Medicine Skepticism/critical thinking

A plethora of HIV straw men

It never ceases to amuse me when a blogger known for his embrace of bad science anxious to claim the mantle of “skeptic” falls flat on his face doing so. For an example of just such an occurrence, check out Skeptico’s latest post, A Straw Man Gets AIDS. In it, Skeptico systematically demolishes an AIDS/HIV “skeptic’s” attempt to list what he thinks are supposed “logical fallacies” used by those who argue for the conventionally held scientific consensus that HIV infection usually results in AIDS. Yes, it’s an old friend and occasional commenter, a tireless HIV/AIDS “dissident,” and Skeptico shows just how silly his appeal to logical fallacies is.

Watch Skeptico methodically demolish each and every one of Hank’ Barnes’ false “logical fallacies.” What Hank is so busily tearing down are his perceptions of what those supporting the HIV-AIDs link argue, not their real arguments, all leavened with a misunderstanding of what truly constitutes a logical fallacy. Skieptico demonstrates this quite when dealing with a supposed “appeal to authority”:

Appeal To False Authority:

The NIH has a great government website, which explains why HIV Causes AIDS

This is not an Appeal To Authority. If the claim was just “the NIH says HIV causes AIDS”, this might be an appeal to authority. But here’s the thing: the actual article Hank links to is a summary of the evidence that HIV causes AIDS, plus rebuttals to the many “HIV does not cause AIDS” myths. Someone could debate these evidences if they wanted to, but they can’t deny that the website does, in fact, list detailed evidence that HIV causes AIDS. Therefore, the website is not relying on the authority of the NIH but on the evidence it lists. Citing evidence is not an appeal to authority, and so citing this website is not fallacious.

This is a classic example of someone who has heard the term “Appeal To Authority”, but has not understood it. If an “authority” lists evidence, it is not fallacious to cite it.


Just to be clear on this Straw Man business – I’m not claiming that no one ever said anything like the things Hank is claiming; I’m saying these Straw Man arguments Hank is putting forward are not the main arguments put forward by the scientists who support the HIV theory.

Indeed they are not.

One fallacy in particular to which I’ll add my two cents to Skeptico’s:

Appeal to Fear:

Did you see what we did to Duesberg? If you don’t accept that HIV causes AIDS, we will strip away your funding and ostracize you. Now, get smart, will ya?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but did anyone actually “strip away” Peter Duesberg’s funding? I tend to doubt it. What almost certainly happened is that Duesberg’s pre-“dissident” funding expired and, since he has come to believe that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, he simply hasn’t been able to convince the NIH or other major funding agencies to fund grant proposals based on his idea. That’s a subtle but important difference. In any case, isn’t Duesberg still a tenured professor at Berkeley? He wasn’t kicked out of the National Academy of Sciences for his HIV “skepticism,” was he? He still publishes his aneuploidy-cancer research in peer-reviewed journals (which means he must have found funding for that project from somewhere), doesn’t he? Some of his HIV opinion pieces still occasionally show up in the peer-reviewed literature as well, don’t they? Duesberg’s failure to secure funding for his AIDS research after so long couldn’t possibly be–perish the thought!–maybe, just maybe because his research proposals were not good science, could it? Just a thought. (No doubt dissidents will say I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.) I’m sure it’s comforting to “dissidents” to imagine some grand conspiracy of “orthodox” scientists and big pharma (anxious to sell antiretrovirals, of course) keeping Duesberg (and, naturally, The Real Truth about AIDS) down, but after nearly 20 years of Duesberg’s “skepticism,” one has to wonder. The surest way to shut up critics in science is data supporting your hypothesis that is so overwhelming that even the critics can’t answer it well, and the 19 years since Duesberg first started publicly questioning the HIV-AIDS link is a lot of time to have to produce that preliminary evidence. So far, he hasn’t done it.

You can play the Galileo Gambit for just so long before you have to produce some positive evidence if you hope to convince the scientific community. Of course, it’s always possible that one day Duesberg may be vindicated. Stranger things have happened. However, I certainly wouldn’t bet money on it based on the paucity of evidence that he has marshalled so far compared the the mass of evidence supporting the HIV-AIDS link.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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