2 min

Beating AIDS denialism

Medical science has made great strides in the understanding and treatment of HIV and AIDS over the last 25 years, but there are still lingering questions to be answered and mysteries to be solved.

Some pundits argue for example that HIV disease has become a chronic condition and that poz people with access to proper medications should expect to live just as long and vigorously as anyone. Others say the epidemic is on the verge of a new offensive because drug-resistant strains of the virus are emerging through natural selection.

One piece of the HIV puzzle that is crystal clear is the causative link between HIV and AIDS. There is only a tiny handful of wacky AIDS denialists who cling to the fiction that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

Usually denialist arguments seem rooted in homophobic bigotry, twisted misogynist machismo or conspiracy paranoia. Sometimes arguments are shrouded in fake scientific lingo. Other times legitimate academics — usually sociologists or mathematicians — commit the logical fallacy of concluding that because the pathology of the AIDS epidemic is unlike any other, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

Whatever their conscious or unconscious motivations, AIDS denialists are simply wrong about HIV. The virus does cause AIDS and it does kill.

Dr Mark Wainberg and Dr John Moore, world-class HIV researchers, argue that the suggestion that HIV doesn’t lead to AIDS is so counterproductive to prevention efforts that government should take steps to muzzle denialists for good.

“Our lawmakers need to enact legislation to put appropriate limits on such irresponsible expression and to counter the ongoing damage perpetrated by denialists,” they wrote in a Jul 4 Globe And Mail op-ed piece for the web entitled AIDS And The Dangers Of Denial. “… At a time when progress in HIV/AIDS drug treatments and life expectancy is informing an alarming new complacency in our children, policymakers should defer to proven scientific fact and stop the transmission of deadly lies.”

In the same piece, the two allude to their unsuccessful attempt to have a professor of mathematics fired from her job at a university in Texas for daring to publish a book in which she uses a mathematical model to support a denialist position.

Wainberg and Moore — epidemiologists who are among the world’s elite HIV researchers — are right to speak out against denialism, but their draconian tactics on this issue go too far and may only serve to revive an already suitably discredited and humiliated movement.

Dissent, no matter how eccentric or ill-conceived, is an important part of our society and is critically important to scientific discourse. What Wainberg and Moore propose is the further criminalization of HIV and even worse, of thought and expression. Their proposal is morally wrong and tactically counterproductive to their goals.

Some of history’s most famous dissenters are scientists. Dissent is the mechanism through which queer people began to live openly. It was dissenting, mostly gay, AIDS activists who demanded action in the early days of the epidemic. Without dissent, public discourse and scientific scrutiny become universal agreement and immutable status quo.

The few denialist physician/researchers in the world are already pariahs and laughingstocks in the scientific community. A predictable number of amateur denialists seem to die each year from pneumocystis pneumonia. That denialists are mistaken is obvious to any rational mind and their ideas are only dangerous in the absence of effective education about the realities of HIV.

Criminalizing denialist expression could drive it underground and make it dangerously fashionable. It would certainly make denialism into a hot-button issue about freedom of speech and expression when it ought to be about HIV prevention.

Every denialist argument Wainberg and Moore face is an opportunity for them to reinforce the truth. They should embrace those opportunities. They have the overwhelming advantages of popular opinion, empirical proof and millions of people who are — thanks in part to their work — flourishing with HIV.

Wainberg and Moore should continue to use their wits and their credibility to argue denialists into even deeper obscurity; they should not fight to create denialist martyrs.