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HIV/AIDS: Web Site Takes Aim at 'Denialists'

Science 15 June 2007
Vol. 316. no. 5831, p. 1554
Jon Cohen

For 20 years, a small but vocal group of AIDS "dissenters" has attracted international attention by questioning whether HIV causes the disease. Many AIDS researchers from the outset thought it best to ignore these challenges. But last year, another small and equally vocal group decided to counter the dissenters--whom they call "denialists"--with a feisty Web site, It has started to attract international attention itself. "It's great," says Mark Wainberg, head of the McGill AIDS Centre in Montreal, Canada. "We really need to get more people to understand that HIV denialism does serious harm. And we were in denial about denialism for a long time."

Launched by AIDS researchers, clinicians, and activists from several countries, offers more than 100 links to scientific reports to "debunk denialist myths" and "expose the denialist propaganda campaign for what it is ... to prevent further harm being done to individual and public health." The site also has a section that names denialists and unsparingly critiques their writings, variously accusing them of homophobia, "scientific ignorance of truly staggering proportions," conspiracy theories, "the dogmatic repetition of the misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or mischaracterization of certain scientific studies," and flat-out lies. "There was a perceived need to take these people on in cyberspace, because that's where they operate mostly, and that's where the most vulnerable people go for their information," says immunologist John Moore, an AIDS researcher at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.

Peter Duesberg, a prominent cancer researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, whom colleagues have pilloried ever since he first questioned the link between HIV and AIDS in 1987, remains unswayed by the Web site, which he derides in an e-mail interview as a "scientifically worthless mix of ad hominems, opinions, intolerance, and religious energy--instead of a theory and facts." Duesberg maintains that "many essential questions" about what he calls the "HIV-AIDS hypothesis" remain unanswered.

Two factors led Moore and like-minded thinkers (who now number 11) to take off the gloves and hit back with , which went online in March 2006. One was an article in that month's issue of Harper's magazine, "Out of Control, AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science," which chronicled Duesberg's travails for challenging dogma and also questioned the safety and effectiveness of an anti-HIV drug that's widely used to prevent transmission from an infected mother to her baby. Moore and other Web site co-founders wrote a 35- page critique of the article. The second trigger was the situation in South Africa. "Many people who had fought denialism in the early 1990s had lost interest in the subject, but in South Africa, it was at its peak," explains another founder of the Web site, Nathan Geffen of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign. Geffen and others worried that his government might use the Harper's article to justify further inaction. "South Africa has more people living with HIV than any other country, and it's also been a place where AIDS denialism has had political support with terrible results."

The no-frills Web site receives no funding, doesn't pay contributors, and features no ads. It refuses to debate whether HIV causes AIDS, which it says "is as certain as the descent of humans from apes and the falling of dropped objects to the ground." It has also posted articles by authors of peer-reviewed publications who believe their findings have been distorted by people trying to prove that HIV/AIDS is a ruse. "The denialists tend to be grotesquely inaccurate," says Richard Jefferys, an activist with the Treatment Action Group in New York City who also helped start the site. "It's almost like the more outrageously inaccurate the claim is, the more they repeat it."

To the delight of Jefferys and others, a Supreme Court judge in Australia in April cited a debunking article on in a closely followed case that involved a man convicted of endangering life for not revealing he was infected with HIV to sexual partners. The man appealed, claiming that no studies prove HIV causes AIDS. His defense consisted of two "expert" witnesses, one of whom was extensively questioned about allegations that she had misused a researcher's results on sexual transmission of HIV. The questions were inspired by an editorial posted on . The judge concluded that neither defense witness--both of whom are branded as denialists on --was qualified to express opinions on these questions. "There's a constant concern that by rebutting these things, you're giving them more credence--there's a thin line between slaying the monster and feeding it," says Jefferys. "The judge's decision made the Web site seem really worthwhile." has seen its popularity rise from about 60 unique visits a day to 150. But as Moore notes, "we're certainly not high up in the Google rankings." Then again, he argues, any effective rebuke to the "anti-scientific" opinions that attract so much attention is worth the effort. "If you ignore the denialists, they're not going to disappear," says Moore. "And they don't like the fact that we can get in their faces. They're used to being unchallenged."