I strongly believe in a healthy skepticism, but sometimes skepticism for its own sake can turn into into something darker and more harmful. In a recent article in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, prominent science blogger and professor of epidemiology Tara C. Smith and neurologist Steven Novella deal with HIV denialism. Their essay, entitled “HIV Denial in the Internet Era”, discusses the growing popular trend of denying that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. This idea was made most famous by Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, but apparently there is also a large American faction.
Though the link between HIV and AIDS is extraordinarily well established (here is a painfully detailed summary from the NIH), HIV denialists use the mistrust many people have of doctors and modern medicine to spread an extremely harmful myth. Unlike denying evolution, which harm only people’s intellect, discouraging people from seeking treatment for HIV leads to tragic consequences. Here’s the paragraph from Smith & Novella I found most depressing:
One of the prominent HIV denial groups currently is Christine Maggiore’s “Alive and Well” (formerly “HEAL,” Health Education AIDS Liaison) (http://www.aliveandwell.org/). Maggiore’s life story is at the center of this group. Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Maggiore claims she has since been symptom-free for the past 14 years without the use of antiretroviral drugs, including protease inhibitors . She has risen to prominence, and been embroiled in controversy, in recent years after giving birth to and openly breast-feeding her two children, Charles and Eliza Jane. She had neither child tested for HIV, and did not take antiretroviral medication during her pregnancy or subsequent breast-feeding . Eliza Jane died in September 2005 of HIV-related pneumonia , though Maggiore remains unconvinced that HIV had any role in her daughter’s death , and continues to preach her message to other HIV-positive mothers.
This makes me so sad. I feel that we, as writers and scientists, have failed to give people the tools they need to be scientifically literate, to recognize the teeming quackery of pseudo-science. I know that this is a trap that scientists always fall into – if we could just explain things better then people would understand – and that cultural factors outweigh even the most well-crafted explanation. But damn – if we could just explain things better…