When the writer is part of the story
When does the human tendency to question cease to promote progress and instead hinder it? Can debate be detrimental? These questions arise when reading
Celia Farber's book Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS
(Melville House, $16.95), which flips on its head almost every belief about AIDS—that HIV causes it and that current drug regimens help rather than harm.
Farber began covering AIDS 20 years ago at the magazine SPIN, under the editorship of DISCOVER's current CEO Bob Guccione Jr. Much of her writing from that time, reprinted and updated in this book, covers the ideas of controversial University of California at Berkeley biologist Peter Duesberg, who hypothesizes that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by drug use or poverty.
Most of the scientific establishment feels the debate ended long ago. The journal Science concluded in 1994 that Duesberg's ideas are unfounded; the previous year Nature's editor John Maddox warned that it was unsafe even to allow Duesberg to respond to criticism. "A person's 'right of reply' may conflict with a journal's obligations to its
Celia Farber (Courtesy of Melville House)
readers to provide them with authentic information," he wrote. But a few, like Nobel winners Kary Mullis and Walter Gilbert, disagree, asserting that no science should be censored. Duesberg's arguments have reached both those diagnosed with HIV and those who are making decisions about prevention and treatment (notably South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki). If Duesberg is correct, we have a gravely flawed scientific system where incorrect hypotheses can be verified and become big business. If wrong, his ideas are literally deadly.
Farber contends that she is simply covering the story, not commenting on the science. But a journalist who spends two decades reporting a controversial theory to the public would seem to have stepped out of the role of bystander and become a participant in the debate. Although questioning conventional wisdom is essential to scientific progress, this reader, at least, is left wondering if Farber is raising a question or implying an answer that has extreme consequences.
See Discover's interview with Celia Farber.
Human specimens captured for posterity
The Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, running November 8 through 12 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, celebrates its 30th year with a collection of stories that human beings tell about themselves—cultural documentaries from the front lines of war, mental illness, sweatshops, and turtle collecting.
Courtesy of Senart Films/Scranton/Lacy Films
The offerings include an international selection of features and shorts that treat their often quirky subjects with poignancy and raw honesty. In John & Jane Toll-Free,
night workers in India answer American 1-800 calls, adopt Western names, and study store flyers as though they were textbooks on the American mind. Chances of the World Changing
follows the unraveling thread of one man's conservation obsession, begun in his Manhattan penthouse (with hundreds of turtles stacked bin over bin) and leading to a reptile-filled warehouse in New Jersey, outside of which he pitches a tent. In Flock of Dodos,
a former evolutionary ecology professor expresses sharp-witted frustration with his colleagues—over poker—for their failure to defend themselves against the proponents of intelligent design. And in one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries this year, three New Hampshire National Guardsmen film their time in Iraq for The War Tapes,
laying their patriotism, anxiety, cynicism, and laughter across the stark landscape.
Mead, whose home institution is the venue for this annual event, once said that she had spent most of her life "studying the lives of other peoples—faraway peoples—so that Americans might better understand themselves." At this year's festival, the camera is often turned in our own direction. On the screen, nearly raw, the data may indeed change our perspective.