“The AIDS denialist community includes many ‘cultropreneurs’ who cast doubt on medical science whilst offering unproven remedies in its place…. It is true that science proceeds via contestation—which is why universities are reluctant to take action against contrarians. But this tolerance is tested when suspicions arise that the motivation for promoting AIDS denialism is not just to further science, but possibly to line one’s pocket.”—Nicoli Nattrass
The following post is by Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back:
There is a substantial body of evidence showing that HIV causes AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs help prevent and treat it. Yet a small group of “AIDS denialists” reject this evidence as irredeemably corrupted by the pharmaceutical industry, claiming instead that antiretrovirals are toxic, even a cause of AIDS. Tragically, South African President Thabo Mbeki took these claims so seriously that he delayed the use of antiretrovirals in the public health sector. More than 330,000 people died unnecessarily as a result.
Precisely because AIDS denialism kills people, HIV scientists and pro-science activists have devoted a great deal of energy to contesting it. This initially took the form of conventional scientific engagement, such as discussions in conferences and publishing rebuttals in scientific journals. But as none of this had any impact—AIDS denialists infamously regard all HIV science as inevitably flawed and untrustworthy—scientists have increasingly resorted to other forms of direct action.
Thus, when Peter Duesberg (an academic at UC Berkeley and leading proponent of the view that HIV is harmless and antiretrovirals themselves cause AIDS) and others published a paper in the journal Medical Hypotheses defending Mbeki’s actions and claiming that there is no African AIDS epidemic, a group of AIDS activists and HIV scientists, including Nobel prize-winner Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, complained to the publisher, Elsevier. They pointed out that Medical Hypotheses had not reviewed the paper properly (indeed, at the time, the journal had a principled stand against peer review). Elsevier investigated, and after a panel of reviewers unanimously recommended rejection, Elsevier permanently withdrew it and forced Medical Hypotheses to introduce editorial review. The scientists also complained about a paper by Italian AIDS denialist Marco Ruggiero (a molecular biologist at the University of Florence), and this too was reviewed and withdrawn.
Duesberg et al responded by adapting the paper slightly, adding further authors, including Ruggiero, and submitting it to the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology where it was published in December 2011. This resulted in heavy criticism of the journal, and prompted two members of the editorial board to resign in protest. An Italian activist organization called the HIV Forum also wrote to the University of Florence, demanding that the university disassociate itself from the “science and activities” of Ruggiero. They drew attention to the fact that he teaches courses disputing the link between HIV and AIDS and supervises student dissertations on this topic. They also claimed that he promotes an unproven cure for HIV involving enriched probiotic yogurt. This prompted the University of Florence to set up a “special commission” to examine whether Ruggiero’s conduct “complies with the institutional guidelines on teaching contents and adherence to the objectives of the official curriculum of biological sciences”.
Universities struggle to deal with AIDS denialism as they have to weigh up the costs (promoting dangerous misinformation) with the principle of academic freedom. An earlier inquiry by UC Berkeley into Peter Duesberg following a complaint of academic misconduct against him came down on the side of academic freedom, arguing that peer review, rather than disciplinary action, was necessary to resolve scientific disputes. The University of Florence, however, has focused its inquiry into Ruggiero more narrowly and with a clearer focus on curriculum content. This may well make it easier to take action against Ruggiero than it was for UC Berkley to convict Duesberg of academic misconduct. And, if Ruggiero is found to have promoted an unproved cure for HIV, the University of Florence is likely to take a particularly dim view of that.
It is one thing making an argument against established science. It is entirely another thing to use such arguments as a marketing strategy to promote alternative, quack cures. As I argue in my new book, The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, the AIDS denialist community includes many “cultropreneurs” who cast doubt on medical science whilst offering unproven remedies in its place. Indeed, they are essential to the success of the AIDS denialist movement precisely because they appear to offer an alternative to antiretrovirals. But as none of their cures has any scientific basis—and as none has been tested in scientific clinical trials—it is very difficult, if not impossible to argue credibly that they should be tolerated within the university system. It is true that science proceeds via contestation – which is why universities are reluctant to take action against contrarians. But this tolerance is tested when suspicions arise that the motivation for promoting AIDS denialism is not just to further science, but possibly to line one’s pocket.