Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Irrationality kills

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is a good, intelligent and hard-working man dedicated to improving the lives of all South Africans. And yet, tragically, he rejected the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS and consequently held up the roll-out of effective anti-retroviral drugs. A new study (pdf) by Harvard-based researchers estimates that Mbeki's policies can plausibly be blamed for 365 000 early AIDS deaths and the loss of at least 3.8 million person-years. This rather reminds me of Steven Weinberg's deservedly famous quote:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Except, in this case, religion wasn't to blame, it was a kind of weirdly diffuse but prickly anti-Western pro-Africanist ideology. This ideology - quite possibly, it seems to me, one outgrowth of Mbeki's painful emotional insecurity - predisposed Mbeki to reject science and logic precisely because he thought of it as "Western". And, perhaps more importantly, if the orthodox explanation for AIDS were correct, it would imply, Mbeki thought, that Africans were uniquely sexually voracious, for how else could you explain the fact that Africa has by far the highest incidence? All these worries are reflected in a newly released letter (almost certainly drafted by the president himself) that Mbeki's office sent to the then head of the Medical Research Council, William Makgoba in December 2000.

I'm not going to deconstruct Mbeki's letter in detail - I don't have the time or patience and, besides, it would an exercise in futility. But I will note that there just is no meaningful sense in which science is "Western". While science no doubt arose in the West (in Western Europe during the Age of Reason to be precise) that obviously doesn't mean it cannot be a universally good way of finding out what's true. And, to address Mbeki's other concern, Africans are not uniquely licentious, HIV is more common here because it arose on the continent possibly as far back as 1884 and thus became endemic. (Moreover, there is evidence that, due to the Black Plague of all things, people of European descent are fortuitously less prone to be infected (pdf) and, due to malaria of all things, people of African descent are fortuitously more prone to be infected).

Anyway, two breathtakingly silly quotes from Mbeki's letter if you can't stand reading the whole thing:

Among the socio-biological factors that have shaped our society over three and a half centuries are the western scientists who helped to create the psychological dependence that obliged Africans to depend on these western scientists for solutions to problems they were otherwise uniquely positioned to solve.

These are the people who created the ‘Eurocentric African university' which you sought to overthrow and replace with a truly African University.

It is they who created a "scientific" view of the African that made us the very essence of everything despicable in human society and behaviour.


What is said is that the questions the President is raising were answered by western scientists at least 15 years ago.

It is also said that the ‘dissidents' the President speaks to lost the scientific argument to other western scientists at least 15 years ago.

After this seemingly powerful argument, it is assumed and intended that our President should then admit the error of his ways with regard to the matter of HIV/AIDS and shut up!

All that is said is that Western science long made a ruling!

The question is then asked - what right does a non-scientist have, such as our President, to question matters that science in Britain, France, Portugal and the United States answered many years ago!

The real question however that those who oppose President Mbeki are asking is, what right does any African have to question the findings of western science, regardless of whether he or she is a scientist or not!


  1. The departure of Mbeki did not, unfortunately, rid the country of irrational thinking about HIV/AIDS. This morning I watched a news bullitin on SABC2 which told how MEC Peggy Nkonyeni has called for traditional "medicine" to be given a chance to prove itself in the combat against AIDS. The Minister, who has no medical training at all, is suggesting an unimaginable scenario because she, like Mbeki, believes there is a "Western" science which is just another thought paradigm when compared to traditional "medicine". Both are equally valid to her.

    The most memorable part from the TV interview (sadly not in the online news report) was an interview with a traditional healer about this. He said (I'm paraphrasing a bit from memory); "Traditional medicine does not need to be tested because the ancestors proved it works again and again for the past four thousand years".

    Wow, stop and stare people, traditional healers have had a proven cure for HIV/AIDS for four thousand years ... even though the virus only came into existience in 1903.

  2. Oh yeah, the "1903" thing ... I'm not disagreeing, I haven't read the paper but from my source (SGU) it was claimed that the date was 1903 give or take 20 years, which correlates nicely with "as far back as 1884".

    Just incase other readers were worried that I was spouting nonsense - yes, I know that I usually do that ... BUT NOT THIS TIME!

  3. Hi James... Yeah, irrationality is no doubt still afoot. The argument that traditional medicine should somehow be incorporated into the mainstream health system is deeply frightening and idiotic. As SA skeptics, we (and that certainly includes me) should do more to push back against this kind of thinking.

    Yeah, Steve did discuss that study on SGU: the authors give the dates 1884 to 1924 as the likely range, hence my "possibly as far back as 1884".

  4. I think that,unfortunately for Thabo Mbeki,this is what history will remember him most for.

    As for Peggy Nkonyeni - the woman is an ignoramus. In a recent article, the Times reported on how she wanted to use a Durban hospice for an experiment in the efficacy of traditional medicine - in particular a concoction called uBhejane. The traditional healer who makes the stuff, Zeblon Gwala, sells patients 2 one litre bottles of uBhejane for R171.00 each. Patients have to take 50mls 3 times a day until both bottles are finished; after that they need only take it to keep their viral loads up. From what I can tell, Gwala has been selling the stuff for a few years now, despite efforts by the Denocratic Alliance to have him prosecuted under the contravention of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act. The reason the case was dismissed? Traditional medicines do not have to be registered!
    The prosecutor in that particular case,Jabu Ngcobo, also said - and I quote - "There was not enough evidence to prosecute, and when I looked at the evidence, I did not see fraud. He (Gwala) said he believes in his medicines, and said it in good faith." WTF!!?
    Being the cynic that I am, I wouldn't be one bit surprised to learn that Peggy is getting a kick back somewhere along the line.

    Another thing, as long as people remain highly superstitious, they will continue to fall victim to evil, greedy people like Gwala.