Does it make sense for mainstream media outlets to run articles claiming to overturn the overwhelming consensus of scientists and scientific institutions on a scientific issue? When the issue is a matter of life and death, such as whether HIV causes AIDS, or whether condoms reduce the risk of transmitting HIV, is it even ethical to do so? writes Nathan Geffen, Policy Co-ordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign, in the JournAIDS blog.
Last year, The Citizen ran an op-ed piece by AIDS denialists Sam Mhlongo and David Rasnick claiming that HIV cannot be heterosexually transmitted. No need to wear condoms to prevent HIV they argued, though they conceded that condoms were useful for preventing gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia –all curable diseases– as well as pregnancy. The article generated a flurry of responses and counter-responses. Most readers without expert knowledge of the subject would have been bewildered and could have believed that this was a real scientific controversy.

But there isn’t any. Rasnick and the late Mhlongo are both discredited scientists with no experience working with HIV. They argued that a study of sero-discordant heterosexual couples by top researcher Nancy Padian which resulted in no transmissions was proof that HIV could not be transmitted heterosexually. Padian herself wrote a rebuttal published in The Citizen explaining how Mhlongo and Rasnick misrepresented her research.

A recent court case in Australia had to determine whether HIV exists and causes AIDS. Justice Sulon, in his sensible judgment, dealt with the evidence of Elena Papadopulos-Eleopulos, an outspoken proponent of the view that HIV does not cause AIDS who uses the same arguments as Anthony Brink, South Africa’s loudest AIDS denialist. In cross-examination, she was often non-responsive to questions. She gave lengthy answers which did not address the questions. On the occasions when she did answer the question, it was often difficult to understand her responses. On some occasions, she simply responded by refusing to accept the validity of work published by reputable scientists, he wrote. Justice Sulon dealt at length with Papadopulos-Eleopulos’s misrepresentations of Nancy Padian’s work. It’s a shame that no South African media outlet has run a comprehensive report on this case, whose outcome is more relevant to us than it is to Australia.

The Citizen is not unique. SABC Africa ran Tine van der Maas’s documentary claiming garlic treats AIDS. Tim Modise devoted a whole show to van der Maas. Criselda Kananda disputed that HIV causes AIDS on Khaya FM. Martin Welz’s Noseweek ran Rian Malan’s error-laden conspiratorial rants about AIDS statistics. While most media outlets, to their credit, have condemned the President’s and Health Minister’s flirtations with AIDS denialism, some have sown confusion about this country’s biggest threat to public health.

For an article in TAC’s magazine Equal Treatment, we asked the editor of The Citizen, Martin Williams as well as Martin Welz and the station manager of Khaya FM to explain why they ran AIDS denialist articles. Only Williams engaged appropriately with us, sending us a respectful and considered response, which I will therefore reciprocally deal with respectfully.

Williams argued We do not campaign for or against anyone on this matter. However we do stand for free speech. There is a possibility that in your eagerness to do good you are inadvertently leaning towards the stifling of debate. To silence all voices but your own would be unfortunate.

Williams identifies the crux of the debate. Is freedom of expression a justification for running AIDS denialist articles, especially ones that are unanswered by orthodox scientists in the same publication? I think not. Newspapers certainly have the right to publish AIDS denialist or other pseudo-scientific articles without fear of repression from the state or anyone else. However, the right to publish should not be
confused with the idea that it is right to publish. Freedom of expression does not free publishers from responsible journalism. Editors who print pseudo-science should expect vehement criticism.

The New York Times did not face state repression for running Jayson Blair’s fictitious articles, nor the New Republic for Stephen Glass’s fabrications. Nevertheless, the editors took responsibility and heads rolled. From an ethical perspective there is little difference between pseudoscience and the fiction posed as fact by Blair and Glass. In both cases the facts are made up. At least it can be said for Blair and Glass that their articles were harmless fictions. Mhlongo, Rasnick and Kananda promoted falsehoods that could have confused people into taking life-destroying decisions.

Most publishers follow some ethical standards. For example, they do not publish news articles which they know have factual errors in it. Articles on science should be subject to the same ethic. Unfortunately very few editors or journalists have the training to determine scientific accuracy. Reducing mundane errors in science reporting in the mainstream media is a difficult, perhaps impossible, challenge, but editors can ensure that they do not give space to pseudoscience, or at least not without a response in the same issue or programme from a genuine expert who can explain science accurately, coherently and simply. Scientists should also make themselves more available to assist and educate journalists so that the risk of pseudoscience being promoted is reduced and the accuracy of science reporting generally can improve.

The threat of AIDS denialism in South Africa is receding thankfully. But there are other scientific issues of public interest: stem cell research, circumcision for HIV prevention, evolution and global warming are some examples. Indeed, the vested interests denying the human causes of global warming are immense. The oil industry, after all, has far more power than the charlatans promoting their own home-made AIDS cures.

A good rule of thumb for editors to follow is to be extremely cautious before printing articles that contest scientific consensus. It is true that scientific consensus changes. What is accepted as scientific fact today might be found to be wrong tomorrow. But no mainstream media outlet has the expertise to overturn scientific consensus. This is the role of the peer-review system of scientific journals. Ethical editors should concentrate on the extremely difficult task of making science accessible to their audience, and not have the arrogance to believe they can effect a scientific revolution.