‘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 1987,
opened her show by announcing, “Research studies now project that 1 in 5—listen to me, hard to believe—1 in 5 heterosexuals could be dead of AIDS in the next three years.” The prediction was outlandishly wrong, but she wasn’t wrong in attributing the scare to scientists.
One early alarmist was
who made national news in 1983 with an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association warning that AIDS could infect even children because of “the possibility that routine close contact, as within a family household, can spread the disease.” After criticism that he had inspired a wave of hysterical homophobia, Dr. Fauci (who in 1984 began his current job, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), promptly pivoted 180 degrees, declaring less than two months after his piece appeared that it was “absolutely preposterous” to suggest AIDS could be spread by normal social contact. But other supposed experts went on warning erroneously that AIDS could spread widely via toilet seats, mosquito bites and kissing.
an Army physician who would later direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Covid pandemic, claimed in 1985 that his research on soldiers showed AIDS would soon spread as rapidly among heterosexuals as among homosexuals. He and other scientists became much-quoted authorities for the imminent “heterosexual breakout,” which was proclaimed on the covers of Life in 1985 (“Now No One Is Safe from AIDS”) and the Atlantic in 1987 (“Heterosexuals and AIDS: The Second Stage of the Epidemic”).
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
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. The false alarms were long forgotten by the start of the Covid pandemic, when the news and public policy were dominated by scientists who overestimated fatalities by a factor of 10 and erroneously warned that people could easily be infected by touching contaminated surfaces or breathing air outdoors. Today most people, especially the young, vastly overestimate their risk of dying thanks to press coverage more uniformly alarmist than during the AIDS epidemic.
Even at the height of the AIDS panic, there was some skepticism across the political spectrum. The same year that Life promoted the heterosexual scare, another Time Inc. magazine, Discover, dismissed it in large type on the cover declaring that AIDS would likely remain “largely the fatal price one can pay for anal intercourse.” Rolling Stone ran a long article of mine debunking the heterosexual breakout, and Mr. Fumento’s arguments were featured in leading newspapers and in both liberal and conservative magazines. While doomsayers got the most attention, their attempts to curtail civil liberties—like mandating universal testing to identify and isolate AIDS carriers—failed because of opposition from both the left and the right.
With Covid, though, skepticism is mostly confined to the right. The mainstream press and public-health authorities have largely ignored or smeared eminent scientists who question the worst-case scenarios and the wisdom of lockdowns and mandates for tests, masks and vaccines. Their legitimate challenges to Covid orthodoxy have been rejected by medical journals, denounced by officials like Dr. Fauci, and censored by social-media platforms. The journalistic, political and scientific establishments haven’t merely ignored the lessons of the AIDS epidemic. They’ve repeated and amplified the mistakes, spreading more needless fear and eliminating more civil liberties than the AIDS alarmists ever imagined.
Mr. Tierney is a contributing editor of City Journal and a co-author of “The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.”
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