Nicoli Nattrass on Pro-Science Advocacy and Challenging AIDS Denialists

The AIDS Conspiracy, Nicoli Nattrass

We conclude our week-long feature on The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, by Nicoli Nattrass with an excerpt from her conclusion in which she considers the challenges in confronting AIDS denialists particularly in the Internet Age:

Will This Popular Enlightenment Project Work?

Defending science is a quintessentially enlightenment project. It assumes that progress is possible through reason and the accumulation of evidence, and that the scientific method is persuasive and can be made more so. Those who engage in the defense of science necessarily reject relativist approaches to the truth as unreasonable, defeatist, and dangerous….

Reasserting the enlightenment project of progress through reason and evidence is one thing. But whether such progress is possible remains an open question. How easy is it to persuade people through factual corrections of their misperceptions? The answer seems to depend a great deal on the individual. For example, AIDS denialists like [Christine] Maggiore are impervious to corrective evidence about HIV science because they are, as Kalichman observes, in a psychological state of encapsulated delusion. They are impossible to argue with, and indeed it may even be counterproductive to do so. According to recent research in political psychology, providing people who are ideologically committed to a particular view with “preference-incongruent information” can “backfire” by causing them to support their original argument even more strongly. This could be because they misread or reinterpret the information to support their original position, or because they “counterargue” the information in their minds, thereby increasing their intellectual commitment to it.

The problem is, in part, a general one. Summarizing a substantial body of psychological literature, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler note that humans are “goal-directed information processors who tend to evaluate information with a directional bias towards reinforcing their pre-existing views.” Farhad Manjoo, for similar reasons, worries that our tendency for “selective exposure” is resulting in reality “splitting” as we “choose our personal versions of truth by subscribing to the clutch of specialists we find agreeable and trustworthy.” He argues that the digital revolution has exacerbated the problem because now you can

watch, listen to and read what you want, whenever you want; seek out and discuss, in exhaustive and insular detail, the kind of news that pleases you; and indulge your political, social or scientific theories, whether sophisticated or naïve, extremist or banal, grounded in reality or so far out you’re floating in an asteroid belt, among people who feel exactly the same way.

Jodi Dean takes the argument even further, claiming that the Internet destroys “the illusion of the public by creating innumerable networks of connection and information,” which negates “any possibility of agreement” because “consensus reality” no longer exists. She argues that we cannot judge the rationality of people who believe they have been abducted by aliens and that we no longer have “widespread criteria for judgments about what is reasonable and what is not.”

But while Manjoo and Dean are highlighting the ways in which the electronic media facilitates the growth of rival thought communities, their pessimism about the enlightenment project goes too far. As Michael Barkun points out, the boundary between mainstream and stigmatized knowledge domains may have become more “permeable,” but the world has yet to enter a state of “complete epistemological pluralism.” The fact that Duesberg and Wakefield keep trying to get the imprimatur of science for their discredited ideas speaks to the ongoing public prestige and power of science. Furthermore, their support base is far from fixed in stone. Whereas some people have become so committed to their unorthodox views that they cannot be moved from them—such as the hero scientists and living icons of the AIDS denialist and anti-vaccine movements—this is the exception rather than the rule for people dabbling in the cultic milieu. The cultic milieu may well be an oppositional subculture inherently suspicious of scientific practice and tolerant of mysticism and conspiracy theories, yet reason and judgment are not abandoned by all who enter it.

Indeed, as indicated by the correspondent on Kalichman’s blog who described how Maggiore’s death from pneumonia started the process of getting him thinking that maybe he had been wrong in rejecting HIV science, people motivated to explore the cultic milieu are open to changing their minds. And, as the focus group of AIDS origin conspiracy believers in Cape Town also illustrated, seemingly strong endorsements of oppositional beliefs turn out to be more fluid and contingent when openly discussed. Similarly, the comments by prisoners about David Gilbert’s critique of AIDS conspiracy theory show that politically sensitive arguments that both acknowledge the reasonable basis for conspiracy beliefs while seeking also to correct them can result in people changing their minds

To return to Colin Campbell’s seminal work on the cultic milieu, he stresses that this is not a cultural space where firm opinions are held, but it is rather a “society of seekers”:

Seekership is probably the one characteristic that all members of cultic groups have in common, and while this facilitates the formation of groups, it poses special problems for their maintenance. Seekers do not necessarily cease seeking when a revealed truth is offered to them, nor do they necessarily stop looking in other directions when one path is indicated as the path to the truth.

This, in turn, creates the space for pro-science activists to compete for the attention of those seeking information about health and healing. By doing this in the electronic world, through dedicated websites and blogs, and by posting comments in response to claims by cultropreneurs, the Internet becomes a tougher place for people to sequestrate themselves in a comfortable cocoon of the like-minded. These days, a “google search,” the modern-day equivalent of practical seekership, catapults one from AIDS denialist to pro-science activist websites, and exposes a person to news (like Maggiore’s death) which sites like Alive and Well prefer to downplay, if not hide.

This is good news for the enlightenment project. As Nyhan and Reifler note in their review of the psychological literature, people may be biased in favor of interpretations that align with their prior prejudices and suppositions—but this does not mean that they just believe what they like and never accept counter-attitudinal information. Nyhan and Reifler cite early studies showing that when faced with “information of sufficient quantity or clarity,” people do change their minds, and their own research backs this up.

The challenge for the pro-science advocacy movement is thus to keep an active and credible presence on the Internet, both with regard to exposing the cultropreneurs and promoting evidence-based medicine. In so doing, they need to educate people about the power of science while also acknowledging that scientific practice is contested, socially structured, and can be biased and shoddy (as Merck’s Vioxx study and Wakefield’s research illustrates). Recognizing and exposing the limitations of science not only builds credibility by acknowledging reasonable concerns, but assists the broader project of promoting good science.

The Internet is an anarchic space where popular forms of boundary work in defense of science range from ridicule and banter to serious discussion about scientific findings along with URLs to scientific articles and reports. It looks, in other words, like the varied countercultural, seeking space that used to be the preserve only of the cultic milieu—but with greater informational depth. The weapons of science and reason are still very much in contention, both within the scientific community and in this creative popular space.

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