HIV, Aids and the anatomy of 'dissent'

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THE PEOPLE conducting the Sunday Times campaign on Aids like to compare their fight with the thalidomide battle of the Seventies. Speaking as a former Sunday Times man myself I should say that a closer comparison would be with the Hitler diaries. But the differences are instructive.

In the case of the Hitler diaries, Rupert Murdoch had been unwittingly sold a fraud, which he instructed the Sunday Times to run. As the days passed, and journalists rushed around trying to verify claims made on behalf of documents they hadn't seen, I used to argue that the best outcome would be for the diaries to be quickly and conclusively proved fakes, rather than let a story that seemed obviously untrue continue. In the event the merciful proof did arrive quickly, in the form of a forensic test. Murdoch never even lost his money.

In this case, no money has been paid out, no conscious fraud committed. The paper has been 'sold a pup' only in the sense that it has decided freely to believe a set of absurd things - that there is no connection between HIV and Aids, that there is no Aids plague in Africa, that heterosexuals are not at risk unless they are intravenous drug abusers, and so forth.

In the end, no doubt the melancholy facts will reassert themselves, but for a while the paper is caught in an embarrassment from which it cannot be rescued. There is no equivalent for the simple forensic test on a sample of paper that sank the Hitler diaries. There is no simple demonstration that Aids is caused by HIV. It's easier to prove that something is untrue than it is to prove it true. The very idea of causality is a philosophical quagmire, and if you want to fight it you can no doubt spend long and fascinating hours doing so.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the conventional view on Aids, you have to express it, strictly speaking, with some caution. 'The best explanation of the known facts,' wrote an officer of the National Aids Trust in a letter to yesterday's Sunday Times, 'is that the world is experiencing a global series of epidemics of HIV infection, leaving a series of Aids epidemics in their wake.'

That's the 'conventional' view. The 'dissident' view likes to depict itself as persecuted, as part of a battle against a medical and scientific establishment that has closed ranks against it. It looks at Africa and sees no epidemic, and it asks itself: 'Why should people be saying there's an Aids plague in Africa when there isn't?' and it comes to the conclusion there is a conspiracy.

The Aids plague in Africa is supposed to be to do with heterosexual transmission. This is an alibi by means of which the establishment hopes to get vast sums of money for research. The purpose of this, according to Sunday Times columnist Jonathan Miller, is to provide a pill that will enable promiscuous homosexuals and drug users to continue in their unhealthy practices unharmed.

So his view appears to be that Aids is a disease for which there should be no cure, because it's all people's own wicked fault. This is a paranoid and cruel argument, but Miller's position is not necessarily the same as that of the paper's science correspondent, who has written most on the subject.

Neville Hodgkinson and his wife, Liz, make an interesting pair of specialists in seemingly batty ideas. She is the author of some 14 books of various kinds of 'personal development' - smile therapy, an attack on cellulite involving diet, aromatherapy and dry brushing with an object made of Mexican cactus bristles - things like that. Most celebrated perhaps is her book Sex Is Not Compulsory, and her revelations about celibacy within marriage to Neville. More recently she has said that she's not so celibate after all.

Neville's spiritual development dates from his study and training in Raja yoga, which was how he learnt that sex did not 'free the spirit' but rather put blinkers on it. Sex purported to be a bridge between men and women but often turned out to be a chasm. To give up sex was to give up 'contributing further to the greed, possessiveness, misunderstanding, violence and grief that afflict our society in steadily growing measure, and for which I believe wrong attitudes, expectations and actions in regard to sex are a root cause'.

A speculative mind, then, with spiritual leanings, nurtured in a body which has scaled down its intake through a vegetarian diet and which took three years of self-discipline before it had triumphed over carnal cravings. A mind more suited, perhaps, to the job of anti-science correspondent.

It is minds like his that have been attracted to the Sunday Times campaign. Yesterday one reader wrote in from Reigate referring to 'the stifling of dissent with regard to such 'emperors' as Darwin and Einstein and the unthinking negation of parapsychology'. This reader seems to be on the same spiritual wavelength as Neville Hodgkinson, to have the same kind of open mind: the kind which, when it hears of one great idea, decides that the opposite is true.

If Shakespeare is held to be the greatest of all poets, then there must be a conspiracy whereby Shakespeare is taking someone else's credit. If Einstein is a genius, he must be wrong. If Elvis is dead, he must be alive. If Aids is incurable and could be a threat to one and all, this open mind must open itself to the idea that Aids is not caused by a virus, that HIV, if it exists, is harmless, that we're all being hoodwinked.

Quite how the ruminant mind of Hodgkinson links up with that of an Andrew Neil is one of the great mysteries for me, since one associated the editor of the Sunday Times with a certain briskness and impatience with ideas, not with the product of an ashram in Richmond.

Hodgkinson, in his article 'The Plague that Never Was', went to Tanzania and found a case in which HIV incidence in one village was 13.7 per cent. Since this was much lower than the villagers had previously been led to believe, he thought it good evidence that the Aids plague was a myth. But an incidence of 13.7 per cent should be enough to frighten anyone. Perhaps they are frightened. Perhaps the Sunday Times campaign is a way of screaming, 'Help] this is not happening]'

It would be sinister indeed if the Murdoch newspapers were all following the same line on Aids. The fact that they are not suggests that the anti-Aids myth myth is the product of a kind of folie a deux between the editor and his science correspondent, a shared hysteria in the face of unfolding events.