Last May 29, the Inquirer printed a letter I sent the editors. As usual, they reserve for themselves the right to give it a title. For this letter they chose quite a provocative title: “2013 UNAIDS report lacks scientific basis”.
One reader made this comment: that’s a lie. The report has cited many scientific papers published in scientific journals that are peer reviewed. Therefore, it has scientific basis.
Yes, it does have “scientific” basis. The question we ask is: does quoting scientific papers make a report scientific?
Here’s the letter:
This refers to the May 16 Inquirer editorial, “Ignorance is main driver.”
I would like to make it clear: Like the Inquirer, I am for lessening the incidence of new HIV infections in the Philippines. Even more, I am one with UNAIDS, whose 2013 report the editorial used as reference, in its “global vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.” I cannot agree, however, with UNAIDS and the Inquirer on the means they advocate to achieve those goals, which appear to be based on prejudices and hasty assumptions and, therefore, may turn out to be not scientific and incorrect.
As a scientist myself, I know that for a theory to be accepted as scientific, it needs to be subjected to peer review and very strict scientific protocols. It must have been repeated in many experiments and proven to be correct in each case.
The UNAIDS report gave very encouraging statistics about the reduction of HIV incidence (i.e., new infections) in the whole world. Then it noted that this was due to advances in antiretroviral treatment, widespread use of condoms, and information and education for safe sex.
The problem with this last statement is that it did not appear in a scientific journal and has not been subjected to peer review and verification by experiment or by comparison with a control group.
Science tends to be very accurate and precise in assigning what thing causes what. Lumping together three causes to account to a decrease in some general variables will usually raise the eyebrows of honest scientists.
Reading other reports on this subject brings up many nuances. For example, a report by Liz Highleyman in 2015 about the incidence of HIV among American gay men indicated a decrease among the whites, but an increase among the blacks and latinos. A report about Haiti attributed the decrease in HIV incidence to “an increase in condom use with occasional partners at last contact and to abstinence and fidelity, and a decrease in the number of occasional partners.” The UNAIDS report itself affirmed that in Zimbabwe “declines in HIV incidence (new infections) were driven by behavioral shifts, notably a reduction in multiple sexual partners.”
UNAIDS must start to suspect something about its assumptions. It thinks condoms and lubricants will reduce HIV to zero incidence. If after using billions of condoms for many years we only get a 30-percent reduction worldwide, what can you expect? Zero incidence after some years? It is said: He is a fool who does the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
I mentioned about a control group. It is defined as “the group in an experiment or study that does not receive treatment by the researchers and is then used as a benchmark to measure how the other tested subjects do.” If the goal is zero-incidence, then we must look for a group with zero-HIV incidence to compare with our test groups. I dare say that there is such a group—married people who practice fidelity.
What we need to end this epidemic is not information and condoms but education. What message will we send 16-year-olds if we give them condoms? We will not be educating them, we would be pushing them to adopt a very risky behavior which the UNAIDS report also precisely decried. The Department of Education was right in not giving condoms to 16-year-olds. Education means to form men and women of integrity who can be solid foundations on which society can build on.
That is the end of the letter.
One comment in the online version criticized me for not being a scientist, hinting that I don’t have any credential for making claims about what is scientific. I replied to him that I studied in Philippine Science High School and I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. After this, he replied that since I don’t work as a scientist, I’m not really one. Aside from possibly falling into the fallacy of Argumentum ad hominem, what is relevant to this discussion is not whether one is a scientist or not but more relevant is knowledge about the Philosophy of Science. This is a problem of epistemology or what counts for knowledge as scientific. Many scientists might be experts in their specific field but might not even know what is epistemology. Let me add that being a philosopher also, I have studied quite extensively these questions on the Philosophy of Science.