Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ethics and "House of Numbers"

For your information today is Rethinking AIDS day. And I'll make a few points about the accusations against the filmmaker Brent Leung and HIV/AIDS dissidents.

I'll focus on this news story:
Crazy ’House’ by Ethan Jacobs (Wednesday Apr 22, 2009)

Basically this is what happened apparently:

A panel discussion about a controversial AIDS documentary, House of Numbers, descended into a screaming match April 21 at the Boston International Film Festival.
And I consider this the most important part:

... Following the panel Leung told Bay Windows that he nearly pulled the film from the festival 15 minutes before the screening. He said festival organizers had promised him that there would be a "two-sided" panel discussion, and he objected to the selection of Cranston as moderator, calling him "obviously biased to one side" because of his work on HIV/AIDS in the public health sector. ...

The "panel" consisted solely of proponents of the HIV/AIDS theory. And what's the defense?

...The film festival released a statement saying that ... "The Boston International Film Festival never intended to host a formal debate about the film; we intended to provide a forum in which members of the community could engage with, and respond to, the film. ..."
Great. What kind of forum was it exactly?

The panel, organized by Amit Dixit -- a board member of Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association (MASALA) -- in conjunction with Fenway Community Health and the festival organizers, included Kuritzkes [an HIV expert and Harvard Medical School professor] and Fenway president and CEO Dr. Stephen Boswell. Kevin Cranston, head of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease, served as moderator...

Even if we ignore the fact that they seem to have deceived the filmmaker, what sense does it make to create such a one-sided panel? How did the organizers really decide that this was a smart thing to do? It seems that knowing that they were doing something that is completely unbalanced and unfair, the panel organizers also felt that "the presence of a police officer at the screening in response to concerns about security" was necessary. Of course they knew that people wouldn't welcome such a blatantly biased panel. But this is actually their alleged excuse for the police:

Dixit, who worked with the festival organizers to organize the panel discussion, said the festival requested a police officer because an AIDS denialist with a past history of violent actions and run-ins with the law had posted on the Internet that he would attend the Nashville screening, and the Boston festival organizers were concerned he would attend the Boston screening as well.
As if anything to be worried about happened at Nashville... All I heard about it was that it was a calm event, with a respectful Q&A afterwards. So why so much tension at Boston? Again, they knew that their obvious bias would get some reactions, and rightfully so. The excuse with the anonymous criminal "denialist" who attended the screening at Nashville is just pathetic. It's irrational, paranoid, hysterical, and probably dishonest too. I'd argue that the police officer was there to strengthen the authority of the one-sided panel.

[UPDATE: More info on that from Clark Baker, who was the "dangerous" individual apparently]

At the end of the article the bias of the panel becomes evident:

Dixit said that he believes the film presents a biased perspective in favor of the AIDS denialists, and the goal in selecting Boswell and Kuritzkes as the panelists was to bring in respected members of the local scientific community to present their response to the claims laid out in the film.
Yeah sure, but couldn't they have done it if there were others who disagreed with their views on the panel? Why the need for inviting just one side?

"I said [to the filmmakers during the planning process] you have 87 minutes, and then the director Q&A, but for me to put these people on the same panel [the night of the screening] who barged up, who have no credentials, it’s an absolute insult to the people we know, it’s an insult to Boswell and Dan who have been doing this for years. ... Fenway, myself, we were about creating a scientific dialogue, that was what the whole premise was," said Dixit.
They felt the need to barge up because there was no balance at all, in that "scientific dialogue". Liam Scheff is a Journalist who was involved in the controversy for years, he was the journalist to expose the controversial NIH clinical trial issue. And Christian Fiala is an experienced medical doctor, who spent the time to write a whole book on AIDS. Fiala was even a member of the South Africa Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel alongside people like Luc Montagnier; Nobel Prize Winner for the "discovery of HIV". If we're going to play this game, neither Kuritzkes, nor Boswell are really "HIV scientists" either; they are not virologists. Apparently Dixit thinks that a M.D. with a belief in HIV/AIDS automatically has more credentials than a M.D. with doubts.

If Dixit wasn't satisfied with people like Dr. Fiala, he should've invited people like Duesberg, Margulis, Mullis or whatever. What he attempted to do was inacceptable, especially for discussing a documentary that seeks to create dialog.

And in real science, real scientists don't have such huge egos anyway. They are not supposed to feel insulted even if people who don't have any credentials at all challenge their views. If they're really that confident in their science, they should be able to respond to any challenge easily. If they don't have a complete answer for some challenges, they should be able to acknowledge that, and they should be looking to all kinds of challenges as an opportunity to learn from others, independent from the challengers' credentials. As an example Alfred Wegener's contributions to geology come to mind, who was an astronomer by training. As far as I know he was primarily dismissed, not being an "expert" geologist and all. For years his geological work wasn't taken seriously. But nowadays he's remembered as a geologist, instead of an astronomer. (Note that this doesn't mean that Wegener was right. There is also room for doubting his science.)

Feynman once said: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts" and Einstein once said: "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." Is that so hard to get? A certain disrespect for authority is one of the most fundamental necessities of science.

I'll write some more later, about how the filmmakers allegedly took stuff out of context and all that...

P.S. You can read a letter written by Liam Scheff to the reporter of the above story here:
From Liam Scheff to associate editor Ethan Jacobs and “letters to the editor”

...You wrote that people in the audience wanted to ’silence’ your expert, but the reality was that those of us in the film, who were invited from far and wide to the festival were also told, as was Mr. Leung, the director, that we were all to be on a bi-partisan panel - a panel open to the ‘establishment,’ and its critics (those you cleverly call ‘denialists,’ without regard to their humanity, actual politics or points of view). We were told that we were to be part of an open discussion about some the controversial statements revealed in the film.
So, when your ‘expert’ arrived on the scene to ‘debunk’ the movie - a film that had been accepted to a festival - we who were in the film, thought we were going to be part of an open discussion. After all, this would have been the same consideration shown to your ‘expert,’ who was also in the film.
But he was given center stage, the rest were excluded and, to use your word, ’silenced.’ The room was shut down, Kuritzkes began a lecture-cum-soliloquy, and wouldn’t pause or break for questions, until forced to by the moderator.
I’m sure you left those details out for some good reason. But the questions raised by the film remain...

And here you can read the South African Panel report, to which Christian Fiala contributed: AIDS Panel Report, March 2001

The central basis of the split was, in the opinion of the author of this report, not based on deeply entrenched ideological positions or blind passion. The split was instead based on fundamental disagreement on the interpretation of the scientific and clinical data and evidence on the cause and progression of AIDS. It was also apparent during the deliberations that there were many legitimate scientific questions to which scientific research has not yet generated answers. In the latter case, no amount of debate between adversaries can manufacture an answer. The only way of generating the answers is to carry out proper scientific investigations. An example of such a question is by what specific mechanism does the HIV induce the depletion of CD4 cells? ...

A little addition: Controversy lingers after premiere of Nashville director's AIDS documentary

Apparently Dr. Jeanne Bergman of "" have shouted "You're a fucking liar!" at one panelist after another screening. I wish I could be there to feel the atmosphere and observe all the interactions more closely...
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