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How to Survive Denialism

Stephen Markley

2:14 PM CDT, April 20, 2013

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This past weekend I drank a bottle of wine and watched the harrowing Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” which chronicles the story of AIDS activists in the late Eighties and early Nineties. (Normally, I reserve my bottle-of-wine-drinking-solo-movie nights for lighter fare like the totally underrated “Die Hard”-on-a-space-prison flick “Lockout” or, you know, “Magic Mike”).

While I’ll throw out the requisite recommendation for the film—which is gripping and heartbreaking and difficult to watch in the absolute best way—for the purposes of this column I want to focus on one specific aspect of the film, which I think has a lot of relevance to current political debates surrounding science.

The first part of the film focuses on the protests of the organization ACT UP as they fought the government (mostly in the form of the FDA) to speed up approval of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS. Their rhetoric is at times so over-the-top, you feel a mix of shame and embarrassment as men dying of the disease scream at starched-collar office drones that they’re responsible for killing them. While the film demonstrates that ACT UP was instrumental in speeding up funding for AIDS research (among the Reagan administration’s unending list of horrible deeds that make it the second worst of the modern era, Reagan and company virtually ignored the AIDS crisis even as it became clear around 1986 and 1987 that the world was facing an epidemic with no cure), it later establishes that the treatments the movement fought so hard for were basically worthless.

It wasn’t until 1996 following a steadily increasing investment of government research money that scientists finally unlocked the secret of antiretroviral treatments.

This goes to the heart of a phenomenon Michael Specter aptly described in his book “Denialism,” which is pervasive in American life on both the left and right.

Taking vitamin supplements doesn’t do shit. Evolution is obvious, everywhere, and explains basically everything about biological life. There is absolutely no evidence that genetically modified food is dangerous. Vaccines are the greatest public health victory in human history, and they do not cause autism. Climate change will likely end civilization as we know it in the next two hundred years if we do not drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These statements are all overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence, yet conservatives and liberals (but let’s face it, more often conservatives) will vociferously argue otherwise. In “How to Survive a Plague” AIDS activists put a heroic amount of fight in getting the FDA to rapidly approve drugs that were later found to be mostly ineffective. They did so because this battle fit into an ideological narrative: corporations and the government don’t care about a marginalized group like gay men, so they’re not bothering to release life-saving drugs. While there was great truth to the first part, there was not as much to the second. Yes, the federal government could have done far more in the fight against AIDS in the beginning. Yes, there is a special place in Hell for the (Republican) legislators who voted against increases to HIV/AIDS funding (such as Idaho senator and publicly closeted homosexual Larry Craig). Yes, the eventual taming of the virus could have come sooner (because, yes, throwing money at problems is actually a great way to solve them)—just not for the reasons many AIDS activists first thought.

I don’t argue for scientific empiricism all the time because I’m some raving, godless, left-wing hedonist (though I am).

I argue for it because it works.