Monday, July 31, 2006

Causing Offense - why should PR matter?

I recently managed to offend someone who emailed me asking for questions. Not intentionally, but poorly chosen words written out of frustration aren't any less upsetting. I shan't mention any names, he knows who he is, and for causing that upset I feel I must publicly apologise.

But why should this actually cause me to feel upset at myself as well? Aside from generally feeling a heel for causing another human being to think less of me, it's probably tainted any chance of him taking on board my responses to his questions. And it was clear to me that however much he knew, he (a) was offended when I tried to teach him what he already knew (which he didn't tell me he already knew) and (b) wasn't all that interested in accepting the fact that some of what he thought he knew, he didn't. He wasn't an AIDS dissident by any stretch, but someone with a brain on their shoulders who wanted to understand more, albeit with a large chunk of preconceived ideas and dislike of AIDS scientists/doctors in general, and certain specific individuals.

The Dissident movement has for some time been ahead of the game with PR - the ability to reach the laymen. Even Duesberg's scientific literature is massively oversimplified and dumbed down in order to make sense to the lay reader. Key concepts such as "antibodies mean the infection has been fought off" are easy to sell, even if they're lies. The reader not only feels that they have been informed of something, but it's easy to remember, and in their own mind instantly catapults them to the standard of a PhD in immunology. They feel able to criticise the scientists, for example, for failing to take into account whether HIV PCR cross-reacts with human sequences, not knowing that, of course, this was not only thought of even before the test was developed, but is controlled for in every HIV PCR reaction of human tissue.

Books and popular magazine articles have been written from people like Maggiore, Scheff and Farber, while the orthodoxy write academic papers in journals that are hidden in medical libraries or behind expensive pay-per-view web portals. The dissidents have also had a large online presence for years, in fact many of the sites suffer from not being updated with more recent literature - most likely because it would contradict their stance. The orthodoxy has only recently managed to respond with organized efforts like and here at AIDSmyth. The simple fact of the matter is that most of us working in the field have far better things to do with our time! The other thing is that, to scientists, PR is worthless. You simply have to tell someone the truth, show them that it is the truth, and you're sorted. How you package it is irrelevant. Sadly that isn't the case in today's society of soundbites and spin. As orthodox scientists trying to educate the masses, we almost find ourselves having to pre-empt Dissident spin by hunting down potential articles that can be misconstrued and preparing to counter them. What a waste - to have to retell the story simply because someone misunderstood it. This particular person made several important comments about the fact that as orthodox scientists, much of what we say gets ignored simply because of the way it gets said. Which to me would be laughable if it weren't so sad. I would say though, from bitter experience, that if we are to get through to the fence-sitters, or even to show the dissidents that they are horribly, dangerously wrong, then we too need to learn the art of good PR.

Most of the orthodox sites from places like the NIH aren't specifically aimed at counter dissident arguements, which need to be targeted at individual dissident myths rather than simply stating standard healthcare advice and information. And of course they suffer from being part of "the AIDS establishment" and therefore corrupt and worthless.

I'm reminded of the double-bind Brian found himself in, in the movie "Life of Brian".

"I'm not the messiah!"
"Only the messiah denies his true self!"
"Oh alright then, I AM the messiah!"
"He IS the messiah!!!"

If you believe the PR hyperbole, then how can the orthodoxy win? Which should make you ask yourself, if I take away the PR, then what difference does that make?

Next time you get a cold sore, or a shingles outbreak, or meet someone with hepatitis B or C - ask yourself if antibodies really are a sign of a cleared infection, or if the dissident camp maybe, just maybe, don't have a clue. And also ask yourself why they are working so hard to win hearts and minds, when surely the truth should be self-evident.

And a point to make to the orthodox crowd reading this - we do need to watch how we say things. Not just in terms of giving the dissidents an intellectual crack to get into (which we then have to spend time filling) but in terms of professionalism and full-disclosure. This guy's biggest gripe was that the docs implied that (say) viral load measured whole infectious virions, when of course it doesn't, as detailed extensively here. Again it doesn't matter if the intent is to mislead or not, if the perception is that it is. Communication is a two-person thing, speaker and listener. Misunderstandings are often as much caused by one as by the other...