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Spectator make a spectacle of themselves – When pseudo-debate is worse than no debate at all…

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In a democratic society, where compromise can be seen as tantamount to a civic duty, it is easy to assume that there are ‘two sides to every story’ – that, given any pair of opposing views, the truth will always be somewhere between them. The format of many TV, radio and newspaper reports tends to reinforce this mindset. A representative of one side will be invited to make a comment, and then an opposing view will be presented, with the reporter acting as a kind of referee. Even when a journalist isn’t explicitly reminding us that ‘the truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle’, the very fact that these two particular views have made it into the mainstream media automatically confers some degree of legitimacy on them both. And the fact that both are given equal airtime can add to the impression that they are both equally worthy of attention…

But if we take this principle too far, it can lead us into dangerous territory, and here the issue of ‘selection bias’ plays a vital role. The halfway point in a TV interview with a government minister on the issue of racism, for example, will look very different if the opposing view is from a human rights activist rather than  a member of Migration Watch or the BNP. Similarly, the halfway point in an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury will be very different if the counterpoint is from an atheist like Richard Dawkins rather than a Muslim imam. Even where the journalist conducting the discussion takes a meticulously balanced approach, the very choice of interviewees will inevitably constrain the debate and lead the audience in a particular direction…

At worst, the ‘somewhere in the middle’ mindset can be strongly biased in favour of the status quo, pushing us towards a homogenised average of the views that manage to make their way into the media, however barmy, extreme or well-funded… (From Don’t Get Fooled Again)

Gimpy has been doing some excellent work on the Riverdance Film Festival’s endorsement of the AIDS denialist film “House of Numbers”. I really hope that the producers make it available for free on the internet soon so that I can watch it, as I’m keen to find out what the fuss is about.

In the meantime, I was intrigued to see that The Spectator was organising their own showing on October 28th (£35 a ticket, for anyone who’s interested – evidently the credit crunch hasn’t yet reached Savoy Place). This will be followed by a debate between ex-UK Minister of Health Norman Fowler,  Brent Leung (the film’s director) and Prof Beverly Griffin, Prof Charles Geschekter, and Dr Joe Sonnabend, who are described as “leading medical authorities”.

It seems to me that this is a really good illustration of two quite interesting nuances: Firstly, the way that a debate can be shaped and constrained from the outset, before a word has been spoken, simply through the selection of debate participants. Secondly, the way that the very existence of a debate can help to perpetuate a discredited ideology.

Beverly Griffin is an Emeritus (retired) Professor from London’s prestigious Imperial College, and a former director of the department of Virology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital. She has published widely on the Epstein-Barr virus and on Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer commonly associated with AIDS and believed to be caused, in part by Epstein-Barr. Griffin is quoted by the virusmyth website as suggesting, in 1991, that HIV might be “a necessary factor but not a sufficient explanation” of AIDS, or even that the virus might not cause the disease at all. The site also carries a broadly sympathetic 1989 book review by Griffin (originally published in Nature) of Jad Adams’ “AIDS; The HIV myth”.

Dr Joe Sonnabend is a New York physician (now also retired) who has been involved in treating AIDS patients since the early days of the outbreak, and was reportedly a pioneer of “community based research”, overseeing trials of new treatments for AIDS patients.  Until the late 1990s, Sonnabend was among those arguing that the link between HIV and AIDS was unproven. He has reportedly since come to a different view, believing that “The evidence now strongly supports a role for HIV”, in causing AIDS, while continuing to argue that other causal factors must also be involved – and that high doses of the AIDS drug AZT “killed thousands” during the 1980s.

Charles Geschekter is a retired Professor of History from the University of Chicago, whose specialist area is African history. Geschekter has denied that there is an AIDS epidemic in Africa – describing it as “The Plague That Isn’t” – and arguing that the belief in such an epidemic was partly the product of racism and “western sexual stereotypes”. Geshekter also served on South Africa’s notorious Presidency AIDS Advisory Panel during Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency in early 2000.

Looking at the track records of the three experts listed, a number of things seem quite striking. Firstly, only Dr Sonnabend appears to have been directly involved in AIDS research – and even this research seems limited to the trialling of treatments, rather than the basic question of the link between HIV and AIDS. Prof Griffin clearly has a credible and longstanding research record, but the only entry on the list that mentions HIV is a reference to her 1989 book review in Nature.  Prof Geshekter appears not to be a scientist at all, less still a “leading medical authority”.

What’s also striking is that all three ‘expert’ panelists have, at one time or another, adopted fringe views on HIV and AIDS, and been active in disputing the established scientific consensus. Of the five panel members chosen, only one, the former health minister Lord Fowler, appears unambiguously to share the view held by the overwhelming majority of scientists currently involved in AIDS research. Knowledgeable and eloquent though Norman Fowler doubtless is, he is not, himself, a clinician or researcher. It therefore seems doubtful that he will be able to represent the consensus view in a public debate as effectively as a fully qualified AIDS expert could have done – especially as he will be outnumbered four-to-one by people who take a minority view.

Perhaps one reason for this imbalance is that the real “leading medical authorities” on AIDS will generally refuse to share a platform with AIDS denialists, or engage in debate with them, largely for the same sorts of reasons that evolutionary biologists avoid Creationists, and established historians refuse to debate the Holocaust with the likes of David Irving. It’s possible for a person to be eloquent, reasonable-sounding and good at rhetorical point-scoring yet nonetheless wholly deluded and wrong. Science has arguably long passed the point where specialist questions could meaningfully be resolved through live oratory. The format of a face-to-face debate may make for good theatre, but it will usually be impossible for observers to go away and fact-check every technical claim being made. Where the scientific evidence is being distorted, mis-stated, or even made up completely on the spot, the lay audience will often be none the wiser.

But what is clear is that AIDS denialists such as Charles Geshekter and Brent Leung will benefit from being given such a high-profile platform for their views. The Spectator is, broadly speaking, a mainstream publication, and Savoy Place a prestigious central London venue. This event will, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, look very good on their CV, and possibly open up further opportunities to spread the AIDS denial creed.

It seems to me unlikely that trying to persuade The Spectator, The Raindance Film Festival, or any other part of the establishment not to show “House of Numbers” is going to lead very far. We all know how much the pay-per-view media loves controversy – real or imagined – and the danger is that by trying to stop the film from being shown one just adds credence to the narrative about a Terrible Truth that the world is desperately trying to suppress. Personally I’d go the other way. If the makers of “House of Numbers” are right about AIDS, and the mainstream scientific community is wrong, then this is surely a message that as many people as possible need to hear. So why not make the film available for free online so that everyone can take a look, do their own fact-checking on the experts being quoted, and make up their own minds?

*Update* – BLBS comments:

It’s destined for youtube eventually anyway, no doubt. It’s cynical and manipulative but in such a dumbed-down way that you can see how some people might not get it if they’re not well informed. One example is Leung citing a Science Daily article with a headline saying something about studies suggesting that “sudden loss of T cells” doesn’t lead to AIDS. He goes right from there to say well, if sudden loss of T cells doesn’t lead to disease, then there “must” be co-factors or maybe HIV isn’t necessary at all.

He doesn’t mention that the studies are about transient CD4 T cell loss from the intestine of monkeys right after they’re infected with SIV. Specifically two monkey species, African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, that are natural hosts of SIV and rarely develop disease. There is a recent theory that loss of intestinal CD4 T cells right after someone gets infected by HIV plays a key role in pathogenesis, and these studies do suggest that intestinal CD4 T cell depletion on its own is not be sufficient to precipitate disease progression. That’s what the Science Daily headline he’s quote-mining is trying to convey, albeit not very well.

But…the loss of CD4 T cells from the peripheral blood of human beings infected with HIV has been consistently associated with risk of disease and death in every study that’s looked the variables over the last 30 years. And unlike in SIV-infected African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, loss of CD4 T cells from the intestine of people with HIV is not transient, but persistent.

So the studies do not in any way, shape or form suggest anything about co-factors, let alone that they “must” be required. In fact, these monkey models show the exact opposite, because when SIV from a natural host like the sooty mangabey is transferred across species into a rhesus macaque it causes progressive CD4 T cell loss, leading to opportunistic infections and death. No co-factors necessary. Same thing has happened because of the cross-species transfer of SIVcpz from chimps into humans, and there is of course ample precedent for disease resulting from cross-species transmission with many other pathogens.

Not surprisingly, out of all the people Leung interviews, he doesn’t interview the study authors or ask them about their work, because they’d have told him he’s out to lunch. It’s simply dishonest, and a typical denialist tactic.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 8, 2009 at 12:51 pm

22 Responses

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  1. [...] When pseudo-debate is worse than no debate at all… « Don’t Get Fooled… a few seconds ago from twidroid [...]

  2. It’s destined for youtube eventually anyway, no doubt. It’s cynical and manipulative but in such a dumbed-down way that you can see how some people might not get it if they’re not well informed. One example is Leung citing a Science Daily article with a headline saying something about studies suggesting that “sudden loss of T cells” doesn’t lead to AIDS. He goes right from there to say well, if sudden loss of T cells doesn’t lead to disease, then there “must” be co-factors or maybe HIV isn’t necessary at all.

    He doesn’t mention that the studies are about transient CD4 T cell loss from the intestine of monkeys right after they’re infected with SIV. Specifically two monkey species, African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, that are natural hosts of SIV and rarely develop disease. There is a recent theory that loss of intestinal CD4 T cells right after someone gets infected by HIV plays a key role in pathogenesis, and these studies do suggest that intestinal CD4 T cell depletion on its own is not be sufficient to precipitate disease progression. That’s what the Science Daily headline he’s quote-mining is trying to convey, albeit not very well.

    But…the loss of CD4 T cells from the peripheral blood of human beings infected with HIV has been consistently associated with risk of disease and death in every study that’s looked the variables over the last 30 years. And unlike in SIV-infected African green monkeys and sooty mangabeys, loss of CD4 T cells from the intestine of people with HIV is not transient, but persistent.

    So the studies do not in any way, shape or form suggest anything about co-factors, let alone that they “must” be required. In fact, these monkey models show the exact opposite, because when SIV from a natural host like the sooty mangabey is transferred across species into a rhesus macaque it causes progressive CD4 T cell loss, leading to opportunistic infections and death. No co-factors necessary. Same thing has happened because of the cross-species transfer of SIVcpz from chimps into humans, and there is of course ample precedent for disease resulting from cross-species transmission with many other pathogens.

    Not surprisingly, out of all the people Leung interviews, he doesn’t interview the study authors or ask them about their work, because they’d have told him he’s out to lunch. It’s simply dishonest, and a typical denialist tactic.

    BLBS

    October 8, 2009 at 3:00 pm

  3. The other striking thing is that they’re all retired. As with so many of the “scientists” who have taken up climate change denialism, we are perhaps either seeing an older generation struggling to acknowledge phenomena that have upended the values and philosophies they once held dear. Or (and I hesitate to write this) this is a phenomenon not entirely unrelated to the curmudgeonliness and obstinacy that sometimes afflicts the aged, particularly older men. One of the most prominent climate sceptics in the South African media is a retired journalist whose imperviousness to fact, belligerence and delight in perceived point-scoring reminds me spookily of my grandfather’s final decline. I suppose that for many, clinging to the past is the very essence of conservatism.

    David Le Page

    October 8, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    • I think you’re onto something there – it’s kind of sad to watch and one almost starts to feel sorry for them until you remember the damage this stuff can do… If only they could all just stick to complaining about hoodies and rave music…

      Richard Wilson

      October 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm

  4. There’s a good interview with Joe Sonnabend discussing his experience treating people with HIV here:

    http://www.gmhc.org/health/treatment/ti/ti1911.html#3

    BLBS

    October 8, 2009 at 4:51 pm

  5. Deborah Tannen discussed this same problem (not every story has two equal sides) in her 1998 book, “The Argument Culture”.

    Will Somers

    October 12, 2009 at 4:56 pm

  6. [...] is this the detail that Carter-Ruck wanted suppressed?AIDS denial – the Loch Ness Monster connectionWhen pseudo-debate is worse than no debate at all…Yet more false and misleading claims on asbestos from the Sunday TelegraphChiropractic [...]

  7. [...] staff who are reading, can I request more of the defending-democracy stuff and less of the pseudo-debating AIDS-denialism? I hope Lord Fowler knows what you’re letting him in [...]

  8. [...] public understanding of HIV, AIDS and the relevant pseudo-science.  Of the panel Richard Wilson has pointed out that: all three ‘expert’ panelists have, at one time or another, adopted fringe views on HIV and [...]

  9. I voted yes. But I’m also pro “piracy” and pro open science and pro government transparency etc. I think people should share everything and be as open and honest as possible, at all times. And in this age sharing information is so easy that it became very irrational to charge money for any useful info, in my opinion. There are better ways than giving the information away after one receives money for it. It will take some time for people to adapt to the digital age apparently.

    Anyway, the above comment is the only example I know of where someone specifically pointed out something that was misrepresented in the film. Which is both good and bad news for the orthodox scientists I guess.

    And I have to ask Richard, why did you decide to pick my name in your comment at the Spectator’s website?

    That was a bit surprising for me. I wasn’t going to leave a comment, but felt the need to do it nevertheless. But I’ve no interest in any online debates or whatever. My comment will get published hopefully, since I think what I said was pretty important.

    Sadun Kal

    October 23, 2009 at 3:52 am

    • Sadun,

      Welcome back – I agree with most of what you say in this post. I used your name because you’re vociferous, you never give up, and you sometimes say very ‘colourful’ things. My impression of the Spectator is of a bunch of sedate conservatives desperately trying to say controversial things in order to get a few extra web hits. I doubt they’ll be expecting the reaction they will doubtless be getting right now. Interesting that their comment moderation is so strict. Freedom of speech only when it suits them, I guess….!

      R

      Richard Wilson

      October 23, 2009 at 6:15 am

      • I have reasons for not giving up, but I do stop and change directions every now and then actually… which often caused people to misinterpret my behavior as running away or something.

        Well anyway, the discussion panel is indeed a bit weird. But well… I disagree with your interpretation, inevitably since I view “AIDS denialism” differently, and also what true science is. What do you think about this?: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_article/7429/

        And do you mean that your comment was censored or something? Because mine wasn’t.

        Sadun Kal

        October 23, 2009 at 7:30 am

  10. [...] global warming denial and dallying with anti-vaccination paranoia, and organising a £35-a-head pseudo-debate on AIDS, it seems that the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has now gone one step further in his [...]

  11. [...] Spectator make a spectacle of themselves – When pseudo-debate is worse than no debate at all… · About the author: Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy. He works full time as a journalist, commentator, blogger, activist and general layabout. He was voted Guardian blogger of the year in 2006. Also at: Pickled Politics, on Twitter and Comment is free. · Other posts by Sunny H · About this article:   |   Trackback link   |   Track comments   |   send to del.icio.us   |   function fbs_click() {u=location.href;t=document.title;window.open('http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u='+encodeURIComponent(u)+'&t='+encodeURIComponent(t),'sharer','toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436');return false;}to Facebook Filed under: Blog , Health , Media , Science 13 Comments in response   ||   Add your own at 6:17 pm on October 23, 2009- direct link –   1.  comment by      DHG Oh this old right-wing bigoted chestnut. [...]

  12. Here’s a comment the Perth Group has left at the Spectator, probably Val Turner for the most part:

    “We have noticed with interest that Ben
    Goldacre and Richard Wilson have been challenging Fraser Nelson to a debate.

    According to Wilson and Goldacre, Fraser is ignorant of the facts. Wilson and Goldacre themselves are hardly HIV experts, so we are wondering what purpose such a debate would serve?

    It would seem a better ideas if Wilson and Goldacre oculd be persuaded to debate the Perth Group.

    We realise that this might not be a fair match-up, so we encourage Wilson and Goldacre to bring along an HIV expert of their own choosing.

    Yours sincerely

    PG”

    I’m not sure if they’re correct about you having challenged Nelson to a debate, but I thought it might still be an interesting opportunity for you.

    Sadun Kal

    October 25, 2009 at 4:15 am

    • Hi Sadun,

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Anyone who wants to debate this issue is welcome to leave a comment on my blog.

      I hope it’s always been clear that I don’t claim expertise in HIV/AIDS science. The reason I challenged Fraser to a debate is because I’m interested in understanding how far he really thinks that verbal jousting can meaningfully address or resolve a serious scientific issue. So it would really be a debate about the value and utility of live oratory as a means of settling science rather than an attempt to debate the science around HIV/AIDS as such. I very much doubt he’ll say yes, because my impression is that Fraser’s not really that interested in any of these issues, and that his main aim has just been to drum up interest for his 35-a-whack pseudo-debate…

      Richard Wilson

      October 25, 2009 at 9:41 am

      • I have similar suspicions on Fraser. But I’m also aware that Fraser is not what matters.

        For your info, PG also left this comment over there:

        http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/5461313/questioning-the-aids-consensus.thtml

        “The reason why we suggested that Richard Wilson and Ben Goldacre could bring along their own HIV expert is because it is obvious that AIDStruth.org members provide them with their talking points.

        To be honest, we have little interest in Mr. Wilson at present, since he has been exposed several times as a complete ignoramus. It is the incestuous relationship between Mr. Goldacre and AIDStruth.com that might interest some.

        Between September 12 and October 24, Mr. Goldacre has written blogs on “AIDS denialism” no less than 3 times, two of which had House of Numbers as subject. This is in addition to guest appearances on blogs such as this and various other things we might not have noticed.

        In return for his participation in the orchestrated AIDStruth campaigns to quell dissent, Mr. Goldacre’s writings are immediately linked or reproduced on AIDStruth.org and the related denyingaids site, hosted by Seth Kalichman, another HIV non-expert with close ties to AIDStruth.org.

        Mr. Goldacre claims to expose bad science, but to anyone reading his blogs on “AIDS denialism” it becomes immediately clear that he is not engaging with the science. His purpose in each case is to “lean” on those who dare host such a debate.

        Among his targets are Fraser Nelson, Caspar Melville and those outlets that presume to screen Leung’s movie or publish dissident viewpoints. We repeat, this is a campaign orchestrated by AIDstruth activists, with the aim to suppress and intimidate anyone with a visible profile who does not toe the line. That is why Mr. Nelson got “challenged” by Wilson and Goldacre.

        Among all Mr. Goldacre’s words on House of Numbers we find a single remotely scientific argument. The one point he repeatedly brings up is that one of the drug-free “denialists” featured in the movie is dead. This happens to be the favourite topic of AIDStruth co-founder John Moore as well, who particularly recommends his “Dead Denialists” feature on a website that would like to claims that it present the scientific evidence for the HIV/AIDS hypothesis.

        Unscientific slander of people, living or dead, is thus the framing and level of debate Mr. Nelson can expect if he accepts Mr. Goldacre’s challenge.

        Revealingly, Mr. Goldacre claims in another blog dated September 12 to have read and analysed Peter Duesberg’s latest scientific paper (a paper we don’t agree with for various reasons). Here is Mr. Goldacre’s analysis:

        “To say a peer reviewer might have spotted the flaws in their paper – which had already been rejected by the Journal of Aids – is an understatement. My favourite part is the whole page they devote to arguing that there cannot be lots of people dying of Aids in South Africa because the population of the country has grown in the past few years.
        We might expect anyone to spot such poor reasoning but they also misrepresent landmark papers from the literature on Aids research. Rasnick and Duesberg discuss antiretroviral drugs that have side-effects but which have stopped Aids being a death sentence, and attack the notion their benefits outweigh the toxicity: “contrary to these claims”, they say, “hundreds of American and British researchers jointly published a collaborative analysis in The Lancet in 2006, concluding treatment of Aids patients with anti-viral drugs has ‘not “translated into a decrease in mortality”‘ That is a simple, flat, unambiguous misrepresentation of the Lancet paper to which they refer.”

        This is what appeared on AIDStruth 3 days previously on September 9:

        “That Duesberg’s paper was not properly reviewed by experts is painfully obvious, as neither facts nor logic are allowed to temper the authors’ denialist speculations and opinions. For example, they argue that AIDS is not a problem in Africa because the total population of Africa has increased during the AIDS era. One could as easily conclude that cancers are never fatal, since the population of California has increased despite the presence of these diseases. Duesberg et al. also say antiretroviral medicines have not reduced AIDS mortality, an obvious lie since these drugs have drastically lowered mortality. Worse, Duesberg et al. say they derived this idea from a scientific article. In fact, the article they cite states nothing of the sort. . . ”

        Goldacre’s “analysis” is merely a summary of AIDStruth’s talking points. He even repeats AIDstruth’s misrepresentation of Duesberg’s arguments.

        Duesberg does not argue that an increasing South African population is evidence that HIV is harmless. He argues that, contrary to all predictions, there has been no visible impact from the supposed HIV epidemic on the rate of population increase.

        Those are two very different arguments, and it would be impossible for an unbiased and science literate person reading for himself to miss it.”

        Sadun Kal

        October 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm

  13. [...] Spectator magazine’s promotion of the film was also picked up earlier by science blogs including by gimpy and Richard Wilson. [...]

  14. [...] of the tendency of the UK media to assume that “balanced” reporting necessarily entails giving equal weight to two opposing views, while remaining stubbornly neutral about the intrinsic merits of each of those views. In my view [...]

  15. [...] Of course the Spectator knows a thing or two about “popular delusions”, having recently got into an embarrassing mess championing the AIDS denialist propaganda film “House of Numbers”. [...]


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