Regular readers may recall me previously discussing Rebecca Culshaw (for reference, threads can be found here and here). She’s a PhD mathematician who wrote two articles discussing her departure from her prior research, which focused on mathematical models of HIV infection. I pointed out in one comment that her training is in math, and not biology, and that from her articles, she showed a very poor understanding of not only basic biological techniques (such as the polymerase chain reaction) but infectious disease epidemiology in general. Other HIV deniers responded that, because she did mathematical modelling, of course she had to have training in these areas. I think quotes from her recent interview again show otherwise:
Zenger’s: What were the factors that actually decided you that what we have been told about AIDS cannot be true and that HIV cannot be the cause of it, certainly not the way the mainstream says it is?
Culshaw: There were a lot of different deciding factors, to be honest with you. It was more an accumulation of information, some of it scientific but some of it political and sociological. I’ll start with the scientific evidence first. When I read some of Peter Duesberg’s stuff, I had never known what the difference was, really, between a virus and a retrovirus. I didn’t realize, for example, that our cells can produce retroviruses but they can’t produce real viruses — well, not “real viruses,” I don’t mean.
Zenger’s: Meaning the difference between an endogenous and an exogenous virus.
Culshaw: Yes, thank you. Good.
Note that, according to Culshaw’s own timeline, this is at least well after she was into her Master’s research on HIV models, since she says that the first time she found out about the virus myth group was when she picked up a copy of Spin magazine while on her way to a conference to present a talk. So even though she was already well into her own research modelling HIV, she didn’t understand the difference between an exogenous and an endogenous retrovirus.
It’s things like this that make scientists tear their hair out. Culshaw claims that “it was not the mathematical models themselves that caused [her] to doubt HIV, but rather the scientific literature on which the models are based.” So clearly, she must know more than HIV virologists who’ve spent their careers studying the cell biology, pathogenesis, immunology, epidemiology, etc. of the virus. But even in this current interview, her interviewer is the one who has to set her straight regarding some very basic viral biology. This is the reason why I discussed how arguments from authority should be taken with a great deal of salt. Having knowledge in one area doesn’t make you an expert across the board.
The rest of the interview is largely a collection of HIV-denial talking points, but there are a few parts that are interesting. I know mathematicians often get stereotyped as being a bit too uptight and logic-focused, and not having much understanding of how experimental science operates. Culshaw, unfortunately, seems to fit that stereotype:
As mathematicians, we’re trained to be very, very skeptical of our own theories. If you come up with some model or some idea that works for basically everything you’ve observed, you state it as a conjecture and then you try to prove it. But you never, ever, ever say, “Well, I’ve seen all these examples, and it works for all these examples, therefore it must be true.” You can’t do that. You would never finish your course, let alone get anything published.
Another thing is that if you have a theory, and you come across one counter-example that flies in the face of that theory, then you have to throw it out. You cannot use it again. It seemed to me, like with the HIV theory, not only were they using a bunch of examples but they were throwing away every counter-example that they found. I understand that medicine and biology are not as rigorous as mathematics, and there might be a little bit more room to move when it comes to proving things, but it seemed that they came up with this theory, and when it didn’t fit the observations, it wasn’t the theory that’s wrong, it was the observations. That’s counter-natural. That’s not the way science should work.
The problem is that there aren’t any counter-examples that “fly in the face of the theory,” and that biology is simply a lot messier than mathematics. As I’ve mentioned many times, if Culshaw’s objections were applied universally to all infectious disease research, we’d have many more germ theory deniers out there. At least they’re consisent.