The following is an interview with Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back
Question: What is AIDS conspiracy theory?
Nicoli Nattrass: The central AIDS conspiracy theory is that HIV was created in a laboratory (perhaps with the help of the CIA) to inflict harm. Ironically, the idea that U.S. scientists invented HIV was initially promoted by the Russian KGB and the East German Stasi in a genuine conspiracy to spread misinformation. There are now many local variants of AIDS conspiracy beliefs–for example, in South Africa a common story is that HIV was created by the apartheid government’s chemical warfare program, with assistance from the United States.
Q: Why does AIDS conspiracy theory matter?
NN: AIDS conspiracy beliefs matter because they reflect and reinforce broader suspicions toward medical science. AIDS conspiracy believers in the United States and South Africa are less likely to use condoms, less likely to test for HIV, and less likely to take antiretroviral treatment. Why did you write the book? I was concerned about the way that AIDS conspiracy theories had been promoted at the highest levels in South Africa, and continue to resonate today. The book is the product of my exploration of how these ideas travel and take root, why they resonate socially, and what can be done to fight them.
Q: Is it possible to fight AIDS conspiracy beliefs?
NN: It is frustratingly difficult combating AIDS conspiracy beliefs because evidence to the contrary is all too easily dismissed as “part of the conspiracy.” In such an atmosphere of mistrust, the credibility of the person countering the AIDS conspiracy theory is really important. This is why I write about (and dedicate my book to) David Gilbert, a U.S. prisoner who produced the first critique of AIDS conspiracy theories. Gilbert had some success because he acknowledged the reasons why AIDS conspiracy theories resonated for many black prisoners and was a credible voice because he had been jailed for revolutionary activities linked to the Black Panthers.
Q: You write about AIDS conspiracy beliefs and AIDS denialism–what is the link?
NN: AIDS denialists believe that HIV is harmless, if it exists at all, and that antiretroviral treatment is poison, even a cause of AIDS. It is a conspiracy theory because it implies HIV science has been irredeemably corrupted by the pharmaceutical companies. Like the HIV-as-bioweapon myth, AIDS denialism undermines public trust in HIV prevention and treatment messages.
Q: You talk about “cultropreneurs” in your book. What are they?
NN: Cultropreneurs are entrepreneurs who use conspiracy theories about scientific medicine as part of a marketing strategy to promote their own “alternative” healing products. In my book I show how cultropreneurs are important to AIDS denialists because they offer healing services and products in the place of antiretrovirals. The tragedy is that none of these alternative therapies has been proved to work. Thus, the “living icons” of AIDS denialism–those HIV-positive people who supposedly offer “proof of concept” by appearing to live healthily without antiretroviral drugs–eventually die of AIDS.
Q: Your subtitle is “Science Fights Back.” Why?
NN: I was heartened by the many different ways in which scientists, clinicians, and pro-science activists have fought against AIDS denialism in support of evidence-based approaches to healing. These range from conventional scientific papers’ debunking of false beliefs, to protest action against publishers for providing outlets for discredited AIDS denialist claims, to comment strings and blogs on the Internet. Pro-science activists have been particularly successful at exposing the false claims of the cultropreneurs and documenting the deaths of the living icons. I write about some of these actions in my book, concluding that the fight for science and reason is alive and well.