Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy / Edition 1

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Paralleling the discovery of HIV and the rise of the AIDS pandemic, a flock of naysayers has dedicated itself to replacing genuine knowledge with destructive misinformation—and spreading from the fringe to the mainstream media and the think tank. Now from the editor of the journal AIDS and Behavior comes a bold exposé of the scientific and sociopolitical forces involved in this toxic evasion. Denying AIDS traces the origins of AIDS dissidents disclaimers during the earliest days of the epidemic and delves into the psychology and politics of the current denial movement in its various incarnations.

Seth Kalichman focuses not on the “difficult” or doubting patient, but on organized, widespread forms of denial (including the idea that HIV itself is a myth and HIV treatments are poison) and the junk science, faulty logic, conspiracy theories, and larger forces of homophobia and racism that fuel them. The malignant results of AIDS denial can be seen in those individuals who refuse to be tested, ignore their diagnoses, or reject the treatments that could save their lives. Instead of ignoring these currents, asserts Kalichman, science has a duty to counter them.

Among the topics covered:

• Why AIDS denialism endures, and why science must understand it.

• Pioneer virus HIV researcher Peter Duesberg’s role in AIDS denialism.

• Flawed immunological, virological, and pharmacological pseudoscience studies that are central to texts of denialism.

• The social conservative agenda and the politics of AIDS denial, from the courts to the White House.
• The impact of HIV misinformation on public health in South Africa.

• Fighting fiction with reality: anti-denialism and the scientific community.

For anyone affected by, interested in, or working with researchers in HIV/AIDS, and public health professionals in general, the insight and vision of Denying AIDS will inspire outrage, discussion, and ultimately action.

See for more information.

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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Ronald C Hershow, MD (University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health)
Description: In this important book, Seth Kalichman provides important insights into the convoluted world of AIDS denialism, the widely prevalent belief that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is not the cause of AIDS. Using a psychological perspective, he identifies the key people who propagate misconceptions regarding AIDS causation, dissecting their methods and the devastating effects that their misinformation has on HIV-infected persons and the politics of HIV prevention and treatment.
Purpose: Early in the book, the author makes clear that AIDS denialism is not merely an idea espoused in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, but one that has persisted and grown since HIV was first discovered. Over time, a complex social phenomenon has evolved that is not merely the province of crackpots, but a place that includes academics, journalists, and even world leaders (most notably former President Mbeki of South Africa). The author compellingly argues that AIDS denialism is a very real public health problem that leads individuals to avoid HIV testing and treatment and governments to squander key opportunities to promote aggressive prevention and treatment. Having identified its importance, he sets out to understand AIDS denialism and to offer suggestions on how to counter it. He accomplishes both objectives admirably.
Audience: The book is written for a broad audience consistent with the author's contention that "denialism is defeated when credible science is effectively communicated to a trusting and critically minded public." It is also directed at HIV scientists and care providers, and at journalists who cover HIV-related health issues. For scientists and providers it is a call to action to address an issue that must not be ignored. For journalists, it is an appeal to differentiate pseudoscience from real science and it offers suggestions on how to recognize the difference.
Features: Kalichman begins by defining denialism and differentiating it from dissidence within science. Dissidence is important to the advancement of science and is a process of legitimate questioning and debate of prevailing opinion. In contrast, denialism only gives the appearance of legitimate debate through the use of misleading, false, or outdated arguments to refute mainstream science. At its heart, it is a rejection of science and denialists may rigidly adhere to their views even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The author traces denialism back to its main and most well credentialed proponent, Peter Duesberg, a renowned scientist credited with identifying the first oncogene. In a real sense, he is the "father" of denialism and remains one of its most visible and enigmatic champions. Despite Kalichman's conjecture, it is impossible to understand how such a distinguished scientist could persistently deny that HIV causes AIDS. Once his views were published, they found resonance with a public distrustful of the healthcare system, big pharmaceutical companies, and biomedical research. The author conceives a view of denialism as a three-tiered pyramid scheme. His book mainly focuses on the top tier, the active denialists who promote and perpetuate the ideology. The second tier is composed of suspicious-minded persons who are attracted to conspiracy theories. The third and largest tier is mainly populated by HIV-infected persons who are vulnerable and willing to believe an alternative explanation to escape an HIV diagnosis. As result, they may tragically avoid diagnosis and treatment. The author describes in detail and with some repetitiveness the role that specific journalists and entrepreneurs (who promote alternative remedies) have played in perpetuating this idea. However, in one particularly absorbing chapter, he talks about the politics of denialism and how the denialist views of former South African President Mbeki (informed in part by the Internet) may have caused the death of thousands of South Africans due to delays in deploying antiretroviral therapy. In the United States, he points to the persistent promotion of sexual abstinence programs proven to be ineffective as another form of denialism. The book is most successful when it discusses the history and larger effects of denialism. It is less so when it tries to speculate on what makes Peter Duesberg and other denialists tick. This is because these musings, while intriguing and plausible, are unscientific and therefore run counter to a main theme of the book. In addition, the chapter that offers suggestions for countering denialism is helpful, but there are some important omissions. It is surprising that after identifying denialism as a public health problem, Kalichman does not call for further study of the issue. The effect of denialist views on avoidance of HIV testing and care have not been well studied. Such studies are imperative in view of the cited findings of Hutchinson, et al., which demonstrate that nearly half of gay men recently surveyed in four cities agreed with the statement that "HIV does not cause AIDS." Future studies focused on the effects of denialist beliefs on testing and care-seeking behavior might provide a compelling rationale for interventions that combat the mistrust of science that is at the core of denialism.
Assessment: These criticisms are minor, however. This book is a superb and unique examination of a fascinating and important phenomenon. It is also an excellent read and will be of interest to all who have an interest in the HIV pandemic and to those more broadly interested in the effect of pseudoscience on public opinion, public health, and public policy.
From the Publisher
From the reviews:

It's a slender and punchy book, engagingly written and sharply observed, a fascinating insight into what the author describes as a "wacky and destructive world".... Kalichman is generous and thoughtful company, he assiduously attends to the denialist creed, thoroughly debunking their theories without bitterness or rage. An epilogue posits that all forms of medical denialism—whether cancer, AIDS, or autism—could be "part of one movement to promote public mistrust in science and medicine."

-Talha Burki, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Volume 9, Issue 10, October 2009

"Seth Kalichman has superbly captured the contradictions inherent in AIDS denialism. He has deftly captured its religious-like fervor, its vociferous proponents and passionate opponents as well as its destructive force when legitimized by the South African President. AIDS denialism has left confusion in its wake as it undermined public health efforts to curb the greatest health challenge of the 20th century. Kalichman vividly shares his experiences, understanding, and dilemmas as he unraveled this phenomenon piece by painful piece."

-Salim S. Abdool Karim, Member of the 2000 South African Presidential Panel on AIDS, Professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Director of Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA)

"Significant advances in the prevention and treatment have lead to fewer numbers of new infections and extended and improved the lives of those affected by the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS. However, myths and misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS still abound and pose a real threat to our progress. In Denying AIDS, Seth Kalichman provides a fascinating look into the thinking of those who propagate AIDS myths and the negative impact it has on our response to a deadly disease. He shows us how AIDS pseudoscience has at times confused the public and threatened sound public health policy. Anyone who cares about the global HIV/AIDS pandemic should read this book."

-Helene D. Gayle, President and CEO CARE USA and former Director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Assistant Surgeon General, and Member of the 2000 South African Presidential Panel on AIDS

"Seth Kalichman is an excellent scientist passionately committed to saving lives through the prevention of HIV/AIDS. This excellent volume examines the detailed history of HIV/AIDS denialism as well as its damaging impact throughout the world. HIV/AIDS denialism and its proponents have created confusion when the clear provision of scientifically accurate communication was most needed. At all levels, denial of AIDS results in a failure to face up to one of the greatest health threats of the century."

-James Curran, Dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, Coordinator of the 1981 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Task Force on Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections" and former Director of the CDC HIV/AIDS Division.

"AIDS denialism is destructive and rides on the back of mistrust in science and medicine through our internet world. Seth Kalichman brilliantly uses a psychological lens to expose the wacky world that creates and maintains its presence despite the untold numbers of deaths and suffering it has caused. The book is a wake up call to policy makers and scientists, particularly in places most affected by the pandemic, that denialism must be confronted if we want to bring it under control. A must read for those who want to know more about the power and influence of pseudoscience."

-Michael Merson, Director, Global Health Institute at Duke University and Former Director of the World Health Organization's Global Program on AIDS.

"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."

-John P. Moore, Nature 459, 168 (14 May 2009)

"In this important book, Seth Kalichman provides important insights into the convoluted world of AIDS denialism … . It is … directed at HIV scientists and care providers, and at journalists who cover HIV-related health issues. … This book is a superb and unique examination of a fascinating and important phenomenon. It is also an excellent read and will be interest to all who have an interest in the HIV pandemic … ."

-Ronald C Hershow, Doody’s Review Service, May, 2009

"Kalichman has recently written a book about the denialist movement, entitled Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy, which outlines the history of denialism as well as its consequences. … Kalichman … book will help people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. … the book will help sort out the misinformation that exists on the topic of HIV and AIDS and can cause such harm to newly diagnosed people just looking for legitimate information."

-Bryan Birtles, Vue Weekly, Issue 717, July, 2009

"Kalichman’s book is well-written, timely, thoroughly researched … . serve as a resource for anyone interested in critical thinking … . It’s also the best work I’ve seen … in evaluating the psychology of the believers causing all the trouble. … So buy it! All royalties go to the purchase of anti-retrovirals for people in Africa, so you not only help yourshelf but you help undo some of the damage done by denialists … ." (MarkH, Science Blogs, May, 2009)

"Kalichman’s most impressive accomplishment is … globally understood the denial discourse. … Denying AIDS includes six chapters. … Kalichman’s book is a major accomplishment. He points us in the direction where our work must go next. We must do as he recommends, confront our denials knowing that we will never conquer them." (Anthony Lemelle, Journal of African American Studies, Vol. 13 (3), September, 2009)

"Kalichman (Univ. of Connecticut; The Inside Story on AIDS, 2003) has written a poignant and well-documented exposé of the scientific and sociopolitical forces involved in the organized movement of AIDS ‘denialists’ … . These naysayers reject science, contradict medical advice, and actively spread myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings to refute reality. Their malignant distortions can result in more individuals refusing to be tested, ignoring their diagnoses, or rejecting lifesaving treatments. … Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through professionals/practitioners; general readers." (P. Wermager, Choice, Vol. 47 (1), September, 2009)

"The book focuses on AIDS denialism and people who do not believe that HIV causes AIDS. … ‘Denying AIDS’ will help create more awareness of denialism and that his event at the Co-op was just a start." (Kira O’Grady, The Daily Campus, December, 2009)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780387794754
  • Publisher: Springer New York
  • Publication date: 2/15/2009
  • Edition description: 1st Edition. 2nd Printing. 2009
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 205
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Seth C. Kalichman is a Professor at the University of Connecticut. He has previously edited the volume, Positive Prevention: Reducing HIV Transmission among People Living with HIV/AIDS, also published by Springer.

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Table of Contents

1 HIV/AIDS Denialism is alive and well.- 2 Peter Duesberg and the Origins of HIV/AIDS Denialism.- 3 AIDS Pseudoscience.- 4 Antics and Tactics of HIV/AIDS Denialism.- 5 Politics of HIV/AIDS Denialism.- 6 Getting Out of Denial.
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