Credibility and the Management of Uncertainty
As players execute their moves within the field, they, as well as the audiences they play to, must assess the credibility of various claims-makers. Everyone looks to markers that seem to certify the trustworthiness and competence of claimants, yet these markers are highly variable and surprisingly unstable. According to Robert Gallo, Duesberg lacked credibility because he was a chemist with no medical training. Martin Delaney agreed with Gallo, but also portrayed Duesberg as someone who—unlike Joseph Sonnabend—had no personal ties to the communities afflicted by the epidemic and whose moral credibility was therefore suspect. For many journalists and people
with AIDS or HIV, the cloud of suspicion that hung over Gallo following his dispute with Luc Montagnier cast doubt on any and all claims he put forward, while Duesberg seemed credible precisely because he was challenging an entrenched and untrustworthy orthodoxy. Treatment activists could speak credibly at ACTG meetings because they "knew their science," yet in other venues they could speak more credibly than the mainstream researchers because theirs was the voice of moral outrage. A long-term survivor like Michael Callen enjoyed credibility within the AIDS movement at least partly by virtue of staying alive: the markers of credibility were inscribed on his own body.
The scrutiny of individuals' tokens of credibility has not prevented the various parties from arriving at careful assessments of specific knowledge claims about the etiology of AIDS or the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs. But given the lack of unanimity about how to interpret the evidence—Are Koch's postulates the gold standard or aren't they? Is there a relevant animal model for AIDS or isn't there? Has the definitive clinical trial been performed or hasn't it?—it's not surprising that the varying assessments of credibility have focused so much on the claimants , and not just the claims .
Negotiations of credibility, in this sense, can be understood as mechanisms for the management and resolution of scientific uncertainty. One of the important findings of the sociology of scientific knowledge is that experiments do not, in the simple sense usually understood, "settle" scientific controversies. Nothing inherent in an experiment definitively establishes it as the "crucial" test of a hypothesis. Rather, scientists negotiate precisely what counts as evidence, which experiments represent a hypothesis adequately, and whether an instance of replication is a faithful recreation of a prior study. Given the possibility of dispute on these points, uncertainty is often not just the cause of scientific controversy but its consequence.
The "interpretative flexibility" built into scientific findings was amply demonstrated, for example, by the initial reactions to the Concorde study—all of which seemed to follow predictably from the prior commitments of the actors. It wasn't so much that an inherent degree of uncertainty in the study sparked controversy about how to interpret it, as the fact that preexisting debate about AZT use in asymptomatics led various parties to endorse the study or to deconstruct it in different ways. Even a year later, Douglas Richman, one of the defenders of early intervention with antiretroviral drugs, would describe Concorde
as a study with "no relation to reality": "Their data [are] perfectly true, it's just that they're irrelevant, and they're asking the wrong question."
The notion that a "definitive" clinical trial can settle the question of drug efficacy or that a "definitive" epidemiological study can establish, once and for all, HIV's etiological role misses this fundamental point: a study's "definitiveness" is not given but is a negotiated outcome and one that may be actively resisted by some parties to the controversy. The extent to which closure is achieved, therefore, depends crucially on the capacity of actors to present themselves as credible representatives or interpreters of scientific experiments—to ensure that others trust their evaluations and will fall in line behind them.