With his first film, House of Numbers, Brent Leung has produced a profound documentary. It’s a case study about how scientific knowledge can be created, then harden into a rigid dogma, defended with religious zeal by its creators who stubbornly refuse to debate anyone who disputes their claims but who labor overtime to prevent critical opinions from being heard. By Charles Geshekter, Professor
The film is about HIV and AIDS. Leung poses basic concerns about the actual definitions of those acronyms, the reliability and meaning of HIV tests, the difficulty of HIV transmission, the isolation of HIV, and whether the drugs prescribed to people said to be “HIV-positive” actually extend their lives or hasten their deaths.
As Leung lets leaders of the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy explain themselves, they unwittingly give credence to so many criticisms that have been lodged against them for years.
Among those questions are suspicions about the accuracy of the ever-growing number of so-called “AIDS cases” in Africa; curiosities about the funding for endless rallies, marches, walks, bike rides, conferences, candlelight vigils and quilt ceremonies; the actual effects of “breakthrough” drugs that are highly touted, then withdrawn; vaccine trials prematurely acclaimed, then quietly discontinued; or the constant state of fear neatly captured by designer Kenneth Cole’s dishonest newspaper inserts in 2006 that alleged, “We all have AIDS….if one of us does.” One expert, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, predicts he “will never see the cure at a molecular biology level” in his lifetime. The film’s audience soon finds out why.
House of Numbers explains that as the definition of “AIDS” broadened over the past 25 years its numbers constantly increased as well. Leung wanted to “get to the bottom of the statistics debate,” but found few reliable numbers, “only assumptions and estimates.” Professor James Chin (UC/Berkeley), who once headed the UNAIDS office that gathered global data on AIDS and HIV prevalence, recalls for Leung the aphorism that you’d never eat a sausage once you saw how it was made. In the same vein, says Chin, “if you knew how HIV/AIDS numbers are cooked or made up you would use them with extreme caution.”
The audience watches Leung casually interview top specialists in the HIV/AIDS establishment – physicians, statisticians, virologists and biologists who have dedicated their careers to the HIV-causes-AIDS theory. Their on-camera admissions, omissions, double talk, sideways glances, and numerous gaffes and errors are breathtaking.
Shown struggling with troublesome questions they had not expected, their feeble responses attest to how much their intellectual muscles had atrophied in the echo chambers that constitute the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy. The HIV-causes-AIDS adherents cling tenaciously to what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has termed the “mentality of taboo.” According to Pinker, some debates get so entwined with people’s moral identity that one doubts they can ever be resolved by reason and evidence. The mentality of taboo describes an intellectual loop into which one enters, accepts its main propositions, and then finds it difficult or impossible to escape. We see the HIV-causes-AIDS mainstreamers ensnared in their own loops.
Within the mentality of taboo, certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think about them. Defenders of the HIV-causes-AIDS theory are outraged at even being asked to entertain a contrary thought. Not only do they refuse to consider such proposals, but one is not permitted even to think about them because that very thought is self-evidently sinful and deserves only condemnation. Watching this film, the viewer sees how incendiary and unyielding the HIV-causes-AIDS dogmatists become when challenged.
The audience slowly realizes how the HIV/AIDS establishment resembles addicts unable to end their addiction since, in this case, it would stop the flow of funds and damage their social standing. Their characteristic response to critics entails a haughty refusal to debate them.
Psychologists use the term denial to refer to defense mechanisms that people may use to resolve conflicts or allay anxieties. The characteristic responses about one’s addiction include silence, rigidity, isolation and denial. That’s how a patient disavows any thoughts, wishes or needs about external realities they know are consciously unpleasant or may undermine their professional status. Leung is no psychologist, but House of Numbers shows how easy it was for this young American filmmaker to unnerve the leaders of the HIV/AIDS establishment just by asking questions to which they responded with outright denial.
The denials from the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy seem to involve a kind of emotional numbness or bluntness that occurs when a person encounters something considered threatening to his ego image or purpose. This allows a person to maintain his status quo behavior while minimizing emotional (or statistical) dissonance from within or without. It may not have been Leung’s intention, but his film reveals a world of HIV/AIDS science where the knee-jerk denial of the many errors and dangerous inconsistencies has become a way of life.
An irresponsible state of denial is widespread among the AIDS orthodoxy that dismisses inconvenient facts but expects the public to ignore how they have squandered billions of dollars in a futile pursuit of one costly research project after another. By shifting the blame to insinuate that HIV/AIDS skeptics suffer from a psychological defect, the defenders of the orthodoxy hope to ignore their challenges.
House of Numbers makes it obvious that defenders of the HIV/AIDS dogma remain mired in a deep state of denial, ready to destroy the career of any scientist or journalist who dares simply to interpret the data differently and shares such concerns at a public forum.
Over the past 25 years, a cross-section of scientists, journalists, researchers and HIV-positive people have criticized the mistakes, inconsistencies and deceptions of the claim that “AIDS” is caused by a virus that is easily transmitted sexually. In this film, one hears the voices of the AIDS establishment interposed among the voices of their formidable critics. The mainstream media has saturated the world with one conventional and uncritical view of HIV and AIDS. In eighty-five minutes, this one film by Brent Leung destabilizes that conventional construct. No wonder the HIV/AIDS industry has been flustered and outraged by the film.
House of Numbers is a superb teaching tool, appropriate for use in any public policy debate about drugs, science and sexuality. That reason alone makes the 14+ million undergraduate students in the United States a key audience for this film; it should be made available on every university campus.
The parts that involve HIV test results and its ghastly consequences are painful and enraging to watch.
Viewers should pay close attention to those segments that capture the courageous voices of Christine Maggiore, Kim Bannon, and Steve and Cheryl Nagel who discuss their 2-year-old daughter. The film explains why every HIV test packet contains an insert sheet with the admitted limitations and inconsistencies of the test itself. Dr. Claudia Kucherer concedes, “there are different criteria from the manufacturers and there are guidelines from the WHO.” The various packets for the tests seem to have 8 different criteria that may be used for diagnosing HIV infection.
Some AIDS doctors insist that anyone who’s not a doctor should not criticize the medical profession. Such physicians embrace the hoary mindset captured on signs in Chinese tearooms in the 19th century that warned patrons: “those not in power are not permitted to criticize those in power.” Given the insularity of the AIDS research establishment, it is refreshing to hear the thoughtful observations of two European physicians who are skeptics, Christian Fiala and Claus Koehnlein based on their extensive experience treating AIDS patients in Africa and Europe.
Leung’s discussion with German researcher Hans Gelderblom of the Koch Institute in Germany reveals frustration and dissatisfaction with the poor quality of electron microscope photographs of the wily, elusive virus, called HIV. Gelderblom criticizes the various “pictures” and images of HIV.
Watch closely at the dramatic visuals that appear midway through the film, intended to depict HIV flying all around, attaching to T-cells, killing T-cells and wildly interacting with them. No such images actually exist. They are just special effects.
We then hear prominent AIDS experts Jay Levy and Robert Gallo struggle (without success) to explain exactly how HIV infects or gets inside those cells or how the viral proteins of HIV interact with proteins in the cell to deplete the T-cells so an individual advances to AIDS.
As a South African man accompanies Leung through a squalid shantytown, he points to open latrines, flies swarming everywhere, food being prepared and eaten nearby, the absence of soap, and no place to wash up. I have visited similar villages in Somaliland, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and South Africa where the endemic poverty and harsh realities of daily life are found. In every case, people understood the links between impoverished living conditions, improper diets, the non-existent disposal of waste matter, and illness.
Ever since 1985, a sick person in Africa can be said by the WHO to have “AIDS” if he or she has lost 10% of one’s bodyweight over the last two months, has a persistent dry cough, has a high fever, and has suffered from diarrhea for over two weeks. With that elastic and vague definition in effect, unless an African has been killed in a traffic accident or died as a result of homicide or suicide, nearly all deaths in Africa might somehow be said to be “AIDS-related.”
The film shows why all AIDS drugs are labeled “black box drugs.” Nevirapine can attack and harm the replicating cells in the skin severely and horribly. AZT was originally designed as a cancer chemotherapy drug; it is a random DNA chain terminator chemical whose packet prominently displays the lethal warning symbol of a skull and crossbones. As the film nears the end, Mark Conlan, an AIDS activist from California, cogently explains why people seem unable to examine HIV and AIDS logically and critically.
When interviewed in the film, Luc Montagnier (the co-discoverer of HIV in 1983 and a Nobel Laureate in 2008) admitted to Leung that someone with a healthy immune system could be exposed to HIV many times without ever becoming chronically infected. Seemingly stunned by this admission, Leung then asks, “If you take a poor African who’s been infected and you build up their immune system, is it possible for them to also naturally get rid of [HIV]?” Montagnier responds, “I would think so…” Not vaccines, not toxic drugs, just better nourishment. Montagnier surely recognizes that malnutrition weakens the immune systems of Africans and makes them more susceptible to tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea, and other common, familiar illnesses of impoverished living.
In my opinion, the scope of the HIV/AIDS scandal is staggering, particularly since the claims made by these scientists have shaped public health policies around the world. As a growing audience watches House of Numbers, it will be interesting to see how (or if) responsibility for this debacle gets assigned. Will it be possible to repair the damage some scientists have done to their profession?
Leung’s final remarks are lucid and powerful. The background cacophony of voices heard intermingling at cross-purposes during the credits display are a fitting touch to the internal dissent and deep animosities that viewers now know wrack the HIV/AIDS orthodoxy.
Brent Leung has produced a watershed film, a splendid cinematic exposition that continues to win acclaim and awards at numerous film festivals.
Charles Geshekter is Emeritus Professor of African history at California State University, Chico. In addition to frequent field research and work in Africa, his publications examine European colonialism in Somalia, techniques of documentary film making, and reappraising AIDS in Africa. From 1991-95, Geshekter chaired the History of Science Section of the American Association for Advancement of Science/Pacific Division and was a member of its Executive Council. He has worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as a consultant on African immigration issues and was a member of the South African Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel (2000-03). Reprinted with permission – © Charles Geshekter, January 6, 2010