June 2010 Archives

AIDS Denier Architects His "Day In Court", Owns the "Judge"

The University of California, Berkeley always amazes. It has an ultra-liberal reputation, yet it defies its label by harboring some of the most controversial figures and protects them under the auspices of academic freedom, which is obviously an excellent institution, but stretched at Berkeley to fit many circumstances. The law school dean used it to protect John Yoo, the law professor who crafted the Bush administration's torture policy, for instance. Now the school has invoked the useful catch-all to clear scientist Peter Duesberg of wrong-doing over a paper he wrote denying the HIV viral link to AIDS. The University said there was "insufficient evidence" to do anything else.

Berkeley Did Not Judge the "Accuracy or Validity of the Article"

Although UC Berkeley didn't judge the "accuracy or validity of the article", those issues lie at the heart the ongoing Duesberg controversy. Dueberg initiated his latest foray by publishing a paper in a non-peer review journal called "Medical Hypotheses". He claimed in his paper that the HIV virus didn't cause AIDS, something he's been promoting for years. The paper did not undergo peer-review. Scientists refuted his false theories in a collective uproar, but the journal retracted the paper. The journal editor was then fired, and the publisher Elsevier promised to rethink the journal format.

Then the University received two letters, one from Treatment Action Coalition (TAC) in South Africa, criticizing Duesberg's paper for conflict of interest and for "making false claims". The letters asked the University to investigate. The school did so, however yesterday's action clearing Duesberg of wrongdoing indicates that the UC Berkeley mission, policy and conduct documents don't contain anything that's applicable to Duesberg's situation.

Duesberg's Legacy In South Africa

The main problem is not necessarily the statements Duesberg published last year, but the fact that for years he's been publishing them and they've significantly influenced policy and beliefs about AIDS and science in general. It's his actions outside the University, like Yoo's, that cause the most distress. Duesberg sat on former South African President Mbeki's advisory panel on AIDS back in 1999-2000, and the South African government frequently cited his AIDS ideas to support their policies. Mbeki didn't treat AIDS in his country, letting hundreds of thousands of people die.

Whether Duesberg was a handy foil for Mbeki's pre-determined policy -- whether Mbeki's countrymen died because the president was more driven to toe conservative economic and social policy the procure available AIDS drugs -- is unclear. What is clear is that the country had the highest death rate from AIDS in history, while wielding the most mendacious policies that Mbeki backed-up with "science" created by Duesberg.

Yet there's nothing in Berkeley policy that specifically calls this a crime.

Peer-Review? Whatever. Duesberg = UC Berkeley= AIDS Denial = Mbeki's AIDS Policy = Death

A Berkeley spokesman told Nature: "The university relies on the scholarly peer-review process, rather than disciplinary procedures, for evaluating the value of scientific work." There. Very official. However AIDS denialists don't rely on peer-review. They revel in non-peer-review.

And unlike the University and scientists who care about peer-review, for Duesberg's purposes, getting a paper retracted by some flaky non-peer-reviewed tabloid called "Medical Hypotheses" doesn't matter. He has his audience. For years he's had a self-promoting website up, and his ideas have gained an audience. Next they'll go after "my parking permits" he says. His audience laps this stuff up -- the underdog, taking on the big evil science establishment.

UC Berkeley has their policies and official responses. Academic freedom, the concept, is unarguably beneficial, the heart of academia. But the fact remains, one of the most renowned research universities in the world supports a scientist largely responsible for some of the most deadly anti-science claims in history.

"Official" HIV/AIDS "research" from the University of California, Berkeley.

UC Berkeley policy has nothing to say. Peer-review? Here's what the world sees: Duesberg = UC Berkeley= AIDS Denial = Mbeki's AIDS Policy = Death. Somewhere deep in the heart of hearts of some university bureaucrat, under all the official, vague missions, purposes, and policies, doesn't this cause angst? Or is the thick overgrowth of bureaucracy muffle the death cries?


Interestingly, it's Duesberg himself whose been spear-heading the reporting on the investigation. Apparently Duesberg has enough confidence in the support of anti-science, AIDS denialist community, to know the outcome would work for his purposes. And since now Duesberg is claiming that he was "exonerated", it's like free marketing for his theories. How tragic.


1PLoS One, the audience reviewed journal, is also tangentially affiliated with UC Berkeley via PLoS co-founder and esteemed scientist Michael Eisen.

Acronym Required has written frequently on South Africa and AIDS, occasionally about HIV/AIDS deniers, and once in a while about UC Berkeley.

Boehringer Ingelheim Gets No Satisfaction From the FDA

Manufacturing Consent

An FDA panel last week rejected Boehringer Ingelheim's application for flibanserin, a drug the company claims treats "hypoactive sexual desire disorder" (HSDD) in women. Boehringer's studies showed that low libido women who took the "film-coated, 100mg tablets" had on average ".8 more satisfying sexual events (SSE) per month (hey, it's statistically relevant) than the control group. But the drug caused side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. The panel said the company did not prove that the drug increased desire despite Boehringer's claim that an SSE was an adequate "downstream" measure of desire.

The drug is controversial for reasons other than efficacy and side effects. Boehringer says research shows HSDD affects 6-10 percent of women. But half of that study's researchers were company consultants and employees, and speakers attending the hearing disagreed that the low libido occurred that often. Nevertheless, the Boehringer crafted an intensive marketing strategy to build buzz around flibanserin. In Australia, the marketing firm Ethical Strategies Pty Ltd invited influential sex experts to Sydney on behalf of Boehringer to "discuss a common yet relatively unrecognized medical condition". The company offered payment of $1,000, airfare, food, and accommodation. The experts discussed the important "research" and strategies to increase awareness of HSDD, and their participation, promised Ethical Strategies, was "confidential".

None of this is too shocking, but doctors and researchers voiced their disapproval of Boehringer's approach calling it a "thinly veiled marketing campaign filled with bias, misinformation and celebrity endorsement". One noted that "women don't need treatments with real side effects for imaginary diseases designed by a marketer", and others offered their opinions that the research was a "scam" and not of "clinical meaningful benefit".

Fear of Flying?

HSDD itself is a disputed diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association recently proposed that HSDD be subsumed into another disorder. That the condition once solidly in the realm of the psychiatric field is being labeled a biochemical disorder may ruffle some feathers. One psychiatrist said: "a women's desire for sexual emancipation is very worthy. I fear that it's being hijacked by a profit-oriented industry that doesn't really try to understand women and their sexuality." Another doctor said: "The messages are aimed at medicalizing normal conditions, and also preying on the insecurity of both the clinician and the patient.

Both these statements are odd. If you're speaking on behalf of women, isn't it a little patronizing to characterize the company's marketing as "preying" on women's "insecurity"? The research may be sketchy and the mechanism is not like Viagra. But should the pill work, aren't women sophisticated enough to balance risks of fatigue and nausea with ".8 more sexually satisfying episodes" per month? Horrifying side effects have been streaming alongside pharmaceutical ads on TV for years, many of them far more disconcerting than "nausea". Now that women are out of the kitchen, voting, graduating from college in higher numbers then men, etc., do women really need "emancipating"? I don't know. But doesn't it all sound so, I don't know, 1970's?

And That Name!

And my thoughts on naming: Next time around Boehringer may want to reassign the detail. "Flibanserin" is just weird. Others agree. NYPost called it "unsexy", and one Nature blogger prefers "pink viagra", which he said "rolls off the tongue so much more easily than filba... filiba... flibasero..." The proposed trade name "Girosa" really doesn't cut it either. Hard "G"...as in organism? Or soft "G"...as in gender? Eeewww....but what do I know?

Segueing From The BP Oil Disaster to Cigarette Smoking

People commenting publicly about the BP spill need to choose their words carefully, as certain comments play badly on short-attention span TV. Parker Griffith (R-Alabama) recently refuted the oft-stated comment that the BP spill is one of the most impactful environmental disasters ever.

From Oncologist to Apologist

Griffith made a point to tell the congressional committee:

"...I'd like to remind the committee [that] the greatest environmental disaster in America has been cigarettes...let's be sure we don't leave that out...[T]he environment is an important concept. We regret the loss of life. But there's much that we can do, and we'll put this in perspective. This is not going to be the worst thing that's ever happened to America."

Master of relativist thinking, Griffith lets BP off because of tobacco and some ominous future disaster? And his idea of 'environment as concept' -- I like that. Maybe he was seeking to qualitatively bolster his disapproval of the moratorium on off-shore drilling that he called "a public relations stunt" earlier in the week.

We're used to oil spill gaffes, we chortle and put our hands to mouths in gestures of mock horror when hearing: "We care about the small people" (BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg), or "I'd like my life back"(from banished BP CEO Tony Hayward). But Griffith's comment wasn't a gaffe. He was serious.

From Republican To Democrat

Griffith is a lame duck representative who lost his primary after changing parties. He has campaigned to ban cigarettes in Alabama. He's a retired radiation oncologist, who says "I never fail to bring that up." He changed parties because he disapproved of the health care bill (interesting, since the bill purports to help lower income people, who are more likely to smoke).

So maybe after he exits Congress he can continue with his anti-smoking campaign, such as it is, since he's seems less effective, in terms of public interest, campaigning for sustainable energy and the environment.

Maybe there's a place for him (at BP), or getting more people to quit smoking. Now for the segue. Despite various government actions and the lack of recent press about cigarettes, tobacco remains profitable. Efforts continue to curb smoking through taxes and smoking bans, but cigarette consumption has leveled out after falling for decades, writes the Financial Times. Accordingly, future taxes will not impact tobacco profit, and tobacco is a good investment.

Investors' Perennial "Love"

Investors will "come to love the sector", says FT, explaining how the price elasticity of demand for cigarettes has remained stable with price and volume for decades:

"...Last year's 25 per cent price increase per pack caused consumption to fall 8 per cent, an elasticity of -0.34, calculates UBS. By comparison, since 1969 prices have risen 87 per cent (adjusted for inflation), while consumption fell a third, giving a similar elasticity of -0.37. Based on this fairly steady relationship, UBS argues that tobacco manufacturers can sustain price increases of 4 to 5 per cent annually (8 to 9 per cent for retail prices) for the next decade, while absorbing consumption declines of 3 to 4 per cent..."

Very interesting, if discouraging because all told, FT concludes: "Not one for socially responsible investors but, for the rest, it may be time to light up".

From Politician to Lobbyist?

Which means that the recently proposed NY State cigarette tax increase may help state coffers, but it won't put cigarette makers out of business. At $5.85 $9 or $11 (in NYC) a pack, the American Cancer Society cheered the tax, because higher prices reduce the number of smokers. Of course the Seneca Nation doesn't like it, noting that they will fight for their ancestors treaties.

Lobbyists for cigarette retailers, also opposed, warn that black markets for tobacco will become more lucrative. Which is why multi-pronged regulation is best. The US Postal ban on mailing cigarettes goes into effect at the end of this month. But, cheers UBS, there will be enough smokers to keep the profit flowing.

Liberated from law-making, Griffith could put his crafty rhetoric skills to use for his favorite cause. And apparently he won't hurt the sector. And he could probably safely lobby for alternative energy too. What's the price elasticity of oil? Or will it just run out?

BP's Spill - A Black Duck Event?

The BP spill in the gulf remains an unrelenting environmental and economic disaster. Oil industry technology lets us pierce deep holes in the ocean floor and extract oil for energy and profit for companies. That know-how is obviously way ahead of the know-how to avert and fix oil rig failures that impact people and the economy more frequently than they should.

Flimsy Tech, Strong Marketing

John Gapper wrote over a month ago in the Financial Times that the BP disaster could have been worse, for instance if the larger Thunder Horse rig failed. He quoted BP's website: "Everything about Thunder Horse is at or beyond the limits of the offshore industry's experience", and noted: "What once sounded impressively high-tech now sounds positively scary."

Of course, lack of "industry experience" sounds less scary today, a month and a half later, because we understand the enormity of the Deepwater Horizon mishap. Our fear has been removed by experience. Can we fathom anything worse, now that the estimated volume of gushing oil has been adjusted upward; now that plugs, top-kills, and various domes and caps have failed to stop the damage?

We don't even have a word for it. "Spill"? As in a sippy-cup of milk? Perhaps we need a new word for ~60,000 gallons a day gushing into the Gulf? Gusher's not quite right. Sound's almost celebratory, like champagne. Trivialities aside, don't we need a new system to assure that technology to contain spills doesn't extend "beyond the limits of offshore industry's experience"?

Tech Failure as Entertainment Staple?

Technological failures happen every day, we don't have blind faith in technology, despite what some say. Buildings collapse, brakes fail, cars crash. We live with this, we wear seatbelts, mandate airbags, set values on body parts. And when worse comes to worse, we get cathartic pleasure from accidents. It's true. Why is the traffic stopped on the highway for five miles back? The accident is cleared, the bodies are gone, but people need to gawk at the damage on the cars. What can't be gotten in person we get on TV. Any botoxed, pancake make-up plastered announcer who manages to contort their face into an emotion while describing an airplane crash, a fire, or a kitten with two faces steals our attention.

A little hormone surge, then back to the routine until the next catastrophic high. We depend on those hormone surges like some probably depend on prayer, to get us through the mundane day. A little spilt milk souring someone else's life is great entertainment. The difference with this spill is that we're usually free, after a few minutes of rubbernecking, to drive away from the scene, catecholamine rush satisfied.

We crave that. And so the media finally goaded President Obama to say "kick-ass" on TV -- to pretend-put BP in it's place and give us a little surge. True, talking about ass-kicking will never prevent the next catastrophe, but the grinding negotiations of lawmaking never provides an adrenaline boost. We champion people talking about change, but that's it. Unfortunately, Obama's presidential version of "kick-ass" didn't satisfy. Fortunately Congress can always step up to some ass-kick rhetoric theatre for America.

Weak Oversight of Inevitable Failure?

The company face-off with congress suits business too. Companies seem used to enduring public lashings, as long as their business goes on as usual. CEO's probably have it written into their contracts: "You will appear before Congress for reprimanding should the business of risking lives for profits be revealed, and your job is to exhibit the full range of arrogance and chagrin:" (Salary: $27.2 million).

Dragging bank CEOs before Congress served this purpose earlier this year. And notice how quick we lost interest in the "regulatory loopholes", ensconced as we are in the current crisis.

The hearings also give oil company executives a chance to argue for less regulation right off the bat. The BP technology failure, as inevitable as it was, sent shudders through all the regulation-allergic oil companies. This week executives energetically backstroked away from the flaming BP rig oil gusher. Rex Tillerson (Exxon) described it as an "unprecedented" event, due to a "level of risk...beyond industry norms." that "should not occur". John Watson (Chevron) called it a "single incident" and a "preventable tragedy", due to "failure to operate with high standards".

The Exxon and Chevron CEOs offered lawmakers all sorts of reasons why the BP accident wouldn't happen in their companies, because of "documented standards", "best practices", "proprietary technology", "stop-work authority", and "time to do things right or not at all". Watson said "safe" or "safety" no less than 25 times in his brief.

Of Walruses...and Little People

And about those "documented standards"? We saw how companies share in their contingency plans the phone numbers of the same dead experts, and descriptions of how to clean walruses not seen in the Gulf since the Ice Age. Kudos to Congress for pointing all this out with great theatre. But shouldn't someone be reading these plans before the failure? That walrus thing would be pretty easy to spot. Demonstrating how little relevance these showdowns have, even that embarrassing fact didn't move Exxon's CEO, who said: "It's unfortunate that walruses were included". Because...if they hadn't been included nobody would have noticed that there was no plan at all? Accchhh...the insouciance.

Once impressive technology always looks fatally flimsy after failure, like the feebly blinking red 12:00. We're used to technology achievements -- they yield tremendous bragging rights. We're also used to technology failures. Cars crashes happen and when they do we know how to mop up. Spills occur, as in the Niger Delta and frequent gushers across the world. So shouldn't the standards and contingency plans be evaluated as part and parcel with the technology -- ahead of time? There's more to technology then a deep a hole we can dig for ourselves.

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