Denying AIDS

The world’s leaning denialist is Peter Deusberg, a molecular biologist who argues that to prevent AIDS, and even cure the disease, it is necessary only to eat properly and abstain from toxic drugs. The American government’s top AIDS adviser, Anthony Fauci, takes a different view, as the New Yorker reported in March 2007. After hearing Deusberg speak at an AIDS research conference, the normally mild-mannered Fauci erupted. ‘This is murder,’ he said. ‘It’s really that simple.’

Damian Thompson, Counterknowledge

Many delusions are harmless. If you believe that Mossad brought down the World Trade Centre, such a belief won’t kill you – it won’t get you killed, despite so much hysterical insinuation to the contrary. Children do not endanger themselves with their belief in Father Christmas. Likewise, a conviction for creationism is stupid but not fatal.

It is in the realm of healthcare that bullshit can kill. If you think that the mercury in basic vaccines causes autism, that cancer has no genetic basis, that there is no link between HIV and AIDS – then you stand a good chance not only of dying before your time, but of sacrificing other people who don’t have the luxury of making their own mistakes.

Raphael Lombardo was a HIV sufferer who read Duesberg’s work on HIV and AIDS. In 1995 he wrote a fan letter to Duesberg, which the scientist published in his book, Inventing the AIDS Virus. The following year, Lombardo died of AIDS. Peter Mokaba was a senior politician in South Africa’s denialist ruling party. He died in 2002 from AIDS-related pneumonia. He was forty-three. Marietta Ndziba was an HIV sufferer who worked for the denialist vitamin peddler Matthias Rath. Her role was to promote Rath’s vitamins as an alternative to retrovirals. She died in October 2005. Christine Maggiore was an activist and HIV sufferer who was also influenced by Duesberg. Maggiore became a prominent denialist in her own right. Her daughter, Eliza Jane Scovill, died of complications from AIDS. She was three years old.

Kalichman begins his investigation with a look at the psychology of denial. He understands that denial is a healthy initial reaction to bereavement, terminal disease, getting old, the natural end of life. In his midlife crisis novel The Information, Martin Amis wrote: ‘Come to Denial… Denial: the true ‘never never’ land of all your dreams’. But like innocence, denial has a short half-life. If prolonged it becomes malignant. Kalichman describes Maggiore’s case as textbook malignant denial. He quotes Zambian AIDS activist Winston Zulu. Zulu was a denialist, but he was one of the lucky ones. He got to wake up. He said: ‘What mattered to me as [a] person living with HIV was to be told that HIV did not cause AIDS. That was nice. Of course, it was like printing money when the economy is not doing well. Or pissing in your pants when the weather is too cold. Comforting for a while but disastrous in the long run.’

A psychologist and AIDS researcher, Kalichman explores the many forms of pseudoscience that make up AIDS denialism. We have: pseudovirology (HIV doesn’t exist) pseudoimmunology (HIV exists but it doesn’t cause AIDS; is not sufficient to cause AIDS; and won’t be picked up by HIV tests) pseudopharmacology (HIV medication will poison you) and pseudoepidemiology (HIV isn’t sexually transmitted). Disseminators include renegade scientists, right-wing journalists and the usual internet demagogues. South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki urged: ‘Once again I would like to suggest that you inform yourself as extensively as possible about the AIDS epidemic. Again, for this purpose, I recommend that you access the internet.’ Result: 2.6 million preventable deaths from AIDS. Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot described 9/11 denial as a ‘virus’.[1] This sounds right. Denial is an intellectual virus but it is still a virus that can kill. And there is no inoculation.

I mention 9/11 denial again because, like so many interested parties before him, Kalichman discovers that contradictory forms of antischolarship don’t compete but merge into one another. He finds prominent denialists who are also into UFOs and even Loch Ness Monster hunting. Across this warped spectrum the language is identical – needless technical jargon, remorseless pendantry, swaggering sarcasm, ludicrous and contrived analogy… as Kalichman puts it: ‘a callous stream of pontification devoid of any socially redeeming value.’ If you doubt me, check out the recent Alternet debate between 9/11 denialist David Ray Griffin and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.[2] You will notice that Taibbi’s clear and direct points are met with unblinking and meaningless verbiage.

Since Mbeki’s resignation the picture for South Africa is more hopeful. Mbeki’s hated denialist health minister has been replaced by the sane AIDS realist Barbara Hogan. Kalichman: ‘The new Minister of Health was literally serenaded at her doorstep by AIDS activists. If you ever wondered how it would feel to be in a place where an oppressive regime was removed from power, this must have been it’.

But the developed world is not as sensible as it likes to think. After all, Reagan took years to address HIV, and Bush’s abstinence policies only exacerbated the problem. Denial has made inroads into Western media. Readers will note with an absolute lack of surprise that the article ‘The AIDS epidemic that never was and why political correctness influences too much medical spending,’ appeared in the UK Daily Mail.[3]

The nub of the matter, Kalichman says, is trust. ‘As a psychologist, I have been trained to understand AIDS behavioural science. How foolish I could be to think that I could fully grasp the fundamentals of protein synthesis, reverse transcription, molecular bonding dynamics, genetic mutations, and who knows what else is involved in the biology of HIV infection. How then can I be so certain that HIV causes AIDS?’

And that is it. You trust a good mechanic to fix your car, but you couldn’t tell him exactly how the car gets fixed – if you could, you would fix it yourself. Some people know more about some things than others, and if we are to learn anything at all, we have to use a little trust – I hesitate to use the word faith. The alternative is total ontological scepticism. Hardly any of us have stood on the surface of the moon. So how do we know it’s there?

Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy, Seth Kalichman, Copernicus 2009

1 ‘A 9/11 conspiracy virus is sweeping the world, but it has no basis in fact,’ Monbiot, Guardian February 6 2007.

2 ‘The Ultimate 9/11 ‘Truth’ Showdown: David Ray Griffin vs. Matt Taibbi, Alternet, October 6 2008.

3 ‘‘The AIDS epidemic that never was and why political correctness influences too much medical spending,’ Karol Sikora, Daily Mail November 21 2007.

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