Tragic consequences of freedom

Elton Wong

Christine Maggiore is a well-known AIDS activist, but she is what you might call a non-traditional one. Maggiore, who heads Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives in Burbank, Calif. has come under considerable fire for her theories on AIDS and what causes it. Her central belief can be described simply: the HIV virus is not responsible for AIDS. Therefore, Maggiore recommends that patients diagnosed with HIV cease treatment and not worry about spreading the virus. If you accept the first proposition, the rest of Maggiore’s ideas sound almost reasonable. One crackpot alone is rarely able to do much harm. What makes Maggiore’s case so noteworthy is that people listen to her. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa has met with her and is a supporter of her views. The Foo Fighters promote her ideas on their web page. Crackpot or not, it is impossible to dismiss Maggiore as irrelevant. For instance, President Thabo Mbeki has called for more research into whether or not HIV causes AIDS. In response to this bewildering request, 5,000 shocked scientists signed a declaration calling the evidence for the HIV-AIDS link “clear-cut, exhaustive and unambigious.” This uniform response from the scientific community has not fazed Maggiore. Although she has never earned a college degree nor been trained in any science, she asserts through speeches, books and interviews that HIV tests are unreliable, that there is no AIDS epidemic in Africa, and that the 420,000 Americans who supposedly died from AIDS were actually killed by their prescription drugs. Either that, or they died from recreational drugs, or “a profound fear of AIDS itself.” This all fits into Maggiore’s grand conspiracy theory. Before discussing Maggiore further, it must be made absolutely clear that Maggiore is wrong. Dead wrong. Even trying to point out how and why she is wrong is to give her “theories” more credit than they deserve. Arguing that HIV leads to AIDS is much like defending the fact that the earth is round, current biological diversity arose from evolution through natural selection or that the Holocaust happened. In fact, Maggiore and her followers sound remarkably like flat-earthers, creationists and Holocaust deniers. What is different is that, especially when compared to the two former cases, the AIDS issue is literally a matter of life and death. For instance, San Francisco authorities just announced that new HIV cases in 1999 were nearly twice as high as in 1997. “People are focusing on the wrong thing. They’re focusing on conspiracies rather than protecting themselves, rather than getting tested and seeking out appropriate care and treatment,” said Stephen Thomas to Newsweek magazine. Thomas directs the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Minority Health. One obstacle to the popular understanding of AIDS is that most people are not educated in the finer points of biology. This is understandable because nowadays, the state of scientific knowledge is significantly advanced so as to preclude a normal layman from understanding what is really going on. Thus, it is nearly impossible for a normal person to tell good science from pseudoscience. For example, creationist websites routinely make blanket statements like “carbon-dating is unreliable” or “it is impossible for functioning proteins to come together out of nothing.” Whom among their audience is going to know any better? One could try to explain and defend the effectiveness of protease inhibitors in fighting the HIV virus by delving into protein biochemistry. However, if you were suffering from the virus and had little scientific knowledge, how effective would this really be? It would probably be much easier to believe that HIV is harmless, rather than face up to the fact that your body will eventually die fighting it. Whether we like it or not, science has become the same thing as faith for most people. Unfortunately, faith is not very discriminating. In addition, faith easily becomes immune from being disproved. Last year, the Center for Disease Control released data that show the wild success of protease inhibitors in lowering cases of AIDS. Maggiore shuns these findings, saying that most patients flush their medications down the toilet. In fact, Maggiore credits the downswing in AIDS cases to the (unsubstantiated) widespread refusal of patients to take drugs. What is to be done? How can people like Maggiore be stopped? The only answer that can be given is not a pleasant one: nothing should be done. Government policy (e.g. funding for medical research) should obviously be guided by true scientific knowledge. Similarly, the goal of public health education is to make sure everyone has true information. However, if people then choose to reject or disbelieve this information, if they reject the drugs developed by real science, then that is their right. To interfere with this right is to be disrespectful and paternalistic. The free dissemination of information (and misinformation) is protected by the same principle. Adults have the right to make their own decisions, even if they act on information that is not true, even if they destroy themselves in the process. This is an inevitable, if tragic aspect of freedom.