During last weeks Battle of the Titans, I got several comments and emails from readers with the same question:
Where do these kooks come from? How do you go from being a PhD, or MD, or DDS, and turn into a complete whackjob?
Well, I cant say what Horowitzs deal is. That is the job of a mental health professional. And it would be rather pretentious of me to talk about the sociological/educational/cultural forces behind HIV Denialism in Africa/homosexual community/society at large. I could guess, but thats not my specialty either.
What I can comment on is how science/scientists operate, and how some people make the decision to transition from ‘scientist’ to ‘kook’.
A– Scientists are wrong all the time.
This is the nature of the job. Youre wrong. A lot. If youre right, say, 20% of the time, youre on a fast track to win a Nobel. The trick to working with this persistent, inevitable wrongness is to make sure that if youre wrong, your data can still point you into a more-right direction. Set up your experiments logically with all the right controls, so when your data doesnt support your hypothesis, you know where you can go and what you can try next.
Because of this inherent wrongness, sometimes it takes the scientific community a while to figure out the right answers. Sometimes we have two, three, more hypotheses from different people to answer the same question at the same time. A modern day example would be if/how a virus called MMTV is related to human breast cancer. Some scientists say they can find MMTV in human breast cancers. Some scientists say they cant find it in human tumors. Like I said in another post, the fastest way to start a fist fight at a scientific conference would be to scream ‘MMTV CAUSES CANCER!!’ into a packed auditorium of retrovirologists.
Eventually, we will get an answer to this question. Either MMTV causes breast cancer in humans, MMTV sometimes causes breast cancer in humans or only a certain kind of breast cancer, or MMTV doesnt cause breast cancer in humans.
Now here is where we get to the kook part– Say we finally determine that MMTV does not cause any kind of breast cancer in humans. All the normal scientists on the ‘MMTV causes cancer’ side will say ‘Aw. Man. Oh well, my bad.’ and keep doing science. Admitting youre wrong in science is not a big deal because scientists are wrong all the time!
Where one transitions from ‘scientist’ to ‘kook’ is the inability to say ‘I was wrong’ and move forward. In the 1980s, Peter Duesberg could have been right! No one knew what was causing this scary-ass world-wide epidemic. Yeah, it might have been HIV-1, but in the US it could have been a side-effect of some recreational drug, only surfacing when use was wide-spread and intense enough. Duesberg could have been right!
But as time went on, evidence stacked up on the side of the ‘HIV-1–>AIDS’ people, and nothing supported the ‘drugs–>AIDS’ people. If Duesberg were a scientist, he could say ‘Ek. Im wrong. Good on you all.’ and continued his career.
But he could not, can not, admit he is wrong. Thus, he is a kook.
B– There is more to being a scientist than being contrary.
There is nothing particularly interesting about being contrary in science– saying the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Its not particularly neat because, A– Scientists are wrong all the time. Thus, if you always say the opposite of what other people say, eventually you will be right.
That doesnt mean you are an ‘innovator’ or a ‘genius’ or a ‘rebel’.
When I was an undergrad, I was kinda scared of grad school. I was like ‘How the hell do scientists think of all these cool experiments??’ Well, the more you know, the easier good questions come to you… but questions arent really the hard part. Anyone can ask ‘Maybe Vpu arose from a recombination between influenza and HIV?’ Anyone can ask ‘Maybe HIV-1 doesnt cause AIDS!’ Anyone can just be contrary and say ‘Maybe aneuploidy isnt an effect of cancer, but a cause!’
Thats not the hard part.
Where ‘genius’ comes in handy is designing experiments to answer your questions, however stupid or contrary or controversial or brilliant your questions are.
Kooks do not answer their own questions. To bring this outside of the realm of HIV Denialism, lets look at Behe. Michael Behe hasnt expended one calorie of energy supporting his own claims. Everyone else has taken the time to design experiments that not only firmly established all of Behes proclaimed ‘irreducibly complex’ systems arent, but increased humanities knowledge of the universe.
So when asked where I think kooks like Duesberg/Behe/etc come from, my answers are that they are either too arrogant to back down from their bad ideas, or theyre too stupid/lazy to design the necessary experiments for them to gain credibility in the scientific world, thus they pander to non-scientists.