The AIDS Conspiracy

The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back

NICOLI NATTRASS
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/natt14912
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  • Book Info
    The AIDS Conspiracy
    Book Description:

    Since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, many bizarre and dangerous hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins of the disease. In this compelling book, Nicoli Nattrass explores the social and political factors prolonging the erroneous belief that the American government manufactured the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to be used as a biological weapon, as well as the myth's consequences for behavior, especially within African American and black South African communities.

    Contemporary AIDS denialism, the belief that HIV is harmless and that antiretroviral drugs are the true cause of AIDS, is a more insidious AIDS conspiracy theory. Advocates of this position make a "conspiratorial move" against HIV science by implying its methods cannot be trusted and that untested, alternative therapies are safer than antiretrovirals. These claims are genuinely life-threatening, as tragically demonstrated in South Africa when the delay of antiretroviral treatment resulted in nearly 333,000 AIDS deaths and 180,000 HIV infections -- a tragedy of stunning proportions.

    Nattrass identifies four symbolically powerful figures ensuring the lifespan of AIDS denialism: the hero scientist (dissident scientists who lend credibility to the movement); the cultropreneur (alternative therapists who exploit the conspiratorial move as a marketing mechanism); the living icon (individuals who claim to be living proof of AIDS denialism's legitimacy); and the praise-singer (journalists who broadcast movement messages to the public). Nattrass also describes how pro-science activists have fought back by deploying empirical evidence and political credibility to resist AIDS conspiracy theories, which is part of the crucial project to defend evidence-based medicine.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52025-6
    Subjects: Political Science, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 THE CONSPIRATORIAL MOVE AGAINST HIV SCIENCE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
    (pp. 1-10)

    Most people do not believe conspiracy theories about the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). But suspicions that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may have been created in a laboratory, and that the pharmaceutical industry invented AIDS as a means of selling toxic drugs, persist on both sides of the Atlantic. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama had to deal with politically embarrassing revelations that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, believed the government had created HIV to harm blacks.¹ Four years earlier, the Nobel Prize–winning Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai stunned the world with her casual observation that HIV had...

  5. 2 AIDS ORIGIN CONSPIRACY THEORIES IN THE UNITED STATES AND SOUTH AFRICA
    (pp. 11-42)

    HIV is genetically very similar to the Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) in primates, and there is strong scientific evidence that different varieties of HIV evolved in humans after several strains of SIV crossed the species barrier at different points (see pp. 28–31). Yet a small but significant number of people in the United States and South Africa believe that HIV/AIDS is man-made, possibly with genocidal intent.

    Social scientists agree that historical and contextual factors are crucial in understanding why these claims resonate for many, especially black, people. These include the infamous Tuskegee Study, and the history of bioweapon research...

  6. 3 WHO BELIEVES AIDS CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND WHY LEADERSHIP MATTERS
    (pp. 43-62)

    Chapter 2 discussed the historical and political reasons why AIDS origin conspiracy theories are thinkable, but the fact that people in the same broad sociohistorical context differ in their embrace of them suggests that individual-level factors are also important. Exploring which individual characteristics are associated with AIDS conspiracy beliefs may help us understand why, and possibly how, they acquire social traction.

    This chapter analyzes potential determinants of AIDS conspiracy beliefs among young adults in Cape Town. The key finding is that socioeconomic, demographic, cultural, and psychological characteristics matter, but that political allegiance (notably, trust in President Mbeki’s health minister) was...

  7. 4 SCIENCE, POLITICS, AND CREDIBILITY : DAVID GILBERT FIGHTS AIDS CONSPIRACY BELIEFS IN US PRISONS
    (pp. 63-76)

    David Gilbert is a prisoner who cofounded a peer AIDS education initiative in response to rising rates of HIV infection and AIDS deaths in US prisons during the late 1980s and early 1990s.¹ Most interestingly for our purposes, as part of this effort he penned an influential article debunking the conspiracy theory that HIV had been manufactured in a laboratory. Gilbert argued that although there were good reasons why people might suspect a laboratory origin for HIV, scientific evidence renders this theory implausible. In his account, the “real” genocidal aspect of the epidemic is the way discriminatory policies and exploitative...

  8. 5 SCIENCE, CONSPIRACY THEORY, AND THE SOUTH AFRICAN AIDS POLICY TRAGEDY
    (pp. 77-104)

    This chapter reflects on President Mbeki’s tragic questioning of HIV science and his conspiratorial move against antiretrovirals. This is an important story for two reasons. First, South Africa has more people living with HIV than any other country.¹ What happens in this middle-income developing country thus has serious implications for the global HIV epidemic. Second, it provides a clear example of the very real human consequences that can occur when leaders reject scientific expertise. It is one thing for academics to pose questions about diff erent “ways of knowing” and about the gaps and ambiguities within scientific “facts”—but problems...

  9. 6 HERO SCIENTISTS, CULTROPRENEURS, LIVING ICONS, AND PRAISE-SINGERS : AIDS DENIALISM AS COMMUNITY
    (pp. 105-134)

    Chapter 5 argues that South Africa’s AIDS policy tragedy is rooted in Mbeki’s involvement with AIDS denialism. It is unclear to what extent he embraced this position as his stance was typically a “questioning,”¹ one couched in a discourse of seeking to promote scientific debate in order to discover the “truth.” But in so doing, he mirrored three key characteristics of AIDS denialism: extreme skepticism toward the science of HIV pathogenesis and treatment; ignoring advances in antiretroviral treatment; and the active promotion of alternative, unproven therapies in its place.

    Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang appear to have been open to a range...

  10. 7 DEFENDING THE IMPRIMATUR OF SCIENCE : DUESBERG AND THE MEDICAL HYPOTHESES SAGA
    (pp. 135-148)

    This chapter considers the way the scientific community has responded to Peter Duesberg’s AIDS denialism. Particular attention is paid to the action taken against the journal Medical Hypotheses for publishing a paper by Duesberg and others without first subjecting it to meaningful editorial review. The episode highlights the importance of peer review as a core scientific value. But because Duesberg’s paper defended Mbeki’s stance on AIDS (by claiming there is no real AIDS epidemic in Africa and that antiretrovirals are harmful), the consequences for public health of publishing poor scholarship in a seemingly “scientific” journal were very much at the...

  11. 8 THE CONSPIRATORIAL MOVE AND THE STRUGGLE FOR EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE
    (pp. 149-164)

    Earlier chapters argued that AIDS denialism and AIDS origin conspiracy theories both make a conspiratorial move against HIV science. Not only does this undermine HIV-prevention messages, but it leaves people vulnerable to exploitation by cultropreneurs offering untested alternative remedies in the place of antiretrovirals. What makes AIDS denialism particularly worrying is that it has a strong social basis constructed around the roles of hero scientist, living icon, cultropreneur, and praise-singer—all of which assist in forging new forms of identity and social solidarity in opposition to biomedicine. But precisely because these roles are important, they present targets for HIV scientists...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 165-192)
  13. REFERENCES
    (pp. 193-216)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 217-226)