This is what the Spectator sent when they cancelled their Aids denialism extravaganza

October 28th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in africa, bad science | 48 Comments »

I’m at a conference (on communicating evidence to patients with… GERD GIGERENZER!!!) in Frankfurt and late for lunch, but I thought it might amuse you to see the language the Spectator are using.


From: Events []
Sent: 26 October 2009 12:19

Dear xxxxx

I am writing to inform you that, with much regret, the event on “Aids – realism or denial” due to take place on Wednesday 28 October, has been cancelled due to several members of the panel having pulled out at the last minute, leaving us with an unbalanced panel which would not make for a rounded discussion on the film.

The purpose of the event which was to have a rational and balanced discussion in an area of science too often characterised by hysteria. House of Numbers is a controversial film and we wanted it scrutinised by leading authorities and to follow its showing with real debate encompassing a wide spectrum of opinion. It has proved very difficult to put together a panel which could do this. We thought we had managed but several last-minute defections have defeated us. We will look at staging this event at a later date with another, more dependable panel.

We apologise to you who signed up to attend, however, we have been left with no option but to cancel.

We will be fully reimbursing your ticket fees today and can confirm that the refund should show in your accounts by the end of the week.  We will be in touch should we manage to stage this event in the future.  In meantime, we would like to thank you for your support and encourage you to visit our website on to view our forthcoming events which may be of interest.

Yours sincerely

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

48 Responses

  1. Chris Hunt said,

    October 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I’ve had to cancel my forthcoming symposium: “The Earth, spherical or banana-shaped?” for similar reasons. Why can’t these so-called scientists handle a balanced debate on the issue?

  2. Dead Badger said,

    October 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Ha, “defections.” Classic.

  3. Waider said,

    October 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Further choice words: "an unbalanced panel", "another, more dependable panel"

  4. Charles Copeland said,

    October 28, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Chris Hunt writes:

    I’ve had to cancel my forthcoming symposium: “The Earth, spherical or banana-shaped?” for similar reasons. Why can’t these so-called scientists handle a balanced debate on the issue?

    Banana shaped? Ridiculous. However, I and my friends from the faked moon landing society had a similar problem with the showing of our own film, which was cancelled. The purpose of the event was to have a rational and balanced discussion in an area of science too often characterised by hysteria. ‘The moon landing legend’ is a controversial film and we wanted it scrutinised by leading authorities and to follow its showing with real debate encompassing a wide spectrum of opinion.

    The tragedy is that these tin hat wearing guys who believe that the earth is banana shaped have given serious skeptics like ourselves such a bad reputation that we have been marginalised by the establishment.

    Remember Galileo? Eppur si muove …

  5. Richard Palmer said,

    October 28, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Long time lurker, first time poster.

    I’m no scientist (history graduate – sorry!) but I am interested in science in my own dilettantish way.

    It often seems to me that part of the problem with scientific discussion in the media (be that “old” or “new” media) is that people seem to labour under some weird misapprehension that (good!) scientific theories are merely opinion and can be debated by a panel in this way. Of course we want dissent in science; it’s how theories are tested and strengthened or discarded and I’m sure scientists speculate sometimes. But it would be nice to have proper evidence! The Spectator’s conduct on this, and other issues, lately has had me, therefore, baffled and annoyed. It does nothing to advance the cause of science or the public understanding of science.

    Dara puts it better than me.

    [O/T slightly (as a general point) arts and humanities types aren’t all prone to accepting piffle: There is, I reckon, such a thing as “Bad History”.]

  6. Jake said,

    October 28, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    The fast and frugal fanatic himself… wasn’t expecting that name drop on this blog!

  7. chris lawson said,

    October 28, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    @Richard Palmer:

    I think you’re right, but there’s a little bit more to it. Dissent in science, even vituperative dissent, is not the problem. Stephen Hawking made his name by giving Fred Hoyle a very public comeuppance. Hoyle never accepted he was wrong and crumbled into increasingly ridiculous forms of denialism (at one time even arguing that Archeopteryx fossils were frauds). But this was Hoyle’s problem. When the debate becomes murky about HIV, then it’s a public health problem. The best estimate is that 330,000 people died unnecessarily because of South Africa’s official HIV denialism. And that’s just one country. These lunatics want to extend the African disaster to Europe.

  8. Snout said,

    October 29, 2009 at 2:14 am

    No sensible person wants to participate in a public debate AIDS denialists for the simple reason that it would achieve nothing except provide a platform and vicarious credibility to dangerous and deluded nutcases.

    If AIDS denialists are so keen on debate, and honestly believe that this is an appropriate way of resolving differences of opinion, then they should hold public debates among themselves. Suggested topics:

    Does HIV exists? (Duesberg and Rasnick versus the Perthians)
    Does epidemiology prove that AIDS cannot be sexually transmissible (Henry Bauer) or is it actually caused by syphilis (various)?
    Was HIV actually created in a government lab, and what precisely was Duesberg’s role in this? (Lenny Horowitz versus Duesberg and Rasnick)
    Was HIV created by evil scientists on earth, or was it brought here by aliens? (Horowitz versus Phillip Duke)

    These are all vital questions that the public demands answers to! So don’t give in to censorship, Spectator! I’m sure you could put together a “balanced, reliable” panel on any of these questions without having to stoop to asking actual HIV/AIDS scientists.

  9. Richard Palmer said,

    October 29, 2009 at 8:21 am

    @Chris Lawson

    Yes, I agree. Haha…it’s one of the reasons that I like Ben Goldacre’s work.

    Interested to read that about Hoyle; I was aware that he didn’t accept the big bang (although I do rather like the Calvin and Hobbes “horrendous space kablooie” description a little more.) Simon Singh covered him quite a lot in his book and must’ve been rather kind to him, then – that seems like a detail that I would’ve remembered!

  10. Synchronium said,

    October 29, 2009 at 10:58 am

    @Chris Hunt

    I’ll be on your panel.

    Although, I thought we all agreed the world was a bananoid object?

  11. nongovernmentalindividual said,

    October 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Snout. Great suggestion. I would also like to see various members of the clan discuss:

    – Is all the research manipulated by big pharma or is it all just wrong?
    – ARVs: do they cause AIDS, cause other illnesses, or are they merely totally ineffective?

  12. Bogusman said,

    October 29, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    @Richard Palmer:
    I think it all comes back to CP Snow. There really are two cultures.

    Areas such as art and music are open to debate and discussion based purely on subjective experience and the world would probably be a poorer place were that not true.

    Science and history (and other areas of endeavour) on the other hand are based on evidence. There is still lots of room for debate but the debate has to be constrained by the available evidence. A theory that has attained general acceptance should only really be changeable in the light of new evidence. And the new evidence has to be of an acceptable level of quality.

    This obviously leads to problems when people used to thinking only in the “artistic” culture come to consider evidence-based subjects. It’s also a problem for some fields of study that lie on the cusp such as economics. Despite the proliferation of higher mathematics in the cannon of economics, the evidence base for its fundamental principles is so poor that few self-respecting scientists would give it house room.

  13. Strange said,

    October 29, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I’d go as far as to suggest that a ‘balanced’ debate might, in some way represent the balance of feeling on a particular subject.

    That would mean that a balanced debate on the subject of HIV/AIDS could indeed be had by setting a panel of 1000 scientists who strongly belive in the link, and 1 that does not. The audience for such a debate should be similarly balanced to allow for a representative set of questions to be submitted.

  14. Veronica said,

    October 29, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    One problem is that people don’t understand how science uses the word “theory”. In a general sense, a theory is something that is little better than a hypothesis but once it has been “proved” it becomes “fact”. They don’t understand the way scientists use the word, and therefore when they see the phrase, e.g. “Theory of Evolution” they think we are talking about something nebulous or tentative on which most people still disagree. I’ve seen creationists say “but Evolution is still only a theory”. I have replied that only in religion do people get so sure of themselves that theories crystallise into “fact” or should I say “dogma”? In science we are open minded enough to say that if some astonishing new evidence turns up, Darwin’s, or Einstein’s, or anyone else’s theory, could still make way for something better.

  15. Bogusman said,

    October 29, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Exactly. Very well put. How is it that something that is so clear to us should be incomprehensible to so many?

  16. Caledonian1976 said,

    October 29, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    @Bogusman 15.

    A lack of being taught critical thinking, cretinism, and wishful delusion.

  17. Richard Palmer said,

    October 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    @Bogusman and @Veronica

    Agreed. It saddens me when relativism starts to poke its nose into places that it really has no business being. People may argue that it doesn’t matter and that, say, cosmology and history are only *really* of interest to academics and any argument like that has no bearing on the real world. But what they forget is that kind of thinking creeps into areas where, demonstrably, it has effects on peoples live. In scientific discussion the obvious example being the one that we are commenting on just now. I’m actually still astonished that the Spectator thinks that this kind of behaviour is acceptable! It kills and it kills those that are, often, the least well-equipped to defend themselves.

    (And slightly O/T again…apologies. In my own subject, history, distorted evidence is also dangerous. Look at the likes of the odious David Irving who – not so long ago – was given credence by some ridiculous post-modernist historian. That kind of warping of facts can have repercussions as history is important in describing the present, so interpret how you want, but don’t distort and lie. Hell, a part of me thinks that all this AIDS denialist nonsense suggests that we have learned absolutely sod all for our own colonial past. Shame on you Spectator. Shame.)

    And re: “theory” yes, I’ve had that argument before. Especially irritating with regard to evolution as its my understanding that, as theories go, it’s held up pretty goddamned well. To the extent that all that, say, modern genetics does is to strengthen the theory?

  18. quasilobachevski said,

    October 29, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Chris Lawson, Richard Palmer,

    For what it’s worth, Hawking’s account here suggests that Hoyle didn’t bear that much of a grudge about it. (At least, as far as Hawking knew.)

  19. skyesteve said,

    October 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    For a fab account on “theory” as it’s appled to evolution please read Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne

  20. Crabbadon said,

    October 29, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Guys, guys. Some people think AIDS is a syndrome caused by the HIV virus, some people think it’s an evil genocidal conspiracy against Africa. Maybe they’re both right! Can’t we agree to disagree?

  21. purplepolecat said,

    October 30, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Note to panelists : pulling out at the last minute is not an effective precaution against pregnancy or STDs.

  22. Chris Noble said,

    October 30, 2009 at 3:20 am

    Fred Hoyle also championed panspermia believing that evolution could not account for the diversity of life on the planet.

    He thought that HIV arrived on Earth from outer space somewhere around 1970.

  23. SteveGJ said,

    October 30, 2009 at 7:58 am

    I have to put in a good word for Fred Hoyle, even though, on another discussion, I used him as an example of a great scientist who, in later life, pursued failed theories after evidence emerged that they were erroneous.

    What Fred Hoyle did contribute was a huge amount to the theory of nucleosynthesis within stellar evolution. That stardust of which Carl Sagan was fond of saying we were all made. In fact there is a very good case for Fred Hoyle being denied a well deserved Nobel prize because he was something of an embarrassment and inconvenience at the time.

    Some of us will also remember, from our childhood, those science fiction novels that he wrote. For those that read A for Andromeda (made into a seminal 1960s series with Julie Christie, and a recent appalling remake). There is also the delight within this book that Fred Hoyle invented a sinister multi-national conglomerate that he named Intel. One assumes that Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were not aware of their corporation’s fictional namesake when they adopted the name.

    Fred Hoyle also played around with other fun ideas like an intelligent inter-stellar cloud.

    So the guy went a bit off the scientific rails in later life, but I have rather a soft spot for him. Among other things, Fred Hoyle is such an ordinary, workaday name and who ever thought of a Yorkshireman with imagination?

  24. mus said,

    October 30, 2009 at 8:34 am

    @Richard Palmer: “Bad History” sounds like a good plan for a blog, debunking nazi-myths, “glorious” battles and the likes of Irving. I (German Masters-grad in History & English) would be happy to participate =).

  25. Bogusman said,

    October 30, 2009 at 10:05 am


    Amen to that. I must have read and reread The Black Cloud about six times between the ages of 14 and 18. I suspect it would come across as very quaint and dated now but it definitely fired my imagination at the time.

  26. Steve Halsall said,

    October 30, 2009 at 10:14 am

    There is another factor that fuels these “debates” – for some reason I can’t fathom the general layman seems to have the idea that they can have an opinion on whether or not HIV causes AIDS without doing any study. The media, which to a large extent does not see the oddity in this, is then prepared to take anybody’s expressed view as somehow legitimate.

    You see it most often in cases where one person has suffered. To debate the efficacy of a vaccine, we get one professor of medicine, and one mother with an autistic child. I have no objection to the media giving us an insight into the personal; just leave it out of the general debate.

    The sciences are very good at understanding general situations, abstracting laws and probablities from data. The individual as a data point is abhorrent to science. Arts, on the other hand, use the individual as their starting point. Paintings, poems, novels, music – they all find their greatest expression in studies of the individual, even if a general point is being made. A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich would have been much less powerful if it had been called A Day In The Life Of A Statistically Significant Subset Of The Gulag Population.

    For some reason, most scientists get this. No scientist that I know would confuse the two disciplines. A few might criticise a book for not representing the norm accurately, but not with any force. Why then do the arts people get in such a muddle? It is in this confusion that the debate becomes distorted and the middle ground shifted. The central position between right and wrong is in fact wrong.

    How much wit does a typical Spectator journalist have? They say they have complete wit. I say none. Following their logic then, the correct answer must be that all Spectator journalists are halfwits.

  27. SteveGJ said,

    October 30, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    @Steve Halsall

    It goes to the crux of what natural science attempts to do by removing anecdote, subjectivity, emotions and the like from analysis. It’s also precisely what (to some extent of another) many journalists, politicians, barristers, much of the humanities disciplines and the like find either hard or unnatural. Too often in the media we get examples such as statistics about how many lives are saved by X vaccine trumped by an interview with a grieving parent. Personally I feel very uncomfortable and, even, threatend by emotion-based debate. Firstly it’s not how I was trained, or am inclined to deal with debate. However, the second point is that there is often no real answer to such things. One example was from the late 60s, when the government experimented with running BST into winter. The total number of road deaths fell (more people killed in dark evenings than in dark mornings). However, you can’t point a camera at the parent of a child who didn’t die as a result of lighter evenings, but you can most certainly point one at a parent that has lost a child whilst travelling on a dark morning. Not only can you, but they did – hence we have this case where there is very good evidence that maintaining BST throughput the winter months would have saved a significant number of lives, but it was quashed by the particular (among other reasons – it wasn’t the only one).

    It actually goes beyond this – there are certain philosophical groups that would deny the existence of any objective truth. It’s not an old debate – it goes back to Plato (on an even deeper layer as it happens). Of course anybody who studies scientific method knows that we can never really have truth – just a model that fits with the World and which we believe is related to “truth”. But it does, at least, have a test in reality. At the most extreme end of the modern movement of raltivistgs is that all knowledge is a cultural artifact and has no meaning outside of that society (the “other ways of knowing” movement). The relativists not only apply this to moral standards and values, but even sought to apply this to theories of natural science, or more particularly, the edifice of western cultural science.

    The whole climate debate has got into this game. It’s now heavily politicised and the “denialist” label is being bandied around in ways which I think we’ll regret. Firstly climate change is a reality – and it always has been, with or without humans. It’s technically extremely difficult to ascertain which part of warming are anthrogenic and which are natural trends. There are enormous variations in the projections (most mathematical climate models are validated by their ability to match with past statistics – unfortunately there are so many variables that can be plugged into the models, it’s difficult to be sure that this isn’t just due to fine tuning; given enought variables you can fit a curve to any set of arbitrary points).

    So there is a lot of uncertainty over the projections (only today, on Radio 4, a large group of scientists working in this area have complained about the counter-productive role being played by the exaggeration, or at least promotion of worst-case scenarios). There is rather a lot of that around at the moment withh both press and government playing their part.

    There are also the complex issues of what can be done about it. Much of the apparent remedies offered, especially by pressure groups, often exhibit more in the way of wishful thinking than real remedies. That’s not to mention the ability to actually make such changes. Only totalitarian regimes can pretend to do things against the wishes of the population, whatever those might be (and even totalitarian regimes have their limits). Then there is the whole issue of the economics involved – make those technical changes and quite what will happen. Nobody knows, and economics has a dreadful track record on understanding such things.

    (One thing that no Western government is addressing is the issue of population – it is not surprising given the sensitivity of the issue, and also the problems that India got itself into over policy in this area in the 1970s. Then there is the preaching of first world values to third world countries. However, in this case the science – or at least mathematical projections are inescapable. The Earth has a limited sustainable carrying capacity – we may not know what it is, but it is there, even with the application of the best technology. UN projections on World population are largely based with some social trends laced heavily with a lot of wishful thinking. The damage done by human population growth on the environment is there to be seen yet this is dealt with as a problem to be circumvented in some way, rather than an inescapable consequence).

  28. skyesteve said,

    October 30, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    @SteveGJ – all of what you say is true and I support it but as a medical man rather than and out-and-out science bloke I live with the fact that what I do is part science and part “art”. I know it’s an old cliche but that’s only because it’s true.
    I do have emotional responses to scientific debates (see my previous posts!) but I don’t see that as irrational or wrong. What I do require is that my emotions (and those of others) are tempered and are founded in the evidence and these emotions don’t make me lose sight of the case I am trying to argue.
    So cigarette smoking causes lung cancer – no questions, no doubts. Am I wrong to get emotional with those in the tobacco industry and lobby groups who deny it?
    Or when those of deny the cause or even very existence of a disease like HIV have a very obvious impact on public health am I wrong to be upset?
    You’re very right about the climate debate too and I get emotional about that as well. Needless exaggeration and hyperbole has actually help create the climate denialists by giving them the kind of ammunition they need. In that respect An Inconvenient Truth has much to answer for! I think the evidence in the climate change situation that I have read is sufficiently fluid to allow a degree of healthy scepticism, which is (hopefully), what I have. That’s not to say “so let’s just sit back and see what happens”. I am not a disciple of Bjorn Lomborg but I can see where he’s coming from.
    Your last point is, for me, the most important. The real problem is that there are simply too many people in the world and that’s the elephant in the room that no-one talks about and, as you say, the consequences of that silence are inescapable. But I also know that resources are finite and we are profligate in our use of them which can only mean that they will run out sooner rather than later.

  29. SteveGJ said,

    October 30, 2009 at 7:47 pm


    I think you are pretty well right – emotion is appropriate when it is values that are under debate. If selling substances like tobacco, which undoubtedly cause premature deaths, offends your moral standards then emotion is appropriate – after all, this is life and death.

    On that particular issue, I don’t get too concerned myself; at least with my generation. I go back far enough that I saw the first films in school of the consequences of smoking – a grieving child and that sort of grey look that middle aged people people exhibited in the mid-1960s in the sort of working class social background I came from. Being a grammar school kid, smoking wasn’t that prevelant, but I rather associated those that did with bullies and disruption. I didn’t much emphathise with smokers that I knew, and didn’t have too much sympathy with those of my generation that continued the habit (of course most of them gave it up).

    However, I do wish that the anti-smoking brigade wouldn’t try and back their case by stating how much it would save the NHS if people didn’t smoke. When this has been looked at independently, the evidence is that there is a net saving to the states of people conveniently dying rather rapidly of an aggressive disease like lung cancer just after the peak of their financial contributions. Much more expensive is people living on to great old age through various chronic diseases (of course the pharmaceutical industry loves the latter). Note none of this destroys the moral case for anti-smoking; I just wish people wouldn’t misrepresent the statistics.

    As Ben points out in his book, medicine has only really been a scientific discipline since the end of the second world war. Few doctors I know are in it because of an interest in the science itself – quite a few frustrated would-be doctors I know rather resented the emphasis on the scientific qualifications required to get into medical school. Who knows, they could be right. In any case, medicine is, I suspect, at least as much about dealing with people as the technical part. The whole CAM industry is based on the former with some form of illusion covering the second.

  30. Charles Copeland said,

    October 30, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Skyeysteve writes:

    The real problem is that there are simply too many people in the world and that’s the elephant in the room that no-one talks about and, as you say, the consequences of that silence are inescapable.

    Nuff said but here are some quick stats from the Times Online anyhow:

    climate change: 6407
    global warming: 4384

    as opposed to

    population explosion: 113
    peak oil: 81

    And, yes, when I hear the word Gore I reach for my sleeping tablets. His hysterical crap is enough to drive anyone (even a died-in-the-wool climate change believer like myself) into the opposite camp of denialist nutters.

  31. max said,

    October 31, 2009 at 9:21 am

    @ Richard Palmer / Mus – a quick google search revealed an attempt at ‘bad history’ here: Looks dormant…

  32. IMSoP said,

    October 31, 2009 at 3:39 pm


    I know it’s not the topic primarily under discussion, but can I just point out that “extending British Summer Time into winter” is by definition a nonsense, as is the bizarre and rather pseudo-scientific term “Single/Double Summer Time” (meaning moving our clocks in line with Western Europe).

    I think the whole concept of “Daylight Savings Time” is something of a con, and verging on Bad Science in its own right: the effects measured are actually not the result of changing the clocks, but of us *getting up at a different time* and *leaving work/school/etc at a different time*.

    This is actually an important distinction: if experts want people to engage with the facts rather than the emotions, they should be very careful in how they “wrap up” those facts. If you can say that “BST saves lives” (because it tricks people into adjusting their routines), then it’s not a massive stretch to say that “homeopathy relieves sypmtoms” (because it may well have a measurable “placebo” effect).

    Obviously, that’s a crude analogy, and I’m sure experts would be able to pick all sorts of holes in it, but it is another example of muddying the waters, and opening the way for “re-interpretation” by those who don’t subscribe to the scientific method.

  33. SteveGJ said,

    October 31, 2009 at 4:37 pm


    Well, of course you are absolutely correct in the point, well known to pedants everywhere that daylight saving (not that I usoffice ed that term) is anything of the sort in terms of celestial mechanics. However, human beings are creatures of habit, and we are long past the time when our days were planned directly by the position of the Sun in the sky. We tend, at least since the introduction of the railways, modern factory, offices and efficient artificial illumination, to plan our activities by means of clocktime. We could, of course, achieve precisely the same objectives by whifting our daily schedule by one hour as measured by movement of the Sun, but our society finds it more convenient to adjust the clocks and keep nominal times of the day unchanged. It’s a decision of a little inconvenience to the IT industry, who have to cope with the ambiguity of one hour apparently being repeated. It’s of even more nuisance to those running timetables which span the affected twice-yearly events, not to mention even more confusion when different countries alter their clocks on different weekends.

    So I would certainly vote for not fiddling with the clocks and bringing most people’s days forward by an hour. We are rather late starters – the Ethiopians, being much nearer the equator, have historically counted time from what amounts to the average time of sunrise (6:00AM on a 24 hour clock). Making best use of UK daylight, as our ancestors did, would involve us adjusting our daytime activites to best suit the available daylight (and it would be ecologically desirable too). But the clock rules, so modern society does the best it can be fiddling with its settings.

    Note there is nothing illogical about BST being run through the winter, although it could be called a misnomer. It is, after all, just the name for GMT+1 when operated in the UK.

  34. IMSoP said,

    October 31, 2009 at 5:56 pm


    Yes, I completely accept that telling people to live by solar movements rather than digital watches is not going to fly. But that’s not what I was suggesting at all. What I was suggesting was that we stop pretending that by redefining 9AM every six months, we’re going to work at the same time all year round – why not be honest and say “we open at 9AM in winter, and 8AM in summer”?

    If the benefits are really there, how about promoting flexible office hours, and encouraging people to travel during daylight hours? (And if not everyone picks the same rush hour, all the better!) Local councils could adjust the times of the school day for each term of the school year. Businesses operating 24 hours a day could ignore the issue completely.

    Sure, it would take a bit of getting used to, but the current system is not without drawbacks – apart from the logistical problems you mention, there are dangers in simultaneously disrupting the routine of everyone in the country. And in a sense, it’s actually more in keeping with “living by the clock” if we allow the things to run smoothly all year…

    [And I would argue that BST is specifically “the name for GMT+1 when operated in the UK *in the summer*” – during winter, it would not be BST, any more than it is BST when we go to France in the winter. But “misnomer” probably covers it.]

  35. Elizabeth Ely said,

    October 31, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    From: Elizabeth Ely
    Subject: Censorship versus Discussion
    Date: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Dear Ms. Vela,

    I understand your frustration at trying to form a “balanced” panel to discuss the film “House of Numbers.” Please allow me to express my regrets after hearing from the venerable Dr. Gordon Stewart that you felt you had to cancel this discussion.

    I feel a very important point has been missed here. This “balance” you speak of is not between two views of AIDS science, but between talking about these issues and not talking about them. Between speech and silence. This “other side” has made very clear — publicly — that any kind of talk about these issues is unacceptable and should be censored, because these matters are, they say, settled. In fact, they have arrogantly asserted on many occasions that laypersons cannot handle the kind of information presented in this film. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they have refused to participate. They do this kind of thing often.

    For example, the filmmaker negotiated in advance for a panel discussion at the Boston International Film Festival, but the parties were unable to come to an agreement because the faction identifying itself as “the community” (local pharmaceutical-company-funded AIDS organizations) insisted on a one-sided “panel” of their own people. When it was determined that there would be no panel discussion, they worked behind the scenes to obtain protection from the Boston Police to make their own presentation after the film. This consisted of simply reading a statement that would have taken up all of the allotted time, allowing for no questions.

    In other words, they simply took over the event, with an armed show of force. Yes, right across the street from historic Boston Common.

    When the audience there — of which I was a part — expressed its outrage at this turn of events, their “mediator” threatened to have us thrown out. Were we to be thrown out of an event we ourselves had promoted? It was preposterous.

    This is about accountability. The AIDS establishment has operated for so long without accountability that it cannot even comprehend not being allowed to censor others, take over events, and cancel appearances. Let their absence speak for itself. Let them be accountable for that, as recipients of public funds. It is, indeed, the point they wish to make: that no discussion of these issues is legitimate, and that they will take no questions from the public that pays their salaries. Please let them make that point, without ratifying it yourself. Holding the discussion without them would make a statement that censorship is not acceptable.

    No compromise is possible.

    This film itself lets all parties speak, from all points of view.

    Look at just one consequence of “no discussion.” Here in New York, the city authorities have taken children away from their families for lack of “adherence” to the drug treatments that this film questions — because “everybody knows” those drugs work. Because there is no accountability in this system, they have done with these children what they wish, including enrolling them in toxic, painful and debilitating experimental drug trials — when the very reason they were taken was that their families found they did better off the drugs. Today, one politician, city councilman Bill de Blasio, is running for Public Advocate based on his record of doing, effectively, nothing about these trials. He is possibly the next new mayor of New York. See

    Again, I beg of you, do not yield. Discussion or no discussion? You are affiliated with a respected media institution. State your intention outright and courageously: Do you stand for censorship or discussion?

  36. skyesteve said,

    November 1, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Elizabeth – I respect your passion and concerns. You are right to oppose censorship and I don’t think anyone on this forum would support censorship. But, as stated previously (ad nauseum), free speech is NOT the freedom to tell untruths, to ignore evidence, to misrepresent others, etc.
    In that respect I think you may be missing the point of many of the postings here.
    Please don’t view what follows as patronising – it is NOT meant to be – I’m just stating how I see things and I would support fully your right to disagree with me but here goes.
    In order to have a debate there has to be at least two different views on something. In order to have a debate in science the evidence must be dubious or the contardictory evidence must be at least as good as the evidence supporting a theory. And this is scientific evidence I am talking about – no anecdote or hearsay.
    A scientific theory is not just a random idea based on N = 1 experience. It’s not the same as saying “I have a theory that there are hidden messages in Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting”.
    As the OED puts it ” a scientific theory is a statement of what are held to be general laws, principles or causes of something known or observed”. It is based on a carefully considered idea which is both testable and predictable – and when tested independently and repeatedly throws up the same results.
    Thus in order to throw out a scientific theory you have to do two things. You have to show that the existing theory is NOT repeatedly and independently verifiable and that any alternative theory IS verifiable on a independent and repeated basis. This is where the theory of “water memory” in homoeopathy fell down, for example.
    The problem with “balanced” debate is it cannot be balanced unless you have something to balance it against. You can take an old fashioned balance scales and put a handful of feathers in one brass pan and a handful of lead in the other but it won’t balance.
    What is happening now is that people with ANY view on ANY aspect of science feel that their view deserves equal weighting and equal airing.
    To my mind this is nonsense. If you have a leading expert who has spent a career researching infections, vaccinations and immunolgy and put them up against an aggrieved parent who blames MMR for their child’s autism that cannot be a balanced debate. It’s just not possible unless the parent has a full grasp of the science behind MMR AND equally powerful scientific evidence to show that MMR causes autism.
    The ultimate concern is that those who deny the evidence that a particular virus causes a particular deadly disease and that there is medication that can help are not just putting out an alternative view. They may be putting the health of others at risk as has evidently happened in southern Africa. It’s not just a bit of harmless intellectual ping-pong. It’s something much mkore serious than that.
    Please continue to oppose censorship, please support REAL free speech, please retain your scepticism and please remain distrustful of big pharma but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  37. Steve Halsall said,

    November 2, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I think that Elizabeth has perfectly summed up the problem. There is a view to which she demands an opposition. When no proper scientific opposition can be found, she demands that “all points of view” be allowed equal standing. When people complain that this act in itself will unbalance any discussion, she claims conspiracy (“The AIDS establishment”).

    Here is a template for a perfectly fair debate. Firstly, insist that any evidence brought to the discussion is properly scientific, documented, published, and backed up with all the necessary research. Secondly, appoint a neutral moderator / chair that understands what scientific evidence really is, and who will act to remove any and all spurious evidence from the debate as soon as it arises. Thirdly, invite onto the panel only people who you know have the required experience and expertise to contribute under these rules.

    What she will end up with is a genuinely fair debate, a discussion on the level field that she says she wants. There will be no controversy for controversy’s sake. Just a proper analysis of facts, coupled with reasoned opinions about those facts.

    What Elizabeth proposes is far from level. She would allow one side (the denialist side) the same platform but without any of the rigour. In effect, by placing them alongside the scientists, she would be artificially propping up their view. And she would be hiding the props, so that the audience cannot see them. This would be unfair, not fair. She would be surreptitiously assisting a very weak argument gain apparent strength. She would not be helping the audience come to a proper conclusion; she would be cheating them. I am not sure why she wants to do this.

  38. elvisionary said,

    November 2, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Elizabeth, I think you need to be very careful about demanding “accountability”. Do AIDS denialists really want to be held accountable if it can be proven that their campaigns have led to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths? Do parents who deny their children access to drugs that could save their lives really want to be held accountable?

    As skyesteve says, this isn’t harmless intellectual ping-pong – there are a lot of lives at stake. And in the light of that, what do we want policy to be based on? Evidence-based, peer-reviewed, open-to-scrutiny published science? Or the opionions of a few campaigners of questionable expertise talking at a film festival?

    Personally I don’t agree with the non-engagement approach – it’s never a good idea to make martyrs out of morons. So at one level I think you’re right to complain about censorship. But equally several of the things you say suggests that you’ve swallowed the nonsense that these people are spouting. Do you know that the children you refer to “do better” without the drugs – or do they just appear to in the short term because they don’t suffer side-effects, until they die of AIDS? Well-intentioned parents can do ethically indefensible things because they don’t like to see their children suffer, and because they want certainty. But I find it deeply troubling that a parent might be influenced by half-baked theorising to make choices on behalf of their children that fly in the face of the weight of scientific evidence. If the science is wrong, then let science prove it wrong – a one-sided documentary film really isn’t going to help anyone.

  39. BB King said,

    November 2, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    The interesting thing for me is this. The Spectator, which I occasionally read, is thoughtful, intelligent and amusing on politics, culture and the arts (whether or not you agree with the contributors’ various positions). But I have always been astonished at their “ignorant and proud of it” attitude to science. Most commonly on medical issues but also covering evolution (yes!) and others.

    These are not stupid people, but they simply don’t get it. They have no conception of what science is, or the power that scientific methods bring to getting reliable data or gaining insights on the organising principles involved.

    The problem is not of stupidity but ignorance, and of the arrogance which allows them to dismiss what they don’t understand.

  40. Elizabeth Ely said,

    November 4, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Wow. Who knew I was saying all these things? I certainly didn’t. I’m not asking for a debate of random ideas, or lack of proof or “rigor.” (God knows, I’d like to see some rigor.) And I even wonder if one of the posters above has even seen the film, the way he describes it as this one-sided thing.

    Facts have conclusions. When we see evidence that means something, we say what that means.

    And we discuss it. We don’t shut down debate because somebody said somebody else was “outrageous” without giving reasons.

    We call people accountable for the science they present — mine as well as yours. If there’s that much at stake, why don’t you have a stack of dissident books you’ve dissected, point-for-point? Perhaps it’s just easier to make generalizations on blogs about things you’ve never researched. Just go to and tear the whole thing apart. Become an expert.

    I usually relax, knowing that if I’m wrong about something, it’s OK. Someone can bring me the new evidence, and I’ll change my mind, and it’s painless.

  41. elvisionary said,

    November 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I’m with you about accountability – I’m just saying that it’s not only the scientific establishment that need to be accountable. The media should be accountable for the information or misinformation that they put out there. And when there are lives at stake, people need to be very careful what they say.

    It’s a fair cop – I haven’t seen the film – so for all I know it’s more balanced than those who have seen it suggest. But given the way that they have presented Chrstine Maggiore (see the other thread), I doubt it.

    I have to say I find the whole Christine Maggiore situation utterly tragic – it says a lot about human ability to rationalise against the overwhelming weight of evidence. Perhaps if you have got something horribly, tragically wrong, it takes moral courage to accept this. It seems to me that too many people stubbornly stick to their arguments, and then twist the available evidence to provide a figleaf of justification for their previous position.

  42. Steve Halsall said,

    November 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    I am pleased that you want to see rigour in your debate, Elizabeth. I am confident that you also understand the meaning of this term in its scientific context.

    I think that you might have missed out a few words from your statement “When we see evidence that means something, we say what that means.” I am sure you meant to say “When we see [published] evidence that [, after a peer review to ensure that the sample sets are not skewed and that the data is real, and once the data has undergone rigorous statistical analysis to establish any significance,] means something, we say what that means.

    The debate you propose is a very good idea. It will, of course, be unbelievably dull, consisting as it must of hours of detailed analyses of data and method. The non-consensus viewpoint protagonists will, of course, bring their peer-reviewed data and work to the debate. Given that they are the challengers, as it were, they would presumably be required also to establish the precise flaws that led others to a different conclusion.

    Anything else would just be pretending to be scientific, bordering on an attempt to lie. I am sure you would not want that.

  43. hamlets ghost said,

    November 4, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I think we also need to differentiate between qulitative and quantitative data. A fair amount of research as been doine using qualitative data. Do these qualify as data points?

    How can you expect anyone to understand anything if they don’t understand statistics? And most people don’t.

  44. nongovernmentalindividual said,

    November 4, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Building on some of the comments above about balance, I’m trying to come up with “Top trumps” categories to weigh up how a film on the one hand and 25 years of research data (looked at all together) on the other hand would weigh up in a direct contest.

    Category 1. Entertainment. Film wins.
    Category 2. Transmitting information to a lay audience. Film wins.
    Category 3. Telling a story (fact or fiction). Film wins.
    Category 4. Propaganda. Film wins.
    Category 5. Forming an objective basis for scientific knowledge and health policy. The 25 years of research data win.

  45. prezbucky said,

    November 15, 2009 at 5:05 am

    Were I a Martian freshly landed on this planet with a highly impressive command of this great language, having read most of the posts here I’d be led to believe that the science of HIV/AIDS is axiomatic — truth — and taken for granted as such.

    Had I then seen House of Numbers, I would ask the following questions (among others):

    1) If HIV/AIDS is fully known, why do these world-renowned — a compound adjective nobody here claims for himself, though the knowledge is axiomatic apparently — scientists and administrators make statements casting shadows on these axioms?

    2) Are these axioms — this established body of knowledge — without fault or vulnerability? After all, if it were fully established, these great heads of the subject would not only proffer the same info, they wouldn’t dare to undermine lay-accepted dogma. (pfft, laymen, what a bunch of morons!)

    3) Did the interviewer drug them, hold a gun to their heads, or do anything otherwise that might cause these bastions of Truth to cause audiences — who actually saw the film, ahem — to laugh?

    4) Could the interviewer possibly be adequately manipulative in his questioning to cause the cream of the HIV/AIDS scientific crop, including the man who claimed to discover it and the man who broke the news in the US as Gospel Truth, to so obviously contradict each other and bring doubt to what was previously thought to be incontrovertibly axiomatic?

    5) Assuming these people were not so coerced, and doubting the interviewer’s ability to manipulate these geniuses of science into spouting laughable statements, well…

    Why did they say what they said? Did they lie? If not, their statements, per se, cast doubt on the HIV/AIDS body of “knowledge”.

    … which is fine for this retarded layman (having shed the Martian costume).

    I grok the contradictory and hilarious statements of the Mount Olympus of AIDS — said by they themselves — and hope that this film will bring more money for research… unbiased research, research committed to curing It rather than maintaining an apparently — according to these experts — questionable body of well-broadcasted “facts”.

    I grok your perpetual search for truth via the scientific method. I do not grok your smugness in thinking you’ve got it all figured out.

    For instance, how did matter come into existence, and what made it move? 😉

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    These lunatics want to extend the African disaster to Europe.