Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Denialism's roots

There are many groups of denialists out there, but i am mostly concerned today with those that deny HIV causes AIDS. Its a bit of a bait and switch: they start by trying to sound reasonable -- "are we SURE HIV causes AIDS?", and then, contending that we are in fact not SURE, move straight to HIV does NOT cause AIDS.

But what i really find laughable is one of the cornerstones of the theory, i.e. a vast conspiracy by a medical industrial complex that stifles dissent in favor of billions of dollars of profits poured into research that is doomed to fail, mostly because it targets the wrong virus. The fallacious assumptions here are numerous, but to sum up briefly:
  1. Scientists are generally not well paid compared to other professions with similar levels of training (i, for instance, have been working in biochemistry for 17 years and make 40K/year with a Ph.D.). People in the biological sciences are noted for having one the highest levels of training with the lowest salaries, on average. In a way, we are not very bright, eh? Scientists do not profit personally from any research grants. When we are awarded a research grant, it means we can continue to work, studying either a biological phenomenon or disease because we enjoy studying things, finding cures for things, etc. When the grants are not funded, like when your defense budget + "emergency spending" is the better part of $1,000,000,000,000, then we lose our jobs and wind up working at Starbucks (at my level anyway, but i am a lowly post doc), and no one has a better understanding anything.
  2. Scientists thrive on argument. It is what we are trained to do. i don't mean argument in the "you suck", "no, YOU suck" way, but more like "i think its like this, based on my results", "yeah, well, your results are obviously flawed, and it is actually like this, based on my results", and on and on in the peer-reviewed literature, the peers being other scientists who may have their own theories based on their results, or may believe the results of someone else. Peruse the literature of any single field in the biological sciences, and you will find discord and disagreement. Mechanisms of oncogenesis, cell signaling, should you include all of your diffraction data or stop at some arbitrary signal to noise ratio. Debate, it is the nature of science. To think that all these academic scientists would quietly go along with some HIV conspiracy so that some multinational corporation can make billions is flawed in the extreme. Scientists will form a consensus when every other explanation for a particular phenomenon makes less sense than the favored explanation. Evolution, for instance. You may posit alternate theories if you wish, but nothing else agrees with the observations as well as evolution, and so is accepted as the most plausible explanation speciation.
  3. If the purpose of the multinational Big Pharma is to milk the HIV crisis for all its worth, why are they giving loads of antiretroviral therapy cocktails to Africa and Asia for pennies on the dollar, free in some cases? Go to all this trouble to set up this well crafted conspiracy to make billions, only to donate money to the hardest-hit nations. To wit, Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) in the US is $12-15000/yr/patient. In Thailand, it is $400/yr/patient, and in many regions in Africa, it is $0/yr/patient. If one wanted to make as much money as possible, this seems counterproductive to me.
So what do i think is happening? I am not really sure. A lot of the "dissidents" are lay people, so their opinion may be ill informed, maybe not. I don't know them. But some are scientists. Perhaps they are people of note, or at one time were of note, and they miss being "of note", and crave ways to get some attention again for having great ideas. A great idea, almost by definition, must be one not shared by many other people, otherwise it is merely conventional wisdom. Boring. A further observation: the work of many scientists into HIV plays out in the aforementioned peer-reviewed literature, much of which is available free online. Look here. If the papers are not available to you, try to access the website from a library. They sometimes pay the subscription fees for the online journals that are not made freely available. Or buddy up with someone at a research university, and talk to them about the literature. Start a journal club, where you can discuss the merits or problems of specific papers. Scientists do this all the time. It is critical to try to objectively evaluate the current literature: what is good, and what is sloppy, etc.

In contrast, just about all of the dissident literature, mostly books, must be purchased. It is not made freely available, nor is it possible to have a critical dialogue. Publishing a book is a bit of a bully pulpit. The avenues for rebuttal are not as accessible. "I know what they don't want you to know. I explain all in my book, avaliable here for $19.99. Buy Today! Before its too late!" Some movies have popped up on YouTube, but these are honestly so illogical as to approach painful, and may be unauthorized uploads anyway. So, it seems to me that the people profiting the most personally from the HIV/AIDS debate are the dissidents who decry the existence of this vast conspiracy. Ironic, no? Or evil genius, depending on how you look at it. Basically, i am saying that the dissidents are either not thinking critically or are actually preying upon FUD for profit.

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