This Month in HIV: The Truth About HIV/AIDS Denialism
An Interview With Clinical Psychologist Seth Kalichman, Ph.D.
Let's go over terminology. As if HIV wasn't complicated enough, we have these people who we call denialists, but who call themselves dissidents. They also say that people who believe in HIV science are orthodox and they are not. Could you explain the terminology a little bit?
"What's particularly destructive in AIDS denialism is the bending and the distorting of medically established facts for self-indulging purposes. ... For example, to protect one's self from information about one's own diagnosis or prognosis that one just cannot accept."
It can be confusing. In science, there are mainstream scientists and mainstream theories, and there are often people who are dissidents. Dissidents actually often make major contributions. What a dissident does is breaks away from the mainstream thinking and proposes a different idea. Then the dissident does research or other people do research, and it either supports or refutes the dissident's perspective and science moves on.
For example, in 1987, Peter Duesberg, at the University of California, Berkeley -- a very well-known and, at the time, renowned biologist -- was a dissident scientist in AIDS. He proposed an alternative theory that AIDS is not caused by a virus. He said that HIV is a harmless passenger virus and that AIDS is actually caused by drug abuse, poverty and antiretrovirals themselves.15
In 1987, when we knew much less about AIDS, he was a dissident. And in the history of science, we would say there's nothing wrong with that. However, the facts did not bear out what he was saying. The research didn't support that alternative view. But some people -- including Peter Duesberg -- just hung onto those views and never moved on with the science. That's when someone turns from a dissident into a denialist.
What's particularly destructive in AIDS denialism is the bending and the distorting of medically established facts for self-indulging purposes. Denialism is always coming from a self-indulging place. For example, to protect one's self from information about one's own diagnosis or prognosis that one just cannot accept.
Another place is from people who don't have HIV, but are looking for attention or notoriety. We see that in academics and journalists, like Celia Farber, who have become involved in denialism. You don't ever hear denialists expressing great concern about AIDS or about people with HIV.
Right, so let's go back to Duesberg. He had a different theory about the cause of AIDS a long time ago. Since then, thousands of clinical trials have disproven him.16 It sounds completely ridiculous that, as a scientist, he would still believe the same thing he believed in '84 when so much has been discovered about HIV since then.
"I met Peter Duesberg and I don't have any question that he really believes that HIV is harmless and that AIDS is not caused by an infectious disease."
Yes. I met Peter Duesberg and I don't have any question that he really believes that HIV is harmless and that AIDS is not caused by an infectious disease. He looked me dead in the eye and -- it was completely spontaneous -- he said to me, "This is not an infectious disease. There's no vaccine after all these years. This is not infectious." That moment was so valuable to me because I walked away saying, he really believes this. It fits his whole worldview.
Peter Duesberg doesn't talk much about AIDS anymore and he doesn't write anything about AIDS. What he's actively involved in now is cancer. What he's saying about cancer is essentially the same thing.17,18 He doesn't believe that there's a genetic basis for any cancers, none. He believes that cancer doesn't run in families because of their genetics. It runs in families because of what they're exposed to. It's all about the environment. Chemicals, drugs, chemotherapy, these are the things that cause cancer for Peter Duesberg. It's exactly what he says about AIDS. In fact, AIDS is incidental for him. It's how he sees the world, and it's impenetrable by scientific fact. It's mind-boggling because he's a trained scientist.
This is particularly sad since lots of people without advanced degrees think that someone with an advanced degree is somehow smarter. Yet some of the most prominent people who support Duesberg are people with advanced degrees. They continue to support him. Duesberg continues to hold his position in Berkeley even though he's acting irresponsibly. Isn't this sort of behavior an argument against tenure -- where a professor, like Duesberg, has a job for life? They can keep their job, no matter what kind of nutty thing they say -- even when what they say has no scientific basis, even though clearly it's against established fact.
There have been people who have written about Peter Duesberg.19 They have referred to him as an extreme narcissist, just completely self-indulged. I think that there's some accuracy to that. There's no question that he enjoys attention.
I spent a couple of days at a conference that he held on cancer. I was able to watch him interact with people and he's a very intellectually alive human being, but it's all very self-directed. He questions what people are saying. He really challenges what people are thinking, but it's all directed back at himself with his ideas and what he has to say. You can have an entire room basically yell at him, "It isn't that way. Yes, there is a genetic basis for cervical cancer." And he basically brushes them off.
So it's all very self-indulging, which is narcissistic. But he's a complicated character because there's, I think, much more to it than that. I think he's an angry man. I think he's bitter. He really does feel that he's been done wrong. He is definitely a believer in conspiracies against him. He talks a lot about peer review being completely biased in science. That the research community is all corrupt because of money from the government and money from pharmaceutical companies, and that there's dishonesty in all of this. He believes he's a victim of all of this.
"Duesberg provided what Maggiore wanted. That's what a lot of people are getting from the denialists; they're hearing what everyone wants to hear. Don't you want to know that HIV is a myth? Don't you wish that it didn't cause this disease? Don't you wish that people didn't have to take antiretrovirals? Who wouldn't want that?"
How did Duesberg get so many followers in terms of journalists, such as Celia Farber and David Crowe? What is it that he's inspired in them? His books seem incomprehensible.
Again, I think there are multiple factors in play here. One thing about Duesberg is that he's a very engaging human being.
Another following comes from people that have known him and worked with him at the University of Berkeley. A lot of the AIDS denialists that are very active had gone through Berkeley. Another factor is his German heritage. There's a huge following for him among people from Germany and among German Americans. There seems to be this nationalistic pride because there is an enormous number of denialists that are German/German American. That seems to be the only explanation for that. Duesberg identifies himself as an American, but he spends every summer in Germany and he's got a lot of ties there.
Christine Maggiore, who recently died of AIDS, was probably the most vocal denialist/activist.20 Christine was hearing from Peter Duesberg what she wanted to hear -- that she tested HIV positive and it didn't mean anything; that her baby died, but couldn't have died of AIDS because AIDS isn't caused by HIV, and it's not a virus that she has; all that crazy, convoluted stuff that she was believing and saying protected her.
It's pretty easy to understand why people might want to believe Duesberg. It's really hard to accept that you have this virus. It's really hard to accept that you may have passed this virus onto your child. It's really hard to accept that your child has died.
Duesberg provided what Maggiore wanted. That's what a lot of people are getting from the denialists; they're hearing what everyone wants to hear. Don't you want to know that HIV is a myth? Don't you wish that it didn't cause this disease? Don't you wish that people didn't have to take antiretrovirals? Who wouldn't want that?
So you think Duesberg fulfills the psychological need that people have to deny a frightening reality?
I do. I say that because of my interactions with him. It's hard to believe, but I do believe it. I think that it's psychologically based. I think that he's entrenched in his beliefs to the point where they completely distort what he should be able to objectively see as reality.
We see it in the few times over the last few years that Duesberg has done presentations on AIDS -- I haven't been there, but he posts his slides and the presentations on the Internet for anyone to see. [Click here to view some samples.] It's very clear what he's doing. He's picking and choosing research findings to suit his needs, violating every principle of science in doing so to make his point. It's really all about making his point, though I believe that he believes he's doing the right thing.
Is he the intellectual leader of this movement?
Yes. It's fair to say that he's certainly the most credible scientist that has signed onto AIDS denialism. Most every other scientist that has signed on is easily rebuked as a quack, a fluke, fringe or a pseudoscientist. But he is difficult to do that with because of his early career accomplishments.
The other one that's difficult to do that with is Kary Mullis. Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize for inventing the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test. He's easier to discredit though because he admits that while he was developing his PCR test, he was taking LSD, and he also swears that he was abducted by aliens.21 So when he says that HIV can't cause AIDS, it's more apparent that he's not very credible.
Peter Duesberg, on the other hand though, plays the victim. It's much more difficult to call him not credible. What has damaged his credibility are his views on AIDS. He's not taken seriously in his cancer work because he's an AIDS denialist.
Is there an element of being anti-gay in Duesberg's worldview?
It's more apparent in some denialists than in others. Duesberg has a history of saying homophobic things. He has a history of saying that not all gays get AIDS, that it's only those that are involved in drugs, those guys that are wearing -- and this is a quote -- "leather jackets." By the way, he wears a leather jacket in some pictures that I've seen of him. But he has a history of referring to gay men as homos. This is all in press interviews with him.
Others have been even more blatant. There's a professor [emeritus of] Virginia Tech University now who's getting a lot of attention. He wrote in a book of his, "I may be old fashioned, but it's pretty obvious to me that homosexuality is a disease."22 He has since apologized for that and says he's in recovery, essentially as a homophobe.
The homophobic connection to AIDS denialism is another one of those threads. It's not what it's all about, but racism and homophobia are threads that connect some denialists to AIDS denialism.
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This article was provided by TheBody.com. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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