Changing the Way We Think about AIDS

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Huw Christie

Continuum, September-October, 1996

QUESTION: You have said that in authoritarian conditions “most people internalise the values and then regard themselves as acting more or less freely.” HIV=AIDS=Death for many people generates values that are deeply held. Why might people be driven to choose profound limits to their freedom of actions?

CHOMSKY: Under all conditions, people tend to internalise values and see themselves as acting freely. I’m not sure this is more true under more authoritarian conditions. Thus in a brutal state, people may adopt the values (perhaps out of fear) but not internalise them, whereas in a more democratic society, where forces are more hidden, there may be a tendency to internalise values without much awareness. To say that people have internalised “HIV=AIDS=Death” seems to me an overstatement, though perhaps some have. I suspect an investigation would show that many people have accepted the weaker assumption that HIV is likely to lead to AIDS which in turn is likely to lead to suffering and premature death. As to whether that assumption is correct, that is a different question. Rational people will look at the evidence and arguments, and decide accordingly. I am not convinced that people have some kind of “drive” that leads them “to choose profound limits to their freedom of action”.

QUESTION: In Britain we have continuously been told there’s an AIDS epidemic, while on average less than 650 people per year have died with such a diagnosis. Do you think language is becoming less meaningful as society becomes increasingly sloganistic?

CHOMSKY: I don’t know whether use of language is more or less “sloganistic” when hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year to “control the public mind” (to borrow some terms of the public relations industry) or when people parrot rhetoric of organised religion, to select one of many examples. On referring to the spread of AIDS as an “epidemic”, the term “epidemic” is used to suggest that the problem is serious and should be a matter of grave concern. With that I agree.

QUESTION: Technically of course “epidemic” need not refer either to infection or disease — it’s a phenomenon affecting people, unexpected in prevalence e.g. even an epidemic of lawlessness. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal the CDC is redressing a self-confessed public relations excess geared towards keeping the heterosexual population anxious and therefore vigilant about HIV/AIDS. The cumulative total for “HIV positivity” in the US was revised downwards in 1995 from some 1,000,000 cases to between 500,000 and 700,000. Do you believe in consistent full open accountability of government agencies?

CHOMSKY: Of course, I believe in open accountability of government and other power systems, such as private corporations. In the former case it exists to a considerable extent, and citizen pressure has widened the boundaries, and should continue to do so. In the latter case, it barely exists at all. Whether the Wall Street Journal article you cite is accurate one has to evaluate in the usual manner: by investigation. If it is accurate, one then has to assess to what extent it is reasonable to use the term “epidemic” to suggest […]

QUESTION: In 1986 the International Committee for the Taxonomy of Viruses formalised the name Human Immunodeficiency Virus for a collection of indirect molecular-biological markers which could be linked with at least transitory deficiency of the cellular immune system. Do names and language cast their own spell?

CHOMSKY: Linguistic expressions carry all sorts of connotations. In technical usage one tries to divest them of such associations. The question that seems to be lurking here is a different one: namely, is the technical term that has been selected an appropriate one on scientific grounds? Maybe yes, maybe no, but that does not seem related to “the spell of language.”

QUESTION: “Is the technical term.. [HIV]..appropriate on scientific grounds?” – really, assuming that the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of AIDS, numbering 500 official members including two scientific Nobel winners, aren’t all balmy, and given that plenty of examples are available of a far wider range of scientific skepticism sympathetic to the group over whether the proposition of a viral cause for AIDS is tenable — not least because of the enduring questions over whether the theory of the existence of retroviruses deserves to be held! — may we not argue that the 1986 adoption of the finite term HIV by the ICTV was a fascistic imposition?

CHOMSKY: I think we agree that’s the core of the matter: To what extent is it reasonable to assume a viral cause for AIDS? To answer that question we have to investigate the facts, no trivial matter. The fact that 500 people including two Nobel laureates rejected the assumption is perhaps enough evidence to make one want to initiate the investigation. One can find plenty of eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates, who will express skepticism or disbelief about most propositions in science. That’s what science is like: uncertain, and constantly changing. But I don’t think we can simply conclude from that that it is “fascistic” for a scientific organisation to take a stand on some issue. The facts of the matter have to be investigated.

QUESTION: It’s in the nature of science to seek to quantify and qualify discoveries. HIV is only a theory, from the very beginning it was said to be impossible to isolate. Does the media generally not articulate uncertainty?

CHOMSKY: I don’t understand what it means to say X “is only a theory,” whether X is HIV, evolution, quantum physics, set theory, or whatever. The word “only” seems out of place. One of the ways to try to understand the world is to construct explanatory theories, as best we can. In empirical inquiry, that’s the most that can be achieved. Whether the theory of X is a good one or not is always a fair question, but we should not confuse the issue by saying that it is “only a theory”. As for the media, there are all sorts of operative factors that distort the media product.

QUESTION: Assuming that most journalists are underqualified to arbitrate on dense scientific matters, and given that the HIV-causes-AIDS hypotheses were unveiled at a seminal, vigorously reported government press conference (Health Secretary Margaret Heckler, NIH scientist Robert Gallo, 1984) before any scientific challenge of Gallo’s propositions had been made, or any peer review given beyond the establishment journal Science’s routine referees, and that his hypothesis was later declared by the US Senate Committee of Research and Integrity to be the outcome of “scientific misconduct” (1992), has much changed since the time of Galileo and Papal Bulls in the way science or counter-science is translated into popular social practice?

CHOMSKY: One doesn’t know what insight the events give without exploring them in detail, including the procedures followed by Science and the merits of the Senate investigation, and the relevance of what happened in the Gallo case. The analogy to Papal Bulls seems to me wildly off the mark. In the contemporary natural sciences, fortunately, things have progressed quite far from the days when the Church could legislate Truth and Falsity, and error tends to be discovered and corrected pretty fast.

QUESTION: What tools does a social analyst like yourself use to distinguish between illusion and material reality?

CHOMSKY: If any tools are known, I’m unaware of them. We use our intelligence, as best we can.

QUESTION: What gives you confidence when appropriate that you have successfully distinguished between superstition and rational reality? Is any theory ever fully vindicated?

CHOMSKY: Theories are never “fully vindicated” in the empirical sciences, and in principle cannot be. That should be a truism. What gives one confidence? The question should be: What should give one confidence? (since what does give confidence is an idiosyncratic personal matter). If “full confidence” is intended, nothing should give it. If a degree of confidence is intended, that has to be evaluated case by case.

QUESTION: What might be some consequences of the apparently growing dependence, in Western culture at least, on technological probing of reality?

CHOMSKY: If one is interested in understanding the world, one will use whatever technology is available and useful for the task. If reliance on technology displaces other and better means to gain understanding, one will naturally object to it. As for the “growing dependence in Western culture on technological probing of reality”, that doesn’t capture exactly what I see where I look around me, or read poll figures on the prevalence of highly irrational beliefs about the physical world (let alone the world of human life and society).

QUESTION: Regarding “safe sex”, within the gay community now, and indeed in general, we have a moral majority. Do you think it’s to be challenged?

CHOMSKY: I presume polls would show that most people would approve of “safe sex” rather than “unsafe sex”, and that inquiry would show that many choose the latter nonetheless. But I’m probably missing the point.

QUESTION: Really? Current ideology is that sex can be unsafe because “the AIDS virus” can be transmitted that way. Despite many scientists doubting this, it is a felony or misdemeanour in 29 US states to engage in “risk” sexual behaviour if a person is “aware he/she’s HIV positive”. Professor of law Philip Johnson of UC Berkeley has said of these laws, “Of course they’re irrational laws; they occur in the context of irrational fear.” Can one reasonably detect similarities between these legislations and their moral incitements and, for example, religiously motivated legislation in the issues of abortion, or homosexuality or racial equality?

CHOMSKY: If you think the evidence is unpersuasive that “the AIDS virus” can be transmitted sexually, then by all means try to establish your conclusion and convince people of it. Citing a professor of law at Berkeley isn’t helpful. Laws are generally “irrational” in the sense of his comment. It doesn’t follow that all laws should be thrown out, just as the skepticism of some scientists doesn’t mean that all of science should be placed in the category of Papal Bulls. Again, one has to investigate case by case.

QUESTION: Throughout human history, theorists and intellectuals like you have challenged official truths about science and human nature, putting their lives and careers at risk, often silenced or ridiculed. Can you describe some general principles of successful dissident organisations, i.e., ones that have more or less brought about the changes they sought?

CHOMSKY: I know of no principles of successful organisation and struggle, beyond the obvious ones. About those, I have no more to say than the participants in popular organisations in the slums of Haiti, to go to the opposite extreme of privilege in the hemisphere where I live — and where quite impressive developments have taken place, of a kind that I’ve seen many times under conditions of extreme duress, around the world, and in sectors of privilege in the rich countries as well. There are no magic tricks. When we believe it is our duty to challenge orthodoxy, we don’t ask someone how to do it: we’ll get no useful answers. Rather, we do it. This isn’t quantum physics. It’s mostly a matter of using common sense. Whatever the issue, what is needed is not specialised knowledge or great insights, which are lacking in any event, but rather energy, dedication, courage, honesty – the simple virtues. We should also be aware of our extraordinary privilege, which offers us opportunities that are not available to the great mass of poor and struggling people throughout the world — opportunities to inquire, understand, and act.

QUESTION: If public health systems aren’t working in the interests of the public, how might people respond to the possibility that their health is being compromised by economic forces?

CHOMSKY: I think that honest people should seek to understand how the public health system works, and work to make it as responsive as possible to the informed decisions of the public — but that seems close to truism. How should this be done? By the usual mechanisms of popular organising and education, available to a considerable extent in relatively free societies like ours, with little personal risk or cost.

QUESTION: HIV/AIDS self-help groups which started as dissidents and later founded the voluntary sector have provided information and support to change preconceived ideas about homosexuality and AIDS. Today, these organisations have become institutionalised and also promote state-sponsored drug-therapies. Do you think that in order to push for change Continuum must make compromises with the establishment?

CHOMSKY: What tactics Continuum should follow, I can’t say. I don’t mean to suggest that tactical decisions are insignificant; on the contrary, they regularly have direct and often substantial human consequences, and therefore require careful thought and attention. But choice of tactics depends on goals and an assessment of the circumstances. As for challenging “preconceived ideas”, that is always appropriate, whether the ideas are about homosexuality or AIDS or anything else. A reasonable person will not easily adopt “preconceived ideas” on matters of any significance, but will try to find what seems to be the best ideas. As the whether standard ideas are the best ones, they usually are not, but that is a matter that requires specific inquiry.

QUESTION: Do you feel the language of war and conflict translates successfully to the human body’s functions? “Defences compromised”, “titanic struggle” against “invaders”, “zapping microbes”, etc. – where does the popular language of our biological identities derive from?

CHOMSKY: I don’t see any particular problem in referring to “the body’s defences against disease” etc. The other terms you mention are picturesque, presumably used to attract attention. In a paper in a technical journal they would be out of place. In a public discourse I don’t happen to like them much, but it’s a matter of taste.

QUESTION: HIV/ AIDS “dissident” concerns were first discussed years ago at an international conference. The tenth such conference is due to be held next year. What are the best political purposes of conferences?

CHOMSKY: The “political purposes” of any activity, including conferences, are (I suppose) to clarify our understanding, sharpen our agendas, and place them in the public arena as prominently as we think important in the particular case.