(p. A17) ‘Follow the science,” we’ve been told throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. But if we had paid attention to history, we would have known that once a disease becomes newsworthy, science gets distorted by researchers, journalists, activists and politicians eager for attention and power—and determined to silence those who challenge their fear-mongering.
When AIDS spread among gay men and intravenous drug users four decades ago, it became conventional wisdom that the plague would soon devastate the rest of the American population.
. . .
In reality, researchers discovered early on that transmission through vaginal intercourse was rare, and that those who claimed to have been infected that way were typically concealing intravenous drug use or homosexual activity. One major study estimated the risk of contracting AIDS during intercourse with someone outside the known risk groups was 1 in 5 million. But the CDC nonetheless started a publicity campaign warning that everyone was in danger. It mailed brochures to more than 100 million households and aired dozens of public-service announcements, like a television ad with a man proclaiming, “If I can get AIDS, anyone can.”
The CDC’s own epidemiologists objected to this message, arguing that resources should be focused on those at risk, as the Journal reported in 1996. But they were overruled by superiors who decided, on the advice of marketing consultants, that presenting AIDS as a universal threat was the best way to win attention and funding. By those measures, the campaign succeeded. Polls showed that Americans became terrified of being infected, and funding for AIDS prevention surged—much of it squandered on measures to protect heterosexuals.
Scientists and public officials sustained the panic by wildly overestimating the prevalence of AIDS. Challenging those numbers was a risky career move, as New York City’s health commissioner, Stephen C. Joseph, discovered in 1988 when he reduced the estimated number of AIDS cases in the city by half. He had good reasons for the reduction—the correct number turned out to be much lower still—but he soon needed police protection. Activists occupied his office, disrupted his speeches, and picketed and spray-painted his home.
Another victim of 1980s-style cancel culture was Michael Fumento, who meticulously debunked the scare in his 1990 book, “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS.” It received good reviews and extensive publicity, but it was unavailable in much of the country because local bookstores and national chains succumbed to pressure not to sell it. Mr. Fumento’s own publisher refused to keep it in print, and he was forced out of two jobs—one as an AIDS analyst in the federal government.
The AIDS fear-mongers suffered few consequences for their mistakes.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated October 3, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)