HIV/AIDS vigilantes protest too much
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/07/09
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 222–30)
She affirms (or objects) so much as to lose credibility.
A few vigilantes, rabid defenders of the HIV/AIDS faith, seek to silence AIDS Rethinkers and HIV Skeptics. They attempt to prevent publication of anything that questions HIV/AIDS dogma. They attempt to have Rethinkers fired from jobs. They indulge in character assassination, spread propaganda about “denialism”, and so on. They presume it their right to act as accuser, judge, and executioner without having any warrant for such roles. The very small number of vigilantes who choose not to be anonymous includes John Moore, Mark Wainberg, Seth Kalichman, and Nicoli Nattrass (see also the changing membership acknowledged on AIDStruth.org).
Among their proudest acts was to successfully pressure Elsevier into withdrawing articles already accepted for publication and posted on the website of Medical Hypotheses. The withdrawn article by Duesberg et al. was primarily a debunking of the published allegation by Chigwedere, Essex, et al. (JAIDS 49  410-5) that 330,000 African AIDS deaths between 2000 and 2005 could have been prevented had not President Mbeki refused to provide antiretroviral drugs, and holding Mbeki and Peter Duesberg responsible for those deaths. The withdrawn article by Ruggiero et al. cited official documents of the Italian Ministry of Health to the effect that the Ministry did not regard HIV and AIDS as causally linked and did not regard HIV as a sufficiently serious threat to public health to list it as an infectious agent whose presence needed to be reported. The given reason for withdrawing the articles was that they “could potentially be damaging to global public health”.
Not even the vigilantes would claim that censorship is appropriate in scientific matters. Not even the vigilantes would dispute that the proper behavior in scientific controversies is to respond to published material by publishing commentaries and counter-arguments. Not even the vigilantes would hold that personal attacks and ad hominem arguments are ever appropriate in scientific matters. Not even the vigilantes would posit character assassination as proper behavior in a scientific controversy.
Consequently, the HIV/AIDS vigilantes assume the burden of proving that questioning HIV/AIDS dogma is somehow outside the boundaries of science, that it constitutes unscientific behavior and moreover is such a public danger that any and every means are justified in attempting to root it out.
In trying to make their case, they protest far too much and lose all credibility. For example, they often make the point that Duesberg has no standing to discuss HIV/AIDS matters because he has never worked on it and is merely a kibitzer. Yet scholars of scientific activity (experts in STS, science & technology studies) are fully familiar with the fact that advances in science and medicine have often come from outsiders to the particular specialty (say, a patent clerk like Albert Einstein) or insiders with no prior prestige (see for instance Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science 134  596-602).
In any case, most of the vigilantes themselves lack the credentials that they claim necessary to speak about the topic: Kalichman is a psychologist, Nattrass is an economist, and only 1 of 13 people named (as of this date) at AIDStruth.org has worked on HIV/AIDS. Most of them are not even biologists or STS scholars with any credentials as pundits of medicine or science.
Nattrass has recently ventured yet another attempt to justify the vigilantes’ unjustifiable urging that Elsevier censor articles already accepted and published on-line by its journal Medical Hypotheses. In “Defending the boundaries of science: AIDS denialism, peer review and the Medical Hypotheses saga” (Sociology of Health & Illness 33 [#4, 2011] 507-21), Nattrass argues that keeping Rethinkers out of the literature is appropriate “boundary work” by HIV/AIDS scientists and activists.
As already pointed out, the notion that “activists” without any scientific credentials can appropriately take part in these matters contradicts the claim made by the vigilantes themselves that Duesberg and others have no standing to discuss HIV/AIDS. But the Nattrass article is wrongheaded in other and more serious ways as well. Its main focus is “boundary work”: guarding one’s turf against intruders. Nattrass cites the well known paper about this by the STS scholar Tom Gieryn: “Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists” (American Sociological Review 48  781-95), as though this article endorses turf-defending. But Gieryn describes, he does not endorse. If science is to reflect reality, which is surely the only desideratum, then it must be carried out with single-minded focus on evidence. Careerism, cronyism, xenophobia, boundary work, turf-guarding and similar features of human behavior can only hinder the successful pursuit of scientific understanding.
Nattrass tries further to justify the unjustifiable by branding AIDS Rethinking as not scientific because Medical Hypotheses was not peer reviewed and peer review, Nattrass claims, is the safeguard of quality in science. STS scholars are fully aware that this is simply not the case, that peer review merely serves to entrench whatever beliefs might be mainstream at any given time — see for instance Barber, cited above.
Why do the vigilantes act self-defeatingly in continually drawing public attention to articles they had demanded be withdrawn? Why do they evolve specious attempted justifications for their actions?
A psychological or psychoanalytical answer is ready to hand. Somewhere below the level of their consciousness, the vigilantes know that their behavior cannot be justified. Perhaps that’s why John Moore, having helped found AIDStruth.org, is now listed only as a past contributor to it.
The article by Nattrass is accessible on-line only to subscribers, but commentaries are publicly accessible. My debunking of the Nattrass article is now available at the journal’s Correspondence website (like an increasing number of other journals, Sociology of Health & Illness does not include commentaries in its printed version).