Books and Arts

*Nature* *459*, 168 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459168a; Published online 13
May 2009
The dangers of denying HIV

John P. Moore1<>
 BOOK REVIEWED-*Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human

by Seth Kalichman

Springer: 2009. 205 pp. $25
[image: The dangers of denying HIV]


South Africa's high rate of HIV infection has spurred protesters to demand
action to treat it.

Inadequate health policies in South Africa have reportedly led to some
330,000 unnecessary AIDS deaths and a spike in infant mortality, according
to estimates by South African and US researchers. This carnage exceeds the
death toll in Darfur, yet it has received far less attention. Seth
Kalichman, a US clinical psychologist, shows in *Denying AIDS* how words can
kill. His marvellous book should be read alongside Nicoli Nattrass's *Mortal
Combat*, covering similar ground but from the perspective of a South

The tragic events in South Africa have been exacerbated by AIDS 'denialists'
who, Kalichman alleges, assert that HIV is harmless and that antiretroviral
drugs are toxic. The author discusses the psychology of denialism, which he
says is "the outright rejection of science and medicine". He recounts the
history of an HIV-infected US woman whose daughter died from an AIDS-related
disease, and who recently died herself, to demonstrate the downward path
from "ordinary psychological denial to malignant denial to denialism".
Kalichman dismisses denialists' attempts to portray themselves as
intellectually honourable dissidents who question accepted wisdom. He draws
clear distinctions between dissidence and denialism; the latter, he says, is
merely a destructive attempt to undermine the science.

These attitudes are not unique to HIV. Denialism, notes Kalichman, is
"partly an outgrowth of a more general anti-science and anti-medicine
movement". Groups that support intelligent design, doubt global warming,
claim that vaccines cause autism, argue that cigarettes are safe, believe
that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were an intelligence-agency
plot or deny the Holocaust all use similar tactics.

Kalichman asserts that influential groups within the AIDS denialist movement
include academics, pushers of 'quack' cures and supportive journalists. He
describes the academics involved as "deranged and disgruntled university
professors who turn to pseudoscience as a platform to gain attention",
noting that pseudoscience may include "sightings of UFOs, alien abductions,
astrology, psychic predictions ... [and] outlandish claims about the cause
and cure of diseases".

Kalichman describes how quacks, like some of the academics involved,
misrepresent their qualifications to create an illusion of authority. One,
he claims, treats AIDS with hyperthermia, massage, oxygen, music, colour,
gem, aroma, hypnosis, light and magnetic fields, each word followed by
"therapy". Another allegedly distributed a product in Zambia called
Tetrasil, a pesticide used in swimming pools, until the Zambian government
intervened. Kalichman concludes that "taking money from the poor for bogus
treatments is beyond criminal" and castigates journalist supporters of the
denialist viewpoint for neglecting their professional obligations to verify
facts and avoid sensationalist stories. In a powerful ending, Kalichman
claims that extreme right-wing politics influences the AIDS denialist

Professional institutions continue to tolerate the conduct of academic
denialists, despite the suffering that has resulted. The standard excuse for
inaction has been freedom of expression  the First Amendment of the United
States Constitution. But free speech has recognized limits, and causing
death is one. In 2006, as Kalichman records, a group of concerned scientists
and activists created a website, AIDSTruth (, to
provide evidence to counter the denialists' words. The international legal
and human-rights communities should now investigate the deadly impact of
AIDS denialism. Action might have widespread benefits: Paul Offit's tour de
force, *Autism's False Prophets*, claims that pseudoscientists and quacks
have used similar tactics to parasitize the suffering of desperate parents
by persuading them that vaccines cause autism. As Kalichman says, denialism
"will not break until the public is educated to differentiate science from
pseudoscience, facts from fraud".
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   1. John P. Moore is professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill
   Medical College of Cornell University, New York 10021, USA.
   Email: [log in to unmask]

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

Email:           [log in to unmask]

Balter's Blog: