these opinions could be damaging to global public health is a clear beg of the very scientific question at issue. The opinion that HIV is not the cause of AIDS could be damaging to global public health if HIV is in fact the cause (or a cause) of AIDS. But if HIV is not the cause (or a cause) of AIDS, but a harmless passenger virus as Duesberg claims, then the HIV theory of AIDS, and the use of anti-HIV drugs to combat it, may itself be damaging to global public health.

In taking this action, Elsevier unwittingly took sides in what is essentially a philosophical disagreement regarding what science is and the criteria for scientific publication. We have heard a lot more in recent years about the scientific consensus behind certain theories than we have about the scientific evidence for and against them. We have also heard people who should know better say that certain theories have now been established once and for all, and are thus beyond rational dispute. And we have sometimes even heard them proclaim that whether or not you believe that a certain theory is true should now be regarded as a moral issue.

MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, however, was founded nearly thirty-five years ago in an attempt to provide an outlet for medical research that runs contrary to received opinion and is too controversial to be published in peer-reviewed medical journals. David Horrobin, our founding editor, believed that the peer-review system can impede the growth of science by systematically rejecting articles that fall outside the consensus of scientific belief.

Horrobin was attracted to Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of science and enlisted Popper himself to serve as a kind of philosophical godfather on the journal’s first editorial advisory board. Popper taught that scientific knowledge is inherently fallible, that universal theories cannot be justified or shown to be true by empirical evidence, and that the best we can do is to test our theories against observation and reasoned argument. He said that scientific theories are distinguished from non-scientific theories by the fact that they can be refuted, or falsified, by empirical evidence. And he wrote that ‘the game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game’.

There can be little doubt that many scientists would like to suppress Peter Duesberg’s views about HIV and AIDS. I have actually heard well-meaning scientists say, nearly four hundred years after Galileo, that Duesberg should be imprisoned for them. But the scientific response for those who believe that the views articulated in an article are false is not to prevail upon a publisher to suppress them. It is to present credible evidence and reasoned argument to refute them.

Some scientists, especially those who are convinced of their own opinions, may say that this is a waste of time and effort since the HIV-AIDS hypothesis has been fully verified, and since Duesberg’s views are clearly false and pseudo-scientific. But this is not the attitude that has inspired MEDICAL HYPOTHESES. And it only means that we are still fighting a battle for the freedom of thought, nearly four hundred years after Galileo, and that some scientists have forgotten which side they are supposed to be on.

This may sound like hyperbole. It is not. I used to think that it would be too ironic, given the history of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, if Elsevier were to subject our policy on peer review to peer review. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The panel of experts that Elsevier enlisted to investigate how we came to accept Duesberg’s article for publication has now completed its report. It does, indeed, recommend that articles submitted to the journal be subject to peer review. It also recommends that Elsevier impose a list of forbidden topics of a controversial or politically-incorrect nature to be excluded from the journal.

Mark Amadeus Notturno
Member of the Editorial Advisory Board of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES
Washington DC
16 January 2010