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.
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.