In a previous entry about Ruggiero called HIVforum.info takes on Italian HIV/AIDS denialist Marco Ruggiero, I explained how an Internet forum populated by HIV+ Italians and other individuals alerted me to the fact that Ruggiero, a professor at the University of Florence, not only where propagating an alternative medicine treatment for HIV/AIDS in the form a yogurt, but was also teaching elective courses containing parts that explicitly tried to teach that HIV was not the cause of AIDS.
Now, according to a Nature News article by Zoë Corbyn called Inquiry launched over AIDS contrarian’s teaching the University of Florence has launched an investigation into “the teaching activities of an academic who assisted on a course that denies the causal link between HIV and AIDS, and supervised students with dissertations on the same topic”.
I first found out about the dissertations by the students from reading the Reckless Endangerment blog written by Snout. I particularly found two articles, HIV/AIDS denialism at the University of Florence and More pseudoscholarship from the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology especially helpful and informative.
The Nature News article continues:
The Italian university’s internal ‘special commission’ will examine the “teaching behaviour and responsibility” of molecular biologist Marco Ruggiero, a university spokesman told Nature.
The move follows a letter to the institution’s rector, Alberto Tesi, by an Italian campaign group called the HIV Forum, which represents people infected with HIV and others concerned about the disease. It calls on him to disassociate the university from the “science and activities” of Ruggiero, who, the group says, is “internationally known” for denying the widely accepted link between HIV and AIDS, and promotes a potential cure for HIV involving an enriched probiotic yoghurt for which there is no proven evidence.
Tesi replied on 29 February to announce the special commission. This “will examine whether professor Ruggiero’s conduct complies with the institutional guidelines on teaching contents and adherence to the objectives of the official curriculum of biological sciences”, says university spokesman Duccio Di Bari, who adds that any misconduct would be dealt with internally.
This is also a great example of what Internet activism potentially can result in. Besides supervising dissertations promoting HIV/AIDS denialism and promoting a treatment lacking scientific evidence, the inquiry will focus on the elective courses he handled:
The HIV Forum also refers to a short elective course, consisting of two half days, which Nature understands ran twice in the 2010/11 academic year, and which Ruggiero collaborated on, entitled: ‘The revolution of immunotherapy: prospects for the treatment of cancer and AIDS’. According to the description, the course teaches “the role of HIV in the pathogenesis of AIDS; association but not causation”.
“What devastating effects can such false teaching have on future physicians and their patients?,” asks the HIV Forum, stressing that although academic freedom is fundamental in teaching and research, it should not be misused to spread theories that they say are “lacking any scientific evidence”.
“We hope the Commission will be scientifically rigorous and we hope that it will state that the best way to protect academic freedom is to teach according to the worldwide recognized scientific method,” says a forum spokesperson.
However, Ruggiero seems confident:
Ruggiero, whose supporters have also written to the rector, says he has always operated with scientific integrity and is confident he will be able to give any explanations that the committee asks for. He draws parallels with an inquiry the University of California held two years ago into the conduct of Duesberg, which resulted in no charges.
However, as far as I can tell, Duesberg never tried to actively teach that HIV did not cause AIDS. Then comes the classic pseudoscience technique of comparing yourself with Galileo (or some other oppressed scientist):
“Florence is famous for having been the city of Galileo Galilei, the worldwide recognized symbol of the predominance of scientific freedom over dogmas. I am convinced that freedom of teaching and research is a stronghold of our university system,” he says. He adds that the student dissertations and the course were approved by the university.
However, academic freedom does not guarantee that you can teach whatever you like, even if it is not based on evidence. Would Ruggiero support the teaching that the Holocaust never happened? Or that eating gravel is required for human life to exist? Surely not. Fabio Marra couters with:
I believe that every researcher has the right to submit his or her work through peer-reviewed journals, no matter how little credibility that data may have,” Marra says. “What is not acceptable is that personal theories, that are not supported by the weight of evidence, are taught to students that do not yet have the skills to form an independent opinion and to discriminate what they are being taught from what the bulk of the literature has shown.”
The Nature News article says that the special commission will deliver its report on April 15th. I look forward to it and here are my predictions; the inquiry will conclude that it was misconduct to teach courses that stated that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and they will frown upon the dissertations. What the results will be is unclear to me, but I hope that he gets an appropriate academic punishment.