Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's Good to Ask Questions, Even Stupid Ones Sometimes

There's an article in the UK's Argus newspaper about a professor in Brighton University who is being criticized for denying that HIV causes AIDS. He plans to screen a film called House of Numbers, which uses typical journalistic sleight of hand to argue the its case. But why are people so worried about students being subjected to this film? The arguments in the film are so pathetic that secondary school students could easily see through them. So university students should be well able to deal with the issues, but only if they see the film. Protesting about the screening before it happens makes it sound as if they might all run the risk of being convinced that HIV does not cause AIDS just by watching it.

The problem with arguments such as those used in the film is that the HIV industry and those upholding mainstream views about the virus tend to over simplify things. If someone suggests anything they don't agree with, they brand them as a denialist. If someone questions the extent to which HIV is sexually transmitted in African countries, for example, their views are quickly dismissed. I have been called a denialist myself; it's far easier than arguing against the evidence that a substantial proportion of HIV transmission may not be sexual. However, it is perfectly consistent to dismiss denialist arguments while continuing to question the view that 80% of HIV transmission in African countries is a result of heterosexual sex.

Those making the film were easily able to find people who disagreed with various aspects of the mainstream view of HIV. But not all of those people would also deny that HIV causes AIDS. I certainly don't deny that HIV causes AIDS, but I do think HIV figures are frequently massaged by various parties for financial or other reasons. This is not something that only happens with HIV, the entire pharmaceutical industry runs on presenting dubious figures, partial findings or downright lies to maximize their profits. Views such as mine don't even sound like a denial that HIV causes AIDS. But it is useful for both sides of the argument to conflate denial with simply questioning certain aspects of the mainstream view for which there is little evidence.

I don't agree with the professor in question, but that's because I have seen the film. How can anyone claim to disagree with a film that they haven't seen? In order to disagree with something, you need to understand what it is first. The nature of HIV and its modes of transmission is not a matter of aligning yourself with a particular political view, or at least, it shouldn't be seen that way. Hearing what your opponent has to say is not something you should shy away from, not if you want to demonstrate why their view is wrong. House of Numbers is a good example of a piece of pseudo-scientific tosh put together to suit the interests of those involved in making the film. It is important for people to know that just because something is published in the mainstream media, a scientific journal or made into a film, that doesn't make it fact.

Sadly, a lot of articles published in peer reviewed scientific publications depend on assumptions that are completely unfounded, but are often unstated. House of Numbers places several arguments in a context where people can judge them for what they are. Most scientific publications are inaccessible in various ways; they are expensive to people from outside the scientific community, and also, scientific papers tend to be constructed in a way that excludes most people because it takes years to learn how to understand them. A film about how the scientific community view HIV transmission and HIV epidemics might allow far more people to raise questions about what kind of unspoken assumptions must lie behind the lofty pronouncements of people who speak in shibboleths and rarely deign to talk to those who are not also scientists.

Let everyone that wants watch House of Numbers; those with a questioning mind will refuse to accept the message that the film tries to spoonfeed us with. But let's also question other views about HIV. Mainstream views about HIV transmission also need to be scrutinized: how are we to understand it when we are told that the same virus that mostly infects men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users in Western countries mostly infects heterosexuals, in huge numbers, in certain parts of certain African countries? We are told that HIV is hardly ever transmitted through unsafe healthcare in these same African countries, yet it transmitted in this way in several non-African countries, such as China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Most of us don't even need to think about whether we believe that Africans have weird sex lives, that they don't care whether they infect their partner or their children with an incurable virus; we reject the view immediately. But mainstream views of HIV transmission assume that sexual behavior is completely different in areas where HIV prevalence is high, and it is highest in a few African countries. HIV policy is based on such mainstream views and billions of dollars have been spent on implementing programs based on these policies. So if we don't think such terrible things about Africans, we need to question why policies, programs and funding are the way they are.

The good thing about House of Numbers is that it asks questions that need to be asked. The fact that the film gives implausible answers means that the whole exercise backfires on itself. If the mainstream view of HIV were to be similarly scrutinized, with questions being asked and answers being constructed to suit the interests of those answering, and transparently so, people might know a lot more about the HIV industry than they do now. They should be able to see that the mainstream view of HIV is entirely self serving. And it should be very clear how thoroughly racist it is to point the finger at the sexual behavior of African people when there is evidence that a large proportion of HIV transmission is not a result of sexual behavior; we just don't yet know how much.

[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]


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