A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 26 1998 3:30 AM


Crying Wolf


       The day starts with a meeting on Rockefeller's main campus to discuss an embryonic project on how antibody responses are generated--it's good to have a real immunologist around to explain what all the long words mean. In the taxi on the way back, we mull over the Thanksgiving party. I tell Alex and Deep the story of my early days at the Diamond center. I sent a memo round the lab saying that since I was a Brit, we would not be observing the July 4 and Thanksgiving holidays but would have St. George's Day and the Queen's official birthday off instead. The next day, Tim the American plaintively begged me to reconsider, since he had promised his mom he would be home for Thanksgiving. He looked so pathetically upset, I just had to say yes (against my better judgment). I realized that day that America would be a fertile land for British "humour." Alex has a paroxysm, so we scrape her lungs from the taxi partition before we leave.
       The e-mail in-tray is flashing when I arrive in the office. I flick through the messages: routine junk and MORE unsolicited résumés for rapid deletion; gossip from friends, to which I reply in a similar vein; another sick joke from Mario (has he nothing else to do?)--I circulate it further; a couple of requests for information, which I leave to deal with later. And a press release.
       I don't like this aspect of AIDS research. There's too much media coverage of too many "non-stories" driven by press releases from corporate PR firms and university/government press offices. The scientific journals are also increasingly responsible, as if they were engaged in a tabloid-style circulation war and not just in the dissemination of accurate information. I reckon there are fewer than half a dozen AIDS science stories each year that actually merit significant press coverage, but there are far, far more attempts to get scientists' faces or words to the attention of the public.
       I phone a mate to chat about the latest press release, since I don't know the background too well--the story turns out to be bullshit, as usual. We speculate about what drives some of our colleagues to advertise their work so vigorously. Often, it's just plain old glory seeking, although we both know some members of the academic community who are little more than financially supported corporate mouthpieces. These people are few in number but can do a fair bit of damage to AIDS research. The worst media hogs are small biotech companies. The more limited the product line, the more hinges on its success, so the more remarkable become the claims sent to the world in press release form (and often in published papers--who reviews these things?). The aim is usually to con financial analysts or federal officials, as ritual exercises in share-price manipulation or investment seeking. Unless I know personally the people involved (or often because I do), I don't believe anything said by a small company about its product until an independent scientist has verified the claim, which is rarely possible. Most professional AIDS researchers recognize cotton candy science for what it is. But does the public? How much harm is done by the all too common flagrant misrepresentation of the facts? For how long will the public and the politicians pay attention to AIDS if we as a research community continually cry wolf about new AIDS cures and (especially) vaccines? When will payback time come? This troubles me.
       In the lunchroom, there's an old copy of the New York Times Magazine. It's all about "status"--apparently, we scientists measure our own "personal status" by whose lab we have been trained in or which "big name scientists" we have published with. I think that's far too superficial an analysis, so I chat with Jim the Brit as he swills down his bright orange, disgusting-looking curry and I nibble on my usual lettuce leaf. In the end, we agree that what matters most among professionals is the quality of published work--this determines who we do and don't pay attention to, which is a reasonable measure of "status." Yet there's certainly no absolute correlation between "getting it right" and public prominence--some AIDS researchers who are darlings to the media actually have quite a mixed reputation among their peers, because their papers don't always stand up to careful scrutiny. Both of us know a researcher whose work is invariably shoddy but who's notorious for trying to get the press interested in everything his lab does. Perhaps his mom is pleased to see his picture in the paper, but the rest of us have reservations--you can't fool your professional colleagues for too long.
       Another e-mail arrives. For weeks I have been trying to get the press interested in the background to last month's insane decision by the South African government to refuse to provide AZT to HIV-infected, pregnant women. This will condemn thousands of children to HIV infection and death, and it could easily influence similar decisions in neighboring countries. The South Africans' pleas of poverty ring false when contrasted with their recently announced intent to spend billions of dollars on new arms purchases, to counter "regional threats." But what bigger "regional threats" are there in southern Africa than AIDS? Now Newsday has published the story and has done a really nice job on it. I circulate the text of the article to other AIDS researchers (e-mail has its uses). Maybe some pressure will build on the South Africans. It's ironic that the next International AIDS Conference is being held in South Africa--will the responsible ministers be seeking the media limelight beside the AIDS research glitterati? It wouldn't surprise me--this is what usually happens.
       What's going on in South Africa is an AIDS story that deserves extensive press coverage. Why, then, did the rest of the media miss it for so long? Was it, perhaps, buried under the avalanche of ego- or profit-driven press releases?