THREE MODERN GALILEOS
By Anthony Liversidge
Omni, June 1993
believes that large dosages of vitamin C prevents manyailments,
including cancer. Duesberg disputes the idea that certain oncogenes
cause cancer in humans. Gold believes that petroleum is a product
of geological processes.
at last, the Catholic Church confessed. The New York Times' frontpage
headline read: "After 350 Years, Vatican Says Galileo Was Right:
It Moves." Following a 13-year investigation by an expert panel
of scientiests, theologians, and historians, Pope John Paul II was
prepared to correct the record.
In 1632, Galileo
wrote that he had evidence that the earth moves around the sun rather
than vice versa. He should not, today's Pope now acknowledges, have
been hauled before a tribunal, threatened with torture, forced to
recant, banned from publication, and banished for the rest of his
life to his country estate. As the Church panel now confirms, Galileo
was right on the money all the time.
for most of us. Moreover, the story of a great scientist battling
established religion seems irrelevant to the modern world-or is
scientists claim that the repression of Galileo's ideas only foreshadowed
the politics they have to contend with today. They insist that another
church has established itself, a more insidious enemy to truth seeking
than the Catholic Church of old. This time the church shutting out
new ideas as heresy and blocking the march of truth is the scientific
iconoclasts aren't New Age freaks, homeopaths, or astrologers-outsiders
typically hostile to scientists who scorn them. They rank among
the most distinguished and productive men and women in American
science and include Nobel laureates. They are, you might say, the
right, the Popes and Cardinals of modern science are turning a deaf
ear to potential breakthroughs in cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and
the global energy crisi. Even if they're wrong, their claims that
a heretic in science, however well qualified, can't gain a fair
hearing if he or she threatens the status quo often seem justified.
Pauling, the best known of these iconoclasts. He's a household name
as a world-famous scientist and talk-show author of a popular book
on diet, How to Live Longer and Feel Better. Pauling remains the
only person in the universe to have won two unshared Nobel prizes:
for Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace prize in 1962 for his
crusade against nuclear weapons, James D. Watson, the decoder of
DNA, joins many other top scientists in calling Pauling "the
greatest of all chemists."
hale and hearty at 92. His cheeks are rosy and his twinkling blue
eyes clear and sharp. He seems the very picture of health despite
a brief bout with prostate cancer last year, now under control,
he claims. The only sign of age is a quaver in his voice. Pauling
can brief journalists from memory on his latest work, quoting a
slew of facts and dates without missing a beat.
is asked about most often is his favorite theory: that vitamin C
in large doses not only wards off colds, but also the major afflictions
of Western man-heart disease and cancer.
The spry Pauling
seems a living testimonial to his own advice. He stirs a whopping
18 grams of vitamin C into his orange juice every day, he says.
But how about the prostate cancer? Pauling believes he delayed its
progress by 25 years. Yet even as research piles up to suggest Pauling
is correct, the medical establishment has scoffed and blocked publication
of his theories in a top journal.
of the National Academy is the publication of the most exclusive
club in science. Pauling, a member since the Thirties, was first
prevented from publishing an article in it on vitamin C and colds
20 years ago. The editor was adamant, although Pauling objected
that he was curbing a right all members had to publish in the Proceedings
without prior review by colleagues.
A new rule
was speedily cooked up, clearly to justify blocking Pauling. All
articles that might be "of significant potential harm to the
public welfare" would now be reviewed before publication. Under
this rule, Pauling's theory of how taking vitamin C helps prevent
heart trouble was also rejected in 1991. There was grave danger,
the editors felt, that the public might be influenced by the authority
of the Proceedings to challenge their doctors' advice.
the Proceedings, Pauling published in a friendly journal, quoting
Galileo: "Verily, just as serpents close their ears, so do
men close their eyes to the truth."
A recent review
from Finland of all studies done so far backs Pauling on vitamin
C and colds, and evidence now seems overwhelming that vitamins C
and E do have value in preventing cancer. A big study by Dr. James
Enstrom from UCLA reported recently that large daily doses of vitamin
C cut heart disease deaths by nearly half in men and one-fourth
in women. adding more than five years to life expectancy. It seems
that vitamin C works this magic by stabilizing cholesterol at optimum
levels and also by preventing it from hardening in the arteries.
None of this
has made life much easier for Pauling. He won the Vannevar Bush
prize in 1989 from the National Science Foundation, but that same
year, the same institution turned down his grant request for an
assistant and a computer. Pauling's aim was to pursue his new ideas
in the nature of chemical bonds in metals and alloys, the field
that won him the Nobel.
suggested the money "would be better spent on creative young
investigators, less fixed in their ways." Another accused him
of "fiddling with the numbers . . . to come out with the right
answer" in his grant application, Pauling answered that the
reviewer was ignorant of one of his (Pauling's) own discoveries
55 years earlier. The four other reviewers were complimentary and
recommended funding, but that wasn't enough.
scientist tries something original, he will have trouble getting
grants and getting papers published," says Pauling philosophically.
"Most say I have been right so often in the past, I am probably
right about vitamin C, too. I don't have any trouble with them.
It's the physicians who don't have open minds. There is a real bias
on the part of the medical establishment about megavitamins."
exist, he believes, because doctors confuse vitamins with the drugs
that have proved effective against disease in small doses and which
are toxic in large doses. They fail to understand that while small
doses of vitamin C are needed to prevent scurvy, larger doses might
be beneficial, too. "Authorities who have lectured on nutrition
to students for fifty years saying higher doses of vitamins have
no value don't want to say they are wrong."
Academy of Sciences, in response to complaints from Pauling and
others, has, however, set up a committee to review the books and
articles it publishes that condemn megadoses of vitamins out of
is typical of science in general judging from the long list of latter-day
Galileos who have been first trashed and then vindicated. The most
famous is German meteorologist A. L. Wegener whose 1912 theory of
continental drift met with generalized hostility and rejection.
Wegener eventually gave up the struggle, complaing of scientists'
"partiality" to the reigning paradigm, and pursued other
goals. Fifty years later, mechanisms of plate tectonics and seafloor
spreading were detected, and he's now admired as a revolutionary
But some of
the blindest fanaticism in favor of the received wisdom seems to
come in medicine. Louis Pasteur won honors, wealth, and fame for
proving that microbes cause disease and ferment beer, but only after
weathering public attacks from his friends in the French Academy.
The most blatant
case of medical blinkers is that of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. In
1847, the young Viennese doctor simply proposed that his colleagues
wash their hands with disinfectant after dissection, before they
delivered babies. His program cut the death rate of mothers in hospital
ward from 16 percent to less than 2 percent. Semmelweis, only the
equivalent of an intern, was hounded out of Vienna by his superiors.
After applying the same regimen with striking success in a provincial
city for some years, he himself died from a dissection wound and
the very puerperal fever he had shown how to curb.
observers are wondering whether Peter Duesberg of the University
of California at Berkeley is another Semmelweis if not a Pasteur.
An establishment heretic, Duesberg has run into a wall of rejection
by scientists in his field, by the medical profession, and by the
media. One reason is that his most sensational claims involve the
highly politicized field of AIDS. Unlike Semmelweis, however, Duesberg
has long been very prominent in his field. He is a virologist who
specializes in retroviruses, the group of microbes to which the
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) belongs. HIV is the virus almost
universally thought to cause AIDS.
never studied HIV in the lab, Duesberg's credentials to inspect
the evidence for this dogma seem impeccable. The 55-year-old professor
has belonged to the exclusive National Academy since 1986 for achievements
which include being the first to decode the genes of retroviruses.
He also identified the first of the oncogenes held to cause cancer.
A letter in Nature said he desrved the Nobel Price for his oncogene
work. Others have won Nobels for cancer-gene research, but not Duesberg.
One reason may be that he's now notorious for his skepticism about
human oncogenes. Although the field is fashionable and well funded,
Duesberg himself has renounced any belief that such oncogenes have
ever caused cancer in humans.
is no evidence or proof that a gene of a cell ever caused cancer,"
Duesberg says flatly. "Not one. The only proven oncogenes are
carried by rare animal retroviruses and, fortunately, are very unstable."
Even the possibility is "frankly very implausible. A true cellular
cancer gene would be found in each of the 100 trillion cells in
the human body, and we wouldn't be viable organisms. One would be
activated far too often for us to live as long as we do."
unpopular for this view, Duesberg became a pariah when he turned
to AIDS. Attracted by the rise in funding going to AIDS research,
Duesberg visited the library to examine the data behind the belief
that AIDS is an infectious disease caused by HIV. He reached a startling
conclusion and published it in Cancer Research, a leading journal,
in 1987. HIV was not the cause of AIDS, in his judgment, and the
evidence indicated that AIDS was not infectious. The symptoms, he
concluded, were caused by drugs, disease, and other conventional
assaults on the immune system.
colleagues at first refused to argue, claiming that such doubt was
absurd. A smattering of press coverage forced a response, however,
and Science featured a limited, four-page debate between Duesberg
and his detractors in 1988. Each side was allowed a statement and
rebuttal, but further argument was sharply cut off.
to the Proceedings of the National Academy to press his case. Among
many reasons for skepticism, he argued that the actual virus was
virtually absent from the bodies of AIDS patients, even those who
were dying of the disease. Moreover, lab work failed to show that
HIV would kill the immune system's T cells, the loss of which is
the hallmark of AIDS. He noted that predictions of huge rises in
AIDS cases have consistently failed to come true in the United States,
especially for heterosexuals.
To date, he's
published two articles, some 15,000 words, in that prestigious journal,
and it's been an uphill battle all the way. The editors of the Proceedings
enlisted a phalanx of special reviewers--26 at last count-to criticize
his three submissions. None could identify a single uncorrectable
flaw in fact or logic, as the editors acknowledged, only a difference
of opinion. Nonetheless, this year the Proceedings refused publication
of his third paper in the series, "The Role of Drugs in AIDS."
Duesberg was forced to publish it in a French journal.
Pauling was used as a precedent for censoring Duesberg, with the
Proceedings editors invoking the principle of protecting the public
from his logic. Members are normally free-since they are all leading
scientists, by definition-to publish whatever they wish, as long
as they run it by one knowledgeable colleague who is not a coauthor.
it seemed obvious. The enlisted reviewers freely used blanket statements
to damn his points, quoting little if any of their own evidence
to contradict his more than 600 references to published evidence.
"The response is unscientific, biased, and discriminatory,"
he says. "It violates academic freedom and the founding principle
of the Academy, to evaluate and disseminate knowledge."
HIV proponents seem to have trouble in genuinely answering Duesberg.
Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute was expected to reply
to Duesberg in the Proceedings, but in three years has never done
so. Gallo eventually dismissed Duesberg in his autobiography, a
forum in which, skeptics pointed out, he was safe from his own peer
review. Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of HIV, likewise promised
the editors of a French journal to answers Duesberg, but never delivered.
Since the major
media inevitably follow the party line of their scientific sources
in dismissing Duesberg, his views have won only limited coverage
compared with the flood of news and opinion articles and government
ads and TV films that drum the official message home. Behind the
scenes, however, Duesberg has gained scientific support. Nobel Price
winner Walter Gilbert of Harvard, one of the most respected names
in U.S. biology, agrees that Duesberg's arguments are strong and
as yet unrefuted. "I would not be surprised," he says,
"if there were another cause of AIDS and even that HIV is not
involved." More than a hundred other biomedical researchers
around the world have joined the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal
of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis, which is publishing its own newsletter,
In a sizable
book with the same title, published by MacMillan Free Press in March,
professor and MacArthur fellow Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan
State University in East Lansing also argues that scientists must
look beyond HIV for other causes of AIDS. Root-Bernstein indicates
that the spread of AIDS hasn't followed the HIV-only model and that
medical history shows myriad AIDS look-alike cases without HIV infection.
Even Luc Montagnier, the Pasteur researcher who discovered the "AIDS
virus" now says that HIV is harmless by itself and has identified
a cell-wall-missing bacterium called a mycoplasma as the essential
Duesberg has lost his exceptional $300,000-a-year Special Investigator
Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of a handful
awarded to the most distinguished scientists in the United States.
Ironically, the recipients were specifically urged to use the award
to "ask creative questions" and "venture into new
territory." The ten-member review panel who turned down the
renewal mostly included scientists making a living off theories
Duesberg is undermining. With the help of a letter from his local
congressman, Duesberg has succeeded in getting the NIH to reopen
more provocative than Pauling in explaining his treatment.
that the ruling paradigm is consolidated by patronage. "People
naturally reject a challenge to orthodoxy," he says. "They
always did. But the scale is larger than ever. The orthodoxy never
had $4 billion [of annual AIDS expenditure] in their court and a
terminated grant in the other!" The huge inflow of funds has
resulted in "totalitarian science," he says. "I am
not aware of anything in history so entrenched."
of a modern Galileo where there's a great deal at stake is Thomas
Gold, the Cornell cosmologist. His original ideas have been over-opposed
throughout his career, despite a tendency to prove valid.
For his master's
thesis, Gold worked on the theory of hearing, proposing the idea
that the inner ear generates its own tone. The ridicule of medical
specialists forced him from the field. Thirty-six years later, he
was the guest of honor at a conference of cochlea specialists. Studies
found one family emitting sound from their ears loud enough to be
heard without instruments.
Gold was also
the first to interpret pulsars as rotating neutron stars. When pulsars
were found, the organizer of the first conference on the objects
refused to allow Gold floor time, calling his analysis "crazy."
Later, the same man began a paper with these words: "It is
now generally considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars"!
debated is Gold's long-running theory of the origin of petroleum,
which turns conventional wisdom inside out. Every school text tells
us that oil and gas are produced biologically, the residue of plant
life eons ago, crushed and fermented, so to speak, in the interior
of the earth. Gold says this is quite wrong. The origins of oil
and gas are purely geological and not biological, he says. Oil and
gas were formed as the planets cooled and should be found far outside
the normal locations of drilling.
and petroleum engineers greet his ideas with rage and spite, he
says. "People shake their fists at me!" he reports, "And
the venom-you have no idea! It's incredible! If they could, they
would burn me at the stake, like Savonarola," the monk who
briefly held sway over fifteenth-century Florence. To Gold, the
evidence is obvious. "You find methane and ethane on Titan
and Pluto," he says, and it emanates from comets. "It
is ludicrous to say this is biologically generated!"
because the majority in the field have "built an enormous construct
and they cannot conceive that it is wrong," Gold says. "They
have added on a huge edifice of supplementary notions to hold their
theory together." That tendency has been noted since the Ptolemaic
astronomers, who developed ever-more sophisticated mathematics to
hold back the heresy of Copernicus in 1543 that the earth orbited
the sun, not the other way around. Only Galileo and his telescopes
finally demolished their defense.
to explain this scientific boneheadedness in a paper called "The
Inertia of Scientific Thought." Why, he asked, is all criticism
reserved for the new idea, while the old idea is automatically defended
and any conflicting evidence simply brushed aside? Gold blamed a
scientific "herd instinct," where safety and prosperity
lie in running with the pack. This phenomenon is magnified, Gold
argues, by the peer-review system. Whne as many as seven respected
colleagues turn thumbs up or down on grant applications or on articles
for publication, herd decisions are virtually guaranteed. "It
is virtually impossible to depart from the herd and continue to
have support." Once a herd view becomes entrenched, says Gold,
it becomes almost impossible to dislodge, as it becomes harder and
harder for anyone to admit that a mistake might have been made.
Tolstoy: "Most men . . . can seldom accept even the simplest
and most obvious truth if it obliges them to admit the falsity of
conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues,
which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven
thread by thread into the fabric of their lives." There is
also laziness, Gold notes. "Staying with the herd needs no
justification: ~Doesn't everybody believe that?'"
a distinguished Harvard biologist, says the public should understand
that "scientists protect their turf like everybody else."
But "the quality of data is what matters nowadays. People expect
clean, crisp data, and when they see it, they can flip-flop very
now director of the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory on Long Island,
agrees. He points to Barbara McClintock. Her Nobel Prize-winning
theory of "jumping genes"-genes that move from site to
site on the chromosome-was so at odds with conventional wisdom when
she first worked it out in the Thirties that she delayed its professional
publication for ten years. After a wait of 30 years, the difficult
theory, says Watson, had been "shown to be true by new types
of evidence which was overwhelming, and no one could doubt it."
McClintock died recently a heroine of science, the New York Times
quoting one scientist who called her "the most important figure
there is in biology."
that scientists may have a built-in prejudice against new ideas
that challenge the status quo. "There is always some of that."
But the real reason, to Watson's mind, why Pauling and Duesberg
still hit a wall of indifference, is lack of "convincing evidence.
People still get colds and cancer when they take vitamin C. Then
it becomes, ~Has it made the cold less severe?' I take vitamin C
myself to make my wife happy, and I still get colds, but I don't
know if as many!" Likewise, "People [Duesberg] hasn't
come up with any smoking gun. You can give all the reasons [for
doubt], but most of us tend to believe the simpleminded interpretation."
Duesberg responds that this ignores the evidence that nearly all
AIDS victims are involved with drugs in one way or another.
Gold is now
pursuing his own irrefutable evidence in a Swedish oil well, where
he reports finding methane at levels equaling those of good Oklahoma
producers. If he's right, those who have stood in his way will have
much to answer for. His theories promise a huge boost to global
petroleum reserves, since oil and gas will be found far beyond the
usual drilling sites.
With so much
at stake, if there's even an outside chance that a reputable heretic
is right, the public interest demands open-minded assessment, however
critical. Anything less may let policy makers pour billions into
wrong solutions. Science is not a democracy. One bright Galileo
can be right and ten thousand traditionalists wrong.
sort out the disputes? They're outsiders trained in logical argument,
after all. One law professor, Philip E. Johnson of the University
of California at Berkeley, wrote a book recently, Darwin on Trial,
which cheekly did just tha-came in and castigated Darwin's theory
of evolution as the unproven sacred cow of biology. But even Johnson
thinks review panels of lawyers would be a bad idea. "External
regulation would be too cumbersome. Scientists just have to learn
to develop a cultural resistance to a few dogmatic voices cutting
off lines of inquiry." Thomas Gold suggests that a panel of
top scientists outside the field would do the job.
many, says that divorcing funding from reigning theories could help.
"Take the huge sources of income away and make science small
and honest again," he suggests. "You can't expect millionaires
to ask unorthodox questions. If I had a company paying me millions
for counseling on HIV, I should probably be silent, too. Poverty
makes you honest."
Short of these
changes, a modern Galileo, as Pauling says, must simply wait. He
quotes Max Planck, the German who won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for
quantum theory: "Important scientific innovation rarely makes
its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents.
What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that
the growing generation is familiar with the idea from the beginning."