Rhetoric and science. 22 September 2003
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Christopher J Noble,
postdoctoral fellow
Bern Switzerland

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Re: Rhetoric and science.

Murali Mohan Chakkilala asks some important questions.

Where is this debate going?

I don't know either.

I also concede that I have not been totally diplomatic nor have I been as skilled in the use of rhetoric as the Perth Group. However, although rhetoric and diplomacy are very important in politics they are of secondary importance in science. In science it is the data and evidence that are important. Every scientist has access to this data that is published in scientific journals and can evaluate the merit of an argument based on this data. On the other hand rhetoric often consists of simplistic arguments that are superficially very convincing.

Here is a prime example.

"The difference between the human and the chimpanzee genomes is no more than 2% while there is up to 40% variation between "HIV" genomes"

Most people have heard at some time that the genomes of humans and chimpanzees differ by only a few percent and so differences of up to 40% between different HIV isolates sounds enormous. How can they still both be HIV?

The Perth Group have used this argument often and from the number of times that I have heard or seen people repeating it I know that it is a very successful argument. It is successful in the sense that it convinces a large number of laypeople that there is something implausible about the HIV genome. But is there any substance to this argument? In reality comparing the genomes of mammals with retroviruses is blatantly stupid. There is roughly an inverse relationship between the size of the genome and the degree of variability in the genome.

The Perth Group are obviously not intending to convince scientists using this argument. They are directing their rhetoric towards laypeople. This is precisely why I am so annoyed by the tactics of the Perth Group. They have used rhetoric and politics to keep the so-called controversy regarding HIV isolation alive. Citing a large number of references and selectively quoting passages that superficially appear to support your arguments while ignoring everything that contradicts your claims is not science. Scientists will read the cited references. They will determine whether the references support the claims.

Peer review is by no means perfect but it does provide some degree cerntainty about the quality of the work. When you read claims on the internet you need to be skeptical. This forum is no exception. The BMJ rapid responses are not peer reviewed nor should they be. It is a place to express opinions, it is not a place to publish scientific papers.

It is interesting to note that the Perth Group webpage contains a link to their article "A critical examination of the evidence for the existence of HIV" which they have posted in this rapid response debate. I have to ask why do they not just store the article on their own webserver. At minimum they are using the BMJ as a free webserver. At worst they are trying to pretend that their article has been published in the BMJ. It would be more honest to go through the normal channels and submit the paper for peer review and possible publication.

Be skeptical of everything that you read.

Competing interests:   None declared