The recent issue of Discover magazine contains a review of Celia Farber's new collection from Melville House, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS. The review is neither insightful, nor informative, but it does raise a fair enough question, although gives it no consideration of any kind. I had sufficient feathers (mine not Attila's) ruffled by the tone of the very brief piece (below) to issue the challenge to the magazine that follows it.
When the writer is part of the story
"When does the human tendency to question cease to promote progress and instead hinder it? Can debate be detrimental? These questions arise when reading Celia Farber's book Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS (Melville House, $16.95), which flips on its head almost every belief about AIDS—that HIV causes it and that current drug regimens help rather than harm.
Farber began covering AIDS 20 years ago at the magazine SPIN, under the editorship of DISCOVER's current CEO Bob Guccione Jr. Much of her writing from that time, reprinted and updated in this book, covers the ideas of controversial University of California at Berkeley biologist Peter Duesberg, who hypothesizes that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by drug use or poverty.
Most of the scientific establishment feels the debate ended long ago. The journal Science concluded in 1994 that Duesberg's ideas are unfounded; the previous year Nature's editor John Maddox warned that it was unsafe even to allow Duesberg to respond to criticism. "A person's 'right of reply' may conflict with a journal's obligations to its readers to provide them with authentic information," he wrote. But a few, like Nobel winners Kary Mullis and Walter Gilbert, disagree, asserting that no science should be censored. Duesberg's arguments have reached both those diagnosed with HIV and those who are making decisions about prevention and treatment (notably South Africa's president, Thabo Mbbeki. If Duesberg is correct, we have a gravely flawed scientific system where incorrect hypotheses can be verified and become big business. If wrong, his ideas are literally deadly.
Farber contends that she is simply covering the story, not commenting on the science. But a journalist who spends two decades reporting a controversial theory to the public would seem to have stepped out of the role of bystander and become a participant in the debate. Although questioning conventional wisdom is essential to scientific progress, this reader, at least, is left wondering if Farber is raising a question or implying an answer that has extreme consequences."
I challenge Discover magazine to take a crack at my biography of Peter Duesberg, which has been around a couple of years now, and been subjected to the scrutiny of some pretty fair scientific minds as can be found here, and lay off Ms. Farber whose work over 20+ years speaks very clearly for itself through its profund impact, and does not need to be pre-mini-thunk for its readers. [Compare the dull as lead above with the recent review in Liberty magazine by Richard Kostelanetz to discover, in addition to some data, the difference between a profound hack and a real writer -- and for that matter, the difference between a substantial and Styrofoam magazine.]
Now the reason I make the challenge is not really to sell books (although that would be nice, see below), but because of the description of the work that appears at Barnes & Noble, and which I quote, as it is quite brief as well. It was written by an in-house book editor, not a professional science writer, and even it is much more instructive and lively than the two for a nickle one for a dime job above.
"The author is an unabashed friend of
Peter Duesberg and makes no bones about it in this personalized account of some
of what the transformation of classical molecular biology into biotechnology
has wrought. Most people, even many molecular biologists, will either not know
or remember that two of the great themes of modern medicine, AIDS and cancer
genes, both directly derive from the pioneering work on retroviruses of Peter
Duesberg and a handful of others in the 1970s. Thus Duesberg's more than two
decade, ongoing theoretical and experimental critiques of the dominant
etiological explanations in each of these fields comes from substantial
scientific contributions over a highly distinguished professional career that
not only placed him in the US National Academy of Sciences at the young age of 50 in 1986, but gave him
his own archive at the U.C. Berkeley Bancroft library--an archive that provided
much of the documentation for revelations about the extremely unscientific
behavior of several of Duesberg's powerful scientific adversaries. In tracing
Duesberg's academic trials, tribulations and recent emerging triumphs, the
author, an early PhD from the first department of molecular biology in the
country at Berkeley, and the founding scientific editor of Nature
Biotechnology, uses as guide posts the published papers of Duesberg from the
earliest critical analysis of oncogenes in the pages of Nature in 1983 to very
recent experimental demonstrations in the pages of the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences (USA) of quantitative, aneuploidy-based
explanations of cancer's genetic roots. In between, the book follows the
interruption of this classical scientific arc--in which one dominant paradigm
begins to transform into a more useful and correct one--with the story of the
iconoclastic professor's professionally self-destructive questioning of the
other pillar of today's biotech driven molecular medicine that he unwittingly
midwived--HIV and its relationship to AIDS etiology. The author interweaves
fully documented and serious scientific history with often quite funny personal
accounts to demonstrate how scientific theories develop and are shaped by
Harvey Bialy is the editor of "You Bet Your Life".