I was so disturbed when I found a Wikipedia article on “AIDS denialism” that I felt the need to share it.
It’s a great example of a divisive issue between those who trust peer-reviewed science (“HIV is the cause of AIDS”), and those who would prefer ‘alternative’ dissenting views (“HIV doesn’t cause AIDS”, or “HIV doesn’t exist”) — even if that dissenting view is backed up with scarce evidence.
Conspiracy theorists assert that they are truth-finders, digging through cover-ups and challenging dogma. Others, particularly politicians untrained in the realm of science, propose, to paraphrase, that there are ‘multiple’ truths.
You can have multiple hypotheses, multiple perspectives, or multiple opinions… but the scientific community is usually able to reach a consensus — a unified voice on a matter such as this.
When South African president Thabo Mbeki supported AIDS denialism, over 5000 physicians and scientific researchers lent their names and support to the Durban Declaration, published in Nature, reaffirming the community’s unified conclusion that the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
Reading this Wikipedia entry brings to mind other similar contemporary issues, including cases when the support for the dissenting view is backed strongly by corporate lobbyists, politicians who reject scientific progress, and laypeople who have made up their minds based on secondary sources. In many of these cases, the dissenters fraudulently assert that a scientific consensus has not been reached, and selectively use (dubious) literature, or worse yet, logical fallacies and rhetorical appeals rather than evidence, to support their claims.
I’m referring to Republicans rejecting climate change, states passing laws that “teach the controversy” on evolution (what controversy?) — Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee… just to name a few. Oh, how about the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine + autism link that has been thoroughly debunked, but which still makes headlines occasionally?
I could write a whole rant about what’s wrong with each of the above cases, but I’ll just leave you with the excellent coverage Ars Technica has already provided.
That’s so meta
The issue of AIDS denialism provoked a series of other responses in the peer-reviewed scientific realm, but on a “meta” level.
I’m deeply appreciative of a piece of correspondence published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, entitled “Professional responsibilities of biomedical scientists in public discourse“. A quotation from Making Genes, Making Waves by Jon Beckwith, a current professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School, serves as an introduction:
Scientists should be aware of the social harm that can result from the premature proclamation of claims that are weakly founded. Scientists must be particularly careful when their science deals with questions of human import. They have entered the political arena.
The author, now a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, analyzes the consequences of dissenting scientists taking their case to the mainstream media and to the public forum of laypeople. To quote (emphasis added),
My argument thus far suggests that professionals in the biomedical sciences who hold the minority view have particular professional ethical obligations to refrain from campaigning publicly among lay audiences, for support for their professional views. These reasons have to do with the idea that professionals ought to serve the public good. The public good is not served by scientists whose views have been rejected by their peers, and who are trying to “win” the scientifically lost case in the lay public’s domain. It also seems professionally irresponsible to impose the “truth” of one’s views on a lay audience while knowing full well that this audience is not equipped to evaluate the scientific merits or otherwise of one’s arguments. At the same time, of course, nothing should prevent professionals holding minority views in their field of expertise from making their case in professional journals, provided standard procedures of anonymous peer review have been followed. This is also in the public’s best interest, because it constitutes a sound procedure for testing and (re)-evaluating scientific hypotheses and theories.
Another article in PLoS Medicine, entitled “HIV Denial in the Internet Era“, bemoans the scientific illiteracy that has enabled the spread of scientific misinformation, and challenges the denialists’ contention that the establishment is censoring their free speech.
Relevance to a broader question of free speech
Nature published a letter in October 2000 entitled “If free speech costs lives that’s a high price to pay” (subscription required; Penn community can use PennText). The authors, a French professor at the Institut Pasteur, and a British professor at UCL, satirically wrote (emphasis mine):
In an earlier life one of us was valet to the French philosopher Voltaire. I remember cleaning his room one day, coming across a letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As a Huguenot, I rejoiced at the remark, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. What is not widely known is the next sentence: “My only question, Sir, is whether the columns of Nature are appropriate?”.
… is Nature the appropriate place to militate in favour of the pre-Copernican model of the universe or the existence of phlogiston? After all, there is Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, when it’s not raining. To demand the right of reply or equal time on such matters is a trick the creationists have used.
HIV causes AIDS. Problems arise when the proposed alternative costs lives.
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 407(6806): 834, © 2000.
In other contexts (political discourse that relies on misrepresentations and falsehoods), I have advocated reasonable restraints on free speech like those instituted in Canada, the UK, and Germany. They’re necessary when well-funded media outlets like Fox News are able to spew out garbage and editorials under the guise of “fair and balanced”. (I’ve covered this before, and in another case when Krugman, PhD attacked the Wall Street Journal for resisting educated economic theories.) The American perspective on unlimited free speech is impracticable and unsustainable when it allows a biased, ill-informed, and maliciously fraudulent corporation like Fox News to become the second-most trusted television news network (and, ironically, also the most distrusted news network at the same time).
I’ve argued that the Canadian approach to rights and freedoms, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society“, is superior. Most civilized nations have pretty high standards for speech, restricting that which is slanderous or outright harmful. Others might go further and restrict protests and censor books, but I think that’s neither necessary nor justifiable.
Science and academia are somewhat unique: the restraints on free speech are already there, although free of government intervention. Peer review and editorial decisions are the mechanism by which free speech is permitted while integrity is upheld.
Individuals have a right to free speech — they just don’t have a right to get published in Nature or Science or other reputable journals. In fact, they don’t have a right to be published anywhere in the scientific literature at all. It’s a privilege earned through insightful thought and meticulous approach, not through vague attacks on the community’s consensus.
And even though the dissenters may turn to other media — mainstream media, their own Web sites, or their own periodicals — the aforementioned paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics suggests that they have a responsibility not to do so, just like the pundits in conservative and liberal media outlets have a responsibility in journalism to report accurately rather than making outright falsehoods under the shield of “free speech”.
In science, if you lie, the system is set up to stop you (forcing you to take it elsewhere). But in all other contexts, in America, apparently you can lie all you want.
My ultimate point
I know that I’ve been getting sidetracked up to this point. I’ll tie it all together.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that scientific dissenters do get published somewhere. And let’s assume the mainstream media pick up the story.
They don’t automatically deserve equal coverage or equal consideration. That must be earned through evidence and logic. Just as scientific papers have differing values and authority based on, say, the reputations of the journals in which they are respectively published and the reputations of the subsequent papers in which they are cited, no argument is automatically equal in merit by virtue of its existence.
A climate change denial based on an insignificant few papers that contradict the standing consensus is not automatically proof of “a lack of consensus”, nor a worthy rebuttal against the existence of the EPA or relevant laws.
A contention that “evolution is a theory” (a scientific theory tested by time and research, not just a conjecture or a guess), coupled with alternative beliefs based in religion, is not automatically proof of controversy, nor grounds to “teach the controversy”, nor a reasonable cause to juxtapose the verifiable claims of science with the unverifiable claims of religion.
A denial of AIDS causation by HIV is not automatically deserving of the public laypeople’s trust.
Now, instead of only considering dissents from scientific consensus, let’s also include political speech based on falsehoods. The same principles apply.
A demand for a birth certificate because its absence “proves” the illegitimacy of Obama’s presidency, or a demand for tax records because their secrecy “shows” that Romney is hiding something, isn’t automatically deserving of attention, either.
And laypeople watching campaign speeches or campaign/super PAC commercials should not immediately believe everything they claim, if FactCheck.org is any indication.
Just because you have a right to say something doesn’t mean you have a right to be taken seriously, or a right not to be criticized for it. Science is strong because of the mechanisms by which bad conclusions can be critiqued and rejected. Politics could be strong if it, too, respected the sanctity of truth.
People predominantly interested in science can have relevant views on politics too. This was just a rant that tried to connect the two. I encourage you to do even better.