Tuesday, March 28, 2006

They come for the ass jokes, but they stay for the epidemiology

I'm a couple of weeks late on this, but just a few thoughts:

If you happened to read the article on HIV/AIDS drug trials by Celia Farber in this month's Harper's, and if you're only passingly familiar with the world of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and/or clinical trials, I could understand if you came away with a dim view of the AIDS "industry" and its nefarious aims. Farber's a decent writer, and she knows how to craft an argument. Unfortunately, the article is shockingly inaccurate, irresponsible, and wrong-headedly ideological. If you're interested, I suggest you check out this rebuttal by the South African Treatment Action Campaign.

It's hard to know what to make of Celia Farber. At best, she seems guilty of a sin she falsely attributes to HIV/AIDS researchers: becoming so heavily invested in an erroneous idea that it clouds her professional judgment. In her case, it's the notion that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Her campaign to champion nutbag virologist Peter Duesberg has won her notoriety and acclaim from delusional dissident quarters, but it's no exaggeration to say that HIV denialism has cost countless lives where the idea holds sway (e.g., South African policymakers).

But this theme is awkwardly shoehorned into the article (like, lessee... like a capybara into a shot glass). Ostensibly, the article is about flaws in a nevirapine trial for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. But toss in a little Duesberg, sprinkle liberally with sweeping falsehoods and inaccuracies, and you've got a new dish. The more I think about what she's actually arguing (she insists that critics are failing to separate the reporter from the subjects of her reporting, to which I say: dude, come on), the more I boggle.

Error-checking aside, Farber's one interesting duck. I mean, required to even minimally support her worldview are a) a total misapprehension of the aims, protocols, and interpretations of randomized controlled trials and epidemiology in general, b) complete ignorance of circumstances prevailing in poor countries, c) a view of "Africa" as a single monolithic dark continent, d) a perhaps initially virtuous skepticism of authority, coupled with tremendous credulity when it comes to "dissident" sources of information, and e) a spectacular ability to suspend disbelief in the face of absolutely overwhelming evidence. I can't believe she's actually an amoral careerist. And I can't believe that Harper's printed this bullshit.

This is much more immediately harmful than promoting a "debate" over intelligent design. This resurrects a heap of fatal lies under the auspices of open debate, and Harper's should immediately retract the article, or-- more realistically-- publish a lengthy rebuttal. Even the latter is unlikely to happen, so, taking a cue from this email, CC&P asks you to consider sending an email to Harper's (roger@harpers.org, sam@harpers.org, letters@harpers.org) asking them to print the TAC rebuttal.