Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy

Seeking Stories of AIDS Denialism

Have you or someone you know been harmed by AIDS Denialism? If you, or someone you care about, have been advised to stop taking HIV meds, ignore HIV test results, purchase a 'natural' cure etc., please email me.

All information will be kept confidential.

Friday, May 29, 2009

AIDS & Autism: Nothing in Common Except Denialism

The parallels between AIDS Denialism and other denialism, such as Holocaust, 9/11, and Global Warming Denial are discussed at length here and elsewhere. Another fascinating connection exists with vaccine hysteria, especially in relation to Childhood Autism. I examined the mirror images of denialism and hysteria in Denying AIDS;

"And it is not just life-threatening diseases that must contend with medical denialism. In his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets, Paul Offit describes pseudoscientists who have claimed that autism is caused by roteins leaking through the intestines (leaky gut) and by the toxic effects of mercury contained in childhood vaccines. The rogue scientist that Paul Offit credits with bringing credibility and media exposure to the theory that vaccines cause Autism is British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. It is fair to say that Andrew Wakefield is to Autism as Peter Duesberg is to AIDS. Parents of autistic children, just like people who test HIV positive and those diagnosed with cancer, are desperate to understand how something so horrible could happen to them. As parents grasp for hope they are persuaded by factual sounding scams put forth by apparently reputable scientists.

And it was not just the parents of Autistic children who are harmed by claims that vaccines cause childhood neurological disorders; vaccine hysteria causes a decline in parents vaccinating their children and resurgences of childhood diseases. Amazingly, we still find more of the same characters who warn against anti-HIV medications and cancer chemotherapy fueling the hysteria against vaccines. Once again David Crowe warns about the hazards of flu vaccines stating in an online magazine article, ‘‘In addition to the health risks of mercury (nervous system damage, cognitive and visual effects), allergic reactions or sensitivities may also develop due to other components of the vaccine, including the eggs used to grow vaccines.’’

In his Nature review of Denying AIDS, John Moore calls attention to the link between AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Hysteria saying, Paul Offit's tour de force, Autism's False Prophets, claims that pseudoscientists and quacks have used similar tactics to parasitize the suffering of desperate parents by persuading them that vaccines cause autism.” This similarities to AIDS denial are striking.

Now people who care about Autism and combat denialism are examining the AIDS denial connection. Posted at the autism news science and opinion website Left-Brain Right-Brian, the discussion is quite thought provoking. The post leads off…

One of my big worries is that the public will someday turn against the autism community. We, and all segments of the disability community, all rely heavily on the public’s good will. One way we could lose that is if epidemics of infectious disease return and people point the fingers at “autism spokesperson” Jenny McCarthy. We as a group could be in for some real trouble.

One reason to blog and advocate against pseudoscience and dangerous celebrity advice is to make it clear that the autism community as a whole is not behind Jenny McCarthy and her crowd.

So you can imagine the dismay I feel when I search for autism related articles in the Nature journals and I hit upon this one, The dangers of denying HIV.
Why would that article come up using the search word “autism”, I wondered. AIDS denialism is a truly horrible movement in the world. It leads, quite clearly, to disease, suffering and death.”

What follows is an examination of AIDS denialism from people concerned about Autism. Recognizing the wide range of harm caused by various incarnations of denialism helps us understand the problem. It is also nice to see that we are not alone in our effort to expose the denialists for what they are.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009 Reviews Denying AIDS

Denying AIDS - A book by Seth Kalichman
Posted on: May 26, 2009 6:56 AM, by Mark Hoofnagle at

Seth Kalichman is a better man than me. Kalichman is a clinical psychologist, editor of the journal Aids and Behavior and director of the Southeast HIV/AIDS Research and Evaluation (SHARE) project, and he has devoted his life to the treatment and prevention of HIV. Despite a clear passion for reducing the harm done by HIV/AIDS, to research this book he actually met, and interviewed, prominent HIV/AIDS denialists. I confess I simply lack the temperament to have done this. To this day, when I read about HIV/AIDS denialists, and the the 330,000 people who have died as a result of HIV/AIDS denialism, I see red. I think violent, bloody thoughts.

The HIV/AIDS denialists, like Celia Farber, object to being called denialist, a quote from her in the book:

Those who wish to engage the AIDS research establishment in the sort of causality debate that is carried on in most other branches of scientific endeavor are tarred as AIDS "denialists," as if skepticism about the pathogenicity of a retrovirus were the moral equivalent of denying the Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews.

To this I would reply that the HIV/AIDS denialists like Duesberg are worse than holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers are anti-semitic bigots and horrible people sure, but the HIV/AIDS denialists are responsible for an ongoing campaign of death. Because people like Duesberg have convinced morons like Thabo Mbeki of their pseudoscience, hundreds of thousands of people are dead.

This is why I see red. Denialist is about the nicest thing you could call the likes of Farber and Duesberg.

Kalichman's book is well-written, timely, thoroughly researched, and to his great credit he uses my definition of denialism. Ha! How could I help but love this book? The fact that he pursues denialism from a psychological angle, and interacts directly with the critical denialists behind this story make it a profoundly important study and resource in understanding not just HIV/AIDS denialism, but all forms of denialist pseudoscience. This takes a very patient, very dedicated person. I would have lost my temper, lost my patience, or lost my mind to have delved so deep into this madness. Not to mention, I'm not very forgiving or nice to people I perceive as being so detrimental. It's a personality flaw, I recognize it. That's why we're lucky to have people like Seth Kalichman.

Let's discuss some of Kalichman's findings below the fold...

First off, in his introduction he describes what it was like interacting with denialists:

My relationships with denialists created some complicated arrangements that allowed me to experience denialism face-to-face. I often felt more like a journalist than a scientist, giving me a glimpse of how it must feel when denialist journalists delve into science. Still, it is important to say that the denialists who interacted with me did not seem evil. They are deeply skeptical of science and untrusting of government and big business. Some are surely misguided and others seem to foolishly believe that they understand everything there was to know about AIDS. But I did not find them evil in the sense they were intesnt on harming people, even though their actions surely are. Of course, those I have come to see as malevolent - the vitamin pushers con men, and angry academics are the ones who did not respond to my attempts to contact them.

Fascinating. I would be surprised if Kalichman had found them to be overtly sinister, like some disease-denying caricatures reminiscent of Mr. Burns on the Simpsons. I think in light of this description we must remember the phrase the banality of evil used by Hannah Arendt to describe Eichmann. Evil isn't always blocking out the son or stealing candy from infants, or always performed by the sociopaths and madmen of history. Sometimes evil is perpetrated by those who are operating without ill intent within a framework that is twisted and wrong, and this is one of the most important lessons of history. Ordinary people who are perfectly normal are capable of doing great harm under the authority of those with radical ideology. See also the Milgram experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment as examples of this phenomenon. To find them ordinary, if anything, is what one would expect of foolish people who have adopted the warped and devastating ideology of the HIV/AIDS denialists. This does not exonerate them, it merely informs us of the work we need to do to fight against the thoughtless obeisance to ideology which causes so much human misery.

Kalichman starts with a definition of denialism, a description of HIV/AIDS denial and a justification for using the term. And here is my only criticism of the text. I believe that in defining denialism, he does not succinctly describe the critical elements. This is probably a result of my bias towards my own methods of describing the critical elements of denialism. He does cover them all, going into depth in the importance of conspiracy and suspicious personality traits endemic to denialists as a whole. His discussion was of the defining characteristics was of great value though, and I left feeling as though I learned a great deal about the psychological gray zone between simple denial that most people exhibit in the face of hard truth, the ignorant denial of followers, and the more malignant form of denial that is practiced by the leading pseudoscientists. His subsections on "Suspicious Minds" and "Why AIDS, Why Now" I think are truly novel contributions to the discussion of denialism and provide great information as to the motives and sources of denialist arguments.

His second chapter is an extensive discussion on Duesberg. I was also fascinated by his interaction with Duesberg, who not only sounds like he is fundamentally broken mentally, but ignorant of virology. Kalichman writes "Even knowing the complexity of HIV and the barriers it poses to vaccines, Peter Duesberg looked me dead in the eyes and said that failure to achieve and HIV vaccine means that an infectious agent cannot be the cause of AIDS". I immediately smacked my head and thought, does he also deny that the Hepatitis C virus causes Hepatitis despite antibody response? Or that herpes viruses cause a host of chronic infections despite the presence of antibody? Not every virus is easily vaccinated against, that doesn't mean they're non-infectious or can't cause disease. This is a stunningly stupid statement from a virologist. Duesberg is not just an HIV/AIDS denialist, but also denies the role of viruses in cancer, apparently rejecting the mountains of evidence that HPV causes cervical cancer, that any other virus causes cancer, or that cancer can be caused by gene mutation. I would point out again that he seems ignorant of virology despite extensive experience in the field. How about EBV and Burkitt's Lymphoma? There is no other cause of the disease. Or HHV-8 and Kaposi Sarcoma? Duesberg is a classic crank - incompetent and completely unaware of it, and Kalichman lays out his successive use of each of the denialist tactics from conspiracy, to utterly dishonest cherry-picking of data and quote-mining, to logical fallacies. The image emerges of a man who is just contrary, no matter what he refuses to accept any idea that is mainstream, even if it is true. Kalichman spends the rest of the chapter laying out Duesberg's case, which is laughable, and then smashing it, he even alludes to some nice crank magnetism from the cdesign proponentsists, radical libertarians and environmental extremists. Gems include Duesberg's denial that children or sex-workers die of AIDS. The ability of his delusion to protect him from the reality of AIDS is astonishing, and deadly. Somehow, Kalichman's final summary of Duesberg is ultimately too charitable:

Peter Duesberg's legacies will be that he both discovered the first cancer-causing gene and that he brought a sort of legitimacy to a band of sad denialists and wacky pseudoscientists. How one man could be the source of so many lives saved and so many lives lost is the greatest paradox and human tragedy in this whole contorted affair.

Kalichman has to stretch to say positive things about a man who ultimately comes across as a dishonest contrarian, and an insufferable self-aggrandizer. I also would disagree that he has saved any lives for his discovery of src, as it's not as if it would never be discovered if it wasn't for him. It's not like science is art, and only one artist can create some unique work. It's clear that Duesberg has only been a net negative for humanity and science.

Kalichman's description of pseudoscience in chapter 3 is spot on, but I think more or less synonymous with denialism. I believe denialism is the pseudoscientific method, or at least describes its components. He proposes pseudoscience is kind of an applied form of denialism by quasi-experts seeking legitimacy through a more precise mimicry of the trappings of science - fake journals, fake experts, fake peer review etc. I'm not sure one can say they are truly different, but his description of AIDS pseudoscience is great and more extensive debunking of the variety of denialist claims about the existence or non-existence of HIV and AIDS. Many things become clear, especially the tendency of anti-medical pseudoscientists to blame the victim. Almost all of the the denialist theories seem to find a way to make it the victims fault - their lifestyle, their diet, their genetics, etc. which may feed back on their need for control His close examination of their arguments is sometimes grueling for someone with a medical education, I think my forehead has developed a welt from how many times I smacked it. For instance, I hadn't heard about Celia Farber's theory on HIV and infants:

Journalist Celia Farber confuses HIV infection with antibody responses when she states that all babies born to HIV positive mothers are born HIV positive and that all babies born to HIV positive mothers are born HIV positive and that most become negative months later...In this respect Farber is suggesting that all babies born to women with HIV/AIDS have HIV infection.

Facepalm! In humans, there is a IgG transport system across the placenta that delivers maternal antibodies to the infant so that when it is born it enjoys protection from various infections until its own immune system gets its legs under it. This way infants have much of the same acquired immunity as their mothers for the first few months of life. Since the HIV test tests for the presence of antibodies, this gives a false-positive test until the maternal antibodies disappear and, if the infant is positive, they generate their own HIV antibodies. HIV doesn't readily cross the placental barrier, which is why AZT given before labor, not even during the whole pregnancy, is highly protective against transmission of the virus to the child as it is usually infected during birthing. Why are we even arguing with people so ignorant of basic biology? They don't understand human development, they don't understand immunology, they don't understand virology, they don't even understand how an ELISA assay works, but they'll propose their incompetent use of it discredits the work of every HIV/AIDS researcher in the world! It's maddening to hear these cranks assume the mantle of the likes of Galileo and Einstein - minds that may occur maybe once a century - when they are clearly so completely incompetent. The arrogance is astounding.

After icing my forehead...He forgets to mention Michael Fumento as a denialist for his promotion of the myth that heterosexual sex does not transmit HIV. He's a general-use infectious disease promoter who routinely uses the success of public health efforts as proof they're not needed. After all, if disease doesn't get transmitted, why should we think it has anything to do with public health interventions?

In his fourth chapter he summarizes the dominant conspiracy theories, again a thorough job, as well as an excellent sub-chapter on why denialists make people like me so crazy. In the fifth he makes sure not to let Reagan off the hook in a discussion of political elements of HIV/AIDS denialism. And the last chapter deals with the question of how to get people out of denial. Importantly he recognizes the nature of how denialism is spread, starting with a few sources and then expanding outwards through the echo chambers of the internet. There are few original ideas in denialism, and while good ideas come and go, bad ideas last forever. He has some good suggestions of intellectual shortcuts to avoid BS that I'm sure most of my readers are familiar with. He also recognizes the diverse ideological radicalism which contributes to the formation of these ideas. Whether it's anti-medical cranks, environmental cranks, libertarian cranks, they tend to come to the topic of HIV/AIDS with an ideological axe to grind, rather than truly caring for the victims of the disease. Thus I think their moral position deteriorates further, they use the death of millions and ongoing illness and death of innocent men, women and children to further their bigotry against modern medicine, or to promote their toxin paranoia, or their politics.

He also has inspired me to conduct a kind of experiment. Simply put, denialism is an outgrowth of a certain personality type that is dysfunctional. These people with suspicious/paranoid beliefs, a tendency towards conspiracism, and lack of critical reasoning skills are all over the country and all over the world. They interpret events in a predictable manner. I ask the readers to consider world events from this perspective. Let's see if, in the face of a crisis or other major event, we can predict what those with this conspiratorial mindset will come up with as an explanation. I'm curious to see if we can come up with their unique conspiracy theories before they do. Maybe the next time we see something big break in the news if we can successfully conduct this experiment here at denialism blog.

To sum up, this is a well-written engaging book that should serve as a resource for anyone interested in critical thinking, and just as a fascinating story of how things can go awry in the public understanding of science. It's also the best work I've seen so far in evaluating the psychology of the believers causing all the trouble. This is a subject which needs more attention, and I hope to write about it more in the future.

So buy it! All royalties go to the purchase of anti-retrovirals for people in Africa, so you not only help yourself but you help undo some of the damage done by denialists like Duesberg and Mbeki.

Mark Hoofnagle has a MD and PhD in physiology from the University of Virginia, and is now a general surgery resident. His interest in denialism concerns the use of denialist tactics to confuse public understanding of scientific knowledge.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nature Reviews Denying AIDS

Nature 459, 168 (14 May 2009) doi:10.1038/459168a; Published online 13 May 2009

The dangers of denying HIV
by John P. Moore

BOOK REVIEWED :Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy
by Seth Kalichman
Springer: 2009. 205 pp. $25

Inadequate health policies in South Africa have reportedly led to some 330,000 unnecessary AIDS deaths and a spike in infant mortality, according to estimates by South African and US researchers. This carnage exceeds the death toll in Darfur, yet it has received far less
attention. Seth Kalichman, a US clinical psychologist, shows in Denying AIDS how words can kill. His marvellous book should be read alongside Nicoli Nattrass's Mortal Combat, covering similar ground but from the perspective of a South African.
UPDATE: Left Brain Right Brain Autism Blog picks up on the similarities of AIDS denial and autism denial/hysteria.

The tragic events in South Africa have been exacerbated by AIDS 'denialists' who, Kalichman alleges, assert that HIV is harmless and that antiretroviral drugs are toxic. The author discusses the psychology of denialism, which he says is "the outright rejection of science and medicine". He recounts the history of an HIV-infected US woman whose daughter died from an AIDS-related disease, and who recently died herself, to demonstrate the downward path from "ordinary psychological denial to malignant denial to denialism". Kalichman dismisses denialists' attempts to portray themselves as intellectually honourable dissidents who question accepted wisdom. He draws clear distinctions between dissidence and denialism; the latter, he says, is merely a destructive attempt to undermine the science.

These attitudes are not unique to HIV. Denialism, notes Kalichman, is "partly an outgrowth of a more general anti-science and antimedicine movement". Groups that support intelligent design, doubt global warming, claim that vaccines cause autism, argue that cigarettes are safe, believe that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were an intelligence-agency plot or deny the Holocaust all use similar tactics.

Kalichman asserts that influential groups within the AIDS denialist movement include academics, pushers of 'quack' cures and supportive journalists. He describes the academics involved as "deranged and disgruntled university professors who turn to pseudoscience as a platform to gain attention", noting that pseudoscience may include "sightings of UFOs, alien abductions, astrology, psychic predictions ...[and] outlandish claims about the cause and cure of diseases".

Kalichman describes how quacks, like some of the academics involved, misrepresent their qualifications to create an illusion of authority. One, he claims, treats AIDS with hyperthermia, massage, oxygen, music, colour, gem, aroma, hypnosis, light and magnetic fields, each word followed by "therapy". Another allegedly distributed a product in Zambia called Tetrasil, a pesticide used in swimming pools, until the Zambian government intervened. Kalichman concludes that "taking money from the poor for bogus treatments is beyond criminal" and castigates journalist supporters of the denialist viewpoint for neglecting their professional obligations to verify facts and avoid sensationalist stories. In a powerful ending, Kalichman claims that extreme right-wing politics influences the AIDS denialist movement.

Professional institutions continue to tolerate the conduct of academic denialists, despite the suffering that has resulted. The standard excuse for inaction has been freedom of expression — the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. But free speech has recognized limits, and causing death is one. In 2006, as Kalichman records, a group of concerned scientists and activists created a website, AIDSTruth (, to provide evidence to counter the denialists' words. The international legal and human-rights communities should now investigate the deadly impact of AIDS denialism. Action might have widespread benefits: Paul Offit's tour de force, Autism's False Prophets, claims that pseudoscientists and quacks have used similar tactics to parasitize the suffering of desperate parents by persuading them that vaccines cause autism. As Kalichman says, denialism "will not break until the public is educated to differentiate science from pseudoscience, facts from fraud".

All Royalties from Denying AIDS are donated to buy HIV medications in Africa.

John P. Moore is professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York 10021, USA.

Prof Moore's honorarium for this book review will be donated to the same charity that receives Seth Kalichman's royalties for the book – the Family Treatment Fund administered by the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University

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POZ Magazine on Denying AIDS

(Un)deniable Evidence
A college professor takes on AIDS naysayers in his latest book
by James Wortman

June 2009

Despite overwhelming scientific findings, some people remain convinced that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and that antiretrovirals are toxic poisons. Led by vocal skeptics such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki and the late Christine Maggiore, AIDS denialism continues to flourish, especially with the help of the Internet.

To counter this strengthening movement, Seth Kalichman, PhD, a social psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, wrote Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy ($25, Copernicus Books), which examines AIDS denialism’s origin, agendas and potentially damaging influence on HIV prevention and treatment.Kalichman believes that the scientific community’s decision to stay quiet over the years has only fueled the denialists’ power. “[For too long] scientists have believed that if you ignore the denialists, they will go away,” he told POZ. “The HIV community really has a role in combating this misinformation.” All royalties will help the Family Treatment Fund provide AIDS meds for people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?

Excerpts from the article “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” by Pascal Diethelm, OxyGene`ve, Geneva, Switzerland and Martin McKee, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 19, 2009.

Black is white and white is black
HIV does not cause AIDS. The world was created in 4004 BCE. Smoking does not cause cancer. And if climate change is happening, it is nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions. Few, if any, of the readers of this journal will believe any of these statements. Yet each can be found easily in the mass media.

The consequences of policies based on views such as these can be fatal. Thabo Mbeki’s denial that HIV caused AIDS prevented thousands of HIV positive mothers in South Africa receiving anti-retrovirals so that they, unnecessarily, transmitted the disease to their children. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, famously rejected evidence of the efficacy of these drugs, instead advocating treatment with garlic, beetroot and African potato. It was ironic that their departure from office coincided with the award of the Nobel Prize to Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre´-Sinoussi for their discovery that HIV is indeed the cause of AIDS.

The rejection of scientific evidence is also apparent in the popularity of creationism, with an estimated 45% of Americans in 2004 believing that God created man in his present form within the past 10 000 years. While successive judgements of the US Supreme Court have rejected the teaching of creationism as science, many American schools are cautious about discussing evolution. In the United Kingdom, some faithbased schools teach evolution and creationism as equally valid ‘faith positions’. It remains unclear how they explain the emergence of antibiotic resistance. Elsewhere, the hand of powerful corporate interests can be seen. It took many decades for the conclusions of authoritative reports by the US Surgeon General and the British Royal College of Physicians on the harmful effects of smoking to be accepted, while even now, despite clear evidence of rapid reductions in myocardial infarctions where bans have been implemented, there are some who deny that second-hand smoke is dangerous. In large part this was due to the efforts of the tobacco industry to deflect attention to other putative causes of smoking-related diseases, from stress to keeping pet birds. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have suffered similar attacks from commentators with links to major oil companies.

All of these examples have one feature in common. There is an overwhelming consensus on the evidence among scientists yet there are also vocal commentators who reject this consensus, convincing many of the public, and often the media too, that the consensus is not based on ‘sound science’ or denying that there is a consensus by exhibiting individual dissenting voices as the ultimate authorities on the topic in question. Their goal is to convince that there are sufficient grounds to reject the case for taking action to tackle threats to health. This phenomenon has led some to draw a historical parallel with the holocaust, another area where the evidence is overwhelming but where a few commentators have continued to sow doubt. All are seen as part of a larger phenomenon of denialism.

Defining and recognizing denialism
The Hoofnagle brothers, a lawyer and a physiologist from the United States, who have done much to develop the concept of denialism, have defined it as the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists. In this viewpoint, we argue that public health scientists should be aware of the features of denialism and be able to recognize and confront it.

Denialism is a process that employs some or all of five characteristic elements in a concerted way. The first is the identification of conspiracies. When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes that something is true, it is argued that this is not because those scientists have independently studied the evidence and reached the same conclusion. It is because they have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The peer review process is seen as a tool by which the conspirators suppress dissent, rather than as a means of weeding out papers and grant applications unsupported by evidence or lacking logical thought. The view of General Jack D Ripper that fluoridation was a Soviet plot to poison American drinking water in Dr Strangelove, Kubrick’s black comedy about the Cold War is no less bizarre than those expressed in many of the websites that oppose this measure.

In some cases, denialism exploits genuine concerns, such as the rejection of evidence on the nature of AIDS by African-Americans who perceive them as a manifestation of racist agendas. While conspiracy theories cannot simply be dismissed because conspiracies do occur, it beggars belief that they can encompass entire scientific communities.

There is also a variant of conspiracy theory, inversionism, in which some of one’s own characteristics and motivations are attributed to others. For example, tobacco companies describe academic research into the health effects of smoking as the product of an ‘anti-smoking industry’, described as ‘a vertically integrated, highly concentrated, oligopolistic cartel, combined with some public monopolies’ whose aim is to ‘manufacture alleged evidence, suggestive inferences linking smoking to various diseases and publicity and dissemination and advertising of these so-called findings to the widest possible public’.

Responding to denialism
Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.

Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice. Instead, we argue, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics they employ and identifying them publicly for what they are. An understanding of the five tactics listed above provides a useful framework for doing so.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Court Jester: Celia Farber’s New Libel Suit Against Treatment Action Group

Published in New York Post, May 9, 2009

UPDATE: also see Courthouse News Service, includes the time stamped County Clerk summons.

AFTER years of being attacked by a faction of the AIDS pharmaceutical/research community, journalist Celia Farber is fighting back with a libel suit. Farber's lawyers filed a 21-page libel complaint this week in Manhattan Supreme Court accusing Richard Jefferys, of the Treatment Action Group, of orchestrating a campaign against her last May when she was given the Semmelweis Clean Hands Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for an article she wrote in Harper's in 2006, "AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science."

The Harpers article gave credence to the work of Peter Duesberg, who believes HIV is a harmless "passenger" virus and not the cause of AIDS, and questioned the value of expensive antiretroviral drugs. Jefferys and his team blitzed the Semmelweis Society with e-mails claiming Farber had altered quotes and falsely misrepresented scientific papers.

The Semmelweis Society, in turn, launched its own investigation, and concluded the AIDS industry itself has all the characteristics of a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise that desperately needed whistleblowers. Farber, the daughter of talk legend Barry Farber, kept her award, though the battle to rescind it garnered fresh attacks, in which she was likened to Pol Pot, Stalin, Mengele, David Irving, David Duke and O.J. Simpson.

The former Spin columnist recently launched a new literary Web site called the Truth Barrier, with former New York Press editor John Strausbaugh. In appreciation for her work on AIDS, the artist Robert Crumb submitted an original drawing and a hand-written three-page letter expressing his despair over what he believes is the distortion of the AIDS story.

"Actually, Crumb's letter was too true even for the Truth Barrier," says Farber. "I redacted it. I don't want these pharma-bullies attacking him next."

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

AIDS Apathy is Fertile Soil for Denialism

Leading AIDS Denialist David Crowe once said “The world is getting bored with AIDS”.

And yet, as President of the Rethinking AIDS Society, Mr. Crowe refurbished the Rethinking AIDS website, hired a public relations person, and reinvigorated his propaganda campaigns. He also started daily updates on his other denialist website for the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society.

Why would David Crowe and Rethinking AIDS do all of this if the world is bored with AIDS?

Because AIDS apathy is good for AIDS Denialism.

AIDS apathy means less attention to AIDS science, reduced information seeking, less critical thinking about AIDS, and fewer quality information resources. AIDS apathy may explain why 45% of Gay men believe “HIV does not cause AIDS” and 51% believe that “HIV drugs can harm you more than help you.” Apathy may also help explain the rise in AIDS conspiracy theories, where one in five men and women in Houston believe that “AIDS is an agent of genocide created by the US Government to kill of minority populations” and 43% of African Americans in the US believe that “People who take the new medicines for HIV are human guinea pigs for the government”.

The Kaiser Family Foundation just released a new survey of Americans that shows the public sees AIDS as less of a threat than in the past, even as new infections are on the rise. The proportion of Americans who see HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health threat facing the country has plummeted from 44% in 1995 to 17% in 2006 and 6% today. AIDS apathy was also greatest among those most affected by AIDS and those at greatest risk.

The study showed that the number of people who say that they have heard, seen, or read “a lot” or “some” about HIV/AIDS in the US in the past year declined from 70% in 2004 to 45% in 2009. Those who said they saw “a lot” about HIV/AIDS was cut about in half from 34 percent to 14 percent.

Americans who say that we are losing ground on the problem of HIV/AIDS has decreased from 36% in 2004 to 22% in 2009.

Sadly, we are actually losing ground in the fight against HIV/AIDS. An estimated 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV and 580,000 have died of AIDS. New HIV infections in the US are occurring at a rate of 56,000 a year, that means that every 9 ½ minutes someone in the US is infected with HIV. The District of Columbia has the worst AIDS problem in the country, with HIV infecting 3% of the city it rivals countries in West Africa as one of the most AIDS afflicted places in the world. All of this is happening while Americans are caring less about AIDS and AIDS Denialists spew ever more misinformation.

AIDS denialism claims that HIV does not cause AIDS, that HIV tests are invalid, and HIV treatments are poison. If our greatest hope for defeating AIDS Denialism is an attentive and educated public, we have a lot of work to do.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

AIDS 'Denialists' Jeopardizing Treatment For Sufferers

April 29, 2009

For about two decades, it has been considered as fact that HIV causes AIDS, but there continue to be activists who say otherwise.

They've been brushed off too often as crackpots, says Seth Kalichman, who teaches social psychology at the University of Connecticut and is the editor of the journal AIDS and Behavior. As a result, those in the small but vocal minority have been able to push their views to a dangerous level. In his recently published book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy" (Copernicus Books, $25), Kalichman looks at the loose community that continues to question years of scientific research that points to the human immunodeficiency virus as the cause of AIDS. They often refer to themselves as "AIDS dissidents," but Kalichman and other critics use the more charged term of "AIDS denialists."
One of the things that has allowed the denialists to gain traction, he says, are the few among them who have genuine science credentials on their résumés

Among the first to question the prevailing wisdom about AIDS was Peter Duesberg, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He was among the first to identify and map the cancer-causing gene, though he may now be better known for his controversial views on AIDS treatment. He has stated that lifestyle and the very drugs used to treat AIDS are the cause of the disease.

Earlier this decade, Duesberg's theories had spread to the government of South Africa, where former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang rejected conventional medicine to treat AIDS patients in favor of a nutritional program that included garlic and beets. A Harvard study last year concluded that the AIDS policies of South Africa's then-president Thabo Mbeki resulted in the premature deaths of about 365,000 AIDS sufferers in the country.

At its peril, Kalichman says, the medical establishment has refused to engage the denialists in debate. "We have figured that if we ignore them, they will go away," he says.

But that strategy doesn't work in the Internet era. For instance, if you do a Google search for "cause of AIDS," the first entry is an essay supporting Duesberg's theory, from a website that bills itself as "rethinking AIDS."

"They've disrupted charity auctions," he says of the denialists. "It's a real threat, and it's all happening at a time when there is a lot of real excitement, and Obama has reignited awareness about AIDS."

As a result of the AIDS denialists' persistence, he says, many infected with the virus — especially those less educated — have refused conventional treatment. Regardless of what kind of reaction "Denying AIDS" gets among AIDS researchers, he says his main priority is getting the right information "to the people who should be most aware."

Kalichman is donating all of the book's royalties to the Family Treatment Fund administered by Massachusetts General Hospital and be used for antiretroviral medications for people with HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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