On October 25th, 2007, AIDS activist Ron Hudson posted an entry on his blog describing three apparently fraudulent e-mails he had received over the past month. Each of these messages appeared to come from a prominent member or group of the mainstream AIDS establishment (Dr. Robert Gallo, Dr. Luc Montagnier, and AIDSTruth.org ), but each also supported the unconventional view that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS. This disputed notion is the primary tenet of a controversial group of activists who seek to overturn much of what is widely accepted about HIV and AIDS. Variously called the AIDS dissident movement, the AIDS reappraisal movement, and the AIDS denialist movement, this loosely affiliated community has various beliefs and goals but is united by the shared conviction that AIDS is not caused by HIV. In this podcast, I will examine the dissident movement’s tactics and its relation to the global AIDS pandemic.
The primary strategy employed by the AIDS dissidents is discrediting the existing scientific consensus while constructing their own dissident consensus in its place. Often this dual approach can be hypocritical. For example, dissidents vehemently reject studies or even whole groups of evidence that support the mainstream view on the basis of just one flaw or educated guess, and at the same time they selectively extrapolate from findings in other studies to arrive at conclusions consistent with their own beliefs. Additionally, they rebuff research papers published by mainstream scientists, arguing that their credibility is compromised by their funding sources or lack of expertise with HIV-AIDS, while simultaneously citing lists (like the one on Reappraising AIDS’ website) of dissident scientists, many of whom have a financial interest in “alternative” AIDS treatments or work in fields not even tangentially related to virology or epidemiology. These twin strategies used by dissidents to replace the mainstream AIDS consensus with a dissident version serve to mislead the public and obscure the truth.
A related tactic used by dissidents is “moving the goalpost”. When members of the mainstream AIDS movement offer new data in support of their view, dissidents regularly call for more or “better” evidence. Christine Maggiore, founder of the dissident website Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives , declares, “Since 1984, more than 100,000 papers have been published on HIV. None of these papers, singly or collectively, has been able to reasonably demonstrate or effectively prove that HIV can cause AIDS.”
A more subtle tactic employed by the AIDS dissidents is the exploitation of the widespread disenchantment with the scientific and medical establishment. The movement finds an eager audience among those frustrated with the high-priced treatments currently available for AIDS and the apparent lack of progress toward a vaccine or cure. This dissident strategy is especially effective among developing countries, racial and sexual minority groups, and others who have been historically exploited or oppressed by the predominantly wealthy, white, and Western establishment. Some dissident groups like VIRUSMYTH portray mainstream AIDS researchers as greedy capitalists profiteering from a fraudulent conspiracy that exploits the less fortunate. Such techniques engender skepticism and distrust toward the scientific mainstream among the public and continue to attract many individuals to the AIDS dissident movement.
So ultimately, given their occasionally disingenuous strategies, how should the AIDS dissident movement be viewed in the context of the global AIDS pandemic? I asked Ron Hudson, the activist I mentioned at the beginning of this installment, for his view on this controversial group, based on his previous interactions with them. He expressed his concern over their effect on efforts by mainstream AIDS activists to reduce and prevent the spread of HIV. He worries that the speculation and inadequately tested therapies offered by some dissidents may be construed as valid guidelines for AIDS treatment and prevention and therefore increase the risk of individuals for exposure to HIV. At the same time, however, Ron also supports the respectful exchange of ideas between individuals in the dissident movement and those belonging to the AIDS mainstream. I think that Ron makes an important distinction here regarding the dissidents, that between productive dissent and dogmatic denialism. Dissent can facilitate understanding and illuminate previously unexplored facets of HIV and AIDS, but denialism fosters animosity and suppresses established scientific facts regarding the disease. In order for the dissident movement to positively affect the AIDS pandemic, the scientific community should discourage detrimental denial and promote constructive dissent. This strategy, in my opinion, will prove to be the most effective in dealing with the AIDS dissident movement in the future.