Surveys have consistently shown that over 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution. It is not surprising, then, that our society is vulnerable to being fooled by people who misrepresent scientific or historical facts.
We are now all too familiar with the crazed activities of the 'Birthers', anad hoc, right wing political group refusing to accept President Obama was born in the United States. Earlier this year, we saw media coverage of the insane views of a clique that refuses to accept American astronauts walked on the moon 40 years ago. The "9/11 Truth Movement" flourishes on the internet, arguing that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not hit by hijacked jetliners, but were blown up by the CIA at the behest of Israeli intelligence. Conspiracy groups like these usually do little real damage to society, although the activities of the "9/11 Truth Movement" foster anti-Semitism and insult the memories of the nearly 3000 Americans who died on 9/11. Unfortunately, other equally bizarre and factually unfounded, internet-based conspiracy groups can, and do, harm, even kill, significant numbers of people. This is not just an American problem, as the ripple effects of conspiracy theories spread worldwide via the internet. Indeed, the most serious consequences of one such group’s actions have been felt in Africa.
A small group of misguided and, in some cases malicious, individuals have long promoted the view that HIV does not cause AIDS or, in an even more bizarre twist of the truth, that HIV does not even exist. An even nastier variation of the theme is that HIV was created by the US government as a device to kill "undesirables", such as people with black skins or who are gay. None of these opinions is true, and there is not a shred of credible scientific or historic evidence to support them. Unfortunately, the Mbeki administration in South Africa put in place policies based around the premises that HIV is harmless but anti-retroviral drugs are dangerous. This decision caused over 330,000 unnecessary deaths during the first half of this decade. And yet the "AIDS Denialists" even question this death toll, a tactic no different from Holocaust Deniers asking "Did six million really die". Many Americans and Europeans have also died, persuaded by the "AIDS Denialists" that they did not need to take anti-retroviral drugs to treat their HIV infections. Distrust of the federal government and the medical establishment among African American communities has adversely affected AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the USA, in no small measure due to the crazy belief that HIV was created as a weapon of selective genocide. Indeed, this particular rumor even re-surfaced in the last Presidential election campaign. Real people die real deaths as a direct result of the pseudo-science promoted by the "AIDS Denialists".
In a similar vein, groups that claim vaccination is harmful have harmed global immunization programs, and thereby caused avoidable deaths worldwide. A conspiracy theory group often called "The Mercuries" has been particularly vociferous in its argument that a mercury-containing preservative found in some vaccines causes autism. There is less mercury in a vaccine shot than in a tuna fish sandwich, and the mercury present in the fish is in a more dangerous chemical form. Overall, a now vast body of solid scientific evidence has proven that autism has no connection whatsoever to any vaccine or vaccine component. This is now settled science within the professional community, which understands that the cause of autism is based in human genetics. But despite the facts, the distrust of vaccines that has been created by “The Mercuries” and other anti-vaccine conspiracy groups is now damaging efforts to counter swine flu by vaccination, both in America and, increasingly, elsewhere. The polio vaccine eradication campaign has been harmed, notably in Nigeria, by rumors that the vaccine is contaminated with dangerous chemicals, or even with HIV, or that it was designed by “white people to sterilize black people”. As a result, this dangerous infection has still not been eradicated from Africa, where it lingers on, killing and paralyzing yet more people.
The mindsets of the "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are similar to each other. Both groups are irrational on the science, twisting the facts to a perverse extent and stubbornly ignoring and rejecting all the evidence that speaks against their views. Each group is bolstered by a very small number of scientists whose paper qualifications provide them with a superficial, wafer-thin veneer of academic credibility. The two conspiracy groups contain individuals who will resort to threats of violence and who harass those who dare to speak up against them. A common tactic of both groups is to smear scientists and physicians who recommend AIDS drugs or the use of vaccines as being nothing more than paid tools of the pharmaceutical industry. Yet both the "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are supported by promoters of “alternative (i.e., quack) therapies" who have a financial interest in damning approved anti-HIV drugs or licensed vaccines. “Ambulance-chasing” lawyers have also been heavily involved with the anti-vaccine groups, fostering the hopes of grieving parents that they (and the lawyers) might receive a payout from a scientifically ill-informed jury.
The conspiracy theory groups also receive the support of a small, but noisy, subset of media professionals who seem attracted to the personalities involved, smelling stories in the controversies. This has been particularly problematic recently in the anti-vaccine arena, where some American chat shows and right wing news programs have given undue attention to “The Mercuries”. Bizarre as it may seem, the views of medically unqualified Hollywood celebrities are given equal, or even greater, weight on these shows than those of expert physicians and scientists. Science and pseudoscience should never be “balanced” in this way. To make an analogy: if a film star claimed that we should not fly on a jetliner because mercury contamination could make the wings fall off, we would simply laugh, preferring to listen to the views of qualified aeronautical engineers and metallurgists (and to our own experience as travelers). Yet, nowadays, film stars’ views on vaccine composition are given huge weight by some chat show hosts.
The "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are no different from the "Birthers", the moon-landing hoaxers, the "9/11 Truth" members and the Holocaust Deniers in the irrationality of their views and their belief in government conspiracies and cover-ups. Indeed, some members of the various groups flit from one conspiracy-themed web site to another, seeking and finding solace in a variant form of irrationality. One of the very few academic supporters of the" AIDS Denialism" movement also investigates the Loch Ness Monster, Alien Crop Circles and other such fringe or paranormal themes. It would be funny if it were not so tragic.
What can be done about dispelling this kind of damaging nonsense? America has a strong tradition of free speech, so dangerous views will continue to be promoted, however harmful they are to public health and the best interests of society. The internet is the territory of the conspiracist, and it is likely to remain so. But media professionals should not be so unquestioning of the science when they provide airtime or column inches to those with fringe views. Controversy may help sell advertising, but at what cost?
A particular concern is that the ideas that HIV is harmless and that vaccines cause autism have been underpinned by a very few academics or physicians working in American or European universities or hospitals. These “thought leaders” for the conspiracy groups should now be made to face the professional consequences of their scientifically unsupportable actions. Is academic freedom such a precious concept that scientists can hide behind it while betraying the public so blatantly? When the facts are so solidly against views that kill people, there must be a price to pay. Post-tenure review of the progress of academic careers is something the university system could put in place if it chose to. How can bona fide universities justify their employees teaching students, even medical students, that HIV is harmless? How can academic and medical institutions still employ people whose views lead to the deaths of over 330,000 South Africans? Shielding the proponents of pseudoscience by doing nothing is a dereliction of a duty to the public. It is also moral cowardice. It is now time for Africa to speak out and demand action against those who have been responsible for so many deaths on this continent.