Document:Civil War Comment
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13 August 2006
Michael Geiger has brilliantly captured the telltale signs of imminent civil war surrounding the Toronto AIDS conference. But, alas, it is quite possible that the rift within the ruling AIDS elite is no deeper than what can be healed. In the following I will examine the issue of dissent as it was presented, and presented itself, according to the transcript from the session entitled, "HIV Science and Responsible Journalism".
"HIV Science and Responsible Journalism"...
One gets no longer than the headline before one understands that something extraordinary is afoot: Not science, not HIV, but "HIV Science". "HIV Science" is the creature that demands such special responsibility of journalists and everybody else who has the public ear.
Nathan Geffen, policy coordinator of TAC South Africa, explains why that is:
"My personal view is that it's almost impossible for the general media, for the mainstream media to be able to override the scientific consensus. The scientific consensus, if it's wrong it's going to be challenged by scientists in scientific journals. It's not the role of journalists to be challenging the scientific consensus. Does the media have the expertise to challenge the scientific consensus? In my view it doesn't."
In other words, nobody but the HIV scientists know enough about HIV Science to have an informed opinion about it. Only they can challenge themselves. Hence we see the special responsibility demanded by HIV Science is abdication of responsibility.
Responsibility and morals are very closely linked. That's why Nathan Geffen calls for a new "ethic" when it comes to HIV Science:
"But what I want to ask, and what I want to propose, is should we be having a new ethic in journalism?"
Well why shouldn't we embrace a new journalistic world order where the journalists take some responsibility for their own reporting by ceasing to question things they're not trained to deal with? Nathan Geffen acknowledges himself that such steps may not be welcome to all. But after all there's no mistaking that we're at war, have been for 25 years, with a virus that terrorizes us, and more on the horizon such as H5N1.
It's not as if democracy hasn't played its role. Those with the legitimate right to vote have already voted and reached a consensus – the scientific consensus. Now it's time to govern, to deliver, to implement initiatives that can keep the enemy off our soil. Perhaps if we take the fight to the virus abroad and hit even earlier and harder in Africa, we will have no more incidents in our part of the world on the scale of the initial Pearl Harbour of AIDS that occurred predominantly among gays, IV drug users and those entirely innocent hemophiliacs. The strategy now is to free the women of South Africa from oppression and tyranny; a noble aim by any standards.
The point was well taken, but still there were a few voices of dissent or perhaps dissent is not the right word? Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, felt the medicine needed a spoonful of sugar to go down:
"if it wasn't for journalists acting as a test of science that's published in journals, such as the one I work for, the Lancet, then actually we don't have a balance of power in the way science gets reported. So please don't ask journalists not to challenge the scientific consensus."
Who can disagree with this basic function of responsible journalism to act as a check and balance to power? Certainly, the media savvy John Moore, co-chair of the session, could hardly agree more wholeheartedly:
"Actually I agree with almost everything you said in that speech. I think you said very many really good points, and I certainly don't want to see general scientific consensus go unchallenged on many things. But on the fundamentals of whether HIV causes AIDS, I think it is so certain that that is a true statement that challenging it to create trouble really does harm people. And that's where I don't know if we disagree with each other, but I think we probably do agree with each other. But I certainly don't think that science is an ivory tower that should never be questioned. That I'm completely in your camp with for very many reasons."
The ever articulate, ever diplomatic John Moore thus brilliantly countered the threat of rebellion while at the same time seizing the opportunity to spell out the message of the headline for us, confirming what we've already guessed: It's not just any old science that's so sacred that it's beyond questioning; it's only that very special creature, HIV Science. To challenge HIV Science is morally wrong.
But Nathan Geffen, the combat-hardened commander on the ground, had no patience for soft line diplomacy. He planted his boot heel squarely on the snake's head:
"... you can't convince me that the British Spectator has the competence to challenge the notion that there is a vast HIV epidemic in Africa. You can't convince me that the Citizen newspaper in Pretoria has the competence to challenge Nancy Padian's findings. That seems completely unreasonable to me."
But perhaps the diplomat was right this time, and such open hostility not necessary. Upon closer inspection, all poor Horton bargained for, it seems, was that the journals be allowed in the future to do their usual fact checking and peer reviews. It was understood all along that this doesn't include anything so drastic as to "override scientific consensus" or questioning basic moral truths such as "HIV is the cause of AIDS".
In fact, it was quite clear that by reserving the right to act as a "balance of power in the way science gets reported", Horton meant that only HE and his peers should be allowed the right to act as such a balance. In other words, he just wanted to keep his piece of the power cake safe from usurpers on both sides. True, he wants scientists to admit that they are often wrong, otherwise his publication would lose its power, and its editor his raison d'être. But his main complaint was against his competition in the balance of power business:
"... we tolerate these dissenting views. We respect them, and we actually pay tribute to them because those people who embody them are still invited to events and given a world stage. The day we stop doing that is the day we start to at least push that off the mainstream agenda."
Horton sums up his self-interest neatly in his final plea, half of it directed TO one threat to his own position, half of it AGAINST the other:
"So please let's be humble. Please let's be modest. But please let's go out there and not be polite with people that we know are wrong. Thanks."
In this way, what may at first sight appear a rift was resolved in the convergence of interest oiled by an appropriate mix of protest and deference – as recognized by John Moore.
Co-chair of the session, Laurie Garrett, further made clear whose power it is that needs to be checked. She put the whole question "in the right context" in a remark that illustrates all too clearly how oppression and the spread of AIDS are linked:
"South Africa, Russia, China, to some degree India, these are all places where getting truth to the populace, especially uncomfortable truths about what's going on internally with HIV in their countries, is extremely difficult...
[The former vice president of South Africa] is a major hero of the people of that region, the Zulu. He was arrested while I was in South Africa for raping a woman he had known since she was a child. And he had essentially been a sort of a surrogate guardian for when her father, who was a hero of the ANC, died. You folks can correct me if I'm getting any of these details wrong. And he allegedly raped her in his home with his wife in the home at the time. Of course typical male response when first arrested he said I never touched anybody. When the rape kit showed his DNA he said, 'Oh, well she wanted it.' In the trial this man who, by the way not only is the former vice president but was the head of the National AIDS Commission of South Africa, said 'I knew she was HIV positive.' She was publicly HIV positive. 'But I didn't need to worry about it because I took a shower right afterwards.' Put aside that he completely justified the rape as 'she wanted it.'
So it's in that context that I think this debate about how do you decide who's giving accurate information suddenly the stakes rise."
This lucid illustration of the context in which we must view the whole matter prompted the otherwise well-behaved South African guest, Tamar Lakahn, science and health editor at South Africa's Business Day, to peep something about the former vice president actually having been acquitted of the alleged crime, and showers not being a bad idea for uncircumcised men...
But this is all irrelevant, for surely he will understand better than any that a mission of mercy wouldn't ever be complete without a show of utter contempt and condescension towards the people we want to save – just so they don't get any funny ideas about independence in the question of checks and balances on power.
Originally published (with minor modifications) at Barnes-ville