Playing hobby-horse while people die

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IN A LETTER to the Independent last week, the acting editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, reiterated his paper's simple position that 'the orthodoxy that HIV is the cause of Aids does not match the facts'. And he went on to enumerate five supporting arguments: that the projections made in the Eighties had not come true, that AZT had caused people harm, that the World Health Organisation's predictions in Africa were 'clearly false', that the validity of the HIV test is in doubt and that research has linked the regular use of amyl nitrate (poppers) with the destruction of the immune system.

It is this cocktail of five arguments that, taken together, enables the mind to write off the Aids plague, or to marginalise it as a cause for concern. The man who devised this cocktail appears to have been Neville Hodgkinson, the Sunday Times's outgoing science correspondent. The man who first popularised it was Andrew Neil, who is now embarking on a television career in the United States. The Tsar sloped off in pursuit of fame. Rasputin retired to write a book. One hoped that the air might clear. But it appears that the Tsarevitch is just as bad as either of them.

Professor Anthony Pinching, immunologist at Bart's Hospital, refers to the great puzzlement of workers in the field of Aids at the line taken by the Sunday Times, and indeed it is puzzling, far more puzzling than the great rash of articles some months ago complaining that the early projections for the spread of Aids in this country had not been borne out by events.

The meaning of these articles was clear. To a greater or a lesser extent consciously, these people were saying: 'You guys in the Aids establishment have been trying to make Aids respectable by saying that it is not going to be confined to homosexuals and drug abusers; but you deceived us, you forced us into condoms and gave us all a nasty shock for nothing.'

The purpose, in other words, was to redemonise the disease, to keep it within minority confines, to get rid of that unclean feeling or implication that somehow everybody is involved with Aids.

And this could quite easily be achieved, as long as one ignored the hard-luck case of haemophiliacs, and the scale of what was happening in the Third World. People felt permitted to go back to thinking: well, sorry, old boy, but if you've got Aids it's your own bloody fault; whatever you were up to was way out of order; you have offended against nature and now you must pay the price.

There is a trace of that kind of sentiment in Mr Witherow's letter, but only a trace. The 'this does not involve us' feeling has been replaced by a very effective mechanism which says: this involves us; there is a scandal; and the scandal is that the Aids plague is a myth and that those who recognise this uncomfortable truth are being persecuted, marginalised, passed over in silence.

So Mr Witherow can say: 'Clearly we could stick our heads in the sand, ignore uncomfortable facts and hold on to the increasingly threatened paradigm that there is only one cause of Aids.'

As far as I understand it, the causation of Aids is highly complex, and far from resolved. But one might ask which paper is putting its head in the sand, the one that published the latest WHO predictions: 30 or 40 million worldwide to be infected by the end of this century (Saturday's Times) or the one that called HIV in Africa 'the plague that never was'?

The WHO estimates that sub-Saharan Africa has 4 million Aids sufferers (up from 2.5 million in the last 12 months) and that cases in Asia had increased eightfold, from 30,000 to 250,000 over the same period. But if you believe Mr Witherow you can ignore the results of HIV tests, ignore anything the WHO says, ignore the notion that HIV can be transmitted heterosexually, and ignore its connection with Aids. An awful lot of 'uncomfortable facts' fly straight out of the window.

The Sunday Times technique is not so much to face the facts as to face them down. Mr Hodgkinson, for instance, took a trip around Africa and came back with his theory that everything had been wildly exaggerated. There had been some sort of confrontation with reality, but reality lost in straight sets.

Now this particular argument over Aids has been taken beyond its origins in a distaste for homosexuals and developed into a weapon against the 'scientific establishment', which is depicted as conservative and intolerant of dissent. Yesterday, in an article about the forthcoming BBC 2 series Heretic, the paper was going on yet again about Peter Duesberg, the fount and origin of the anti-HIV theory. But it had a row of other victims of establishment prejudice to set alongside him.

One had become convinced that 'gyroscopes can defy Newtonian mechanics' and 'has now invented the basis for a gyroscope motor which supporters believe could be the propulsion system for UFOs'. Another has found that 'substances retained their properties when diluted a billion billion times in water' - thereby showing homoeopathy in a good light.

A third was despised by 'conservatives' for experiments in psychokinesis, proving that 'thought can affect the working of electronic circuits and even force randomly moving marbles into a particular direction'. And a fourth has apparently been frowned on for believing that 'life is guided by invisible, untraceable information fields that surround cells. These can control complex information not just between cells, but between organisms, even if they are thousands of miles apart'.

Panaceas, eternal motion machines, homoeopathy, mind over matter, paranoid theories about invisible, untraceable information fields - these are the areas of 'dissident science' that attract the Sunday Times. Mr Witherow's views on Aids fit in with them very appropriately - snugly, one might say, were the subject not so markedly unsnug.

But it is one thing to be a backroom boffin amusing yourself with gyroscopes and the motors of UFOs, and doing no harm to anyone; quite another to conduct a concerted campaign against the whole thrust and practice of Aids research. This constant denigration of science, this wilful crackpotry, this gormless search for gurus, in the context of all these deaths becomes much worse than aggravated eccentricity - a worse betrayal of yourself, a worse betrayal of your fellows. It's like saying: let Africa die - I don't care; I've got my little hobby-horse. It's like saying: let Asia go hang - I've got my little gyroscope, I've got something stupid to occupy my stupid mind.