Terra Sigillata

By now you have probably heard of the excellent primer published in PLoS Medicine entitled, HIV Denial in the Internet Era. Written by my fellow ScienceBlogger, Tara Smith, and academic neurologist, Steven Novella, this concise but forceful article tells you everything you need to know about the faulty arguments made by organizations and individuals who deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS (HIV denialists, if you will). The article is free and it is simply awesome.

Many bloggers have noted what to them is most important point of this article. For me, it is the first three sentences of the Conclusions section:

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. And indeed, most of the HIV deniers’ arguments were answered long ago by scientists. However, many members of the general public do not have the scientific background to critique the assertions put forth by these groups, and not only accept them but continue to propagate them.

Before I started reading science blogs, much less starting my own, I had no idea how widespread the misconception was on the web denying that HIV was the cause of AIDS. I have to assume that many working scientists like me would also be surprised at the prevalence of this faulty logic. I remember going to hear Peter Duesberg in 1990 talk about how he hypothesized that the lifestyle of intravenous drug users and the use of nitrous oxide “poppers” by gay men led to an immunodeficiency syndrome that allowed HIV to come along for the ride. His arguments have since been discredited, yet the conspiracy mongering continues.

While Smith and Novella point out that we must do a better job of engaging the public and communicating scientific facts more effectively, I contend that the scientific blogosphere can serve to educate fellow scientists about trends in public thought that might be otherwise blown off as a fringe element. Most scientists are aware of the fact that many people continue to discount evolution but I think that few would actually think that a large public movement denies that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

The Smith and Novella article is clear and concise enough for public consumption such that I recommend that all readers of Terra Sig take a look at it.

But another great contribution of the article is the call to arms it makes to all scientists that we be more engaged in public sentiments about science and medicine.


  1. #1 coturnix
    August 23, 2007

    You are making a very important point.

  2. #2 zoey
    August 23, 2007

    “But another great contribution of the article is the call to arms it makes to all scientists that we be more engaged in public sentiments about science and medicine”

    This is so true– get diagnosed with a serious illness, go on internet support boards, and see the nonsense and misunderstanding of science and medicine full force!!!

  3. #3 DuWayne
    August 24, 2007

    I made the point on my own blog, that it is pretty rare, for those who engage in denialism, to stop with one issue. It’s also quite plausible for them to be right about something, gaining peoples trust and making it easier to purvey their woo.

    Creationists use a similar tactic, when they put out their lists of “authorities” who believe in creationism. It really doesn’t matter that the authority is in a field entirely unrelated to biology. If the guy who engineered the pentium processor, came out in support of HIV/AIDS denial, many people would be thinking, “gosh, this is a really smart person, who probably has a good reason for thinking this is bunk.”

    The other point that I made, is that purveyors of denial, tend to use language that is very “sciency.” They make it sound good, sound Right. It is true that many who get sucked into it come off as obvious cranks. The email that I’ve gotten, since tackling neurological disorder denial, is quite indicative of that. But those who get people to buy it, use anything but crank language. When dealing with a population that is as largely scientifically illiterate, as that in the U.S., it is a huge challenge to make people understand that garbage is garbage. Especially with the pervasive anti-intellectualism, we face here.

    One of the big arguments that jumped out at me, in my first real debate, with ADHD denial, was “you’re ignoring the science.” Never mind that this was a thread attached to a post called, the neuroscience of ADHD. Never mind that I was able to find study after study, article after article, supporting theory that ADHD is the result of dopamine dysfunction. Never mind that no one who was arguing against me could provide a shred of evidence. I was the one ignoring the science.

    Even when one is arguing with HIV/AIDS denialists, who will provide “evidence” and that evidence is soundly shredded, we are still the ones who are ignoring the evidence. The most insane aspect of this, is that they succeed, largely because there is so much evidence supporting the legitimacy of HIV/AIDS, and so little for them to show in response to it. It’s so much easier to wade through a little bit of sciency sounding evidence, than it is to get through mountains of real papers, based on real data.

    Taking on the fight that I have, has started making me very jaded about it. The biggest problem is that people who don’t buy into the bs, don’t see the problem. Not just the scientists, as you mention, but every day, average people. In part, probably because they think it’s your job to respond to denialists. They figure, “I’m not a scientist, what do I have to add to the discussion. This is a job for real professionals.” They don’t realize that it is far more important, far more powerful, when they as laymen, are the ones responding. So while I agree and appreciate the importance of members of the scientific community to combat denialism, I think it is even more important for people like me, to combat denialism with support from people like you. Sorry for the uber long comment.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    August 25, 2007

    DuWayne, your excellent comments are deserving of a link to your blog – since you were too modest I’ve done it here.

    To be clear, I certainly don’t mean to underestimate our primary goal to combat scientific misinformation among the general public. I just found Tara and Steve’s comment on raising awareness of cranks/denialists among scientist peers to be the unique tidbit I drew from their article.

  5. #5 DuWayne
    August 25, 2007

    Abel –

    Thank you. I really think it is important to raise awareness among the science professional community, because you guys are the ones that I and many others get info from. Sciblogs has been an awesome resource in many ways, but since I started getting into combating neurological disorder denial, I have gotten an incredible amount of information and support from a number of bloggers here.

    Accessibility of pertinent, up to date information is key and it is science professionals that are in the best position to provide it. Thanks for helping raise that awareness.

  6. #6 Dr. Val
    August 26, 2007

    Has anyone seen a good post explaining the reasons behind the emergence of magical thinking in an era of unprecedented scientific advances? Snake oil will always be with us to some degree (due to the human need to feel in control of the uncontrollable), but it really seems to me that there is a strong movement of irrationality afoot. Is it because people are dissatisfied with their healthcare (financial pressures and middle men have reduced quality time between patients and providers)… or is there more at play here? What is really behind the denialist movement, the “vaccines cause autism” movement, and other similarly intellectually dishonest groups? If we understand what’s really fueling them, maybe we can combat the false information more effectively?

  7. #7 DuWayne
    August 27, 2007

    Dr. Val –

    I think I will work on one. Initially, I would suspect that what you are seeing isn’t so much of an emergence, as it is increased visibility to what has always been there. I would almost go as far as speculating that, per capita, credulity is on the decline. The internet just provides an excellent platform for the credulous and those who prey on them.

    I would recommend reading denialism blog, by the Hoofnagle brothers. In the upper right corner of all sciblogs, is a All Blogs line, click on it to find that one. They do a lot of writing about various forms of denialism.

  8. #8 Paul
    August 29, 2007

    It’s good to see that science is beginning to respond in a more concerted way to the claims of the various denialists out there. I do however have some concerns about the increasing use of blogs to debunk their claims, for while posts on SciBlogs are often of excellent quality the very nature of blogs means that they are potentially difficult to track down in future. There is a danger that the same points will be made again and again.

    Perhaps as well as posting on blogs those involved could also work more closely with organizations involved in debunking the claims of anti-scientists, http://www.rds-online.org.uk/ or http://www.aidstruth.org/ being good examples. When in the course of your blogging you come across something that the pro-science activist websites haven’t covered yet (usually because of lack of time to do so) you could write a piece (with supporting evidence/references)for their site. In future it would then be easier to direct readers to what should be a more stable source of good information. It’s often a lot easier to find what you’re looking for in a well laid out website than a blog.

    Just a thought.

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