Voltaire and the Scientists

Francois Marie Arouet – 18th Century writer, philosopher, and sit-down comedian (satirist) – is better known to all third semester French students as Voltaire. He lived his life in full. Smart, cruel, generous, witty, kind, atheistic, humanistic, misanthropic, absurdist, English-loving Francophobe, Francophilic Parisian; long-suffering, well-rewarded, hunted, despised, and dearly beloved.

He gave to literature some of the strangest confabulations ever seen, even in the modern era – stories of science fiction absurdity – spacemen, giants, deranged civilian populations, plagues, pirates and villains pretending to do public good; and then mystical, perfect (and boring) Edens, soon to be discarded for lustier, more perilous pursuits.

He tried to wrangle out of the human condition some sense, some middle ground, but seemed to enjoy the highs and lows of existence – in his writing, and in reality – more than the simple, quiet life his literary creations claimed to desire.

He gave, in some work or another, or perhaps only in speech, a phrase which echoes in my mind in almost every conversation I have with those defending the various religions of our era – Bird Flu, Aids, Sars, Bombing Iraq for democracy’s sake, etc.

“If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.”

(I have also seen it as, “If you want to speak with me…”)

I take it to mean, “If you want to debate me, first we must define the terms of our argument or there can be no meaningful debate.”

And this is advice I always take. There can be no discussion of any real merit, in my opinion, without reducing the ideas in question to their simplest, least-divisible form, for the purpose of absolute clarity, distinction, and for the most accurate transmission of meaning.

This process – the definition of terms – is, of course, not done, never done, always undone.

Define your terms.

War for Democracy. Invasion for Peace. Democratic Election every four years (choose the father/son, husband/wife team with the best handlers, 28 years running).

Define your terms.

“Deadly Pandemic Bird Flu.”

Deadly? Is it? Is it a flu? Has there been a pandemic? Is it a bird flu?

How and why do we know that? (And if we don’t, then why do we say it?)

Isn’t it also anything that occurs in poor rural Southeast Asian villages, that allows western powers to exercise some economic expansion?

“Hiv Causes Aids.”

What causes what? What is “hiv?” How do you define it? With tests that test for nothing?

What is Aids? Every disease that occurs in poor, brown-skinned people, and then, any condition at all that occurs in gay men? What is Aids, but a brand name, covering a litany of ancient biases, prejudices and presumed sins?

If you want to debate me, first, define your terms.

The so-called dissidents, and the orthodoxy alike, would surely be at a loss, if they stopped for a moment to really understand what it is they were arguing, arguing, arguing…

And so, I’ll ask:

Can we have some definition of terms in meaningful public debate? (And if not, can we agree that it’s not meaningful, after all?)


More on Voltaire Here and Here.

Voltaire’s Candide Here.

More on Testing Here and Here.

More on Bird Flu Here and Here.



  1. Thanks for this brilliant, and very to the point piece. It is sad that as far as AIDS is concerned it would seem to apply as much to the dissenters as much as the defenders. I am going to post the link on all the dissent forums, where the banality seems to be reaching alarming levels of fantasy and tosh.


  2. Hi Manu, good to hear from you,

    Fantasy and tosh is often the way, as you point out.

    It’s a tough walk uphill, to work through the thousands of mirrored halls of contradictory claims and papers, of public-relations onslaughts, and to begin to get to the point – what is it that is being talked about?

    What are the terms, in starkest, clearest, least obfuscated definition?

    What is “bird flu”? What is “aids”? What is “democratization” (by force)?

    Voltaire is a fascinating bit of history, a real human being, for all of his contradictions. I have read that his atheism eventually rubbed the blighted peasants the wrong way..

    It was, after all, a revolution waged, at least partially, in the name of utopic humanism. And all utopias fail to live up to their PR…

  3. as far as AIDS is concerned it would seem to apply as much to the dissenters as much as the defenders

    I agree, Manu.

    The only difference between the two “sides” is only a matter of degree. Both are entranced.

  4. Absolutely. One validates the other. lets get together and give then a run for their money. Who wants to be a dissident. let’s be heretics.

    Poenitentiam agite!! Poenitentiam agite !!

    Let’s take on the AIDS meme where ever it rears its horrible head.

  5. Liam and Manu,

    it’s apparent to me that even the mere attempt at getting people to agree on definitions has been a losing proposition (at least in the “HIV/AIDS” realm).

    About a month or so ago, you (Liam) asked the folks at AME to define HIV (X) and to define AIDS (Y). That request (define your terms) was met with silence.

    On the “other side”, I’ve asked the boys and girls at Tara’s to define “standard” and have only been given the runaround.

    So, how can there be any meaningful debate when no terms have been defined?

  6. Well,

    You can’t, can you?

    I mean, you can’t actually get anywhere – can’t actually Clarify anything.

    There is no elucidation possible, no grounding it in reality, no grinding it down to its non-reducible parts.

    It’s funny, really, how the reductionists Refuse to Reduce it ALL the way to the least common denominators.

    This just struck me yestderday, I think; that those who love to reduce reduce reduce all material to Pandemania of some sort or another, Cannot reduce their love of laboratory filigree, to the basic sums –

    What are the tests testing for?

    What is the actuality of the diagnosis, given that the tests don’t test for nothing, no-thing in particular (and everything, apparently, when you look at the tests in Actual USE – see http://www.aras.ab.ca/test.html )

    So, what is the filigree here, but that excessive detail which they use to foil a logical line of inquiry? It’s not ‘science’. It is not “knowing”, which science owes its root word to.

    It’s the opposite of knowing. It’s confounding, misleading, and deluding. It’s a magician’s trick, and yes, the dissidents are the chief audience and participants so much of the time.

    The dissidents are in the church. They are dissident to the conventional wisdom – but seem stuck in framing themselves against it, and nothing else.

    If you take T-Cells and Viral Load away from too many ‘dissidents’, you end up with, well, I don’t know what.

    This is the confounding part. To understand that there’s something wrong with a paradigm is a major breach, a massive undertaking, a grand first step.

    But where does it lead, if the paradigm is unready to break?

    And it is unready to break – there is too much money and too much actual Faith in the current techno-paradigms – bird flu/sars/aids, all the rest.

    Technology works, as we see, in our Priuses and iPods, laptops and Tivos…

    Why, then, the general public will ask, shouldn’t science work in telling people that (non-specific) antibody tests should be used to tell millions of people, unequivocally, that they’re going to die, no matter what, because they let their penis or vagina touch actual human flesh?

    I mean, it’s science! Right?


    No, wrong. It’s technology – and technology is something we are very good at – developing tools that do various things.

    We’re good at technology – we’re terrible at science. At actually Knowing. We are awful at understanding to the depths, without bias, without delusion, without prejudice.

    So, the technology for the various ridiculous non-tests used on black and gay folk – the technology is fairly simple, and ridiculously, highly, absurdly terrible, poor, volatile, useless for ‘knowing’ anything true and actual.

    But the belief – the belief carries the day.

    And it carries the day for those – even for those who doubt – or do not believe – the paradigm.

    It’s an amazing thing to watch.


    I think we three will start a new blog, yes?


  7. Great discussion.

    It really does touch on the medicalization of society — a pill for every ill.

    Pharmaceutical companies, doctors and scientists NEED disease, in the same way that defense contractors need war; in the same way that lawyers NEED dispute; in the same way that hospitals NEED sick people; in the same people of all stripes NEED a cause. Ad infinitum.

    If average folks started taking control of their own health, cutting out the cheeseburgers, Doritos, maybe exercising a bit, maybe even (dare I say it?) praying or meditating to get their minds onto something positive and healthy, there wouldn’t be a need for this desperate, cult-like clinging to death and disease. Virus worshipping would collapse.

    I think Liam has said numerous times that AIDS is a “brand,” like Coca-Cola. Once the brand is gone, all you have is carbonated sugar water. At that point, it ain’t so hot. De-branding AIDS is the next phase. Sadly, in the interim, folks will still fear it, still acquiesce to their fearful doctors, and still take the the fearful drugs.

  8. Here is my post on AME, which Dan referenced, on the Left’s religious devotion to the thing:


    Why does the Left go for it?

    Because Aids is a religion. It is the default reactivist position against christian orthodoxy, and the Left is sworn enemies with christian orthodoxy.

    So they bit another hook. I should say that they baited, inserted, and bit down on that other hook.

    Aids serves so many interests – national, economic, social – it lets us get into Africa, India, China, in ways that we’re not permitted by going through standard trade/civilian channels.

    It allows us to monitor world population – and interfere in growth. “Aids in Africa” is a brand – (see project ‘red’), that essentially recapitulates the role of the UN Population fund.

    The Left goes for it because they are less anti-homosexual than the hard Right, so when gay men started dying of a thousand things in the early 80s, and the Right said “It’s a curse from God!” The Left said, “Oh no, no. It can’t be that, we’ll go with what those nice, beneficent Scientists Say it is – a sex-virus. That Everybody is at risk for. (especially the gays and blacks).”


    One of the other problems in discussing it, is that the opposition have become fascists and nazis. Nazi in the sense of the propoganda used by H. Goerring and the rest.

    But the other problem is the issue you see right here on this board –

    The schism between parties among the Heretics.

    Aids heresy is just as religious as Aids orthodoxy.

    You’ve got the Duesbergians, and the Perthians.

    That is, you’ve got those who need to bow to an established authority, and those who don’t. And the schism makes arguing a clear point publicly almost impossible.

    It’s intensely frustrating.

    It is well known to all who read the material, that there are no tests for the thing – that there are no standards, no purified entity to speak of – and yet the discussion all goes to the first point – “Does X cause Y?”

    Rather than, “What the hell is X? How do you define X”

    And then, “How do you define Y?”

    Finally, you’ve got the problem of anonymity. All these internet pseudonyms don’t drive the discussion forward in the public sphere.


    Liam Scheff

  9. Liam, your comments are a breath of fresh air. You’ve got it right, I think, on understanding technology but not understanding science.

    I would say it reduces to the battle over who we are as a supposedly free people and what we should be free to pursue regarding our own health. Everyday, we are subject to heavy doses of propaganda that technology, especially medical technology, is beyond the control of “we the people”.

    So, as every schoolgirl should know, the salesmen of technotopia are behind the myriad “repackagings” of thoughts, the human genome, diseases, etc. that are pushed at us – the society of the spectacle – to borrow from the old new left. The desired result: as long as we can endlessly and mindlessly consume their endless brands, who cares whether or not we are free. And make no mistake, war has been declared on those “dissidents” who don’t want to participate in “spectacular” reality. (I hope my terms are clear from context.)

  10. Absolutely Liam,

    Ghosts everywhere. It looks like a Charles Dickens Christmas special on the dissent forums. There is this paranoia that the AIDS police will get to them. I honestly do not know what they are going on about. Are they all doctors or civil servants? It would be so easy to think they were on the lack of imagination of their arguments, but I really don’t think they all have so much to risk in signing with a real name.

    At times it’s like on the gay dating sites where all you see are headless pumped-up torsos, or even worse, a shot of an anus or a penis. I can think of hundreds of thing to do with a torso an anus and a penis but talking would not be one of them. A name and a face are basic for any real communication or debate. Why consent to live in fear like this? It’s unacceptable to me to let myself be bullied into that corner.

    Then you have the constant going round in circles with; as you say, Tcells and lymphocytes and oxidative semen, the Doctor factions with their fanatical blind religious-like zeal cause championing. It’s a joke.

    I particularly can’t understand why there is so much need to hold on to ideas that have so clearly failed for twenty-five years. This line of debate is absurd. It goes nowhere, as it’s just based on terms that (as you rightly say) mean NOTHING.

    Wouldn’t it be so much more fruitful to explain to those interested that these terms mean nothing, and why they mean nothing, instead of arguing their finer scientific points, which means nothing, thus making them seem like flawed theories when they are just NOTHING. It’s just jargon juggling.

    It’s true what you say about the reductionists refusing to reduce it right down to the fact that it’s nothing. Why would anyone not want to do that? What better way can there be to help those that are looking at this mess understand it? It makes many dissident voices look like they need it and not like they are fighting it.

    The refusal to do this is just beyond me. The argument that you can’t say to people that it’s all a big lie is silly. You can if you can also explain to them why it is a lie, and I believe that anyone can do that. The incident in the Bay of Tonkin that provoked the Vietnam War was a lie. It never happened. You don’t hear anyone refer to that in any other terms do you?

    What’s the difference with HIV=AIDS? Defining those terms would automatically lead you to see that they are both just lies turned belief and nothing more. Do ordinary people like us who claim to be dissidents really need to do more than that? Is this not the one and only thing that we can and should be doing instead of glorifying the absurd belief HIV does or does not cause AIDS all the time using the terminology belonging to the science fiction that bore it all.

    The only thing we should ask is: What do these terms mean? What are they? In both cases they mean nothing real. Give that to people and let them work out the rest. This could be a real strategy to use to educate people, but the majority of dissidents reject it. Why? I still cannot get to the bottom of that one.

    When will they all accept that:

    “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again…”
    King Lear

  11. Manu,

    Negation as a personal strategy has worked for you. Terrific!

    But if we’re defining our terms here, what can I possibly get – if I’m interested in what medical science has to tell me – from: it all means nothing? The genome research means nothing? RNA transcription in people with chronic diseases means nothing? What about cancers that have been classified as AIDS? WHAT?

  12. Gene,

    I must put it back to you, to tell me…

    What does “genome research” mean? What do “RNA transcriptions in chronic disease” mean? Actually mean?

    (What has this work done for any single person, anyone, or any group of people? For society? For the world?)

    What do ‘cancers that have been classified as Aids” mean?

    (We agree on the reclassification – so what does that mean? What does that tell us? About science, about medicine, about its role in society?)

    What does “mean” mean?

    By “Mean”, do you ‘mean’, that it has or does not have value?

    Value for whom?

    (for the grad students paying their rents in Cambridge? Sure, it has meaning…)

    But the question in the post is about only one thing – “hiv testing”.

    What is the meaning of a standardless test, that is positive (and negative) for everything or anything, depending on the day, the lab, the skin color?

    Well… the meaning is perhaps anything, and therefore, nothing in particular.

    What’s the purpose of debating it? Debating whether a nothing has great meaning (and what it might possibly, potentially be)?

    I think the meaning there is to insure that the paradigm does not budge.

    Or, that the paradigm is in no danger of budging, because the participants are not ready to concede, in totality, the argument.

    Technology is interesting, fascinating, and often life-bettering.

    And then, just as often, it is useless, dehumanizing, infantilizing, misleading, duplicitous, manipulative.

    So, I will rewrite your question, if you will allow, to answer the question I would like to discuss:

    What purposes does the “hiv test” – a non-specific, non-standardized, cross-reactive, poly-reactive, synthetic, ruless, subjectively interpretted, and in the end, valueless, in the face of skin color and sexual orientation, not-quite-antibody test –

    what does it serve?

    What does it “Mean”, in the larger, historical, sociological sense.

    We can agree on its frailty and its failure to do what it claims.

    So, why is it so embraced by those – especially by those – whom it targets for death?

    This is where my interests go.

    I don’t know what overall value or “meaning” the current filligrees of techno-science offer, or whom, beside their immediate financial benefactors, they ultimately serve.

    I don’t think they extend too far. I think they offer what they offer – a little hope, a lot of work done, and wheels spun, and money traded.

    I think they offer highways (and by-ways) into countries that we wish to develop according to a certain model (but not according to notions of sovereignty and liberty).

    I think any number of things… but let me hear back from you.



    PS – Manu, I loved your post – pictures of torsos and tushies – yes, not universal symbols for ‘talking’. Clear, terribly funny points, when put into profile like that.

  13. Thank you Liam i could never have put it better myself. I lack patience and tact ;-)

    Negation? LOL sometimes I wonder what people think the word “projection” actually means. I am not in negation of anything except the fact i need no Gods to worship or devils to despise.

    It just seems to me to all boil down to that in the end…?

    “RNA transcription in people with chronic diseases”, to me that sounds exactly the same as “Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners”, with one difference; the latter seems to hold up better with time, even though it means nothing either.

    You see Gene, to spin yarns you need to have a good sense of the poetic, and when science sold itself to spinning yarns it did not take that factor into account. Nor did it take into account that once you spin yarns you are judged with the rules of that medium.

    Science and poetry do not mix too well as I believe they are actually opposites…and in calling unproven theories and sometimes even blatant lies poetry I am letting science off lightly whilst doing a huge injustice to poetry…

  14. Also, my strategy is not negation. it is trying to make the AIDS fiasco cost science all credibility. The failure of science to bring this fraud under control will, and should cost them credibility on everything else, at least with ordinary people, who do not bother to investigate themselves but take for granted that scientists and politicians will protect them from these kinds of frauds, which is quite right considering that they are both supposed to be there to serve the public.

    AIDS seems to have marked the end of that contract, but not the end of the means of funding them.

    That’s what this is about too. They should be made to clean up their house before they sell us more wonders.

    Just like the church and its paedophiles…do you get my drift?

  15. So many terms interesting terms in the AIDS mythology.

    How do we define risk group?

    How do we define gay? Are happy people “at risk”?

    Why are ethnic minorities “at risk”?

    Why is everybody at risk, but some are more “at risk” than others?

  16. Very good Liam, nice response, almost postmodern in flavor, except I’m not about to dismiss what you’ve said with THAT kind of handwaving.

    Need I point out that there have been many philosophers of science since Voltaire who’ve come to different conclusions on “defining ones terms” as a prerequisite to an intelligent discussion on what exactly constitutes “scientific method”. I can also make another gesture quoting Feyerabend to dismiss Voltaire, but this would not due justice to your complaint.

    Needless to say, it would also not be fair to insist that your position appears superficially to resemble the employees of the orthodoxy who’ve been going at us “newbies” since Harvey Bialy first presented the “flat curve case”, a simple an elegant falsification of hiv epidemiology at Dean Esmay’s site in January 2005.

    And, btw, I congratulate you for sticking your neck out to produce excellent journalism.

    Everything that follows can be placed in the context of T. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and may I ask that rather than “defining terms” you look up the necessary in that wonderful book. For the “genomic context” please go to http://www.i-sis.org.uk/RNASTGT.php. For an introduction to stress and transcription http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MCDIRTS.php

    I would recommend this site to all journalists for an important primer on biotechnology and a fair counterbalance to the industry’s claims

    And now, the specifics:

    “What does ‘genome research’ mean? What do ‘RNA transcriptions in chronic disease’ mean? Actually mean?”

    I recently posted at AME that in a rational world virology would be subsumed under toxicology. I’m interested in biological markers that have been associated with the general adaptation syndrome (Hans Selye), especially reactions to oxidative stress. Starting (but certainly not ending) with the Perth Group, there is overwhelming evidence that retroviral transcriptions (DNA to RNA and vice versa) belong in that set of biological markers.

    Genome research, as every schoolgirl knows, is the paradigm established by the human genome project. I would say that patenting the genomes of indigenous peoples means something, but hey – that’s just me.

    “(What has this work done for any single person, anyone, or any group of people? For society? For the world?)”

    Good question. I say do your own research and evaluate biotech’s claims and the counter-arguments of critics like Mae Wan Ho.

    What do ‘cancers that have been classified as Aids” mean?

    Simply the CDC’s inclusion of certain lymphoma’s and Kaposi’s Sarcoma into the “surveillance” definition of AIDS.

    “(We agree on the reclassification – so what does that mean? What does that tell us? About science, about medicine, about its role in society?)”

    It kept alive a dead hypothesis: viruses causing cancer. Many long-winded essays have been written answering the last 2 questions.

    “What does ‘mean’ mean?

    “By ‘Mean’, do you ‘mean’, that it has or does not have value?”

    some postmodern joking eh liam

    “But the question in the post is about only one thing – ‘hiv testing’.

    “What is the meaning of a standardless test, that is positive (and negative) for everything or anything, depending on the day, the lab, the skin color?”

    Clearly an important meaning is the psycho-social construction of the tests, which can lead to the death of an individual. As everyone knows by now, this has become a high stakes issue for every side of this debate. Certain very powerful stakeholders are actively suppressing the message that deconstructs the meaning of these tests as assigned by them. You say it’s a big nothing! Who cares? I can’t see this from my vantage point.

    “So, why is it so embraced by those – especially by those – whom it targets for death?”

    I don’t know what that means.

  17. It’s like seeing that a restaurant is infested with cockroaches, but the waiters still keep insisting one try the Ratatouille followed by Coc Au Vin as they are sure that no cockroaches actually fell in those particular pots.

    It also seems to go as far as to actually expect the customers themselves to roll up the sleeves and clean up the mess, at which point the some just order wine and just decide to get drunk…

  18. Manu,

    There are indeed poetic truths and if that’s where your interests lie – I say go for it. What I’m learning from people like yourself is that healing can take many forms.

    Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to the “anti-science” charge, but I do believe in the maxim that no one can predict where research in a given developing technology – even that which starts out completely wrongheaded – is going to lead in terms of future benefits to humanity. This is, of course, a huge discussion, which is why I posted the link to Mae Wan Ho’s excellent website.

  19. We are grateful for poetic truths; given that so many scientific ones are suddenly exposed as plain lies for profit…some even contribute to mass murder…there again, I believe some even argue that Eugenics is for the benefit of humanity too…

    “I suppose one can commit any savagery they like,
    Just as long as you call it something nice…”


  20. And on that note:

    Most Science Studies Appear to Be Tainted By Sloppy Analysis


    Wall Street Journal
    September 14, 2007

    We all make mistakes and, if you believe medical scholar John Ioannidis, scientists make more than their fair share. By his calculations, most published research findings are wrong.

    Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.

    These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. “There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims,” Dr. Ioannidis said. “A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true.”

    The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.

    [huh? Wha? Come on! You’re kidding me! Money influences SCIENCE? Noooo, you don’t say.]

    Take the discovery that the risk of disease may vary between men and women, depending on their genes. Studies have prominently reported such sex differences for hypertension, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, as well as lung cancer and heart attacks. In research published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ioannidis and his colleagues analyzed 432 published research claims concerning gender and genes.

    Upon closer scrutiny, almost none of them held up. Only one was replicated.

    Statistically speaking, science suffers from an excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets. “People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual,” Dr. Ioannidis said.

    In the U. S., research is a $55-billion-a-year enterprise that stakes its credibility on the reliability of evidence and the work of Dr. Ioannidis strikes a raw nerve. In fact, his 2005 essay “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” remains the most downloaded technical paper that the journal PLoS Medicine has ever published.

    “He has done systematic looks at the published literature and empirically shown us what we know deep inside our hearts,” said Muin Khoury, director of the National Office of Public Health Genomics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need to pay more attention to the replication of published scientific results.”

    Every new fact discovered through experiment represents a foothold in the unknown.

    [Pleeeeeaaaasee. Oy vay, these people are self-aggrandizing. A foothold into the unknown? How about “a foothold into the New York Stock Exchange.”]

    In a wilderness of knowledge, it can be difficult to distinguish error from fraud, sloppiness from deception, eagerness from greed or, increasingly, scientific conviction from partisan passion. As scientific findings become fodder for political policy wars over matters from stem-cell research to global warming, even trivial errors and corrections can have larger consequences.

    Still, other researchers warn not to fear all mistakes. Error is as much a part of science as discovery. It is the inevitable byproduct of a search for truth that must proceed by trial and error. “Where you have new areas of knowledge developing, then the science is going to be disputed,

    [Wha? What? “Dispute,” Allowed in Science? Never. Never!]

    subject to errors arising from inadequate data or the failure to recognize new matters,” said Yale University science historian Daniel Kevles. Conflicting data and differences of interpretation are common.

    To root out mistakes, scientists rely on each other to be vigilant. Even so, findings too rarely are checked by others or independently replicated. Retractions, while more common, are still relatively infrequent. Findings that have been refuted can linger in the scientific literature for years to be cited unwittingly by other researchers, compounding the errors.

    Stung by frauds in physics, biology and medicine, research journals recently adopted more stringent safeguards to protect at least against deliberate fabrication of data. But it is hard to admit even honest error. Last month, the Chinese government proposed a new law to allow its scientists to admit failures without penalty. Next week, the first world conference on research integrity convenes in Lisbon.

    Overall, technical reviewers are hard-pressed to detect every anomaly. On average, researchers submit about 12,000 papers annually just to the weekly peer-reviewed journal Science. Last year, four papers in Science were retracted. A dozen others were corrected.

    No one actually knows how many incorrect research reports remain unchallenged.

    Earlier this year, informatics expert Murat Cokol and his colleagues at Columbia University sorted through 9.4 million research papers at the U.S. National Library of Medicine published from 1950 through 2004 in 4,000 journals. By raw count, just 596 had been formally retracted, Dr. Cokol reported.

    The correction isn’t the ultimate truth either,” Prof. Kevles said.

    Email the author at ScienceJournal@wsj.com

  21. Good points, Liam.

    One of the unfortunate hallmarks of medical research is that independent researchers do not have access to the raw data as a check against the massaged data from which the conclusions and inferences are drawn.

    The usual excuse is “privacy” of medical records but it’s a simple matter to hide personal information in a data base. The real problem for “orthodoxy” that the use of, say, a Microsoft Excel program that can sort the raw data in various ways poses is that control over final interpretation is lost. Which makes it difficult to reach the predetermined result of a germ from which a pharmaceutical cure can be derived. At the dawn of the personal computer revolution, data from every single AIDS patient could have been made available to independent investigators. I think this very ability to challenge a viral interpretation of the epidemic, independence from the premature CDC/NIH consensus, could have prevented the AZT deaths that followed.

    This ideal situation, based on the early prediction that personal computers would empower individuals over institutions has only been partly met in practice, and most certainly institutionalized biomedicine has closed ranks with strict control over information that would turn “anecdotes” into “science”. This control enables them to swat away alternative interpretations of disease causation and hold back understanding on the nature of chronic diseases, especially those caused by toxic stressors.

    Thus, as many have said before, pluralism in the funding of research is the answer to sloppy science, so that the theoretical “self correcting mechanism” can actually take place.

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