Monday, February 14, 2005

Why scientists don't cover up

Part 1, 2, 3

So I've got a copy of “The Origin of Aids: ” It begins with a lovely warning label. The initial statement of the movie is that a cure or vaccine for HIV can't proceed without understanding the origins of HIV. This is a questionable statement. Where did smallpox originate? Polio? TB? Diphtheria? It's worthwhile, but no

A French scientist is interviewed who isolated HIV in a sample of blood taken in Leopoldville, in 1959. This was from a sample of 2000 samples taken in the Belgian Congo.

Curtis, a journalist who started this hypothesis: “I did focus on that campaign because of certain geographic similarities to where scientists were saying AIDS had begun in the population, which was in the same region.” This is what makes this an ad hoc hypothesis, and why subsequent data are necessary.

Narrator: “It put into question the polio vaccine, one of modern medicine's greatest accomplishments.” No. This is false, or at least misleading. It puts into question a polio vaccine, but the Koprowski vaccine is not the same as the Sabin and Salk vaccines, which are and were widely used. Koprowski's never caught on.

Curtis: “I just wanted them to test the vaccine.” OK. It's been tested. It's clean.

The documentary points out that Koprowski was criticized by scientists for testing on humans without adequate testing in animal models. That's a while before the events at issue. More on that later.

Documentary mentions testing in Belgian Congo, but “you forgot Poland!” Racism alleged in testing in Belgian Congo, no similar questions about Sabin tests in Lithuania and Russia.

“The Mystery of the Origin of AIDS” is a phrase used frequently. This is a rhetorical flourish that ties the documentary to Nancy Drew Mysteries, where a malevolent figure is behind everything.

Dr. Robin Weiss: “Science is a very cruel culture. We are ruled by evidence.”

Dr. Cecil Fox: “There are still great gaping hole in [the non-OPV] story.” But there are nothing but holes in the OPV story. It is correlation and story testing without any data backing it. That's the problem with it, at least at this point.

Narrator: “Science rarely admits being wrong.” Wrong. This is raw sewage. That's what scientists do. We propose a hypothesis, test it, and it either fails or succeeds. If it succeeds, we don't call it proven, we just haven't disproved in. Every journal publishes papers every issue that disprove some previous hypothesis. Science and Nature do that to major hypotheses every week. They also publish data supporting hypotheses, and both are valuable.

Chimpanzee killing at Lindi: I don't doubt that chimps were killed there. I think questions remain about vivisection. I do doubt that kidneys taken at Lindi, the open air animal camp, would have been used for medical products. The photos they have of the camp show no sterile safeguards in place at the dissections. While it was almost certainly possible to make tissue culture at the Stanleyville labs, I wonder whether these unsterile tissues would have been used for vaccines.

One question I also had is: were other monkeys kept at Lindi, Stanleyville, or other facilities? For the moment, the claim that vaccines were beefed up in situ is reasonable. If no other monkey kidneys were available, it strengthens, but doesn't prove the case about the Lindi chimps. That still doesn't prove the HIV-OPV connection.

My source of the video also passed on this note of his thoughts on the matter:

I emailed Josh about it [Hooper's theory as presented in the film], since I'm particularly intrigued by the possibility that today's scientists are avoiding this like the plague (if you will) because it (a) comes from a journalist, not a scientist, (b) represents dirty linen from the past that benefits no one to pursue, (c) means attacking respected people still alive, and/or most intriguingly (d) is so horrifying to contemplate that nobody wants to go there. This last bit is alluded to in the film by mentioning that some current immunization programs in Africa are already imperiled by distrust over this very possibility (and of course from there you can easily move into the white man killing the black man conspiracy theories). What I'm hoping Josh can explore is the possibility that responsible scientists today might be so worried about the implications for public health programs worldwide, indeed for science in general if this turns out to be true, that there is a concerted effort not to investigate or even address it. To me, it's a fascinating moral and ethical question of frightening proportions.
So the questions:
  • Do scientists reject journalists' arguments per se?
  • Do scientists avoid past controversy that no longer matters?
  • Do scientists avoid attacking respected people?
  • Do scientists avoid the horrific?
I confess that the frequent shots of the cover of the Rolling Stone where this broke didn't impress me. But the New Yorker publishes fiction and great investigative reporting. Rolling Stone has good investigative journalism too, and I used material from Rolling Stone in my series on Kobach. I question scientific controversies in the press for one reason, which I'll demonstrate with an example.

The widely accepted scientific theory on the origin of HIV is that a cut hunter picked up SIV through blood-blood contact. He passed it on through some process. Why did HIV take off in the 20th century, and not in the thousands of years of chimp hunting? Perhaps the reuse of disposable needles in the early colonial era can explain it. The paper linked describes the use of 6 needles to screen and treat 90,000 people for sleeping sickness in 1917-19, and 100,000 people being inoculated against small pox using the material from one person's pox vesicles to inoculate the next before 1914. The cramped conditions of work camps and the widespread use of unsterile needles could easily have spread HIV, and at the time predicted by genetic studies.

Now ask, would Rolling Stone, or the New Yorker, run a long article on that theory of the origin of AIDS? Probably not. Sexy, controversial and accusatory claims sell magazines, but generic, simple explanations of important phenomena don't. So sensational journalism has its limits as an engine of scientific progress.

It serves as a catalyst, it focusses attention. It has value, but limits.

Do scientists avoid controversy? No. Various scientists interviewed in the documentary weighed in on the OPV-HIV connection, and expressed initial interest in the hypothesis. It's just that no positive evidence emerged. Bill Hamilton is a good biologist (not necessarily the greatest since Darwin, but good) and he was investigating the claims. Maybe he'd have come up with something.

Did scientists ignore past controversies? Respected scientists? The Guardian has their list of great scientific hoaxes debunked. Here's Omni's discussion of scientific fraud and controversy from 1992. They point out the struggle over credit for identifying HIV in the 1980s, as well as modern questions about the honesty of cold fusion scientists, Galileo, Newton, Dalton and Mendel. The Mendel case is illustrative.

Mendel, of course, developed modern genetic theory. He looked at pea plants, chose which plants would breed. By looking at the ratio of different characteristics in the offspring and grandchildren, he figured out how dominance and pairs of genes work. Some people looked at his data years later and found that they were “too good.” If 1 in 20 samples should be different from expectations by chance alone, something like 90 or 99 percent of samples would be more random than Mendel's. Did he cheat?

Maybe, but he didn't use statistics. If he gathered data until he reached a point that he was personally confident, you would expect that his samples would be very non-random. And that's what probably happened. The point is that, even though Mendel is a big shot, and no one doubts genetic theory, someone still went after his research over 100 years after it was published.

Horrific consequences? Which is more horrific? The fact that standard practices in the 1950's may have inadvertently caused AIDS, or ignoring that possibility, and the lessons to be learned for the future? Scientists recognize the difference, and it's worth noting that the lesson can be learned even if Hooper is wrong. More care is given to prions in animal products, as well as viruses and bacteria. Is there more to do? Sure. But animal care and use in labs is better regulated than it used to be.

Would scientists avoid this because of potential harm to public health programs? The damage is done. The only thing to do is investigate, understand the mistakes of the past, and prevent them from repeating. Is it any better if poor sanitary practices in the '20s and '30s caused HIV? Does collective guilt for Western medicine hurt less than specific guilt for a vaccine that fell by the wayside? I think not.

I'll get one more post out of this yet, getting at why people are so willing to believe these sorts of claims about scientists. I think there's a sense of elitism that people react against, but I'm not sure how it all connects.