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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.