For scientists working in the field of HIV and AIDS, discussion of denialists can be at best tiring and at worst infuriating. This isn’t because a (‘good’) scientist can’t engage in a meaningful debate about their field with an honest dissident. It is because denialists of established science are not truly interested in objective examination of evidence. This may sound harsh, but it is important to realise that we’re not talking about any issues which have real controversy. The issue that I’m particularly talking about, the fact that HIV is the causative agent of AIDS, has over 25 years of medical science behind it, and is the subject of tens of thousands (1) of peer-reviewed research papers. The evidence is as irrefutable as that demonstrating that the earth orbits the sun, albeit perhaps less accessible to your average layperson. As this article is written by Ben Vincent, the newest contributor to Blue-Genes, you should give him a grand welcome by travelling over to Blue-Genes.net and reading the rest of it there!
Many may also dismiss denialist ramblings as the views of paranoid conspiracy theorists that have negligible influence on public perceptions. Unfortunately, undue attention has been given to the HIV and AIDS denialist movement due to the influence of particularly vocal leaders. The man generally regarded as the pole star of HIV denialism is the academic Peter Duesberg, who holds a Professorship with the department of Molecular and Cell biology at the University of California, Berkley. He is known for having performed work on the study of oncogenes, and was elected to the American National Academy of Science. Many people falsely see it as evidence for denialism that this impressive man holds views which would seem anathema compared to how one would expect a highly trained scientific mind to operate. One could indeed rhapsodise as to the reasons for this, but these reasons make not a jot of difference to the fact that his claims that the cause of AIDS is still controversial, and that the ‘Duesberg Hypothesis’ (claims that illegal drug abuse and antiretroviral medications themselves are the causes of AIDS) are demonstrably untrue (2).
HIV and AIDS denialism has had a painful influence on the governmental policies of South Africa. The previous Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki invited Duesberg and other denialists to sit on a 44-member ‘Presidential Advisory Panel’ to address the reliability of HIV test kits. The health minister at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang rejected the use of antiretrovirals favouring an infamous approach based on eating beetroot, lemon, garlic and African sweet potatoes to save lives. It is concluded that hundreds of thousands of deaths (3) could have been avoided if a more rational approach to the issue could have been executed. The shady involvements of vitamin salespeople offering alternative respite has also tragically resulted in further confusion and death, with support from the government at the time.
An important concept to understand when considering a scientific issue is that of trust. Trust, slightly non-intuitively for some, is completely essential when engaging in scientific research or understanding issues said to be demonstrated by science. The scientific method (that is how scientists go about making new discoveries and ensuring they are well controlled, objectively conducted and concluded, and repeatable) is iterative in that it builds upon previously done work. Even to disagree with the interpretation of an experimental result or a potential theory necessitates allocation of trust, due to a previous benchmark of understanding of the field being required from which the dissidence can nucleate (4). The only way in which trust could hypothetically be avoided is to work from first principles – impossible in science unless you have an infinitely funded lab and the useful property of immortality and the patience to repeat well over a century of iterative experimentation.
It may be difficult to accept that trust in science isn’t particularly risky. Public suspicion rises with every less-than-satisfactory experience with one’s doctor or hospital, and most people in the know will confess that peer review is “flawed but the best we’ve got”. This highlights the importance of dissidence in relation to the system. It is important for people to question ideas which do not make sense to them, and to be able to have access to work done that has lead to the scientific community accepting the truth of particular issues. The earth is round. Vitamin C is required to prevent the onset of scurvy. HIV is the causative agent of AIDS. The difference between ‘dissidence’ and ‘denialism’ is that denialists maintain their stance (be it in regard to HIV and AIDS or any of many issues including the holocaust, or 9/11 as further highly emotionally charged examples) in the face of exhaustive and irrefutable evidence. It is not melodramatic to say that vocalisation of these particular falsehoods have been responsible for many deaths.
– This is a guest post written for Blue-Genes by Ben Vincent. He will be back regularly with more on HIV/AIDS
Sources and footnotes
- A search for ‘HIV’ in the PubMed database provides over 200,000 hits. Of course far from all of these will be connected to the HIV-AIDS link, my point is simply the amount of accredited research in this area is huge, only paling in comparison to cancer.
- Ascher, M., Sheppard, H., Jr, W., & Vittinghoff, E. (1993). Does drug use cause AIDS? Nature, 362 (6416), 103-104 DOI: 10.1038/362103a0 – Apologies that the full article is not available for free. However this gives one of many potential examples that peer reviewed examinations of Duesberg’s claims are out there, and if you note the date, were theoretically laid to rest a long time ago.
- Nattrass, N. (2008). AIDS and the Scientific Governance of Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa African Affairs, 107 (427), 157-176 DOI: 10.1093/afraf/adm087
- Recommended reading: Impure Science – AIDS, activism and the politics of knowledge, Stephen Epstein, 1996