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Views, Reviews and Interviews

By MATT pAI-ueursr


An esteemedprofessor rightly takesAIDS denialiststo task, but his aaluablehistory of the movementis at timesa causticread.

N THE rrnsr

the preface to his

book, Denying AIDS:

Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience.and

page of

Human Tiagedy,Seth Kalichman

scribeshis initial encounterwith an aca-


demic colleaguewho had written a\$7eb- published screed against the "AIDS m5rth.""I mean I was really angryr" he writes, with a senseof frustrated dismay that permeatesthe book.The dismay is understandable; DerryingllDS is not merely a history of the movement skep- tical to widely acceptedmainstreamsci- ence about the disease,but also a de- tailed account of the author's personal journey, via lecture halls and message boards,into this world. The cadre of skeptics on the outer fringes of academia,activism and jour- nalism - who essentiallv doubt the

ACTUp SF marches to a dangerous

drummer, denying, against the vast preponderance of

scientific evidencg

that HfV causes AIDS. Above: A|DS denialist posters.

causalrelationshipberweenHIV and AIDS, and opposethe drugs used to

treat it - form such a small, but his-

torically crucial, part

tale of the disease,it's inevitablethat someonewho has personallyengaged with the movement would have to tell the story. At times the caustic tone of Denying AIDS, understandable as it may be, obscuresthe cold, hard facts of the book's arguments. But there's no doubt that the supposed debate, still thriving on corners of the Internet and well-chronicled in this book, has had sadand seriousconsequencesand holds fascinatingimplications for other so-calledscientific debates,including those surrounding climate change. Kalichman has a long and lauded history of AIDS prevention work as a

widely published author, professor of social psychology at the University of





Connecticut and the editor-in-chief of the journal AIDS and Behaztior.He is

also the director of the SoutheastHfV/

Education Project


Research &

in Atlanta, Ga., and CapeTown, South Africa, which affords him an up-close

view of the impacts of state-sanctioned AIDS skepticism.As Kalichman persua- sively makes the case,"Denialism has plagued South Africa nearly asbadly as the diseaseitself."The country's second electedpresident,Thabo Mbeki, rejects the conventional thinking toward the diseaseand especiallythe drugs to treat it. Kalichman points to one biography that states,"Mbeki believesthat South Africanswho espousethe orthodox view that HfV causesAIDS, including Nelson Mandela, the labor unions, as well as AIDS scientists,arefinanciallybeholden to drug companies."Today, Kalichman notes, an estimated 800 people die of


another 1,000contract HfV. But it is the history of AIDS in the United States that composes much of the story of the "denialism" move- ment. This terminology is of coursein- credibly loaded, as Kalichman admits:

Holocaust denialism is an explosive and emotional idea, and 9/l I denial- ism is associatedwith a fringe Internet movement of extreme political views. "Stillr" Kalichman writes, "I defend my use of the term becauseI believe it best describesthe rejection ofobjective

each day in South Africa, while

DenyingAIDS:ConspirocyTheorieg Pseudoscience,and HumanTragedy BySethKalichman



reality to sustain a flawed, hurtfirl, and ultimately dangerousbelief system." In the context of AIDS, Kalichman also applies tlte term to several aca-

demics - although nearly all

write about the topic do not do so in peer-reviewed journals. Henry Bauer, for instance, is professor emeritus of chemistry and sciencestudiesand dean emeritusof arts and sciencesat the well-

regardedVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and he claims



his research shows that HfV

causeAIDS. (He is also,asit happens,

a leading autlrority on the Loch Ness

Monster.) Peter Duesberg, who has been on the faculty of the University

of California,Berkeley,since1964and

is a full professorof molecular and cell

biology, also falls into the "denialist"

category.A pioneer in

tigating the genetic bases of cancer'

Duesberg was elected to the National Academyof Sciencesin 1986.

research inves-





Duesberg also made a radical shift in his thinking on the causes of cancer and the role retrovirusesplay, rejecting much of his previous work and even- tually losing his National Institutes of Health funding. Becausethe retrovirus HIV had been identified as leading to AIDS, Duesbergextendedhis ftinking. Did HIV target and destroyT:cells, ac- cording to the emergingand widely ac- ceptedview,or wasthe retrovirus mere- ly a harmless molecular tagalong?As Kalichman writes: "The questions he raised about whether retroviruses can causeAIDS were crystallizedas defini- tive statementsin subsequentarticlesin prestigious scientific journals, defining Duesberg as the most visible dissident AIDS scientistin the world, despitehis neveractually having done any work on HfV orAIDS." Duesberg's highly alternative point of view gradually gave credence to

fringe activist groups like the defunct ACTUP San Francisco, which loudly proclaimed the diseaseto be a "prod- uct of government conspiracy against the gay communityr" and just asloudly advocated against the use of retrovi-

ral and other HfV-suppressing drugs. And becausettre tragic story of AIDS has also been shadowedby homopho- bia, racism and social mores about promiscuous sex, severalreligious and

conservativepolitical leaders through- out the early and mid-1980s adopted skeptical stancesagainst the emerging sciencethat explained the disease.The Reagan administration also infamous- ly bungled the early response to the

epidemic. The

(which Kalichman sarcastically labels The PressConferencewheneverhe re- fersto it, in an exampleof his approach) to announce the discovery of the virus that causesAIDS occurred before any scientific journals had published ttre

research,providing skeptics with am- munition to this day,while the adminis- tration vowed,without any real basis,to find a vaccinewithin two years. Given the attention the diseasehas received since, it must be curious for some to learn that seemingly intelli- gent people still question the connec- tions between HIV and AIDS. After all, the fundamental scientific con- sensus,based on thousands of clini- cal and laboratory studies since the early 1980s,is that HIV causesAIDS' and as Kalichman points out, "over 130,000 research articles accessed from the National Library of Medicine describe the HIV process."And when pseudoscienceabout AIDS seepsinto the mainstream media - 4s 'ffss *1s casein 2006, when a HarPer'smaga- zine article basedlargelyon Duesberg's researchcontained at least 50 errors about HIV, according to Kalichman and fellow scientists who wrote in to complain - peer-reviewed academics have every right to be frustrated. "In their mindsr" he fumesr "the propaga- tion of the HIV = AIDS myth is the product of a government conspiracy in cahoots with a multibillion-dollar pharmaceuticalscam." Indeed, Kalichman is at his best when identifuing the loose strandsthat come together to form the various con-

1984 press conference

spiracy theories surrounding

many of which alsoapply to other pseu-


dosciencemovements.Factors both so- cial and technologicalcontribute:Thkea dash of Internet untruths, mix in some irrational fearsabout Big Pharma or the government,and top it offwith growing complacencyfrom educators and pub- lic healttr offrcials."Denialism is at least partly an outgrow*r of a more general anti-science and anti-medicine move- mentr" he writes. "Every time there is a recall of approvedmedications,ashap- pensall too often,public trust is eroded. Campaigns against teaching evolution in favor of creationism' now referred to as Intelligent Design, remain as com- monplace today as ever. Conservative political groups have called the peer- review process into question, further heightening suspicions toward science and medicine." Refreshingly, Kalichman also takes his colleaguesto taskfor failing to com- municate effectively with the public and making too many unfulfilled prom- ises,pointing out *lat AIDS pseudosci- entists, just as in the case of climate changer"have seizedon failed scientific predictions in making their point that scienceis a fraud." It's interesting that Denying AIDS pointedly contains severalphotographs of the author posing with those on the other side of the debate, including Duesberg, to emphasizethe degree to which Kalichman has gone to under- stand their viewpoint. But it's also clear,from evena casualperusalofthe "blah blah blogsr"as Kalichman hap- pens to call them, that the small' frac- tious communiryofAIDS skepticssees him squarely as the enemy and views his attacksasdecidedlypersonal.Ifhe hasn't changed any minds, at least Kalichman has provided a thorough chronicle of a fascinating chapter in a long, sadstory of a terrible disease.In doing so,he notesr"I havealsotried to avoid ad hominem attacks by focusing more on what the denialists are saying than who they are." And then he adds:

"But that was too diffrcult." EE


contibuting editor.


rt a Miller-McCune