Free speech, AIDS and the HIV virus

Johnny Steinberg has a depressing article on skepticism and the HIV virus in this week’s edition of New Scientist.

The article starts with the story of Christine Maggiore, a 52-year old who died in 2008 from infections typical of AIDS. Apparently, she had tested positive for HIV 16 years ealier, but shunned anti-retroviral therapy (ART), the therapy that is known to hinder AIDS developing from the virus. Her choice, you  might say; until you read that she also denied the treatment to her infant daughter, who died of AIDs-related illnesses at age 3.

Steinberg then goes on to describe the HIV denial movement, starting with arch-skeptic Peter Duesberg. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – led him to conclude that all such viruses are essentially harmless. In fact, many scientists shared Duesberg’s skepticism of the HIV- AIDS link in the late 1980s, but support rapidly fell away as clinical evidence linking HIV to AIDs mounted. In Duesberg’s case, rather than revise his views in the face of emerging epidemiological evidence, he chose to hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Professor Peter Duesberg of the University of Berkeley

The publicity afforded to Duesberg and other skeptics has had serious consequences for society. According to the New Scientist, a recent survey suggested that 25% of the US population currently question the link between HIV and AIDS. Even more seriously, NS cites the case of South Africa, a country where AIDS has made devastating inroads. Because President Mkebe chose to believe the skeptics, he strongly resisted the use of ART therapy in South Africa – it is now estimated that over 300,000 AIDS victims died unnecessarily there.

So what is at the root of this sort of skepticism? I have to agree with Steinberg when he states that “no amount of evidence will overturn the entrenched beliefs of some”. Combine this with the tendency of the media to highlight studies that show unorthodox results and you are well on the road to the public misunderstanding of science.

Perhaps we scientists are partially to blame. It seems to me that we do a poor job of communicating the consensus position – and how it is achieved – on important issues, from global warming to the MMR vacinne. There will always be scientists who question the mainstream, even in the face of overwhelming evidence; such is human nature and we cannot censor such views in a free society. Not to mention the fact that science progresses by asking the unthinkable. Perhaps the solution is to convince the media not to allow ‘maverick’ scientists disproportionate publicity – and for the elders of science to take the communication of science to the public more seriously. In Ireland, there isn’t a single university that has a Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science..


In the same issue, New Scientist have an excellent editorial on the importance of scientific heresy. There is no contradiction here – the questioning of ‘accepted science’ from within is a vital part of scientific discovery and long may it continue. It is the misrepresentation in the media of the scientific consensus on a given topic that is of can find more information on this topic on Seth Kalichman’s ‘s blog


Filed under Science and society, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Free speech, AIDS and the HIV virus

  1. Dr. O’Raifeartaigh
    I believe that you have hit the central issue right on spot. In the US we know that science literacy is at the root of AIDS Denialism. Pseudoscience is not distinguished from science; frauds with no training in science ask scientists to enter into a debate on proven facts, such as HIV as the cause of AIDS. Global warming denial and intelligent design are two more examples of how pseudoscience creates confusion when it is taken up by mainstream media. In AIDS Denial people are told to ignore their HIV test results and avoid HIV treatments, false messages with potentially deadly consequences. Thanks for drawing attention to the New Scientist article.
    Seth Kalichman

  2. cormac

    Thanks Seth – enjoying your own blog on the topic

  3. Colene Torrillo

    The cases of hiv infection is actually getting higher and higher instead of getting lower. too many careless people out there. *

    Newest short article on our very own blog page