At the end of April this year, a 90 minute film was released directed by a man called Brent Leung. This film was titled ‘House of Numbers’, and is shot in a documentary format with the claim of ‘objectively investigating whether HIV exists, and whether HIV causes AIDS’. The narrative soothingly reassures the audience that an objective and balanced approach is being taken, whilst the presentation in fact hugely attempts to lead viewers to a conclusion questioning scientific fact. The film gives credence to entirely invalidated arguments, and demands debate over subject matter long since resolved.
Mr. Leung claims on the ‘House of Numbers’ website in response to criticisms of the film by Huffington Post blogger Thomas DeLorenzo that:
“I am not a denialist. Posing questions is very different than denying something. Using that word and comparing it to holocaust denialists is nonsense — pure ad hominem which serves to only polarize a reasonable debate”
However as rightly pointed out by Jeanne Bergman at aidstruth.org, there is no ‘reasonable debate’ and as such Leung’s inquiries are operating with a presupposed agenda. This is supported by the fact that Dr. John Moore (one of the experts who was duped into appearing in the film) along with over a dozen other scientists who appeared have signed a letter rejecting denialist claims and stating they were misled about Leung’s intentions in making the film. (2)
It seems highly suspect to me that Leung, who advertises having had an interest in HIV and AIDS since his high-school days and has been ‘investigating’ the area full time, should make certain fairly basic errors. Firstly in a debate-turned furore which Leung attended, there appeared to be some confusion as to whether he knew AZT to be an antiretroviral – a rather basic fact given his so-called inquisitive role.
Secondly, in the trailer to his film Leung appears stunned at the idea of questions being asked about a patient’s sex life being used in the diagnostic process. As any medical student (or even avid fans of medical dramas such as ‘House’) could tell you, taking a history is an important and routine part of essentially every diagnostic investigation. Even this brief clip gives a distorted view of HIV testing, implying this quick finger-prick test is what doctors do as “a piece of theatre” with diagnosis resting only on the background questions asked. A nice little article giving some clarifying background on quick HIV tests such as the one Leung experienced can be found here.
These tests have the advantage of giving a result quickly, though are less reliable than ‘long’ tests and so are not used to provide a definitive HIV diagnosis. If a quick test is positive this would usually lead to a highly sensitive and specific ‘long’ test, and if this is positive, a Western Blot is performed for confirmation.
The fact that Leung officially takes a ‘neutral’ position demonstrates two major points. Firstly a position of supposed neutrality requires a person to not accept the scientific consensus. Because of the fact that this is exhaustive and as I said in my previous post at blue-genes is as certainly established as our heliocentric solar system, his stance is invalidated. Secondly his position allows him to skirt responsibility for any actions people may take as a result of conclusions they may erroneously draw from watching his film. It is also important to add that Leung has not divulged who funded his film. Whilst he has denied that most of them support AIDS denialism (perhaps they are merely ‘re-thinkers’?), it is highly suspect as this could potentially present a huge conflict of interest allowing even further criticism of Leung’s claims of objectivity.
An approach which denialists seem to like taking is to provide a distorted caricature of legitimate experts and reputable members of the scientific community. The device of presenting themselves as ‘innocent question-askers seeking truthful information’ is used to attempt to justify their claims of censorship ( see page 2 of the document linked) by the scientific community and also to win empathy with a lay-audience. The attempts by the academic community to prevent poisonously ignorant denialist messages from causing harm without validating their movement with ‘debate’ is re-hashed into what denialists try to pedal as a vast conspiracy theory. For more information I recommend Seth Kalichman’s wonderfully clear book ‘Denying AIDS’. Also, check out his blog.
When one approach doesn’t work, it seems standard fare for a denialist to simply bash on with another tack. When not acknowledged by the scientific community as ‘experts with a difference in opinion’, highly charged claims of attempts to repress the right free speech are bandied about. The scientific community is not concerned with repressing free speech as part of some farcical cover-up whilst some lord of big pharma laughs madly, stroking a white cat in his volcano lair. They are concerned with minimising the amount of illness and death caused by misinformation over what should be a non-issue.