Cognitive dissonance: a human condition
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/12/26
I’ve been kicking myself because it took so long to appreciate what Martin had been telling me [“The debilitating distraction of ‘HIV’”, 21 December 2008]. That I didn’t grasp it was not because Martin could have expressed it more appropriately or clearly, but just because my mental apparatus somehow wasn’t ready to absorb it.
That experience helps me gain a little empathetic insight into the frequent illustrations of cognitive dissonance displayed by proponents and defenders of HIV/AIDS theory. The misguided, misleading unconscious connotations of “HIV” made it hard for me to recognize some obvious aspects of clear facts, most significantly, that what defines being “a person with AIDS” doesn’t define who dies from “HIV disease” — even “knowing” that “HIV” doesn’t cause “AIDS”, I’d slipped into thinking that there’s a meaningful, functional, connection between those “things”. How much more difficult it is for people who firmly believe HIV=AIDS, to draw unbiased inferences from the plain data, to see things as they really are.
For example, look at recent exchanges between Chris Noble and me. I look at the mortality numbers (M) and the death-age numbers (D), and what I see is this: D has increased at almost the same rate for the whole period 1982 to 2004 (“almost linearly”, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the pdf link supplied by Noble); M, by obvious contrast, has changed anything but steadily — about constant from 1982 to 1986/87; 1986/87 to 1992, drops by nearly half; 1992 to 1993, drops by nearly 1/3 in a single year; drops by another half over the next FOUR years; drops by half in a single year, 1996/97; then takes SEVEN years to drop by another half. To me, as I just said, that’s anything but a steady decline, it’s distinct phases. Yet Chris Noble says “the mortality rate has steadily decreased while the median age at death has steadily increased”. I suppose this is what Thomas Kuhn called “incommensurability”: adherents to the conventional view simply cannot see, mentally speaking any alternative interpretation of the data.
Again, Noble asks me repeatedly to calculate how age of death ought to correlate with mortality. I repeat that I start with the data on both and try to see what relationship, if any, exists between them. Noble insists that I can’t know that there’s no functional relationship, unless I first predict what it should be! I haven’t the foggiest idea what he means; if two things aren’t related, how should they be related? But Noble’s mind is fixed in the belief that whatever defines “PWA” also defines death while a PWA, so he can’t “see” the contradictory data.
These examples illustrate why critical comments to my blog seem always to have developed in much the same way. Fulano de Tal, Köpek Burun, and others begin with substantive comments on a specific point. For a while, the exchanges remain to that point — and have served to make me clarify things and to re-examine the data or to seek more. And then, when the data and my interpretations seem to have withstood the original critique, the criticisms veer off into side-tracks, trivialities, off the main point; and they also change in tone. At first there’s a suave, sophisticated, above-the-fray manner; then that disappears as matters are argued in an increasingly aggressive manner (“Why can’t you answer a simple question?”; “I’m being polite, damn you!”); and when the critique hasn’t won out, what I say gets ignored and the tone descends into personal abuse and accusations of guilt by association (“You don’t know what you’re talking about”; “Learn some math”; “Who could believe anyone who takes Loch Ness monsters seriously”; etc.).
That typical course reflects the fact that cognitive dissonance is not only an intellectual fact of human life, it’s also powered by emotion: wanting to “be right”, wanting to “win an argument”. Both emotion and intellect are also at the mercy of conflicts of interest, and many defenders of HIV/AIDS orthodoxy have substantial stakes in it: jobs for “activists” and social workers, grants and career advancement for researchers, and so on.
It’s ever so much easier to understand what’s being said in argument against us when we’re arguing with people we already know as friends and have come to trust. Friendly rivalries can be just that, friendly. I relish the achievements and honors and successes and good luck that have come to friends of mine, I don’t feel jealous of them or competitive with them. The brasher, more dogmatic opinions I held in youthful days were much modified, and much for the better, because two close friends held very different political and social views, and because we were able to argue uninhibitedly with one another — we were aiming to get closer to understanding things, not trying to best one another.
By stark and sad contrast stands what goes on in so much of the blogosphere (and also in all-too-many mainstream venues), especially when it comes to issues like HIV/AIDS. AIDStruthers are out for blood, PERSONAL blood. They want President Mbeki held responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. They seem uninterested in carrying on discussions that focus on substance and in which friendly opponents can help one another to see things ever more clearly by shredding away the curtains of preconceived notions and ideological commitments. They want people fired for disagreeing with them. (I treasure the fake concern of the disguised AIDStruther who told me s/he was worried about how my HIV/AIDS activities might affect my employment — ignorant, apparently, of what “emeritus” means.)
I have no satisfactory answer to offer, unfortunately, for how AIDStruthers could be brought to useful mutual discussion. Matters of personal psychology are clearly important, but that doesn’t entail that psychologists could help us fashion a suitable approach. I‘m always reminded in this connection of one of the many things I learned about people and academics while I served as a Dean of Arts & Sciences. One of the few tenured faculty members whom we discharged for cause (refusal to carry out teaching assignments) had been on the faculty for more than a dozen years. The formal hearings that led to his eventual discharge revealed with extraordinary clarity that the person was paranoid — several of us independently recognized the stunning similarities with Captain Queeg’s court appearance in “The Caine Mutiny”. The irony is that the ill person was a member of the psychology department; none of his colleagues had diagnosed his illness during all the years he had been with them. Physicians, as they say, can’t heal themselves.
Here’s a criterion for whether a discussion is genuinely substantive or not, directed at clarification and increased understanding: no personal comments adorn the to-and-fro. If B appears not to understand what A is saying, then A looks for other ways of presenting the case, A doesn’t simply keep repeating the same assertions spiced with “Why can’t you…?”, and the like. [Added 28 December: Another hallmark of the non-substantive comments is that the commentator not only keeps harping on the same thing but does so by return e-mail, leaving no time to consider what s/he is replying to; see Burun's admission of suffering from that failing.]
One lesson from experience is that the aim of Rethinkers cannot be to convince the AIDStruthers. It soon becomes a sheer waste of time to attempt to argue substance with them; a waste of time because you can’t learn anything from them, and they are incapable of learning anything from you. Rethinkers and Skeptics should address the bystanders, onlookers, the unengaged “silent majority”. There seem always to be with us some people who cheerfully continue to believe that the Earth is only about 6,000-10,000 years old, and many other things that most of us judge to be utterly disproved by factual evidence. One of my friends has been striving for more than two decades to educate those who remain convinced of the merits of Immanuel Velikovsky’s writings, and I judge his progress to be at or close to zero. As Max Planck said about quantum theory, the diehards don’t get convinced: progress comes as they die off. Even after the wider public has recognized that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, the AIDStruthers won’t admit they were wrong. Rather, Mark Wainberg and J P Moore and Fulano and Köpek Burun and their ilk will treat us to elaborate re-writings of history to show that they were always in line with the facts as known with any certainty at any given moment. Rethinkers, they will let it be known, may have happened to be right but it was for wrong reasons, for non-scientific reasons, whereas AIDStruthers just happened to be temporarily wrong, but for the right reasons, they were always guided by then-known facts, as is proper in science.
At any rate, AIDStruthers are not the audience to be courted. Their arguments must be countered with answers directed to the media and the general public in terms that are understandable by and clearly convincing for unengaged observers. That means the points cannot be too technical.
That’s why I’ve continued to look for “smoking guns”. The epidemiology of “HIV” tests shows “it” isn’t infectious, and isn’t correlated with the illnesses dubbed “AIDS” in the early 1980s. That’s a blatantly smoking gun, but it requires people to slog through a large mass of accumulated data to appreciate it. I think the significance of the death statistics is more readily understandable. Look at all the people who have been officially classified as “living with AIDS” over the years. Their mortality (rate of death) has gone since 1982 from 65% to 3% — not steadily, but in distinct phases, about 5 of them. What’s different about each phase is how “living with AIDS” was defined. So mortality depends on how the disease is defined, not on what “it” “is”, or how “it” is treated. That obviously means, there’s something wrong with the definition. And, by the way, could you think of any other disease whose definition has changed like this? And furthermore, any disease whose definition is different in different countries?
(Yes, I know: psychiatric illnesses. See above, what I said about psychology. Maybe I should add that some of my good friends, and indeed valued members of my family, have been and are psychologists. But it isn’t a science, not even a medical science.)