Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Countering HIV Denialism: The Letter the AMS Wouldn't Print

Serge Lang was an eminent Yale mathematician who died in 2005. His life and work was the subject of a long obituary by Jay Jorgenson and Steven G. Krantz in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society in May 2006.

While Lang had many mathematical achievements, in his later years he began to show serious signs of crankiness, writing scathing letters to a wide variety of targets, including the American Mathematical Society (AMS) itself. Some of these targets, such as Samuel Huntington, were legitimate. Others were not. Lang became obsessed with correcting what appeared in some cases to be debatable or trivial inaccuracies, and even insisted on publishing his voluminous correspondence in books such as The File and Challenges. I remember leafing through The File in Cody's bookstore while a graduate student at Berkeley, wondering why an eminent mathematician would think his complaint letters would captivate an audience. To me, it seemed the sign of an ego out of control. Ever since then, I've seen many copies of The File in the "remainder" section of bookstores, suggesting that the publisher couldn't sell the number it unwisely chose to print.

One particular obsession stands out: although having no medical or biological training, Lang became active in the HIV denialist movement. Here is what Jorgenson and Krantz wrote in their May Notices obituary:

In the last twelve years of his life Serge Lang developed a deep and energetic program to fight the current directions of research on the diseases AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). A naive assessment of Serge's position is that HIV does not cause AIDS. But this would be an injustice to Serge. First of all, he was very careful. He very rarely made an error of fact. Secondly, he was quite a subtle thinker. His cause and his complaint, in fact, was that the search for a cure to AIDS had become politicized. At a certain point, the federal government simply commanded the National Institutes of Health to declare that HIV caused AIDS. The causal mechanism had not been identified, and the connection not logically established. To be sure, there is considerable ad hoc evidence of a link between HIV and AIDS. Certainly many of the modern treatments for AIDS are premised on that link. But Serge's assessment was that the existing data analysis does not support the conclusion that HIV causes AIDS.

The Notices then proceeded to give two-thirds of a page to the prominent denialist Peter Duesberg, who chose to use the space to repeat once again his long-debunked arguments against HIV as a cause of AIDS.

I felt the obituary and granting of space to Duesberg was inappropriate, and wrote the letter below to the editor of the Notices. Weeks went by with no acknowledgment, so I wrote again: no acknowledgment. I wrote again: no acknowledgment. Finally, after forwarding a copy to the Managing Editor, Sandra Frost, I got an e-mail message from the editor, Andy Magid, stating that the Notices would not publish my letter.

Here is what I wrote:


Dear Editors:

At the 16th International AIDS conference, which recently concluded in
Toronto, plenary speaker Stephen Lewis said, "[South Africa] is the
only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories
more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate
state."

The "lunatic fringe" theories Stephen Lewis was referring to are, of
course, precisely those advanced by Serge Lang. The objections of
HIV deniers have been carefully examined, and thoroughly demolished by
the medical community (for a good summary, see Stephen B. Harris, "The
AIDS Heresies", Skeptic, V. 3 No. 2 (1995)). The misinformation
campaign of Lang and other HIV deniers has misled South Africa's
President Thabo Mbeki and resulted in countless misery and death.
Given that, I found it grotesque that your recent obituary of Lang
[Notices of the AMS, V. 53 No. 5, May 2006] should attempt to whitewash
Lang's bizarre and ill-conceived attacks against HIV as a cause of
AIDS. And I found it appalling that you would give space to Peter
Duesberg, another leader of this destructive campaign, to extol Lang's
recklessness.

Lang's HIV denialism will stand as a testament to how an egotistical
confidence in one's expertise can lead to folly and destruction.

(Prof.) Jeffrey Shallit
School of Computer Science
University of Waterloo

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

CBC had a show early on in the HIV-AIDS controversy. I heard a rerun quite a few years later in 1999 and with the benefit of hindsight.

As I recall, there were about half a dozen objections from the HIV denialists which at the time (mid 80's that is, not 1999) could be considered valid, albeit none of them damning to the HIV hypothesis. The principal ones were that none of the Koch postulates had been fulfilled. In particular back then (mid 80s I think) no one had contracted AIDS through documented exposure to HIV and nothing else. From the ouside, it seemed that the skeptics had a good argument that there seemed to have been a rush to judgement, although any scientist can tell you that conviction of the correctness of a result can predate actual proof by quite a few years.

In any event, as I recall, a year after the show was taped in a sad and unfortunate accident, a German nurse pricked herself accidentally with HIV, promptly contracted AIDS and eventually died, thereby clearing the last rational doubts.

Lang seemed to have latched on to the early questions and the rush to judgement, while ignoring later evidence that fully confirmed what was the most likely hypothesis.

Alex Lopez-Ortiz

Anonymous said...

Hey,

Did you see the letter to the editor in the October Notices?

Jeffrey said...

Yes.