Problem in HIV-Science
Phillip E. Johnson, 16 Dec. 1994
Other[s] ... will be discussing the scientific evidence regarding
HIV and AIDS in detail. To avoid duplicating their efforts, and
to make a contribution appropriate for a Professor of Law, I will
concentrate on the quality of the reasoning employed in AIDS research.
I have a healthy respect for scientific methodology in its proper
sphere. If I were persuaded that the scientific method had been
properly employed to determine what AIDS is, how it is caused, and
how many people are at risk for AIDS, I would happily accept the
judgment of the scientific profession on such matters. Unfortunately,
however, the scientific method has never been properly directed
to determining the cause of AIDS or the extent of the claimed epidemic.
Instead of real science we have had only HIV-science, which is something
My starting point is a study of jury behavior, reported for the
public in a New York Times article by Daniel Goleman. To the surprise
of no one with trial experience, it seems that many jurors employ
what the researchers described as "faulty reasoning."
These jurors decide on a version of events based on a preliminary
story they find convincing, often at the time of the opening arguments,
which then colors their interpretation of the evidence so much that
they seize on whatever fits their verdict and discount the rest.
Such jurors tend to make up their minds far earlier than others,
and by the time they enter the jury room for deliberation they cannot
The nearly one-third of jurors whose decision-making was most flawed,
the study found, also tended to be the most vehement about their
certainty, and tended to argue for the most extreme verdicts during
the jury's deliberation. This gave them undue influence in the final
outcome. [N.Y. Times, Nov. 29, 1994, p. C1.]
The Times story was not so much about jury behavior as it was about
human behavior, behavior which is just as common in university faculty
meetings as it is in the jury room. Some people jump to conclusions
early, and are headstrong thereafter. They sometimes have excessive
influence over others because most people are followers, and tend
to go along in order to get along. Headstrong, domineering personality
types are particularly likely to be found in highly competitive
situations, such as the worlds of big business and big science.
For example, a laboratory head has to be first to publish a new
theory or finding to get proper credit and funding, and he has to
have enough confidence in his judgment to pursue a promising idea
despite the usual experimental disappointments and discouraging
evaluations by journal referees. When a scientist races to put a
speculative idea into practice he may turn out to be ahead of his
more cautious colleagues, and then we will say he has positive qualities
like insight, vision, and courage.
When the same qualities are carried too far they become pathological,
and we describe the individual as dogmatic or even willfully blind
to nonconforming facts. To keep dogmatism from getting out of hand
we rely on the tradition of criticism within the scientific community,
and especially the all-important requirement that scientific claims
be based upon repeatable experiments. The scientific method itself
is trustworthy, when it can be properly applied. It is in the method,
however, and not the fallible human nature of the scientists, that
we should place our trust.
The importance of criticism was vividly illustrated by the notorious
"cold fusion" episode. The "discoverers" seem
to have been carried away by the magnitude of what they thought
they had discovered, and they were persuasive enough to induce eager
university officials to commit university resources recklessly to
their cause. What kept things from going too far was that the scientific
community did not meekly accept claims made at a press conference,
but insisted upon seeing experimental results that others could
replicate. When such criticism and independent reexamination does
not occur, however, scientists are not necessarily more trustworthy
that other people. Like the domineering jurors in the study, they
may quickly adopt a theory they find appealing, and refuse to reconsider
it when the disconfirming facts start to pile up.
HIV-science began just as cold fusion, with a discovery announced
at a press conference by scientists and public officials eager for
glory and funding. The difference was that there was no follow-up
investigation to discern whether the discovery of "the virus
that causes AIDS" was genuine. In retrospect, it is clear that
no proof that HIV is the cause of AIDS was presented either at Dr.
Robert Gallo's April, 1984, press conference, or in the four papers
his team published a month later in Science. All Gallo claimed was
that many, but not all, AIDS patients tested positive for antibodies
to the retrovirus Gallo was then calling HTLV-III.
Warning signs that Gallo's virus might not be the cause of AIDS
were abundant. Why wasn't the virus itself found in quantity in
all of the AIDS patients? How abundant and active was the virus?
Mightn't the presence of antibodies imply that the patients had
developed immunity to the virus, rather than that the virus was
destroying their immune systems? Above all, by what observable mechanism
was this retrovirus not only destroying the immune system, but also
causing such disparate conditions as Kaposi's sarcoma (hereafter
KS) and dementia? The mystery was all the deeper because the virus
was supposed to perform its destructive work many years after infection
and after being reduced to near non-existence by the very antibodies
that provided the evidence of infection.
In a normal scientific atmosphere, all these issues would have
been debated for months (at least) in scientific conferences and
journals before the profession would seriously consider settling
upon HIV as the cause of AIDS. Gallo's logic amounted to this: "we
have found antibodies to a previously unknown retrovirus in many
of our AIDS patients; therefore this retrovirus causes all the cases
of that vaguely defined syndrome we have labelled AIDS." Why
didn't the other scientists notice that this reasoning was preposterous?
There can be no excuses for such a massive professional fiasco,
but there are circumstances that make it partly understandable.
Scientists customarily assume that papers published in leading journals
like Science had been subjected to thorough, critical peer review.
In fact the papers had obviously been rushed into publication. The
haste was partly due to the perceived extent of the public health
emergency, and partly due to the need to snatch credit for the discovery
from the French, who had first isolated the virus and trustingly
sent a sample to Dr. Gallo. Once the discovery was announced, the
race was on to find a cure or vaccine, with grant money and glory
No grants were offered for efforts to disprove the official theory.
If anyone had stopped to investigate whether the virus really was
guilty as charged, he would have looked like a fool for wasting
valuable time that could be better spent looking for a cure. If
such a researcher actually did find reason to doubt the official
theory, he could look forward not to glory but to facing the wrath
of disappointed colleagues. For cold fusion there was an opposition
party of skeptical physicists in place, eager to debunk the pretensions
of the chemists who claimed to have made the discovery. AIDS research
was a one-party state from the beginning.
The HIV theory was immediately triumphant because it was the kind
of solution to the AIDS mystery that all the major players wanted
to see. Virologists like Dr. Gallo, who had been unsuccessful in
the search for cancer-causing viruses, had found years of guaranteed
funding for their very expensive laboratories. Epidemiologists at
the Centers for Disease Control gained new importance and prestige.
Political officials in the Reagan administration, pummelled for
their alleged inaction in the face of the "pandemic,"
could point to a smashing success and predict speedy development
of a vaccine. Organizations of AIDS patients had cause to hope for
a cure, and they were assured also that, since "everyone is
at risk" for what would eventually be called "HIV disease,"
an unpredictable new virus and not their own conduct was to blame
for their condition. Drug companies -- especially the influential
Burroughs Wellcome, manufacturer of AZT -- stood to make a fortune.
No one had a motive to doubt, and so no one doubted.
No one, that is, until Peter Duesberg surfaced with his famous
paper in Cancer Research in 1987. By then it was too late for reconsideration.
The research community was totally committed to HIV and its prestige
was at stake. Moreover, thousands of patients were being treated
with AZT, a highly toxic drug whose presumed efficacy depended entirely
on the premise that it was killing HIV-infected cells. If the HIV
theory was wrong, these people were being poisoned. Those responsible
for approving and prescribing the drug were not eager to consider
whether they might be guilty of such irresponsibility. Even so,
one might have expected the scientific community to take such a
challenge seriously. Duesberg was one of the world's most prestigious
virologists, and his logic was impressive. He pointed out that retroviruses
by their very nature do not kill the cells they infect, and would
become extinct if they did. That they must cooperate with the cells
in order to reproduce explained why they were suspected as possible
cancer causes -- cancer being a matter of the pathological growth
and multiplication of cells rather than their disappearance. How
could the research community be certain that HIV was the cause of
AIDS if no mechanism of cell-killing could be found, and if cell-
destruction seemed inconsistent with what was known about the nature
of the virus?
Duesberg argued without significant contradiction that Koch's postulates,
the accepted standard for determining a microbial cause, had clearly
not been satisfied. HIV was not found in all persons with AIDS-defining
conditions; on the contrary, active virus was very difficult to
find even in persons dying of AIDS. The presence of antibodies is
not evidence that a person is currently being damaged by a virus;
rather, it is evidence that the immune system has successfully countered
the infection. HIV had not been shown to cause AIDS when injected
in healthy subjects (experimental chimpanzees infected with HIV).
The probability therefore was that HIV was just one of many "passenger"
viruses that could be found in the bodies of many AIDS patients.
Where was the proof that it was the cause?
The research community simply ignored these trenchant criticisms
for over two years. When the HIV establishment finally did respond
to Duesberg in Nature in 1989, the paper by Robin Weiss and Harold
Jaffe took HIV causation for granted, defended the official position
with a series of question-begging arguments, and based its main
line of argument on outright ridicule. I was shocked.
The same method of argument has continued to the present day. Serious
questions are evaded with frivolous answers. Serious question: Does
it cast doubt on the HIV theory that HIV fails to cause AIDS in
infected chimps? Frivolous answer: That shows only that HIV causes
AIDS in humans but not in chimps. Besides, a different virus ("SIV")
causes a different syndrome in monkeys. Serious question: How can
HIV deplete the cells of the immune system when it infects only
a small fraction of them? Frivolous answer: Genetic sequences associated
with HIV (not active virus) can be found in relative abundance in
the lymph nodes by use of the PCR technique. Serious question: Why
are there so many acknowledged cases of AIDS-defining conditions
like KS and low T-cell counts in the absence of HIV infection? Frivolous
answer: When HIV is present it is the cause of those conditions;
when it is absent, they are caused by something else.
I could go on and on with examples, but the reasoning is the same
in every instance. Serious questions are met with frivolous answers,
because HIV science is practiced by people like those domineering
jurors, who made up their minds before all the facts were in and
then stopped listening. The HIV theory has become axiomatic, and
so even patently question-begging answers will suffice to explain
away disconfirming evidence. The HIV scientific establishment gets
away with this unprofessional behavior because AIDS research is
tightly controlled from the top, and because acquiescent science
reporters and editors have allowed themselves to be bamboozled by
self-serving propaganda. The HIV scientists claim that it is somehow
"homophobic" to question the HIV theory, or that reporters
who publicize the mounting reasons for doubt will be responsible
for furthering the spread of the epidemic. Few voices in the biomedical
research community, which depends on HIV money for its funding,
are raised in protest. The example of Peter Duesberg, who lost virtually
all his funding as a consequence of his dissent, stands as a warning
to all the others.
I have been associated with Duesberg in the HIV/AIDS controversy
for about five years, as a law professor with a particular interest
in scientific reasoning. I first met Duesberg because he came to
ask my advice after he was refused renewal of his NIH Outstanding
Investigator Grant. From the context, it was apparent that a man
who had formerly been a prince of science was on a blacklist. Duesberg
wanted to know if there was some legal remedy, considering that
the panels that had reviewed his funding were composed largely of
persons with personal and financial interests in the theory he was
questioning. I had to tell him that the courts would defer to the
collective judgment of the research community, and that he would
need to develop considerable support among scientists to have a
chance of prevailing in any legal or administrative proceeding.
In the course of these conversations, I gradually became more and
more familiar with the disputed scientific issues.
For some time I saw the controversy mainly as a free speech question:
a prominent scientist had voiced apparently rational dissent to
orthodox opinion, and instead of being taken seriously, he was being
punished. I thought he deserved a fair hearing, but was unsure about
what the outcome of such a hearing ought to be. Duesberg and other
dissenters (like Harvey Bialy and Robert Root-Bernstein) clearly
had some good arguments against the HIV theory, but they didn't
seem to have a viable alternative. Duesberg's alternative theory
--that drug use was responsible for a good part of the AIDS epidemic
-- seemed to have its own problems. I was particularly concerned
by the apparent absence of documented cases of "full blown
AIDS" with no HIV infection, although there were rumors that
such cases existed.
Two experiences in 1992 convinced me that Duesberg was right, at
least in the negative part of his case, and that an unbiased reexamination
of the whole AIDS phenomenon was overdue. The first was the emergence
of the "AIDS without HIV" cases at the international conference
in Amsterdam in the summer of 1992, and especially the dishonest
handling of these cases by the CDC and NIH. Given that the HIV scientists
themselves were by then admitting that the mechanism of HIV causation
was a complete mystery, any flaw in the crucial correlation evidence
relied upon to prove causation was of great significance. Clearly
the revelation that persons apparently mortally ill with AIDS sometimes
had no HIV infection, even when the most strenuous measures were
employed to find the virus, called for a thorough reconsideration
of the theory.
The case for reconsideration was particularly strong because the
acknowledged cases of "AIDS without HIV" were probably
only the tip of the iceberg. It was difficult for such cases to
be noticed due to the HIV-biased definition of AIDS that was being
employed. AIDS is not a disease defined independently of HIV, but
a syndrome of up to 29 previously known diseases which are diagnosed
as AIDS if there is also either the real or suspected presence of
HIV antibodies. If all antibody-negative cases of AIDS-defining
conditions were listed as "AIDS without HIV," the appearance
of a close correlation between HIV and AIDS would collapse altogether.
And yet the supposed correlation was the only proof that HIV is
the cause of AIDS.
Instead of facing the issues squarely and publicly, the CDC representatives
at the Amsterdam meeting, who had previously known about some of
the anomalous cases but concealed their existence, buried the real
issue under a flood of bogus publicity concerning a feared "new
virus" that might be causing the anomalous cases. At this point
I became convinced that we were dealing with a scientific establishment
that was intent upon preserving a favored story regardless of the
facts -- very much like those jurors described in the New York Times
The second experience that brought me to a decision was that of
participating in the pre-publication review of Duesberg's major
paper, "AIDS Acquired by Drug Consumption and Other Noncontagious
Risk Factors," which appeared in the international journal
Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 1992. Duesberg had asked me to
give a critical reading to an early draft of the paper, and I was
sufficiently interested to go through it line by line and source
by source. By accident I had an unusual additional role, because
the supervising editor for Duesberg's paper was Professor David
Shugar of the University of Warsaw, who could communicate efficiently
with Berkeley only by email. I was just then learning the ways of
the internet, and Duesberg hardly knew what email was, so I became
by default the go-between for the author and editor. Many criticisms
came from multiple editorial consultants, and all had to be considered.
Through this process I became intimately familiar with the jots
and tittles of the HIV/AIDS controversy, and I became convinced
that Duesberg was practicing honest science and the HIV establishment
What convinced me was not any single scientific point but the accumulation
of evidence from all directions, and particularly the monolithic
refusal of the HIV-scientists to take the evidentiary problems seriously.
Duesberg was engaged in the scientific process of testing the HIV
theory, while his opponents were ignoring the facts or responding
to particular points on an ad hoc basis with no concern for overall
consistency. The African statistics, for example, would be cited
offhandedly to show that "worldwide," men and women are
equally at risk for AIDS. (AIDS is almost 90 percent male in the
United States and Europe.) Whenever the African statistics presented
a problem for the HIV theory, on the other hand, they would be just
as offhandedly dismissed because "everybody knows" that
the African statistics are unreliable.
Even the admission that Kaposi's sarcoma is not caused by HIV did
not cause the HIV-scientists to pause for reconsideration, or to
reexamine the thousands of cases that were diagnosed as "AIDS"
without antibody testing, solely on the basis of KS. KS occurs frequently
in HIV-negative persons and in America is specific to gays rather
than other HIV-infected groups; hence something specific to this
group, like the use of amyl nitrites (poppers), must be the primary
cause of KS. Virologists, who outrank toxicologists in the hierarchy
of HIV- science, prefer to attribute KS to a mystery virus which
has never been discovered. In any case, the virus is not HIV. KS
was the original AIDS-defining disease, and the discovery of KS
in many HIV-free gay males should have sparked a major reexamination
of the assumptions upon which the HIV theory was founded. It actually
had no effect on HIV-science whatever. Observing this consistent
refusal to reason scientifically convinced me that HIV-science is
pseudo-science, and that its inflated claims are unworthy of belief.
This pattern of irrationality and misrepresentation in HIV- science
has continued to the present. First example: official statistics
show that the total number of HIV positive persons in the U.S. population
has not increased an iota since antibody testing began; it has stayed
at a flat one million. Nonetheless, this figure is continually reported
to the public as if it were the result of a steady increase, and
the same virus is reported to be newly infecting millions of persons
annually in places like Africa, where reliable testing procedures
do not exist.
A New York Times story by the well-connected Lawrence Altman reported
on March 1, 1994, that the CDC would soon amend the U.S. total from
one million to between 600,000 and 800,000, due to more recent studies
that supported a lower figure. The downward change has not been
announced, and there has been no public discussion of this important
subject. Why not? A candid discussion of HIV and AIDS statistics
would make clear that the extent of the "epidemic" has
been exaggerated, and that the incidence of HIV infection in the
United States is not increasing. Public understanding of the fact
would damage the credibility of HIV researchers who have been hyping
a growing epidemic, and would inevitably generate skepticism about
whether HIV infection is truly skrocketing as claimed in Africa
and Asia.For similar reasons, the HIV establishment continues to
advertise that "everyone is at risk," and that "AIDS
does not discriminate." The experts know that AIDS remains
confined to the original risk groups and is not spreading to drug-free
heterosexuals, but to admit this would be to admit both that HIV-
science is overfunded in comparison to far greater threats to health,
and that predictions based on the HIV theory have consistently been
Second example: The HIV establishment has made much of a 1994 paper
by Dean Mulder et al in Lancet [vol. 343, p.1021], titled "Two-Year
HIV-1-Associated Mortality in a Ugandan Rural Population."
This study of Uganda villagers showed that those who tested positive
for antibodies had a much higher death rate than those who did not,
especially in the age group 25-34. Officials from the CDC and other
AIDS agencies cite this study as proving that an AIDS epidemic caused
by HIV is ravaging Africa.
What the HIV propaganda does not say is that the subjects did not
die of AIDS. The cause of death was reported for 64 antibody-positive
subjects, and of this group only 5 were diagnosed as AIDS under
the very broad "Bangui" (African) definition, which requires
only conditions like sustained weight loss and persistent diarrhoea.
Moreover, it is erroneous to assume that the Ugandans who tested
positive were actually HIV- infected, because on antibody tests
are common, particularly in Africa. That this finding of mostly
non-AIDS deaths among persons who may or may not have been HIV-infected
was claimed to support the HIV theory of AIDS and the existence
of an African HIV/AIDS pandemic is eloquent testimony to the closed
mindset and intellectual dishonesty that rules HIV research.
In fairness, I cannot say that all evidence presented in favor
of the HIV research establishment is that obviously illogical or
that easily refuted. It is said that over 100,000 papers on HIV/AIDS
have been published, virtually all of them funded by sources totally
committed to the HIV theory. Some of those papers claim a high correlation
between AIDS-defining conditions and HIV-positivity in certain populations,
and an absence of correlation with other suspected factors, such
as drug use. Evaluation of specific studies is a job for specialists
with access to the raw data. A general observer such as myself can
only state the obvious: first, correlation studies are only valid
when the researchers are scrupulously careful to control for all
possible alternatives; and second, a research establishments bent
on supporting a theory and with billions of dollars at its disposal
will always be able to supply a few confirming studies. HIV-science
has demonstrated again and again that it does not deserve the benefit
of the doubt.
In short, the problem with HIV-science is not that any single piece
of evidence conclusively falsifies the theory that a pandemic caused
by HIV is ravaging the planet. It is that evidence is piling up
in all directions that cumulatively calls every aspect of the theory
in question. The HIV-scientists respond with the usual weapons of
pseudoscience: unexamined assumptions; ad hoc, question-begging
arguments; reliance upon the least reliable evidence rather than
the most reliable; manipulation of statistics, and even outright
misrepresentation. It is time for the scientific community to insist
that HIV- science be abandoned, and that real science take its place.