Impossible requests and absence of evidence 18 October 2004
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Nicholas Bennett,
Infectious Disease Postdoc/Clinician
Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital, Syracuse NY

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Re: Impossible requests and absence of evidence

Alex Russell has confirmed my worst fears:

"Mr. Bennett makes the following correct observation:

"Any reference I supply will not match Mr Russell's criteria: it is clear that he will only accept something akin to a hour-by-hour timecourse study of EM visualisation of seminal or vaginal secretions prior to, during and after intercourse backed up by EM visualisation of blood borne infection."

Right on, Mr. Bennett, that's exactly what I require - if you claim 'HIV' is alive and doing something then show it to me. "

I have to raise my hands and say, I cannot. What I described was a hypothetical experiment that may not be possible to do in the next decade, maybe in the next 20-30 years. If Mr Russell clearly has a lot of knowledge acquired through his investigation of HIV and AIDS, but with no disrespect intended lacks the understanding of what to do with that knowledge.

He is entirely correct that critical thinking is paramount: as ex- chairman of a journal club I witnessed paper after paper getting metaphorically shredded every week. What the training I have had has given me is the ability to tell what is worth junking and what is not. When I hear:

"HIV is not found by EM, but can be found by culture PCR and serology" I think: fine.

When I hear: "All STDs must have an equal distribution between the sexes." I think: what the heck? That's rubbish.

And so on, throughout the entirety of the literature we have probably mutually reviewed over the last few years.

I have no doubt that I had proof of EM but no culture, Mr Russell would ask for that instead. He wants proof of "live virus" after all, and EM is merely structural evidence. The lymph node EMs are often performed alongside HIV positive samples, the placental EMs by other retrovirus researchers. They clearly don't think it undermines the HIV story, mostly because they have done controls to show the difference (sometimes morphological, despite what Mr Russell says, sometimes by other techniques).

Contamination is a problem in some older preps: this is because the virus is pathogenic in culture and destroys the cells (contrary to what the Perth Group persist in saying). Onco-retroviruses do not do this. I and others have presented several papers showing better views using alternative techniques.

As I have said before, Mr Russell rejects science that scientists do not, and asks for evidence that cannot easily be performed. It is not unusual to spend 6-12 months from the time of choosing to run an assay to getting solid results (i.e. of publishable quality). That is even using established techniques of simple assays (e.g. the gel-shift assays I performed for part of my PhD). After spending 3 months getting results, after spending around 6 months getting the assays perfected and producing reagents, it then turns out that the system is far more complicated that I anticipated and the experiment wasn't powerful enough to answer the question beyond: "The system is far more complicated than we anticipated." This is how real science tends to progress.

Mr Russell already has the skills of critical thinking, but I cannot teach him the knowledge required to execute that ability with scientific journals through the Rapid Responses. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...

Nick Bennett njb35@cantab.net

Competing interests: None declared