Professor Seth Kalichman’s excellent new book, Denying AIDS, is the most comprehensive account yet of the origins and development of a toxic ideology – AIDS denialism. In this e-interview, Seth discusses the book, and the urgent issues that it seeks to address.
RW: Why does AIDS denialism matter?
AIDS denialism matters because it kills people. I know this sounds like drama and hyperbole, but it is true. AIDS denialism creates confusion about the cause of AIDS. when people who need accurate information about HIV/AIDS are exposed to AIDS denialism they might actually believe that there is a debate among doctors and scientists about the cause of HIV when there is no such debate. AIDS denialists tell people that they should avoid HIV tests because they are invalid. In fact, HIV tests are extremely accurate and only rarely misdiagnose people with HIV. Being HIV infected and not knowing your HIV status means that you may not take measures to keep from spreading the virus. In many countries the majority of HIV infected people do not know they are infected. Huge resources are dedicated to getting people at risk for HIV tested. AIDS denialists undermine these efforts. Finally, AIDS denialism matters because it persuades people who have tested HIV positive to refuse HIV treatments. Denialists say that HIV treatments are toxic poison. In fact, HIV treatments are responsible for extending the lives and improving the health of people living with HIV/AIDS. In the US and UK, entire hospital wards that were once for AIDS patients are no longer needed. People with HIV are returning to work and living healthier lives because of treatments. AIDS deniers are trying to reverse this trend and return to days when there were no treatments.
RW: What was the inspiration for “Denying AIDS”?
I have been conducting HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment research in the US since 1989 and in South Africa since 2001. I have known for years that AIDS denialists exist, but like most people I thought that ignoring them would make them just go away. I also thought that very few people were AIDS denialists and that no one would listen to them. I suppose you could say I was denial about AIDS denialism. Like many others, I was very wrong about AIDS denialism. While working in South Africa I became aware of the devastating effects that AIDS denial was having in that country. The former President Thabo Mbeki had enlisted AIDS denialists among his advisors and bought into the idea that scientists are debating the cause of AIDS. Mbeki’s misguided AIDS policies resulted in over 330,000 senseless deaths and 35,000 babies who were needlessly infected with HIV. I was aware of the failure to offer treatment for South Africans living with HIV/AIDS and I knew that AIDS denial was to blame. In 2006 I also became aware of AIDS denialists in the US and UK. I received an email correspondence from someone I knew to be a well trained social psychologist in a teaching position at a respected university. She had written a very positive review of an old AIDS denialist book by Professor Peter Duesberg in California, the most notorious AIDS denialist. This psychologist had posted the book review at the RethinkingAIDS.com website. I was absolutely dumbfounded to learn that someone who I knew to be educated and who I believed to be intelligent had not only bought into AIDS denial but was actively propagating the myths. I started to look at the AIDS denialist literature and found it disturbing and also fascinating. I wanted to learn more about how seemingly intelligent people would come to believe absolute rubbish. So I decided to write Denying AIDS.
RW: What kinds of people become AIDS denialists, and what motivates them?
All kinds of people become AIDS denialists. Most visible are the fringe scientists because they write books and have websites. They are following in the footsteps of Peter Duesberg. Still, AIDS denialists who have academic positions do considerable harm because they create an impression of credibility. There are also rogue journalists who write about conspiracy theories and other sensational pseudo-news. AIDS denialist journalists do considerable harm because they bring AIDS denialism into the public eye. AIDS denialism also has its activists, typically people who have tested HIV positive and buy into denialism as a maladaptive coping strategy. These denialists also have credibility because they appear to be living healthy with HIV and not taking medications. There are even celebrities who support AIDS denialist activism, including the popular rock band the Foo Fighters and comedian Bill Maher. Tragically, AIDS denialist activists have infected their children and others and they themselves die of AIDS earlier than they may have if they accepted treatment. Then there is a large group of people who are prone to conspiracy theorizing, anti-government sentiments, and simply wanting to make mischief. These people are typically Internet bloggers with way too much time on their hands. Many seem not to realize the harm they are causing and most others just do not seem to care.
RW: Who are the key figures in the AIDS denial movement, and what are their ideas?
In my opinion, the key figures include the following people:
Peter Duesberg is the single most important figure in HIV/AIDS denialism because he is the only credentialed scientist who has worked with retroviruses, although not having worked with HIV, to propose that HIV does not cause AIDS. The rock star of AIDS denialism, he holds fast to his flawed ideas. What makes him unique is that he was once a respected scientist and now shows utter disrespect for science by refuting facts in the service of self-promotion.
David Rasnick is Peter Duesberg’s right hand man. Quite literally, in public Rasnick appears to be Duesberg’s personal assistant. At one time, he had a visiting scholar appointment with the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley (1996-2005), where he worked with Duesberg, although the university retracted his appointment. Rasnick is a conspiracy theorist, claiming that the US government propagates the ‘myth’ that HIV causes AIDS to allow the pharmaceutical industry. Rasnick served with Duesberg on the now infamous panel of AIDS experts and denialists convened by South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2000. In fact, Rasnick is credited, or blamed, with convincing Mbeki that there is a need for a scientific debate on the cause of AIDS. He also worked with Matthias Rath in conducting what are now ruled unlawful vitamin studies in South Africa.
Kary B. Mullis was a Nobel Laureate and is now among the who’s who of AIDS pseudoscientists. In 1994, Mullis co-authored the essay “What causes AIDS? It’s an open question” and he has appeared in several interviews in which he clearly questions whether HIV causes AIDS. Mullis said, “If there is evidence that HIV causes AIDS, there should be scientific documents which either singly or collectively demonstrate that fact, at least with a high probability. There is no such document.” Mullis is widely held as an eccentric who has shared his experiences, including his abduction by extraterrestrials.
Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos, a medical physicist based at the Royal Perth Hospital published a paper in 1988 declaring that HIV had never been correctly isolated as a distinct ‘pure’ virus. Along with Valendar Turner and John Papadimitriou, this group proclaims that HIV does not even exist! Like Duesberg, they say that drugs, poverty, and HIV medications cause AIDS. They also broaden their view by claiming other sources of immune suppression can lead to AIDS, such as repeated exposure to semen among gay men, although seemingly not women. They propose that an oxidation process occurs in response to HIV/AIDS risk factors, such as drug use, malnutrition, and exposure to semen that causes immune suppression and ultimately AIDS.
Etienne de Harven retired from the University of Toronto and having been a Professor of Cell Biology at Sloan Kettering Institute New York from 1956 to 1981. de Harven isolated and conducted electron microscopic studies of the murine (mouse) friend leukemia virus. He was also a member of the 2000 South Africa’s Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel and is a recognized leader among AIDS Rethinkers. He worked as a scientist in his field from the 1950’s until he retired. He challenged the proof that HIV has been isolated, according to the standards laid down by him. de Harven has said, “Dominated by the media, by special pressure groups and by the interests of several pharmaceutical companies, the AIDS establishment efforts to control the disease lost contact with open-minded, peer-reviewed medical science since the unproven HIV/AIDS hypothesis received 100% of the research funds while all other hypotheses were ignored.”
Christine Maggiore was the founder of Alive & Well, and was perhaps the most visible and visited HIV/AIDS denialist website. She tested HIV positive and remained untreated. Her three-year-old daughter Eliza Jane Scovill died of complications of AIDS whereas second opinions state that the death was the result of an adverse reaction to antibiotics. Maggiore founded Alive & Well in 1995 and wrote What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong? Her story was portrayed on the popular US television show “Law & Order SVU” in October 2008. Christine Maggiore died of AIDS just a couple months later in December 2008. She is no longer with us, but her harmful legacy lives on.
Celia Farber is a journalist who has chronicled the Peter Duesberg phenomenon since the late 1980s. She has a personal relationship with Bob Guccione the founder of Penthouse Magazine and owner of Penthouse Media Group, Inc. affording Farber considerable access to the publishing world. In 1987, Farber began writing and editing a monthly investigative feature column “Words from the Front” in SPIN Magazine, owned by Guccione. She has been featured in Discover Magazine, also owned by Guccione. These articles focused on the critiques of HIV/AIDS science. In 2006 she published an article “Out of control: AIDS and the corruption of medical science” in Harper’s magazine which stirred interest as the article represented a breakthrough of HIV/AIDS denialism into mainstream media. The article is also a chapter in her book, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS, a collection of her magazine articles, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. Farber has taken Duesberg on as a cause and in so doing has engaged in several rather nasty exchanges with AIDS scientists, most notably Robert Gallo. Along with Duesberg, Farber received a 2008 Clean Hands Award from the Semmelweis Society for her speaking out about the truth in AIDS. She has most recently filed a libel lawsuit against an HIV treatment advocacy group in New York City.
RW: Some people say that AIDS denial is a fringe ideology, that only affects a tiny group of people. What would you say to that?
I would say that it is true that AIDS denialism is a fringe ideology and that a fairly small group of people are actively involved in propagating AIDS denial. However, there is considerable evidence that that significant numbers of people are affected by AIDS denial. We know that in the US over 40% of Gay men question whether HIV is the cause of AIDS. We know that a majority of people who should be tested for HIV refuse. We know that people turn to the Internet for AIDS information and find AIDS denialism on numerous websites. We know that people are vulnerable to confusing information, especially when it is something that anyone would want to hear, such as HIV is not the cause of AIDS. There is no telling how many people have been harmed by AIDS denialism or how many listen to them. Whether it be thousands or hundreds of thousands who listen to AIDS denialists, we know from the South African experience that if just one person with power to make decisions listens the results can be devastating.
RW: In “Denying AIDS” you make comparisons between AIDS denial and other fringe ideologies – could you tell us a bit more about that?
The similarities between AIDS denialism and cancer denialism, Holocaust Denial, 9/11 Truth Seeking, and Global Warming Denial are striking. All of these groups use the same tactics to create the impression that experts disagree and that the historical record is in dispute. They all use selective information taken out of context that supports their viewpoint. They ignore facts and propel myths. They include pseudo-experts. They rely on conspiracy theories to gain attention. They are persuasive in their rhetoric. They use books to circumvent peer-review, they create their own periodicals, and they produce documentary looking films. They also effectively use the Internet and have manipulated their way into mainstream media. In some cases, they are even the same people! I believe that there is a denialism prone personality that I discuss in Denying AIDS. People who approach the world from a suspicious stance, are anti-establishment, and somewhat grandiose are among those who are prone to denialism.
RW: What is the relationship between AIDS denial and alternative medicine?
Not all AIDS denialists sell alternative treatments, but some do. However, all AIDS denialists pave the path for fraudulent cures and snake oil treatments. AIDS denialist say that HIV does not cause AIDS, leaving open the question of what should be done to treat AIDS? Among the most notorious AIDS denialists are those who sell remedies, such as Matthias Rath and Gary Null who sell vitamins and nutritional supplements they have proclaimed treat HIV/AIDS. Ben Goldacre has written about Matthias Rath’s destructive profiteering in his book Bad Science. AIDS denialists have on occasion worked closely with these vitamin entrepreneurs, as was the case when American David Rasnick and South African Anthony Brink teamed up with Matthias Rath. Of course, many people make well informed decisions and choose to complementary treatments such as nutritional supplements and vitamins as part of their HIV-related health care. Indeed, people may even make informed decisions to forego anti-HIV mediations. I believe we should respect these decisions when they are well-informed. HIV treatments are not for everyone. The problem we have with AIDS denialism is that it misinforms people and steers them away from HIV treatments. People are therefore being deceived by denialism to make misinformed decisions, and that of course is not okay.
RW: What did you come across in the course of your research that especially surprised you?
It surprised me that the AIDS denialists truly believe what they are saying. I had thought that they must be blatant liars and scam artists. Perhaps some are. But I have come to realize that most AIDS denialists really believe that HIV does not cause AIDS. They tend to be paranoid and their suspicious cognitive style bends facts to fit their preconceived notions. I will never forget when Peter Duesberg looked me dead in the eyes and said “You know, there is no vaccine for this; it is not an infectious disease.” I have no question that he believes what he says, as mad as it is.
Seth C. Kalichman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, and the Editor of the journal AIDS and Behavior. His new book is “Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy”; royalties are donated to buy HIV meds in Africa. http://denyingaids.blogspot.com