Scientists must fight Internet AIDS denialism

AIDS awareness campaigner, Cape Town, South Africa Copyright: Flickr/Trevor Samson/World Bank

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The impact of the AIDS denial movement — which refuses to accept that HIV is the cause of AIDS — is a ripe area for research because of its potentially lethal consequences, argue Tara C. Smith and Steven P. Novella in this PLoS Medicine article.

Many doctors and researchers are unaware of the existence of organised denial groups or ignore them as an inconsequential fringe, they say. This helps erroneous beliefs to spread unchallenged, particularly on the Internet, which is an effective tool for targeting young people and high-risk groups.

Scientists want to convey the gravity of the situation and motivate HIV-positive people to seek treatment, they argue, but oversimplifying the science for the public is dangerous because it lends itself to exploitation by the deniers.

This balancing act, write the authors, deserves attention from medical scientists as more people consume information from the Internet and the gap between the practice of science and public understanding of science broadens.

The authors argue that the scientific community must collectively fight scientific illiteracy because it facilitates the spread of misinformation.

Academic institutions, they say, should encourage researchers to spend more time and money on the fight, to create a buffer against further spread of AIDS denial beliefs.

Link to full article PLoS Medicine