Santa or St Nicholas?

When my mother taught in a Scottish Primary School, she used to gather the children together, about this time of year, and ask them to put up their hands if they believed in Santa Claus. Of course, some (maybe the ones that were good at Maths) smiled (or maybe frowned) and kept their hands down – and were surprised to see my mother raising her hand.

Then she would teach them all the more human but still wonderfully kind saint of Smyrna, known today, in English, as St Nicholas and whose name and whose generosity gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus. My mother maybe didn’t spell out in detail how this generosity (of paying poor families’ dowries) enabled young women who were poor to escape prostitution, but the schoolchildren certainly understood that they too could believe in the good Santa Claus and that the magic of kindness exceeds that of being able to fly about the chimneypots.

The reaction of some children to this kind of revelation is one of impatience. Why tell lies in the first place? If a story is to tell a truth, why not just tell the truth, plain and simple? This is certainly the message of Richard Dawkins (who also values children with autism but not those with Down’s).

In that case, why get married? Why not just have sex for pleasure and procreation? In 2008 in Scotland there were a series of video clips entitled, “It’s Time”, as part of the equal marriage campaign. A lot of that campaign involved telling stories and anyone who has ever attended a wedding knows that story-telling is an integral part of such celebrations – they may occur in the readings of sacred scripture as well as in the Best Man’s Speech!

NY-based science journalist Matthew Hutson reported in May 2012 in Psychology Today that: “Scientists who study religion have come to agree that belief in God (or gods) relies on everyday social cognition: our ability—and propensity—to think about minds.” He goes on “Which means if you are autistic, and unable to “mentalize,” you would be an atheist. New research published today in PLoS ONE provides fresh evidence for this claim.”

Linked and controversial study of the ‘extreme male brain’ finds that the ability (or propensity) to mentalise and to empathise are gendered.

Why am I telling you all this?

It’s no secret to my followers on Twitter that I’m currently writing a book on AIDS hypotheses. It may be a surprise to some that there are more than one – and that both main hypotheses (drugs & HIV) were initially under serious consideration by the CDC. What has been a great surprise to me, as I’ve intensively read the wealth of evidence that the HIV hypothesis is on shaky ground, to say the least, is the vehemence of the denial of the multiple ways in which this hypothesis is problematic.

I don’t want to go into those here. For those interested, see my forthcoming book, Silence & Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate, read the 722-page detailed tome entitled Inventing the AIDS virus, or look up the extremely erudite work of the Perth Group who have opposed the prevailing view for decades.

The angry denial that the HIV hypothesis is extremely (or, at all) problematic takes many forms including vindictively rejoicing on the death of those who held an opposing view and who resisted taking antiretroviral (anti-HIV) drugs at least until overwhelmed by well-meaning friends and family. This denial fails to observe their comparatively longer survival than their former recreational drug-taking peers diagnosed at the same time who started on these ‘therapeutic’ drugs immediately.

I’m not writing this to argue.

I simply wonder why on Earth anyone (especially anyone diagnosed as HIV+) would not want to have as much information from the most qualified minds freely available to them. It’s not. Or rather, it is but it is ignored. Like the advice that HIV is a clinical diagnosis and not one to be made from a test kit (which are extremely fallible but the numbers of false positives are hidden in the larger figure of those all tested rather than in the smaller figure of those found HIV+ and ‘confirmed’).

In the topsy-turvy world of big pharma-backed research, rather than demand proof for a hypothesis – so shaky that it was first announced at a press conference rather than in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that it depended on a virus proved to be stolen and that the researcher it was stolen from subsequently stated that is was not the sufficient cause of AIDS – proof is demanded for its rebuttal.

Proof there is, and in abundance, but why is it not being accepted?

Perhaps because this version is much more reassuring, especially for those who feel secure when everything is quantified and predictable:

‘HIV causes AIDS. Scientists can test your blood for HIV. Doctors can medicate you for HIV and provide you with numbers and even graphs that show your CD4 cell count going up (that’s a good thing) and your viral load going down (ditto). You can trust the medication. It may have some side effects but be positive and, hopefully, you’ll live long and prosper.’

This other version isn’t reassuring at all:

‘AIDS isn’t even a thing. It’s just whatever whoever wherever says it is. The test? Well, Western Blot is a fudge, ELISA is a soup and none of the proteins used is specific to HIV anyway. Anyway scientists can test your blood for HIV all they want but the most even they can claim to come up with is HIV antibodies (which could also just be antibodies to almost anything). Antibodies don’t kill you but whatever the doctors give you for HIV probably will as after some years (longer now, thankfully) of painful side-effects, you’ll probably die of liver failure and be written out of the statistics cos it’s not AIDS-related. The numbers and graphs they give you, about your CD4 cell count and your viral load are kinda just made up. Big pharma doesn’t give a rat’s arse about you or anyone, they just want money. Best thing you can do is stop taking the tablets. You may still have some side effects until they’re out of your system but be positive and, hopefully, you’ll live long and prosper.’

Life is all about choices. Thank God, this is not a choice I’ve had to make but I do know people who have. So, if you were told that you were ‘HIV positive’, what would you do? Would you choose the comfort of quantified information that (ignoring the persistent proofs of unreliability) the pharmaceutical industry offers?

Or would you want to learn as much as possible about this condition which that industry claims you have? Would you be angry that expert researchers have been no-platformed because they dare to doubt that industry? Would you be surprised at the level of vitriolic ad hominem attack these scientists have faced, and the damage to their reputation and careers that their principled stance has cost them?

The difference between the story of Santa Claus and that of St Nicholas is that the first is familiar, reassuring, schmaltzy and frankly unbelievable (if you think about it) and the second is complex, disturbing, historically and culturally value-laden and very, very human.

If you’re going to an AIDS memorial service tomorrow, follow the money. Find out who its sponsored by. Ask yourself why. Then keep asking questions until you, personally, are satisfied with the answers.

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Thanks to Vera Kratochvil who has released here photo “St Nicholas” into the Public Domain.

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