You are on page 1of 2

Views, Reviews and Interviews

By MATTpAI-ueursr

Looki Back Anger ng In
professor An esteemed rightly takesAIDS denialiststo task, but his aaluable history of the movementis at times a causticread.

Connecticut and the editor-in-chief of the journal AIDS and Behaztior. He is also the director of the SoutheastHfV/ AIDS Research & Education Project in Atlanta, Ga., and Cape Town, South Africa, which affords him an up-close view of the impacts of state-sanctioned AIDS skepticism.As Kalichman persuasively makes the case, "Denialism has ACTUp marches plagued South Africa nearly as badly as SF to a dangerous the disease itself."The country's second drummer, denying, electedpresident,Thabo Mbeki, rejects againstthe vast the conventional thinking toward the preponderance diseaseand especiallythe drugs to treat of scientific evidencg it. Kalichman points to one biography that HfVcauses that states,"Mbeki believesthat South AIDS. Above:A|DS Africans who espouse orthodox view the denialist posters. that HfV causes AIDS, including Nelson Mandela, the labor unions, as well as N THE rrnsr page of causal relationship berween HIV and AIDS scientists, financially beholden are t h e p r e f a c e t o h i s AIDS, and oppose the drugs used to to drug companies."Today, Kalichman book, Denying AIDS: treat it - form such a small, but his- notes, an estimated 800 people die of Conspiracy Theories, torically crucial, part of the tragic AIDS each day in South Africa, while P s e u d o s c i e n c e . n d tale of the disease,it's inevitable that another 1,000 contract HfV. a Human Tiagedy, Seth Kalichman de- someonewho has personally engaged But it is the history of AIDS in the scribeshis initial encounter with an aca- with the movement would have to tell United States that composes much demic colleaguewho had written a\$7eb- the story. At times the caustic tone of of the story of the "denialism" movepublished screed against the "AIDS Denying AIDS, understandable as it ment. This terminology is of course inm5rth.""I mean I was really angryr" he may be, obscuresthe cold, hard facts credibly loaded, as Kalichman admits: writes, with a senseof frustrated dismay of the book's arguments. But there's Holocaust denialism is an explosive that permeatesthe book. The dismay is no doubt that the supposed debate, and emotional idea, and 9/l I denialunderstandable; DerryingllDS is not still thriving on corners of the Internet ism is associatedwith a fringe Internet merely a history of the movement skep- and well-chronicled in this book, has movement of extreme political views. tical to widely acceptedmainstream sci- had sad and seriousconsequences and "Stillr" Kalichman writes, "I defend ence about the disease,but also a de- holds fascinating implications for other my use of the term becauseI believe it tailed account of the author's personal so-called scientific debates, including best describesthe rejection ofobjective journey, via lecture halls and message those surrounding climate change. Denying AIDS: boards, into this world. Conspirocy Theorieg Kalichman has a long and lauded Pseudoscience, Human Tragedy and The cadre of skeptics on the outer history of AIDS prevention work as a BySethKalichman fringes of academia,activism and jour- widely published author, professor of Copernicus Book, 525, 2009 - who essentiallv doubt the social psychology at the University nalism of



reality to sustain a flawed, hurtfirl, and ultimately dangerous belief system." In the context of AIDS, Kalichman also applies tlte term to several acaalthough nearly all who demics write about the topic do not do so in peer-reviewed journals. Henry Bauer, for instance, is professor emeritus of chemistry and sciencestudies and dean at emeritus of arts and sciences the wellregardedVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and he claims his research shows that HfV doesn't causeAIDS. (He is also,as it happens, a leading autlrority on the Loch Ness Monster.) Peter Duesberg, who has been on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley,since 1964 and is a full professor of molecular and cell biology, also falls into the "denialist" category. A pioneer in research investigating the genetic bases of cancer' Duesberg was elected to the National in Academy of Sciences 1986. Around that time, however, Duesberg also made a radical shift in his thinking on the causes of cancer and the role retroviruses play, rejecting much of his previous work and eventually losing his National Institutes of Health funding. Becausethe retrovirus HIV had been identified as leading to AIDS, Duesberg extended his ftinking. Did HIV target and destroyT:cells, according to the emerging and widely accepted view, or was the retrovirus merely a harmless molecular tagalong? As Kalichman writes: "The questions he raised about whether retroviruses can causeAIDS were crystallized as definitive statementsin subsequentarticles in prestigious scientific journals, defining Duesberg as the most visible dissident AIDS scientist in the world, despite his never actually 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 "product of government conspiracy against the gay communityr" and just as loudly advocated against the use of retrovi-

ral and other HfV-suppressing drugs. And because ttre tragic story of AIDS has also been shadowed by homophobia, racism and social mores about promiscuous sex, several religious and conservative political leaders throughout the early and mid-1980s adopted skeptical stances against the emerging The sciencethat explained the disease. Reagan administration also infamously bungled the early response to the epidemic. The 1984 press conference (which Kalichman sarcastically labels The Press Conference whenever he refers to it, in an example of his approach) to announce the discovery of the virus that causesAIDS occurred before any scientific journals had published ttre research, providing skeptics with ammunition to this day,while the administration vowed, without any real basis,to find a vaccine within two years. Given the attention the diseasehas received since, it must be curious for some to learn that seemingly intelligent people still question the connections between HIV and AIDS. After all, the fundamental scientific consensus,based on thousands of clinical and laboratory studies since the AIDS' early 1980s,is that HIV causes and as Kalichman points out, "over 130,000 research articles accessed from the National Library of Medicine describe the HIV process." And when pseudoscience about AIDS seepsinto the mainstream media - 4s 'ffss *1s case in 2006, when a HarPer'smagazine article basedlargely on Duesberg's research contained 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 propagation 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 strands that come together to form the various conspiracy theories surrounding AIDS, many of which also apply to other pseu-

dosciencemovements.Factors both social and technologicalcontribute:Thke a dash of Internet untruths, mix in some irrational fearsabout Big Pharma or the government, and top it offwith growing complacency from educators and public healttr offrcials."Denialism is at least partly an outgrow*r of a more general anti-science and anti-medicine movementr" he writes. "Every time there is a recall of approved medications, as happens all too often, public trust is eroded. Campaigns against teaching evolution in favor of creationism' now referred to as Intelligent Design, remain as commonplace today as ever. Conservative political groups have called the peerreview process into question, further heightening suspicions toward science and medicine." Refreshingly, Kalichman also takes his colleaguesto task for failing to communicate effectively with the public and making too many unfulfilled promises,pointing out *lat AIDS pseudoscientists, 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 emphasize the degree to which Kalichman has gone to understand their viewpoint. But it's also clear,from evena casualperusalofthe "blah blah blogsr" as Kalichman happens to call them, that the small' fractious communiry ofAIDS skepticssees him squarely as the enemy and views his attacksas decidedlypersonal.Ifhe hasn't changed any minds, at least Kalichman has provided a thorough chronicle of a fascinating chapter in a In long, sad story of a terrible disease. doing so,he notesr"I have also tried 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 Matt Palrnquist rt a Miller-McCune contibuting editor.