AIDS Denialism’s House of Cards
AIDS was first reported by US physicians in New York and California in 1981 when young men and women were falling ill of diseases that are usually kept in check by a healthy immune response. It was soon apparent that these individuals’ immune systems were failing. Within just a few years the causal agent of the mysterious disease was discovered; a human retrovirus that would come to be named HIV. Soon after the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, an antibody test became available and over the past 25 years more than two dozen drugs have been approved for treating HIV infection. HIV treatments improve the health and extend the lives of millions of people worldwide. Despite the thousands of published scientific articles that document these facts, a small group of rogue scientists and pseudoscientists continue to proclaim that HIV does not cause AIDS, HIV antibody tests are invalid, and HIV treatments are merely a pharmaceutical industry scam. Pseudoscientists ignore the volumes of epidemiological evidence that indisputably shows that HIV is sexually transmitted during vaginal intercourse, accounting for the AIDS crisis in Africa. Those who promote these false ideas are AIDS denialists, akin to Holocaust deniers who stake their claims by manipulating history. AIDS deniers are also similar to 9/11 Truth Seekers who warp principles of structural engineering to claim that the World Trade Center was imploded by the US government.
AIDS denialism has recently come into the public eye through the death of one of the most notorious AIDS denialists, Christine Maggiore of Los Angeles. Maggiore was a vocal proponent of AIDS denialism and is well known for having refused to take steps to prevent the transmission of HIV to her children. Christine Maggiore tested HIV positive but later came to refute her own HIV diagnosis after learning of Berkeley biologist Peter Duesberg, who continues to question whether HIV could ever cause AIDS. As a credentialed scientist, Duesberg appears credible. Maggiore grasped at AIDS pseudoscience to support her wishful beliefs that HIV does not cause AIDS. Maggiore’s own baby was denied medications, and died at age three of what the LA coroner ruled was AIDS. Christine Maggiore herself died in December 2008 from pneumonia.
AIDS denialism has gained additional recent media attention. One month before Maggiore’s death, an episode of the popular television show Law and Order – Special Victims Unit portrayed a woman of similar circumstances with the story built entirely around AIDS denialism. The Maggiore story and its portrayal on Law and Order have helped draw public attention to the ongoing problem of AIDS denialism.
Also in the news recently is the stepping down of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had refused to accept HIV as the cause of AIDS, blocked the use of HIV treatments, and failed to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans. Like Christine Maggiore, Mbeki was influenced by AIDS pseudoscientists. He embraced the denialism of a few fringe scientists over the word of his own South African experts. But Mbeki is not the only head of state to bow to denialist propaganda. In the United States, former President George W. Bush’s refusal to lift the federal ban on syringe exchange for HIV prevention as well as his unyielding promotion of abstinence-only prevention programs provide examples of denialist public health policy. Pseudoscience is the lynchpin in all AIDS denialism, whether it is Christine Maggiore’s own personal tragedy or Presidents Mbeki and Bush’s public health disasters.
All pseudoscience is grounded in belief systems that masquerade as science in the absence of any empirical basis. AIDS pseudoscience cherry-picks research results, misrepresents scientific findings, and refutes mainstream research results without basis. One of the peculiarities of AIDS pseudoscience is its near obsession with the original research that discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS, particularly the research of the famous and controversial virologist Robert Gallo. AIDS pseudoscientists focus on Gallo and the earliest of HIV research while ignoring the subsequent two decades of science. AIDS pseudoscience is also quite diverse and often contradictory. Some AIDS pseudoscientists proclaim that HIV does not exist at all while others claim that HIV is a harmless ‘passenger’ virus that does not cause AIDS. Other denialists claim that HIV does exist and does cause AIDS, but that the virus is not sexually transmitted. Despite the vast inconsistencies of various branches of AIDS pseudoscience, there is little debate or argument among themselves.
If the denialists are right in saying that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, then what do they say does cause AIDS? AIDS pseudoscientists claim the causes of AIDS are poverty, oxidizing stress, substance abuse, and HIV treatments themselves. They say that the cause of AIDS differs depending on where people live. In the US, pseudoscientists claim that AIDS is caused by substance abuse and HIV treatments. In Africa where there is little substance use and HIV treatments have only recently become available, pseudoscientists state that AIDS is caused by poverty and stress.
Invariably, AIDS pseudoscience bolsters conspiracy theorizing, the very foundation for AIDS denialism. These particular conspiracies promote the ideas that HIV tests are flawed and government researchers are working with Big Pharma to poison minorities and gays for profit. AIDS pseudoscientists generally make their arguments by manipulating scientific findings. There are, however, noteworthy examples of pseudoscientific experiments and even illegally conducted ‘clinical trials’ of fraudulent AIDS cures.
There are also AIDS pseudoscientists who do not dispute HIV as the cause of AIDS, but claim that HIV is not sexually transmitted or is not transmitted by vaginal sexual intercourse. The spread of HIV is attributed to contaminated blood, non-sterile syringes, and anal sex. Despite decades of conclusive evidence that HIV is spread by heterosexual/vaginal intercourse, these contrarians claim that vaginal sexual transmission of HIV is a myth designed to suppress sexuality and promote condom use. Just as those who claim that HIV does not cause AIDS rely on pseudo-immunology, those who promote the idea that HIV is not vaginally sexually transmitted do so on the basis of pseudo-epidemiology. The most common examples of pseudo-epidemiology come in the form of selective reviews of research literature and cherry picked results. Just as pseudo-immunology causes harm by convincing people to disregard their HIV test results and persuading them to avoid HIV treatments, pseudo-epidemiology tells people that condoms are unnecessary during vaginal intercourse and ineffective at preventing HIV transmission during anal sex. Thus, just as pseudo-immunology fuels the denial of HIV as the cause of AIDS, pseudo-epidemiology tells people that they need not worry about using condoms.
AIDS pseudoscientists have gained credibility via the credentials of a few rogue academics. Most AIDS pseudoscientists do not have academic affiliations. However, the few that do are the most persuasive. In addition to Berkeley biologist Peter Duesberg, a more recent AIDS pseudoscientist is Emeritus Professor Henry Bauer of Virginia Polytechnic University. Dr. Bauer has formulated a convoluted argument that HIV may not exist and if HIV does exist it could not possibly cause AIDS. To build his case, Bauer uses population-specific HIV testing data in relation to population-wide AIDS surveillance data. For example, he shows how gender distributions of HIV infections from military recruits tested for HIV in the 1980s do not reflect the US national AIDS cases more than a decade later. Bauer violates every simple rule of epidemiology by treating cross-sectional studies as if they were longitudinal, failing to differentiate HIV incidence from prevalence, and not distinguishing viral from bacterial diseases. Bauer also proclaims that people test HIV positive because the HIV test is easily fooled by multiple antibodies, or cross contamination. Most remarkably, he claims that Africans and people of African heritage are more likely to test ‘HIV positive’ because they have a greater abundance and diversity of antibodies that confound the test.
Before becoming a leader among AIDS pseudoscientists, Henry Bauer was the Editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration – a primary outlet for UFOlogy and the study of magnetic auras. He himself is among the world’s leading authorities on the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. That is right, the Loch Ness Monster. Nevertheless, Henry Bauer has become a major pillar in AIDS pseudoscience with a large internet following. Simply put he is telling us what anyone would want to hear, that HIV cannot cause AIDS.
How does AIDS pseudoscience present itself as legitimate science? Aside from the obvious role of the Internet and ‘self-published’ books, pseudoscience has found its way into forums that are easily mistaken as scientific and scholarly publications. Until a few years back, AIDS pseudoscientists had their own homegrown outlet called Continuum, which was produced for the sole purpose of disseminating AIDS denialism and AIDS pseudoscience. Although most of the content in Continuum did not appear scientific, some of the more repugnant examples of AIDS pseudoscience did appear in Continuum. Most notorious was a pseudoscientific experiment conducted by the AIDS denialist Roberto Geraldo that used undiluted blood plasma in HIV antibody testing, violating the test procedures and protocols. He then used the results to claim that HIV antibody tests are invalid and that everyone tests HIV positive. Fortunately, Continuum went out of existence.
The pseudoscience outlet Journal of Scientific Exploration printed Henry Bauer’s articles on HIV not causing AIDS, along side articles on paranormal activity and alien abductions. Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati, a toxicologist who claims HIV does not cause AIDS, published a case report of Christine Maggiore’s 3 year old daughter that contradicted the LA coroner’s findings to conclude that the girl died of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. The paper was published in an outlet called Medical Veritas: The Journal of Medical Truth which has published other articles by Al-Bayati including “Analysis of causes that led to Eliza Jane Scovill’s cardiac arrest and death”, “Analysis of causes that led to subdural bleeding, skull and rib fractures, and death in the case of baby Averial Buie”, and “Analysis of causes that led to baby Ryan’s hemorrhagic pneumonia, cardiac arrest, intracranial bleeding, and retinal bleeding”. One author, several papers, one journal.
The obvious pseudoscience outlets are not as disturbing as journals that appear far more scientific but are not mainstream. The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, for example, is an online outlet for rightwing politically motivated articles and has become a home for AIDS pseudoscience as well. One article published in this journal reported a possible mathematical model to account for AIDS by oxidation, of course without any supporting data. They have also published several writings by Henry Bauer including one proclaiming ‘We all have HIV’ based on Giraldo’s pseudoscience. Most perplexing are those peer-reviewed scientific journals that have become home to AIDS pseudoscience. One notable example is the International Journal of HIV and STDs, a journal that I have published in myself. My experience with this journal has been that papers are sometimes peer-reviewed and other times not. Nearly every article that has been published that questions vaginal intercourse transmission of HIV has been published in this one journal. These selective review articles conclude that HIV is not transmitted during vaginal intercourse, all by the same few authors. What is most worrying about this instance is that pseudoscience becomes mixed with genuine peer-reviewed research making it difficult for the nonscientist to tease them apart.
AIDS pseudoscience embodies the same characteristics as any other form of pseudoscience. AIDS pseudoscience has ideological, cultural, or commercial goals. There is rarely anything that even resembles research, and when there are pseudoscience experiments they are conducted to justify denialist beliefs. AIDS pseudoscience is built on exaggerated claims that lack precise measurements. When challenged, pseudoscience reacts with hostility. Like all pseudoscience, AIDS pseudoscience is almost always promoted by individuals who are not in contact with mainstream science. Pseudoscientists invoke authority for support of their ideas and their major tenets are not falsifiable. Explanations offered by AIDS pseudoscience tend to be vague and opaque. The concepts of AIDS pseudoscience tend to be shaped by individual egos and personalities. Pseudoscientists are particularly apt at providing selective evidence to support their own claims.
What can we do about AIDS pseudoscience? The strongest remedy for AIDS pseudoscience is exposing it for what it is. Pointing out the illogical inconsistencies of AIDS pseudoscience can help distinguish it from science. Examining who AIDS pseudoscientists are and their fringe ideas can also help. As discussed above, Henry Bauer can prove that HIV does not cause AIDS and believes that hoax pictures of the Loch Ness Monster are indeed authentic. In addition to stating that HIV is harmless and that AIDS is caused by toxins, Peter Duesberg says that ALL cancers are caused by environmental toxins without ant genetic basis. Kary Mullis won a Nobel Prize for developing PCR and states that there is no proof that HIV causes AIDS. He also claims to have been abducted by aliens. It only stands to reason that we should question the claims of ‘scientists’ who have spent time with little green men as well as those who proclaim the existence of big green monsters lurking under Scottish waters. Critical thinking is the key to refuting pseudoscience and trust in science is the antidote for conspiracy thinking. AIDS pseudoscience and denialism will not simply go away if ignored and more than will intelligent design and 9/11 truth seeking. Each of us has a responsibility to think critically and to debunk pseudoscience every chance we get.
Seth Kalichman is the author of Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy published by Copernicus Books. All royalties from the sale of Denying AIDS are donated to purchase HIV treatments in Africa. For more information visit Denying AIDS.