The Spectator denies it all

First, climate change. Now, HIV/Aids. What next?

I have blogged before on the new Spectator editor Fraser Nelson's crude denialism of climate change and his failure to engage with the peer-reviewed scientific literature. I see he has now turned his attention to questioning the link between HIV and Aids, in his Coffee House blog post "Questioning the Aids consensus". Here is how he puts it:

Is it legitimate to discuss the strength of the link between HIV and Aids? It's one of these hugely emotive subjects, with a fairly strong and vociferous lobby saying that any open discussion is deplorable and tantamount to Aids denialism. Whenever any debate hits this level, I get deeply suspicious.

Which is why the below clip -- from a documentary which the Spectator Events division is screening next week, called House of Numbers -- aroused my interest. The film picked up awards at various American film festivals, but has since been denounced as backing Aids denialism. Yet the footage shows Luc Montagnier -- who won a Nobel prize last year for his work on Aids -- saying that many HIV infections can be shrugged off by a healthy immune system.

If Nelson had done his research, he would know that 18 angry doctors and scientists interviewed in the film have since issued a public statement claiming that the film-maker Brent Leung "acted deceitfully and unethically" when recruiting them and that House of Numbers "perpetuates pseudoscience and myths".

He has already been taken to task by various commenters on Coffee House, eg:

MartSharm
October 22nd, 2009 3:57pm Report this comment

The Spectator is going weird. Why are you having any association with Aids denialism and associated bad science? The film has been denounced by the doctors who appeared in it: they repudiate the content of the film and allege they were decieved by the director.

I fear the Spectator's BS filter is missing in action, and I am seriously beginning to doubt the value of my subscription. Get a grip, Fraser.

Chris Kavanagh
October 22nd, 2009 6:20pm Report this comment

Would it be too much to ask that journalists actually do some proper research into the credibility of the arguments put forward in House of Numbers before promoting it to people? It might take a bit more effort but considering this is about a deadly virus that kills millions every year it seems like it's not that much to ask. One or two nights of research will make it all too apparent how ropey the arguments are and how it is, in fact, an aids denialism film.

AndyinBrum
October 22nd, 2009 8:22pm Report this comment

You'll also find that Ben Goldacre's noticed this article and is banging his head slowly and repeatedly against the brick wall of your naievity [sic]

In her review of the movie, the New York Times's Jeannette Catsoulis writes:

Mr Leung said in a recent interview, "All we do is raise questions." Perhaps his next film will question the existence of gravity.

If he does, I'm sure he'll find journalistic support from Nelson's Spectator. If there's a scientific consensus on an issue of global import, the pseudo-contrarians at the Speccie are only too keen to try and undermine it (see Melanie Phillips/MMR). Thankfully, they fail again and again, and only make themselves look foolish, lazy and, um, er, ignorant.

Here is Dr Ben Goldacre's take on House of Numbers in his excellent Guardian column, Bad Science:

I have now seen this film. It presents itself as a naive journey by one young film-maker to discover the science behind HIV. In reality, it's a dreary and pernicious piece of Aids denialist propaganda.

All the usual ideas are there. It's antiretroviral drugs themselves that are the cause of symptoms called Aids. Or it's poverty. Or it's drug use. HIV doesn't cause Aids. Diagnostic tools don't work, Aids is simply a spurious basket diagnosis invented to sell antiretroviral medication for a wide range of unrelated problems -- and the drugs don't work either.

It would take two months of columns to address all the bogus claims of this film, and that blizzard, perhaps, is the point of making it, with all the classic rhetorical devices that have been honed by Aids denialists and creationists over decades. It engages, for example, in repeated overstatement of marginal internal disagreements about the details of HIV research, to the extent that 18 doctors and scientists interviewed for the film have issued a statement saying that the director was "deceptive" in his interactions with them, that it perpetuates pseudoscience and myths, and that they were selectively quoted to make it seem as if they are in disagreement and disarray, when in fact they agree on all the important facts.

At one point there is an extended sequence explaining that you can't take a picture of the HIV virus: or maybe you can, but if you can, different scientists disagree on how, and whether their method is best.

This is an infantile world view where stuff only exists when you can easily take a photograph of it, and where the internet, compound interest and magnetism don't exist either.

There is a memorable skit on diagnostic tests, where the film-maker manages to find one woman working in a marquee in a shopping centre in Africa giving HIV tests, who accidentally misinforms him about why she is asking for information on his health risk behaviours.

In the film, this becomes a dramatic expose: the HIV diagnosis is a tautology, they suggest, a basket diagnosis for sick people of any kind who engage in risk behaviours, the blood test is unreliable, a piece of theatre, and the diagnosis is only made because the tester has asked if you are gay or inject drugs.

But people working on the front line of HIV testing are often told to ask about risk behaviours during a test, because testing is also a great opportunity for education about prevention. Furthermore, as an interesting statistical aside, knowledge about your pre-test likelihood of having a condition also helps the tester to correctly interpret any diagnostic test.

In any case, HIV tests are so reliable that in 2007 an HIV-negative woman won $2.5m in damages after she was treated for Aids without a proper diagnosis, because there was no excuse for the mistake that her doctor made.

But am I protesting too much? As you read these words, is doubt creeping in? So tests aren't so good? So there is controversy? It's all so complicated. So many details. Maybe there's no smoke without fire. And so, maybe, I should ignore this film: but it's so profoundly misleading that you can't stop yourself.

There is an interview with Christine Maggiore, who talks about her difficult decision to go against medical advice by declining to take Aids medication, and how much better she felt as a result.

What the film doesn't tell you, as you shout at the screen, is that Christine Maggiore's daughter Eliza Jane died of Aids and PCP pneumonia three years ago, at the age of three, and, as I reported nine months ago, Christine Maggiore herself died two days after Christmas 2008 of pneumonia, aged 52 (the film finally acknowledges her death in the last two seconds of the film, at the end of the lengthy credits, in small letters).

We see Neville Hodgkinson, the Sunday Times health correspondent who drove their denialist reporting in the 1990s. There is Peter Duesberg, who you will remember from a recent column, when academic publishers Elsevier forcibly withdrew an article by him in one of their journals. I could go on.

Do you give idiots a wider audience when you respond to them? Are they marginal and irrelevant? . . . will never know the right way to deal with any of these people, and I will always welcome advice.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.