Monday, June 09, 2008

Politicized science

If you were alive in the 1980s, you may remember the public service announcements making hysterical claims about how an epidemic of AIDS/HIV was spreading through the general heterosexual community. There was never any evidence for this. The tragedy, of course, is that, at the cost of no one knows how many lives, these claims caused valuable AIDS resources to be diverted from those in genuine need to those not in need. The (UK) Telegraph reported yesterday that the World Health Organization has finally admitted the folly. James Taranto summarizes the Telegraph article and some of the scare mongering that preceded it:
"A quarter of a century after the outbreak of Aids, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has accepted that the threat of a global heterosexual pandemic has disappeared," reports the Independent, a leftist London daily:
In the first official admission that the universal prevention strategy promoted by the major Aids organisations may have been misdirected, Kevin de Cock, the head of the WHO's department of HIV/Aids said there will be no generalised epidemic of Aids in the heterosexual population outside Africa.

Dr De Cock, an epidemiologist who has spent much of his career leading the battle against the disease, said understanding of the threat posed by the virus had changed. Whereas once it was seen as a risk to populations everywhere, it was now recognised that, outside sub-Saharan Africa, it was confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients.

Dr De Cock said: "It is very unlikely there will be a heterosexual epidemic in other countries. Ten years ago a lot of people were saying there would be a generalised epidemic in Asia--China was the big worry with its huge population. That doesn't look likely. But we have to be careful. As an epidemiologist it is better to describe what we can measure. There could be small outbreaks in some areas."

Oh, well, never mind! Anyone old enough to remember the 1980s will recall that America was subjected to a heterosexual AIDS scare. As Time magazine reported in 1985:
By early this year, most Americans had become aware of AIDS, conscious of a trickle of news about a disease that was threatening homosexuals and drug addicts. AIDS, the experts said, was spreading rapidly. The number of cases was increasing geometrically, doubling every ten months, and the threat to heterosexuals appeared to be growing. But it was the shocking news two weeks ago of Actor Rock Hudson's illness that finally catapulted AIDS out of the closet, transforming it overnight from someone else's problem, a "gay plague," to a cause of international alarm. AIDS was suddenly a front-page disease, the lead item on the evening news and a frequent topic on TV talk shows.
Two years later, "How Heterosexuals Are Coping With AIDS" was the topic of a Time cover story:
At first AIDS seemed an affliction of drug addicts and especially of homosexuals, a "gay disease." No longer. The numbers as yet are small, but AIDS is a growing threat to the heterosexual population. Straight men and women in some cases do not believe it, in some cases do not want to believe it. But barring the development of a vaccine, swingers of all persuasions may sooner or later be faced with the reality of a new era of sexual caution and restraint.
Now perhaps it is true that the AIDS scare bred "sexual caution and restraint." It did strike us on reading this passage that the word swingers sounds awfully quaint.

In 1991, basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced that he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The following year, a Time cover declared: "Losing the Battle: Mysterious Non-HIV Cases Emerge. The Search for a Cure Stalls. Infection Among Women Grows."

And then . . . the AIDS scare fizzled out. Treatments improved; Magic Johnson reportedly has not contracted full-blown AIDS, nearly 17 years after his HIV diagnosis. The disease did not spread to the general population in America--or, as WHO now acknowledges, in most of the rest of the world.

A search of Time covers turns up only three dealing with AIDS since 1992: one in 1996 on Johnson's brief return to the NBA; another that same year on AIDS researcher David Ho, Time's Man of the Year; and one in 2001, on AIDS in Africa. (We don't mean to single out Time, which happens to be one of the few news sources with comprehensive archives available on the Web.)

None of this is to gainsay concern over AIDS in Africa, which is a genuine catastrophe. But the dire warnings of the 1980s that everyone was at risk from AIDS turned out to be false. Those warnings made for more gripping journalism, of course, and they also served certain ideological interests. Social conservatives, who believed sex outside marriage was wrong, were able to argue that it was dangerous as well. (To be fair, it is, but not nearly as much so as the late-'80s AIDS reportage would have had us believe.)

Gay-rights advocates, meanwhile, overcame a huge threat to their cause. Without the heterosexual AIDS scare, it is unlikely that homosexuality would have achieved the degree of public acceptance it has since the 1980s. Indeed, gays might have found themselves abandoned by liberals, who today tend to value hygiene over individual freedom (and if you don't believe us, try walking into a gay bar in New York City and lighting a cigarette).

The AIDS epidemic that wasn't is one reason we are skeptical of global warmism, another purported cataclysm that is supposedly just around the corner, that is purportedly based on science but about which one may not ask questions, and that dovetails conveniently with pre-existing ideological agendas.

Ten or 20 years hence, will we be reading articles about the U.N. admitting that global warming wasn't all it was cracked up to be? Let's hope so.

PREVIOUSLY, on the subject of politicized science, I noted an attack by gay-rights activists on research investigating how hormones affect the sex lives of rams at Oregon State University. Research showing that the subject of human "vegetative states" is not as simple as political advocates have claimed was discussed here. Politicization of research into crime statistics (and how reporters spin the results) was discussed here. Some of the attempts to use the bee's colony collapse disorder for political purposes were mentioned here. The difference between the political certainty and the scientific uncertainty surrounding the effect of fluorocarbons on the ozone hole is discussed here.

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