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.