Yesterday one of my colleagues delivered a lecture on the cracking of the genetic code. I ended up discussing it with a student during the afternoon. That was an exciting time back in the early 1960's and as a teenager I followed the new biology in the pages of Scientific American. All the big names had articles in Scientific American.
Later on as a graduate student, a postdoc, and a young faculty member, I still looked forward to reading the monthly issue of Scientific American for accurate summaries of what was going on in science. But something happened in the 1990's. I started to see articles by scientists I'd never heard of even though they were writing on areas close to my interests. Furthermore, the quality of the articles was way below the standards set in previous decades. Often the authors were clearly promoting their own work and downplaying or ignoring the work of others. I started to lose confidence in Scientific American because I recognized that in my own areas of expertise the articles were no better than what you find in the tabloid science magazines. I assume this is true for all other disciplines as well.
I've criticized some of these articles in previous postings. For example, an article by Gil Ast on The Alternate Genome makes silly statements about basic molecular biology [Facts and Myths Concerning the Historical Estimates of the Number of Genes in the Human Genome]. Also see [Junk DNA: Scientific American Gets It Wrong (again)] and [The Hypocrisy of Scientific American].
[Duesberg has] proposed the hypothesis that the various American/European AIDS diseases are brought on by the long-term consumption of recreational drugs and/or AZT itself, which is prescribed to prevent or treat AIDS.
... from Peter Duesberg's website
April 14, 2007Imagine my lack of surprise when I picked up the latest issue and noticed that Peter Duesberg was the author of one of the feature articles. The editors know full well that this will provoke controversy so here's what they say in their editorial.
Even mentioning the name Peter Duesberg inflames strong feelings, both pro and con. After gaining fame in 1970 as the virologist who first identified a cancer-causing gene, in the 1980s he became the leading scientific torchbearer for the so-called AIDS dissidents who dispute that HIV causes the immunodeficiency disorder. To the dissidents, Duesberg is Galileo, oppressed for proclaiming scientific truth against biomedical dogma. A far larger number of AIDS activists, physicians and researchers, however, think Duesberg has become a crank who refuses to accept abundant proof that he is wrong. To them, he is at best a nuisance and at worst a source of dangerous disinformation on public health.Now let's unpack that opinion and put it in a different perspective to see where it takes us.
Readers may therefore be shocked to see Duesberg as an author in this month's issue. He is not here because we have misgivings about the HIV-AIDS link. Rather Duesberg has also developed a novel theory about the origins of cancer, one that supposes a derangement of the chromosomes, rather than of individual genes, is the spark that ignites malignant changes in cells. That concept is still on the fringe of cancer research, but laboratories are investigating it seriously. Thus, as wrong as Duesberg surely is about HIV, there is at least a chance that he is significantly right about cancer. We consider the case worthy of bringing to your attention.
When it comes to AIDS, Peter Duesberg is a kook. He has consistently ignored scientific evidence in order to promote himself and his losing cause. In the face of overwhelming evidence that HIV causes AIDS he has steadfastly maintained a contrary position.
It's okay to take a minority position in science. We all do that from time to time. It's how science advances. However, there is such a thing as scientific integrity and scientific honesty. When your favorite theory goes against all scientific evidence you have two choices. You give up your theory or you stop being a credible scientist. Duesberg has chosen the second option.
There may be a chance that Duesberg is right about his new cancer theory but that's not the point. He has stopped being a scientist and he should not be given a platform in any magazine that pretends to be scientific. Once you lose your scientific credibility you have lost it forever. We don't reward such people by continuing to take them seriously as long as they avoid the one topic where their lack of integrity is known.
There are plenty of credible scientists out there who could write about cancer. The fact that Scientific American has chosen to put it's reputation behind Duesberg is just one more example of the demise of a good journal. The fact that the editors knew exactly what they were doing is not mark in their favor. They don't get bonus points for doing something wrong with their eyes wide open.
I will now put Scientific American in the same class as kooks like Duesberg. It does not deserve respect.