Research Article: HIV Denial in the Internet Era

Date Published: August 21, 2007

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Tara C Smith, Steven P Novella

Abstract: The Internet has served as a fertile and un-refereed medium to spread HIV denialist beliefs, argue the authors.

Partial Text: It may seem remarkable that, 23 years after the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), there is still denial that the virus is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). This denial was highlighted on an international level in 2000, when South African president Thabo Mbeki convened a group of panelists to discuss the cause of AIDS, acknowledging that he remained unconvinced that HIV was the cause [1]. His ideas were derived at least partly from material he found on the Internet [2]. Though Mbeki agreed later that year to step back from the debate [3], he subsequently suggested a re-analysis of health spending with a decreased emphasis on HIV/AIDS [4].

One of the prominent HIV denial groups currently is Christine Maggiore’s “Alive and Well” (formerly “HEAL,” Health Education AIDS Liaison) ( Maggiore’s life story is at the center of this group. Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Maggiore claims she has since been symptom-free for the past 14 years without the use of antiretroviral drugs, including protease inhibitors [10]. She has risen to prominence, and been embroiled in controversy, in recent years after giving birth to and openly breast-feeding her two children, Charles and Eliza Jane. She had neither child tested for HIV, and did not take antiretroviral medication during her pregnancy or subsequent breast-feeding [11]. Eliza Jane died in September 2005 of HIV-related pneumonia [12], though Maggiore remains unconvinced that HIV had any role in her daughter’s death [13], and continues to preach her message to other HIV-positive mothers.

That HIV is the primary cause of AIDS is the strongly held consensus opinion of the scientific community, based upon over two decades of robust research. Deniers must therefore reject this consensus, either by denigrating the notion of scientific authority in general, or by arguing that the mainstream HIV community is intellectually compromised. It is therefore not surprising that much of the newer denial literature reflects a basic distrust of authority and of the institutions of science and medicine. In her book, Christine Maggiore thanks her father Robert, “who taught me to question authority and stand up for what’s right” [10]. Similarly, mathematical modeler Dr. Rebecca Culshaw, another HIV denier, states: “As someone who has been raised by parents who taught me from a young age never to believe anything just because ‘everyone else accepts it to be true,’ I can no longer just sit by and do nothing, thereby contributing to this craziness” [17].

Since the ideas proposed by deniers do not meet rigorous scientific standards, they cannot hope to compete against the mainstream theories. They cannot raise the level of their beliefs up to the standards of mainstream science; therefore they attempt to lower the status of the denied science down to the level of religious faith, characterizing scientific consensus as scientific dogma [21]. As one HIV denier quoted in Maggiore’s book [10] remarked,

Although the HIV deniers condemn scientific authority and consensus, they have nevertheless worked to assemble their own lists of scientists and other professionals who support their ideas. As a result, the deniers claim that they are just on the cusp of broader acceptance in the scientific community and that they remain an underdog due to the “established orthodoxy” represented by scientists who believe that HIV causes AIDS.

Of all the characteristics of deniers, repeatedly nudging back the goalpost—or the threshold of evidence required for acceptance of a theory—is often the most telling. The strategy behind goalpost-moving is simple: always demand more evidence than can currently be provided. If the evidence is then provided at a later date, simply change the demand to require even more evidence, or refuse to accept the kind of evidence that is being offered.

After so much criticism levied upon the prevailing theories by deniers, one might think they would have something to offer to replace HIV as the cause of AIDS. However, the alternatives they offer are much more speculative than the mainstream theories they decry as lacking evidence. Further, their arguments amount to little more than another logical fallacy, the false dichotomy: they assume that overturning the prevailing theory will prove their theory correct, by default.

Because these denialist assertions are made in books and on the Internet rather than in the scientific literature, many scientists are either unaware of the existence of organized denial groups, or believe they can safely ignore them as the discredited fringe. And indeed, most of the HIV deniers’ arguments were answered long ago by scientists. However, many members of the general public do not have the scientific background to critique the assertions put forth by these groups, and not only accept them but continue to propagate them. A recent editorial in Nature Medicine [32] stresses the need to counteract AIDS misinformation spread by the deniers.



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