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Still Crazy After All These Years: The Challenge of AIDS Denialism for Science

07 December 2009

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AIDSTruth contributor Nicoli Nattrass writes in AIDS and Behavior:

In his new book, Denying AIDS, Seth Kalichman observes that people are surprised by the persistence of AIDS denialists: “Are they still around?”[1, p. 1] he is often asked. And it is a good question. Given the large body of scientific and clinical evidence on HIV disease and treatment (expertly summarized by Chigwedere and Essex in this issue of AIDS and Behavior) it is indeed strange that Peter Duesberg and his followers still claim HIV is harmless and that antiretrovirals cause rather than treat AIDS. While such dissident views were intellectually respectable in the 1980s when HIV science was new, they make little sense today. Thus Joseph Sonnabend, a doctor who treated some of the earliest AIDS cases in New York and was well known for arguing that environmental factors may be more important than a virus in driving AIDS, was quick to change his mind once antiretroviral treatment was shown to act against HIV and transform the health of his patients [2, p. 25]. Peter Duesberg, by contrast, refused to accept the evidence, thereby earning the label ‘denialist’ rather than ‘dissident’ [1, 2].

Duesberg may be pathologically contrarian in this respect, but he has an enduring appeal. Kalichman [1] argues that this is in large part because his claim that HIV is harmless reinforces the normal process of denial most people undergo when faced with traumatizing information—such as a positive HIV test result. Another reason is that Duesberg’s views are promoted in books, on denialist websites and blogs and by a persistent trickle of ‘Duesberg-as-oppressed-hero-scientist’ stories from independent film-makers and journalists. It is precisely because he holds a post at Berkeley and is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, that Duesberg has been able to build the media profile that sustains him. As Epstein argues, by ‘using his scientific credentials to buy him popular support, then using the popular support to push for recognition by his colleagues—Duesberg gained staying power’ [3, p. 142].

This has resulted in HIV science being represented as fundamentally contested in ways which it actually is not. And because of the threat AIDS denialism poses both to public health and to the authority of HIV science itself, scientists have found it necessary, time and time again, to respond to Duesberg’s claims, despite their long having been demolished [see e.g. 4–8]. Chigwedere and Essex’s paper in this issue is one more such refutation in a long line of refutations. What makes their paper different is that in addition to marshalling the key evidence in support of the scientific consensus on HIV, they criticize Duesberg for inspiring South Africa’s ex-President Mbeki AIDS policies (thereby causing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths) and they take him to task for suggesting (in a co-authored paper initially published in Medical Hypotheses but subsequently withdrawn by the publisher) that the African AIDS epidemic does not exist.

Chigwedere and Essex are clearly angry—the emotion is evident on every page. This is not merely because of the dangers Duesberg’s intransigence poses for public health but because of his refusal to change his views when the evidence demands it. This has long been a source of frustration for HIV scientists. For example, Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of HIV, has described him as ‘like a little dog that won’t let go’ [in 6, p. 1644] and John Moore [9], an eminent virologist at Weill Cornell Medical School, has likened Duesberg to Monty Python’s black knight who keeps fighting despite having all of his limbs cut off by his opponent. And the problem is far more than intellectual because disregarding evidence not only undermines scientific progress, but it threatens the social basis which makes such progress possible. Respect for the evidence and for the people who generate it is a core value in the scientific community—and it is precisely this that Duesberg flouts. Warren Winkelstein, one of the early HIV epidemiologists, recalls how, at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington to discuss Duesberg’s theories, Duesberg would frequently get up, wander around the room and start talking to reporters. In his view, Duesberg simply ‘wasn’t listening to what was being said’ [in 10, p. 131). The message Duesberg was broadcasting then, and in all his statements on AIDS, is loud and clear: he alone is correct and the work of others is not worth considering.

Read the full article on SpringerLink.