What motivates someone to deny that a disease — one which kills millions of people — exists? Why would someone claim that the scientifically-established cause of that disease is actually the product of a vast conspiracy? Why would anyone believe them? This is a question for psychologists, but also for epidemiologists and public health professionals who must deal with the implications of those beliefs.
Tara Smith and Steven Novella have written an excellent, exceptionally readable article in PLOS Medicine which describes the shape and scale of the problem of HIV denial. They point to a number of sources of denial, including the president of South Africa and the rock group The Foo Fighters, and explain why these high-profile challenges to the scientific literature are often unaddressed by scientists themselves:
Because these denialist assertions are made in books and on the Internet rather than in the scientific literature, many scientists are either unaware of the existence of organized denial groups, or believe they can safely ignore them as the discredited fringe.
As Smith and Novella point out, in fact all of the denialist assertions have been addressed by scientists, but because the general public doesn’t stay abreast of scientific literature, they continue to believe and even propagate dangerous denialist rhetoric. Scientists don’t believe it’s professionally necessary to wade into the Wild-West-style online debates on the topic, because their papers still get published in peer-reviewed journals, and their presentations at conferences are well-received. Clearly, there is a disconnect between mainstream science and a significant portion of the population who continue to support HIV denialists.
Smith and Novella demonstrate that these denialists are often motivated by greed and self-interest:
One such practitioner, Dr. Mohammed Al-Bayati, suggests that “toxins” and drug use, rather than HIV, cause AIDS. Dr Al-Bayati personally profits from his HIV denialism: for $100 per hour, Al-Bayati will consult “on health issues related to AIDS, adverse reactions to vaccines and medications, exposure to chemicals in the home, environment or workplace” (http://www.toxi-health.com/). Similarly, German vitamin supplier and HIV denier Matthias Rath not only pushed his vitamins as a treatment for AIDS, but his spokesman refused to be interviewed by Nature Medicine about the case because he claimed the journal is “funded to the hilt with drug money.”
Here’s an example of not only greed, but also hypocrisy, as the very people profiting from denialism claim that the profit motive tarnishes the real science on HIV and AIDs.
I encourage you to read the entire article, for an eye-opening view into the world of denialism. I’d also be interested to see some research into why people fall for the claims of denialists — perhaps CogDaily readers can offer some insight.