Phillip Johnson and AIDS

Kevin Keith has written an absolutely devestating fisking of Phillip Johnson's latest bit of nonsense. In addition to being the Grand Poobah of the Intelligent Design movement, Johnson is also on the lunatic fringes of the AIDS issue (though as a law professor, he is profoundly ignorant of both subjects and therefore makes extremely silly errors of reasoning when discussing them). It's the standard Johnson screed. I think he just takes the same article and changes the enemy du jour from "the Darwinian establishment" to "the HIV establishment" or "the AIDS establishment". Phil Johnson is nothing if not a consistent tilter-against-windmills. Whoever he's against, it's a grand conspiracy to hide the truth and, naturally, he's got the Truthtm that the hidebound orthodoxy won't let you hear. Which would be a lot more convincing if his writings did not betray a rank ignorance of the issues involved.

Keith points out numerous flaws in both his factual claims and his reasoning, but he also points out that Johnson relies on crackpots for his support:

You have to be reasonably well up on AIDS politics to recognize this name, and how frightening it is. (Even a novice might wonder, however, why the personal interpretation of the scientific literature by the elected president of South Africa carries any weight in this debate. Note that Mbeki - like Johnson, for that matter - has no scientific background at all. Would you trust your AIDS diagnosis to him?) Mbeki holds a racially-inspired conspiracy theory to the effect that AIDS does not exist as a distinct disease, and that the connection between HIV (the virus) and AIDS (the disease) was a myth promulgated by drug companies to allow them to conduct racist experiments on blacks. When he was elected President of South Africa, he turned his party officially against standard treatments for AIDS, and blocked distribution of AZT and other retroviral drugs in South Africa for years. He also invited members of the AIDS conspiracy fringe to advise the South African government and sit on an AIDS study panel there.

More importantly, he points out the danger of it all. Pseudo-science is not just an academic concern; the theologically and politically motivated attacks of people like Phillip Johnson, whether it is on the science of evolution, which provides the theoretical basis for modern medicine, particularly anti-viral and anti-bacterial medicine, or directly on AIDS research, puts lives at risk:

As a digression, I note that this points up the dangers of pseudo-science. Johnson's AIDS conspiracy theorizing is not conceptually related to his creation-science beliefs, but both obviously flow from a deep conceptual difficulty with science, and a tendency to imagine that mainstream science is riddled with organized conspiracies to promote falsehoods. I don't understand how anyone pretends creationism or AIDS conspiracy theories make sense, but I can easily see how someone who believes in the former would believe in the latter - and claim the same "we must look at the data in a new way" pseudo-intellectual rationalization for both. This is just what Johnson, playing true to form, has done - only this time, other people's lives hang in the balance.

At any rate, Johnson's invocation of Mbeki makes his true aims clear - he is not just criticizing methodological difficulties in AIDS monitoring, he is laying the groundwork for a claim that HIV is not the AIDS virus at all (and presumably that AIDS efforts aimed at treating HIV replication - i.e., all of them - should be discontinued). This is not just ignorant (the "HIV does not cause AIDS" claim has been debunked many, many times - like all conspiracies, it refuses to die), it is dangerously insane. It is irrationality that literally threatens the lives of everyone it affects - just as Mbeki allowed AIDS to go untreated for thousands upon thousands of the poorest South Africans.

Phillip Johnson is not just wrong, he's dangerously wrong. And if he is successful in tearing down science, we will all suffer for it.

More like this

I happen to be in Phoenix today, attending the Academic Surgical Congress, where I actually have to present one of my abstracts. That means, between flying to Phoenix last night and preparing for my talk, I didn't have time to serve up a heapin' helping of that Respectful Insolence⢠you know and (…
There's been quite a bit of blogging lately about HIV denialism, so I thought I would take this opportunity to write a little bit about HIV denialism in South Africa--a subject that gets mentioned pretty often is rarely discussed in much detail. I spoke about this topic in my talk on Wednesday,…
Seth Kalichman is a better man than I. Kalichman is a clinical psychologist, editor of the journal Aids and Behavior and director of the Southeast HIV/AIDS Research and Evaluation (SHARE) product, and he has devoted his life to the treatment and prevention of HIV. Despite a clear passion for…
When Duesberg was recently given space in Scientific American I think the blogosphere was rightly chagrinned that they would give space to a crank whose crackpot ideas are thought to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. But it seemed at the time he had been keeping his denialism…

Teach the Controversy?


I thought when you put a trademark on Truth, you were supposed to use a superscript and not a subscript. A subscripted trademarked Truth is bound to be a substandard version of Truth. I wouldn't trust it.

By Steve Reuland (not verified) on 24 Oct 2004 #permalink

In the very few off-the-net discussions I've had over the last year and a half on the evolution v. intelligent design issue, I've made it a point to bring up Phil Johnson's role in the latter movement and his views on AIDS. I've found that the strategy has been decisive in removing the proverbial scales from people's eyes.

I wish more scientifically-literate people would address the matter as you and Keith have done. Kudos.


One more thing:

Keith says in his essay that "Johnson's AIDS conspiracy theorizing is not conceptually related to his creation-science beliefs..."

I've always wondered about Johnson's motivation in tackling the subject of HIV vis-a-vis AIDS. Is it that he's simply trying to construct another case of "the dogmatism of the scientific establishment," or does he have a religious view that he feels is somehow threatened by the science on this matter as well?

I'd be interested to hear your take on it, Ed.


I've always wondered about Johnson's motivation in tackling the subject of HIV vis-a-vis AIDS. Is it that he's simply trying to construct another case of "the dogmatism of the scientific establishment," or does he have a religious view that he feels is somehow threatened by the science on this matter as well?
I think there are likely two motivations. First, he's already decided that there is a "scientific priesthood" that he is battling against, so moving from one conspiracy of silence to another isn't much of a stretch. Second, he may be trying to undermine the rationale for funding AIDS research so highly simply because he doesn't like homosexuals.

We find our answer in Michigan:

The link leads to an essay by Robert Pennock, author of "The Tower of Babel."

The key passage follows:


In "Naturalism, Creationism and the Meaning of Life" (Pennock 1996) I discuss in detail the way that Johnson and other Creationists see the debate as being as much about the proper moral order as about the proper explanation of biological order, and point out how Johnson brings up homosexuality as one of his standard examples in Reason in the Balance to illustrate this point. Johnson is more subtle than those Creationists who note that God "created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," but his point is the same that we are supposed to learn from the creation story that homosexual behavior breaks the created order and thus the moral order. Johnson's views about the explanation of A.I.D.S. is less well known to those who have only followed his anti-evolutionary writings. The A.I.D.S. issue has been his other avocational pursuit. He has written against the current scientific view that A.I.D.S. is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and in support of Peter Duesberg's radical contrary view that it A.I.D.S. is the result of lifestyle behaviors of homosexuals and drug-users that cause general ill-health. Many biomedical journals gave Duesberg's view a thorough hearing since he first challenged the HIV view in 1987. A.I.D.S. researchers have concluded that the available evidence does not support Duesberg's alternative view, but Duesberg and a small coterie of public supporters like Johnson continue to press the point.


Leave it to Phil Johnson to have an agenda more sinister than the conspiracy theory alleges. :)


Your citation of my friend Rob Pennock reminds me of a bit of irony here. Another of the HIV-doubters along with Phillip Johnson is Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist who, like Rob, teaches as Michigan State. Root-Bernstein is not involved with the group that Pennock and I lead, Michigan Citizens for Science, but he has been a vocal opponent of ID and creationism in the state in the past. How odd that he finds himself aligned with Johnson on the AIDS issue.