Denying AIDS

I first mentioned Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy in April after I bought the book at a lecture and book signing. Following various interruptions, I have finally finished it and must say I’m impressed.

Seth Kalichman tackles a subject that should have far more public awareness. He exposes the dangerous and misguided people who deny that HIV causes AIDS or assert that the drugs used to treat the associated illnesses actually exacerbate them. These people include scientists, both real and spurious, journalists, and AIDS sufferers who have bought into the idea that anti-retroviral medicines harm rather than help and who try to cure their illness with vitamins and the like.

Kalichman opens with a telling observation about the links between AIDS denialists and groups that deny evolution, the Holocaust, global warming and so forth. What these people have in common, of course, is that they do not base their conclusions in fact. Instead, they cherry-pick information from legitimate resources, or they use old research. Then they launch personal attacks on anyone who draws attention to the deficiencies in their arguments. Kalichman has of course exposed himself to these attacks as one look at his blog demonstrates.

Since explaining irrationality is an impossible task, he cannot, as I’d hoped, reveal how Nobel laureate Peter Duesberg came to reject his own findings, nor can he explain how an obviously brilliant scientist has decided that HIV does not cause AIDS. The entire issue was outside Duesberg’s area of expertise, so it is even more of a wonder that he became involved.  Based Kalichman’s on profile of the man, I suspect Duesberg had a breakdown of some sort, which would also explain why he thinks the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health are out to get him. He may have also come up against an evolving social scene in Berkeley. It is amazing that in 2010 someone can still refer to black people as “schwartzes” and gay men as “homos.”

If Duesberg is the brains of the denialist movement then the former South African president Thabo Mbeki is the brawn on whose head rests the greatest number of deaths. Untold numbers have died and hundreds of thousands of family members have suffered because of his refusal to allow anti-retroviral drugs into the country during his regime. The most chilling aspect of his position involved the deaths of infants who could probably have survived if their HIV-positive mothers had received medication.

At about page 45 I put the book down for a minute and thought, why am I reading this? Why did Seth Kalichman have to write it? Of course the answer to the latter question lies within the pages. And I kept reading because I think it is the obligation of every thoughtful person to educate herself on a subject that has caused so much death and devastation. It is beyond tragic that people dying of AIDS are being so misled.

Denying AIDS makes a valuable contribution, but I do have a few quibbles. Kalichman objects to the presentation of denialist views in publications such as Harper’s Magazine and The Sunday Times of London. These publications print stories about the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot, too. It’s not the fact of the publication that’s objectionable; rather it’s how the claims are presented. Unfiltered acceptance of spurious claims degrades the quality of the publication. Kalichman makes the valid point that “serious” newspapers and magazines should not offer these narratives without challenge. The cynical side of me says no one reads those periodicals any more, so what difference does it make?

My biggest problem with the book is the daunting scientific terminology. Kalichman generally does an expert job of writing for the non-scientist, but his refutations of denialism result in such sentences as these: “… antibody tests can produce false positive results when the antibodies cross-react with antibodies to some other antigen.” [p. 63] And I never did understand Aneuploidy. I made note after note saying this doesn’t make sense.

But in the end the comments had nothing to do with the author or his writing. He was climbing the Mount Everest of disinformation. He reached the summit, where most of the rest of us would have gone blind on the ascent and stopped at base camp or quit long before.

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3 Responses to “Denying AIDS”

  1. Larry Williams Says:

    I disagree with you, and agree with him, about publications lending credibility to denialists by printing articles by them. they shouldn’t do it because it’s a false issue. should harper’s publish articles by global warming deniers, creationists, holocaust deniers? it’s not enough to challenge the statements. if you’ve printed them, you’ve legitimized the “debate.” (i’m not referring to stories that cover the denialist movement, but those that assert the truth of denialist claims.)

    • lizr128 Says:

      The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. ~John Stuart Mill, ON LIBERTY, 1859

  2. Larry Williams Says:

    i’m sure john stuart mill would say that HIV/AIDS denial is not what he had in mind when he said an “opinion.”

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