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Conspiracy Theorists…Honest Reappraisals or Honestly Exasperating?

Conspiracy Theorists…Honest Reappraisals or Honestly Exasperating?

Rethinkers. Seekers of truth. Holocaust deniers. Dissidents. Truthers. There are many names both claimed as if they were honorifics, and others hurled as insulting slurs. What are they? Who are they? Conspiracy theories are not new, and there have been some cases where they have actually been shown to be correct; Nixon’s shady legacy of Watergate is just one example of this. However many others like the assassination of JFK and the governments cover up of Nevada’s famed Area 51, where aliens have been rumoured to be kept and suppressed as general knowledge from the public, are not so easily established and in fact are still in contention today by some.

I was first introduced to this kind of cooperative skepticism many years ago in my 20’s after coming out and hanging around people in the gay village of Toronto. It was in regards to a group called HEAL and they were what is referred to as AIDS dissidents. Now this was obviously a subject of major importance to the community as many people there were hard hit by the early days of the epidemic and protease inhibitors that would turn the tide for the disease were just about to come along. Until then the drugs were only marginally effective, very limited as to their long-term effectiveness, and quite toxic in their own right. Many people lived far longer on no medication, and doing alternative treatments along with healthy lifestyle management. Of course this was still a wise strategy in many respects and it undoubtedly helped considerably, but the reality is that the long-term non-progressors were just better equipped at fighting it longer. Eventually almost all would succumb in time except for very rare almost-immune individuals. This is quite normal as even the deadliest pathogen is rarely 100% fatal to all.

It’s baffling as hell to see why these people who are scientists and genuinely schooled researchers get thrown off into areas of pseudoscience…

conspiracySo with that as a background it is easier to see why many were distrustful of orthodox medicine as the stigma of being gay along with sex being implicated as a main method of transmission felt like a serious attack on a lifestyle fighting for its own respect as natural and not to be ashamed of. It is easy to see how emotionally it felt like a giant boot was kicking people back in the closet by insinuating that the sex was truly dirty and disease producing even though it of course happened to heterosexuals as well. The difference was the sheer speed it decimated male homosexuals in particular but this is just simple non-judgmental nature at work and it was unfortunate that the modality of anal intercourse in particular was a high-risk activity. Lesbians, who are of course just as gay as the males, have among the lowest rates of AIDS in the world because of the differences in biology and means of transmission. Obviously homosexuality isn’t the problem, just unfortunate plumbing facts for the poor males.

So what is this about HEAL then? Well they were being informed by people of quite respectable credentials, like world famous expert on retroviruses Peter Duesberg, that HIV is NOT responsible for causing AIDS. Eventually others started questioning the model, and others of fair prominence joined the cause including the very inventor of one of the main tests used to measure HIV virus in the body, Kary Mullis. Suffice it to say that eventually the evidence was absolutely indisputable and it’s baffling as hell to see why these people who are scientists and genuinely schooled researchers get thrown off into areas of pseudoscience; but the reality is they have and they are harshly criticized by their peers and relegated to the category of fringe science and ultimately, denialists.

I could write an entire book on that whole travesty and the people and nations, Africa in particular under the one-time health minister Mbeki, who have suffered from this pernicious and mistaken dissident movement. At best it’s fair to say that in the beginning they had good reason to question, and indeed in many cases the drugs were NOT the best answer because they weren’t sufficient and they ultimately were too toxic in the manner given. But this doesn’t mean they were right about their assertion that HIV wasn’t the cause of AIDS, just right about certain criticisms of the limited medical treatment we had available and gaps of understanding regarding HIV. Christine Maggiore is an excellent example of a person who became a prominent activist, and wrote a book called “What if everything you thought you knew about AIDS was wrong”. Unfortunately for her, and her daughter Eliza, that was an ironic epitaph as she was the one who indeed, was wrong about what she thought she knew. Her very sad story, including the examples of how people can become near-religious in their confirmation bias to sustain denialist beliefs, is a grave testament to how dangerous pseudoscience can be and it’s even more baffling that many STILL argue the facts and remain denialist even about her death. You can read the general story here.

While JFK and Area 51 are old news, things really got into overdrive after the big catastrophe of this century that rocked the world. Of course I’m referring to 9/11. We all know the tragic events of this day and it’s incredibly long reaching effects that have transformed airline safety, started wars against nations, and coined the term “war on terror”. Or do we? According to many people, we don’t know anything even remotely like the official story of events. It was the government and a collusion of big business that allowed these planes to hit the towers. No wait, it wasn’t that they let them; they actually were BEHIND the attacks. Don’t you know about the pancake effect? Building 5 was destroyed by demolition and news reports here and there show that things just don’t match up…etc. etc.

It goes on like you wouldn’t believe and it can be extremely difficult to sift through fact and fiction especially when you have films like Loose Change, Zeitgeist and other propaganda machines that put forth seemingly damning exposes of the underlying secrets behind such events. But the truth is they all break down upon closer examination by the majority of people that rebut such claims, and while it’s certainly possible to find a scientist, an engineer, a reporter, doctor or even fireman who has a contradictory report or opinion compared to the one accepted and agreed on by the very clear majority, most people think it’s eminently sensible to accept the larger consensus, me included.

I doubt putting their head in a hole ever did much for the ostrich except blind him from what was coming.

220px-Loose-change-american-coup_What drives conspiracy theories? It is a complicated issue but it comes down mainly to a distrust of authority and a feeling of being misled. As mentioned before it’s perfectly possible to be right about a conspiracy, but it’s also possible to be completely wrong and obstinate when the compelling evidence demonstrates continually to be supportive of the status quo. A very common tactic is to keep moving the goalposts every time a demand is made until it gets into absurdity. The denialist will find a millions flaws against an established theory and yet fail to present anything even remotely approaching a plausible alternate explanation with evidence to corroborate it. They rely on sowing doubt and as a good friend of mine said quite astutely to a vaccine criticizer we were arguing against in regards to a related comment about the evils of our government, “What’s the plan for the utopian society? Be an architect. Not a wrecking ball.”

While the underlying message of don’t believe everything you hear is indeed wise advice, believing in incredulous arguments against far better supported ones is simply being ridiculous and a case of skepticism going too far. Worse is when facts or studies supporting the original version of events or current medically accepted paradigms are dismissed or even worse, dishonestly misrepresented. I have seen many cherry-picking of quotes from scientific authorities when it suits the denialist’s position, but a convenient disregard of the entirety of the work presented, especially by other colleagues. There is a reason peer-reviewed consensus is the gold standard of evidence based knowledge. It has been judged as worthy of being granted credence, not played like a political football by people who insist on giving equal time to any and all manners of beliefs. We see the same thing with religious fanatics insisting on “equal time” for Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside the theory of evolution. The difference here is even more of them is science and the other two are decidedly not! We must all guard ourselves against poor judgment and the consequences of misleading people, especially in regards to important matters like our health. By all means, ask questions and be informed, but don’t ignore the right answers because you want to believe something else. I doubt putting their head in a hole ever did much for the ostrich except blind him from what was coming.

KendallKendall is a local singer/keyboardist who moonlights as an occasional writer. His past work has included writing for Naked News, Xtra! magazine and now he’s trying his hand at this blog.



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  1. Congratulations, excellent post!

  2. excellent post

  3. Fabulous Kendall and very informative.. Congratulations on a great piece of work..

  4. Great post, Kendall! Very insightful! 🙂

  5. Nicely written. I didn’t know about the intersection of conspiracy theory thinking and the gay community with respect to the early days of AIDS/HIV medication, but it makes sense in retrospect.

  6. When it comes to medicine, people need to remember that the solution comes long after the initial science, and sometimes not at all. Just because a solution is bad, doesn’t mean that everything we know about the disease is therefore wrong.

    Even in the case of an old foe like cancer, there are solutions which are a decidedly mixed bag, such as chemotherapy which kills the cancer faster than it kills you. There are chemotherapy drugs which are actually carcinogenic! And this is the state of medical science for a threat which cuts across all religious and economic and gender lines.

  7. Great article Kendall!

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