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Is it irresponsible to post crackpot theories on MeFi?
December 1, 2001 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Is it irresponsible to post crackpot theories on MeFi? This post questioning the link between HIV and AIDS links to a site that is full of misinformation and has no scientific validity. Misinformation about AIDS is potentially deadly. Shouldn't a poster do some minimal checking first? I didn't want to respond in the thread itself because I think the fewer people who see it, the better.
posted by anapestic to Etiquette/Policy at 8:53 AM (21 comments total)

we've had plenty of 'crackpot' posts in the past, they usually tend to sort themselves out pretty quickly, and can even lead to some entertaining discourse...

so i dont think there's a problem with them in general - but certainly on a day like today a post like this is somewhat insensitive...
posted by sawks at 9:05 AM on December 1, 2001


I would hope that people have enough discernment to see that my post does not "question the link between HIV and AIDS." I was merely bringing up the point that a lot of people out there do question the link. (Personally, I am not one of them. However, I don't have the scientific or medical background to directly debate these people.) You're correct, misinformation about AIDS is potentially deadly. Therefore, it's important to discuss the misinformation and counter it with sensible, scientifically-supported facts, to clear up any discrepancies and misconceptions put forth by dissent groups (such as the whole "Support Mbeki" thing, which disgusts me). Hence, my post.

I was (and am) hoping people will post good links refuting these claims, because I'm having a little trouble finding them right now. (But I know they're out there...)
posted by arco at 9:08 AM on December 1, 2001


You mean, like this one and this one?

Calling "crackpot" posts irresponsible is problematic because the poster may well believe the stuff s/he is posting.

Conversely, arco's follow-up here, by the way, should remind us that just because we post something doesn't mean we agree with or approve of it. I wonder if disclaimers are going to be necessary . . .
posted by mcwetboy at 9:15 AM on December 1, 2001


It's a good thread, why shouldn't people question the things handed down to them? (see: the "just say no" campaign from the 1980's)
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:43 AM on December 1, 2001


Is it irresponsible to post crackpot theories on MeFi?

In general (not necessarily relating to this specific link), crackpot theories can turn out to be true. Say someone says, "the President of the United States was behind a hotel break in" and everyone else said "let's not discuss that because it's obviously not true. I mean, the president is so far ahead in the polls that he wouldn't have to do something like that," than we would have never brought those involved with Watergate to justice.

If a crackpot theory has no validity, Mefi'ers will be able to cut through it quickly. If it does have some, it just might change some paradigms.
posted by drezdn at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2001


I would hope that people have enough discernment to see that my post does not "question the link between HIV and AIDS."

Your post begins with "Are HIV and AIDS really linked?" I don't know what would question the link between HIV and AIDS if not that statement. You might have said "Some people claim that HIV and AIDS really aren't linked" instead. There was nothing in your post to question the claims of these crackpots, and I'm sorry, I just don't think it's that hard to find the accurate information.

It's a good thread, why shouldn't people question the things handed down to them? (see: the "just say no" campaign from the 1980's)

I'm not sure what Matt's point is here, but I don't see a valid comparison. The idea that the link between HIV and AIDS has been handed down to people in a manner similar to the "just say no" campaign is laughable and wrong.

I understand what people say about exposing crackpot theories to show that they're false, but these theories have been demonstrated to be false many many times for many years now. I don't think there are people out there wondering whether HIV and AIDS are really linked who would be convinced by seeing a compelling rebuttal of a theory that there not. Nothing will convince the people who still believe this nonsense.


posted by anapestic at 12:07 PM on December 1, 2001


I started the post off with a question as a rhetorical device (as I am wont to do). I didn't phrase it like, "Can you believe what these jackholes think?" because I didn't want to necessarily frame the debate (to avoid distractions like what happened here), and I didn't want to shut out MeFiers who might actually subscribe to these groups' beliefs from openly participating in the debate. I figured a less-hostile FPP wouldn't cause people to enter the debate defensively. Groups like this thrive on the thought that they are being censored, and I wanted a more open discussion on these issues (and information like delfuego's link).

I brought this whole issue up because groups like this are not all "secluded-cabin crackpots." There are a lot of highly-educated people out there who have a lot more first-hand knowledge of HIV/AIDS than I do, and whose healthy questioning has led them to different conclusions than the (vast) majority of other researchers. We should react to these people with open-minded, rational arguments and sound information, such as was linked in the discussion thread. What we shouldn't do is hope that "the fewer people who see it, the better."
posted by arco at 12:54 PM on December 1, 2001

Misinformation about AIDS is potentially deadly.
Matt, if you ever institute .sigs, I want this one.
posted by holloway at 1:52 PM on December 1, 2001


I'm not sure what Matt's point is here, but I don't see a valid comparison. The idea that the link between HIV and AIDS has been handed down to people in a manner similar to the "just say no" campaign is laughable and wrong.

What I meant is when people tell you what to do or what you should think about something, it's perfectly natural to question it before accepting it. I know it's really hard to divest emotion completely from any discussion about AIDS, but if you can mentally distance yourself from the people you've lost in your life to it, it's still possible to ask if the cause-effect relationships we've been told about are true or not. I accept that HIV -> AIDS, and haven't heard anything convincing from the crackpots that claim there is no link, but that doesn't mean they should be silenced. Instead we should acknowledge their contentions and show them why they are wrong.

Last year, a similar thread came up and I thought it was the most shocking thing in the world and considered deleting it the first time I saw it, but if you read the responses, you'll see just how wrong a view that HIV doesn't cause AIDS is, and I learned something from it. I hope others learn something similar today.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 2:53 PM on December 1, 2001


Correct me if I'm wrong, but a couple of guys named Galileo and Einstein each had their own crackpot theories that revolutionized the way we think of astronomy and physics respectively. So how about cutting the guy some slack? Galileo particularly was persecuted for trying to make others believe that the Earth was not the centre of the universe; sent to jail and ostracized for going against conventional thinking. Sound familiar?
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 2:55 PM on December 1, 2001


I think the whole point of free speech within a democracy is that we can put forward various ideas and have the majority, or the individual, decide for themselves. That's why I believe a 'crackpot theory' should still be given airtime and not censored.
posted by skylar at 3:15 PM on December 1, 2001


Correct me if I'm wrong, but a couple of guys named Galileo and Einstein each had their own crackpot theories that revolutionized the way we think of astronomy and physics respectively. So how about cutting the guy some slack?

Actually, I will not cut Duesenberg any slack at all. Comparing him to Galileo and Einstein is ridiculous. Einstein's ideas were revolutionary, but they weren't considered crackpot. His ideas were accepted quickly.

Galileo was fighting ideas that were centuries old but were unsupported by evidence. This was long before the scientific method was established, and the environment in which his ideas were heard is nothing like today's scientific environment.

The link between HIV and AIDS has been exhaustively researched, and there is not an iota of sound scientific evidence to contradict it. The person who publishes the site originally linked to is taking a decade-old hypothesis that has been thoroughly discredited and persisting in stating that it's plausible.

I have some sympathy for the argument that we should publicize sites like this so that nuts like this can be exposed, even though I don't agree with it in this case. But I have no sympathy for the argument that we should put these arguments out there because they might be helpful. Even a cursory review of the evidence would tell you that this person is just wrong.

I know it's really hard to divest emotion completely from any discussion about AIDS, but if you can mentally distance yourself from the people you've lost in your life to it, it's still possible to ask if the cause-effect relationships we've been told about are true or not.

For the record, I haven't lost anyone close to me to AIDS, although I can understand the assumption that I would have, given that I'm gay. My outrage on this matter has nothing to do with my orientation or personal experience. It's exactly the same scientific outrage I feel when people post the theories that the moon landing was a hoax. Except in that case it's a lot easier to laugh because no one's going to be hurt by believing that we never went to the moon. And also, in that case, apparently a lot of people believe that we never went to the moon, although I think people believe that largely because of Fox.
posted by anapestic at 3:16 PM on December 1, 2001


For the record, I haven't lost anyone close to me to AIDS, although I can understand the assumption that I would have, given that I'm gay.

FWIW, I had no idea you were gay and my only assumption is that we all know someone (maybe not personally, they could have been famous and still affected our lives in a positive way) that died of AIDS.

Except in that case it's a lot easier to laugh because no one's going to be hurt by believing that we never went to the moon.

I agree that this is a special case, and if not properly handled, someone could choose to belive one of these crackpots and spread misinformation. But I do believe that the topic coming up on this site doesn't condone it or give it credibility, and if one were to read the comments on any thread about the topic, they'd see how misguided these are.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:50 PM on December 1, 2001


free speech, yo. freedom of information. freedom of thought. freedom to draw one's own conclusions. censoring 'crackpot theories' is basically saying that weak minds visit mefi and they can't fend for themselves.
posted by kv at 8:23 PM on December 1, 2001


Okay, kv. Let's say a weak mind does visit MeFi, read the "crackpot theory," and not the thread itself. As a result (in this case anyway), that person could put himself or others at risk.

Do we have an obligation to protect "stupid" people? Or, more accurately, does Matt want to avoid any possibility of misinforming his audience?
posted by gleemax at 11:26 PM on December 1, 2001


Conversely, Gleemax, imagine someone comes across that page on their own. They do a google search on the name and find the Mefi thread debunking the idea. As a result they do not put themselves of others at risk.

It's hypothetical either way, or course. Anyway, the more open and available discussion, the more likely the truth will be available to people who are looking for it.
posted by Nothing at 1:21 AM on December 2, 2001


Nothing may be onto something.

Search google for AIDS? SHMAIDS
posted by mathowie (staff) at 1:31 AM on December 2, 2001


if anything, these debates might be the things that do protect. if this forum is objective to your opinion and my opinion, no matter how fiendish they may seem, the opinions will be placed in a respectable light, and the reader, in turn, will also respect them - even if they disagree.

protection doesn't equal censorship; it equals information, education, knowledge, and freedom of choice.

posted by kv at 3:45 AM on December 2, 2001


It seems to me that we all have a duty to protect others (stupid or not). It's not considered decent behaviour to stand idly by and let others harm themselves. However, it's not obvious to me that the best way to do it is by censorship.

The advantage of censorship is that it is a quick, smple solution, but that comes with several disadvantages: someone has to be chosen as censor, which has practical (who knows everything?) and political (concentration of power) problems; it leaves either no counter-argument or one that relies on the status of the censor rather than any communal discussion; it cultivates a reliance on authority.

At the same time, Metafilter encourages discussion of links, the Internet allows easy reference to other, more accurate sources of information, and any discussion remains on the 'net (indexed by search engines) to help inform people searching for information related to the questionable site long after the topic has cooled.

So it's difficult not to draw the conclusion that the most responsible approach to a post like this is to build the discussion into a body of evidence that shows why the link is wrong - this answers the problem directly, educates others, encourages people to think and reason themselves, and leaves a resource that others can use later (it might even make a good thread).

There are exceptions - when there is no reasonable argument against something, then censorship becomes the only choice. This is another reason not to use it.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:45 PM on December 2, 2001


Whether censorship is ever justified on MetaFilter or not, it doesn't Matter.

(Man, what a lame joke.) But you see, Matt's the only one with power, unless someone can convince Matt to use his power for their purposes. Which is really something Matt has to deal with alone.
posted by gleemax at 4:29 PM on December 2, 2001


For the record, I wasn't advocating censorship. I never said the FPP should be removed. I just said that I thought people should think better of posting a link to such rot. There's a big difference between deciding not to tell everyone that you've seen a big stinking turd in the street and silencing those who do.

From where I'm standing, it's partly about conditional probabilities. The probability that someone who's not misinformed will end up being misinformed as opposed to the probability that someone who was misinformed will end up understanding the truth. In this case, I judged the former to be more likely and harmful than the latter, although I could be wrong about that.

I also have a general and strong distaste for posting things that have no scientific basis, regardless of the topic. I don't think that expressing that distaste is equivalent to censorship. In any case, I think that people who post here should make that determination before they post: I wouldn't ask Matt to come along and determine whether there was any reasonable scientific basis after the fact.
posted by anapestic at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2001


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