Aids denialism at the Spectator

October 24th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in africa, aids, bad science | 114 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, Saturday 24 October 2009, The Guardian.

A lot of strange stuff can fly in under the claim that you are “simply starting a debate”. You may remember the Aids denialist documentary House Of Numbers from 3 weeks ago. Since then, it has received many glowing outings. The London Raindance film festival explained that they were proud to show it, and a senior programmer appeared on Youtube saying they had gone through the film at 15 second intervals, finding no inaccuracies at all.

This is pretty good for a film which suggests that HIV doesn’t cause Aids, but antiretroviral drugs do, or poverty, or drug use, but HIV probably doesn’t exist, diagnostic tools don’t work, and Aids is simply a spurious basket diagnosis invented to sell antiretroviral medication for a wide range of unrelated problems, and the treatments don’t work either.

But now the film has received an even more prominent platform. Here is Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, promoting the Spectator event next Wednesday at which they will be screening this film: “Is it legitimate to discuss the strength of the link between HIV and Aids? It’s one of these hugely emotive subjects, with a fairly strong and vociferous lobby saying that any open discussion is deplorable and tantamount to Aids denialism. Whenever any debate hits this level, I get deeply suspicious.”

Of course people will have some concerns. Despite international outcry, from 2000 to 2005 South Africa implemented policies based on the belief that HIV does not cause Aids, and declined to roll out adequate antiretroviral therapy. It has been estimated in two separate studies that around 350,000 people died unnecessarily in South African during this period.
We should also remember that “teach the controversy” is a technique beloved of American creationists, and of antivaccination campaigners (with whom Fraser Nelson has also, oddly, flirted). These groups know that in our modern media, where truth is halfway between the two most extreme views, to insert doubt is to win.

But debate is also good. So what kind of debate will the Spectator be hosting? They advertise a panel of “leading medical authorities”. There are four people on this panel. One is Lord Norman Fowler. He is not a “leading medical authority”.

Charles Geshekter is a professor of African history from the University of Chicago, and is therefore also not a “leading medical authority”. He says there is no AIDS epidemic in Africa, simply poverty, and that belief in the epidemic was a product of racism and “western sexual stereotypes”. In fact he calls it “The Plague That Isn’t”, and was on President Thabo Mbeki’s notorious Aids Advisory Panel in South Africa in 2000.

Beverly Griffin is an emeritus professor at Imperial College, from the field of virology but not HIV, who is quoted by the virusmyth website as saying that HIV may not cause Aids in the 1990s. Her views may now have changed, I hope they have, I have emailed her and hope to hear back.

Lastly, Dr Joe Sonnabend is a retired american doctor who was greatly involved in the treatment of people with Aids, but was also long regarded by many in the Aids denialist community as a fellow traveller, saying that the link between HIV and AIDS was unproven. More recently he has distanced himself from this view.

I’m sure they are erudite and accomplished, but it is not clear that the Spectator have assembled “leading medical authorities” on the specific question of whether HIV causes Aids. It is also fair to say, with the exception of Norman Fowler, that all the Spectator’s panellists have disputed the mainstream consensus on Aids at one stage or another. I’m not saying that is unacceptable, or presuming their current position. I am simply saying: this is who the Spectator have chosen to put on their panel of “leading medical authorities”, and they may not reflect the overwhelming consensus – which is not a dirty word – that HIV causes Aids, and that antiretroviral medication is an imperfect but overall beneficial treatment.

And then there is the film to which their debate is pegged. We do not have time in this short column to rehash its flaws, although you can find many documented at the excellent I would however ask Fraser about one scene, which makes a very simple point. Christine Maggiore appears many times in the film, talking emotively, explaining her choice not to take Aids medication, and that this is why she is alive.

Christine Maggiore is dead, Fraser. The film tells you that but in tiny letters at the very end and it says no more. She died of pneumonia aged 52. And her daughter died of untreated Aids aged 3. Because of her beliefs about Aids, Christine Maggiore did not take medication which has been proven to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to her unborn child during pregnancy. Her daughter, Eliza Jane, was not tested for HIV during her short life. Before she died. Of Aids.

I cannot see how a film which does not tell you that – in large, bold letters, perhaps, scrolling across the screen when Maggiore is speaking to you so passionately – how a film that frames its facts in such a fashion can possibly be a helpful starting point for an informed debate. It’s not “controversial”, it’s pointlessly misleading. “Starting a debate” is fine. With this film, and with these panellists, the Spectator has framed a very odd event indeed.

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114 Responses

  1. Snout said,

    October 29, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    @Caledonian1976, pronk, Staphlococcus, quasilobachevski, Marco, etc:

    If you reread all of Sadun’s posts in this thread (not that I recommend this) you will notice that he has never once articulated any of the Perthian’s specific claims, or tried to argue them. He never does.

    Instead he posts paragraph after pargraph of syntactically correct but meaningless waffle designed to draw attention to his friends Mrs E-P and Dr Turner, and makes vague accusations that those who disagree with him are “unscientific”, “illogical”, “closed minded”, “bamboozled by the powers that be” or indulging in “ad hominems”. He’s been doing this on multiple threads for many, many months now.

  2. Caledonian1976 said,

    October 29, 2009 at 4:59 pm


    Exactly – he’s nothing more than a glorified troll. As the favourite drunk saying goes “leave him; he’s not worth it”.

  3. mikewhit said,

    October 29, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    “But on their webpage they recently put up a section requesting donations for experiments”

    – Aha ! it’s all about trying to line their own pockets ! no-one who does research for money can be disinterested !

    (as the CO2 skeptics might put it …)

  4. pronk said,

    October 29, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I’m sure you’re right, Snout. But the occasional pointing out to trolls that we’re fully aware they’re trolls never hurts 🙂

  5. quasilobachevski said,

    October 29, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    The great Henri Poincare famously said:

    To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.

    I wonder if he had someone like Sadun in mind?

  6. Staphylococcus said,

    October 29, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    I had noticed, but I was bored. What can I say? 🙂

  7. Sadun Kal said,

    October 30, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Boah! I can’t keep up with all this, sorry. Better to leave now than to exhaust myself completely. I only read and will respond to Dr. Goldacre’s comment in this last visit of mine, re meds;

    Irrelevant question. Even the orthodoxy doesn’t claim to know everything about how “HIV” is supposed to do its thing and how the ARVs or vaccines are actually supposed to stop this thing. So there is a lot of room for speculation but even complete success wouldn’t mean anything for the fundamental scientific questions lingering around, like the ones posed by the Perth Group. If you must know however, ARVs are reported to protect the T-cells of “HIV negative” people too:

    Best wishes to all contributors…

  8. quasilobachevski said,

    October 30, 2009 at 1:51 am

    To paraphrase Sadun’s last comment:

    “OK, so maybe there’s a condition, which you might call AIDS, and maybe it’s caused by something, which you might call HIV, and maybe taking ARVs helps, but I refuse to believe that there’s any proof that any of these things work in the way that you think they do.”

    Russell’s teapot looms large.

  9. nongovernmentalindividual said,

    October 30, 2009 at 9:01 am

    I see that the Spectator is organising a debate later this month on the question “Are cyclists a menace? Eco friendly warriors or hazards to road safety”. How long will it take Sadun Kal to go all over the two-wheeler lists to argue that they have never been scientifically proven not to be a menace?

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  11. Rob Manzoni said,

    May 21, 2011 at 5:40 am

    I know this comes very late in this discussion (‘just read and joined BadScience), but I see several derogatory references to “South Africans”, implying that this is synonymous with “denialist”. Please note that Mr Mbeki and his ilk – and their (il)logic – don’t reflect the stance of the rest of us – by a long shot. The outrage which his public denialism caused here is a matter of public record; and it lead, among other actions, to a high court ruling compelling the reluctant SA government to provide infected persons – and pregnant mothers in particular – with ARVs. That this took so long to get underway is also a matter of shame, not helped by (now president) Zuma’s embarrassing utterances during his trial for raping a woman known to be HIV positive. Sadly, AIDS education here, like sex education, (and education in general) is poorly handled at official levels; and as we see the world over, one can’t teach the uninformed effectively if every word and concept in the discussion has to be explained. A good education is usually a prerequisite to good understanding. Adding to the problem of the ballooning AIDS epidemic here, is the law which prohibits the medical establishment from informing an infected person’s partner (male- or female) of his or her status. Legally, a hospital may not even test a patient for HIV without consent (and this is often withheld!). In a country where obligatory notifiable conditions include tuberculosis, gun-shot wounds and shark-bite, it seems idiotic that a person with HIV is allowed to infect the unsuspecting ‘partners’ with whom (s)he comes into sexual contact. A person who knowingly or deliberately infects another with TB is charged with attempted murder, yet those doing the same with HIV and AIDS (often deliberately) are not. Yes, ca. 330 000 have died due to Mbeki’s callous policies (is this a crime against humanity?), yet it’s not over yet – nor is it slowing down. . . Like global population growth and the elephant in the room (or Dawkins’ gorilla), no-one’s talking about it.

  12. gishan said,

    May 30, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Already very successful Ayurveda treatments for Aids in Srilanka

  13. joey89924 said,

    November 16, 2012 at 2:41 am

    I think this would be a good chance for Ben to arrange a better debate than the one from Spectator

  14. kevin king said,

    January 24, 2015 at 3:13 am

    There are an awful lot of numptys in the world as this blog clearly demonstrates. Referring to Peter Duesberg as a pseudo-scientist really does take the biscuit. In the field he was the leading scientist of his day and it’s disgraceful the way he has been treated by a bunch of second rate types like Gallo et al. There is not AIDS epidemic in the West or in Africa. Just like climate change this is a fantasy of the mollycoddled middle aged progressive who has lost his way in religion anymore and surrounded by rampant commercialism the progressive seeks his salvation in cults wrapped up as science. It’s a depressing age to live in. I feel we are heading back to the middle ages.