Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Seeing is believing: Oxford University Students Learn about AIDS Denialism

Seeing is believing
by Abu Abioye | 11:26 GMT, Tue 01 March 2011
It seems almost absurd to me that “sensible” people are able to deny evidence that AIDS is caused by HIV. Without trying to sound flippant, I would invite these people to voluntarily infect themselves with HIV and see how they fare. From the holocaust to smoking causing cancer, denialism appears to be rife – posing as skepticism. One might argue that we cannot deny freedom of expression. Indeed, revolutionaries such as Copernicus and Galileo held ideas that contradicted the scientific dogma of their time, and some doctrines that were once accepted by the scientific community have turned out to be false. However, it is important that we stick to the scientific method and provide valid proof for whatever theory or claim we may have, be it in line with or against the scientific consensus.

So what are the differences between skepticism and denial? Denialism in science is the rejection of accepted parts of the scientific consensus, perhaps as a means of avoiding the uncomfortable truth. In science, it is always important to keep a skeptical mind and challenge ideas; if they are still left standing after attempts at falsification then we can be reassured that they are scientific and therefore justified. Denialists do not evaluate the evidence and follow where it leads; instead they are motivated by some other ideology, which means that they already have a commitment to a belief before they have viewed the evidence. In a nutshell, sceptics are willing to change their minds, denialists are not.

Proponents of the denial movement portray themselves as underdogs who have dared to speak out against conspiracies and propaganda. Martin McKee (an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) has identified six commonly used tactics that denialists employ:

1.       Allege there’s a conspiracy;
2.       Use fake experts to support the claim;
3.       Selectively pick out supporting evidence;
4.       Demand an impossible level of proof;
5.       Misrepresent the scientific consensus then attack the fallacy;
6.       Claim that the scientific community are still divided in opinion.

Denial tends to be greatest in areas of science that necessitate a level of trust in the scientific method. For instance, the HIV virus is invisible to the naked eye and the consequences of infection are not immediately apparent; vaccines do not work for everyone and may be given for diseases we have never seen; and global warming is meant to be occurring, yet with the icy winds and snow-ridden airport runways it is difficult to see how contradicting weather patterns can co-exist. It may be true that denial is on the same spectrum as skepticism, with gullibility being on one end of the scale, denial on the other, and skepticism having a place somewhere in-between. The emotiveness and sense of gaining authority over nature makes denial so appealing. Moreover, anecdotal evidence laden with scientific jargon makes this pseudo-science appear scientific.

Suppose you are a smoker and you hear that smoking causes cancer. While conducting further enquiries you find several websites with cited research on the association between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. However, you also find a website claiming that the research is inconclusive and severely biased. As a skeptic, you would review the evidence and balance them to come to an informed conclusion. A denialist, though, biased because you have a vested interest in believing that smoking is harmless, you would dismiss the scientific evidence regardless of how conclusive it is.

Lack of faith, trust, or understanding of the core tenets of science can catalyse the transition from skepticism to denial, which may be fuelled by the fallacies disseminated by proficient denialists out there. In fact, the transition from skepticism to denial may be a pathological cognitive process, as per Seth Kalichman (a social psychologist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs), who submits that for denialists "[t]here is some fragility in their thinking that draws them to believe people who are easily exposed as frauds". He even goes further to describe the leaders of denialist movements as displaying “all the features of paranoid personality disorder".
Perhaps our skeptical minds are not solely to blame for denial; indeed corporate industries have a role, especially when it comes to tobacco smoking and climate change. 

The Waxman Hearings of 1994 are a particularly famous example of denialism in the corporate world. Before the U.S. Congress, seven CEOs of tobacco companies swore, under oath, that they did not believe nicotine to be addictive. The tactics used by the tobacco industry had been around for a long time in order to create doubt with regards to the health risks of tobacco smoking. These tactics were picked up by the coal and electricity companies, which led to the creation of the Information Council on the Environment (ICE). The role of the ICE was to “reposition climate change as theory (not fact)".

It appears that when prominent scientists indulge in denialism the consequences can be dire. For instance, when Andrew Wakefield falsely reported that MMR vaccinations were linked to autism the immunisation rate in Britain dropped from 92% to 73%. In South Africa, AIDS denialism by the Mbeki government was supported by 5,000 doctors and scientists, including the American Peter Duesberg, who claims that HIV is merely a passenger virus in AIDS victims and that rather drug-use, malnutrition, and the side-effects of antiretroviral drugs lead to AIDS. This has, of course, been falsified and indeed HIV alone has been found to be inextricably linked with the likelihood of developing AIDS. The AIDS denialism movement in South Africa is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 330,000 to 340,000 people and a further 106,000 new infections.

With such a risk to public health, what is the solution to denialism? Censorship is not the answer. Today we may be in the privileged position of holding the popular opinion, but there may come a day when we are in the silenced minority. It seems that the only sensible way to tackle denialism is to try to address the arguments and be faithful to the scientific method of making valid inferences from accurate observations and experiments. It may well turn out that the denialists were right, but the truth will only be ascertained through scientific enquiry rather than unfounded speculation.


  1. Such an excellent essay. One thing I notice Seth, is that when you post the writings of others, you do so with immediate and obvious transparency. Clark Baker, on the other hand, posts the words and writings of others as if they were his own. When Baker was called out for this by you, Snout, Deshong, Kralc Rekab and others a year or more ago, Baker stopped his obvious plagarism. However, Baker still posts the writings of others and only gives them credit at the end, or buries the credit somewhere else!

    I love that you are able to showcase the writings of other people without the ego of trying to pass it off as if it were your own.

    Lastly, I have also noticed that Clark Baker has been woefully lacking in publishing anything at all, whether it be at his ExLiberal site or at OR regarding his HIV Innocence Project. Baker has not posted anything in well over a month. Does this seem to coincide with his testing HIV Positive?

  2. Thanks Gay Hornet...
    I like using my blog as a clearinghouse for all things on AIDS Denialism. No desire to take credit for others' words.. I think I have enough of my own words in other outlets.

    It seems that Baker did test HIV+. How was that confirmed?
    It also seems that Stokely is not doing well, by her own account.
    And Emery Taylor dying...

    I am sure Clark can only handle so much. It is not like he is some kind of mental giant.

    What is interesting is how the crazies go up tempo when there is a crisis. So I would watch for more noise from Farber and the gang as they compensate for these obvious tragedies.

  3. Is Baker starting on ARVs ?

  4. Good overview Seth.

    One point - The list of "5000 doctors and scientists" supporting the Mbeki stance on HIV/AIDS did not consist of 5,000 doctors and scientists.
    It included many whose views on HIV had changed once the evidence was in (but once on the denialist list you are there for ever), and the overwhelming majority of the remainder were a motley assortment of pseudoscientific quacks like homeopaths, nutritionists and chiropracters; there were a number of journalists/media people, and a only pitifully tiny handful of "scientists/doctors" but whose specialist fields were mostly in quite unrelated subjects like surgery, geography, paleontology.
    Even in "relevant" fields like virology they garnered people like Stephan Lanka (who thinks there no viruses exist which are pathogenic to man)

    'Twas ever thus.

  5. Seth,

    Do you really understand what scientific method means? It does not shine through from you post. Particularly the following:

    "Denialism in science is the rejection of accepted parts of the scientific consensus"

    Scientific epistemology holds that you can never actually prove a hypothesis. You can only falsify or not falsify said hypothesis. If you cannot falsify it, it does not mean your hypothesis is correct. It means that your hypothesis is held to be still valid.

    This is not just symantics. As Hume originally postulated. You can have thousands of observations of not falsifying your hypothesis and yet you still cannot be 100% sure it is correct. However, if you provide JUST ONE case where the hypothesis is held false, then the hypothesis is wrong.

    You can have hundreds of scientific papers stating that HIV directly causes AIDS. However, if you have just one paper that reliabily proves that the hypothesis (or a part of the hypothesis) does not hold, then the hypothesis is held invalid - it has been falsified.

    I do not know what the answer is, but I do know that the standard AIDS hypothesis has been falsified.

    A simple example:
    - AIDS is hypothesized to be sexually transmitted. Thus it forcibly should be correlated to the spread of other sexually transmitted diseases. Except this is not the case. Sexually transmitted diseases have seen a significant increase while AIDS numbers have remained stable. Sounds trivial? Well it is not. That alone is enough to falsify the existing hypothesis.

    That Seth, is the actual scientific method at work. Science is not a democracy.