Tracing Bad (and Dangerous) Internet Science
A dangerous rumor has been spreading across the web that people with Rh negative blood are resistant or even immune to getting AIDS. They’re not. This is the “everyone is an expert” ethos of the web at its worst.
I was clued into this rumor through my Ask a Geneticist website. A few months ago I started to get a few questions about whether or not having Rh negative blood protects people from getting infected by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. I get occasional, random questions like these which I answer and then don’t give a second thought.
But then I started to get more of these questions. And then I got one where someone asked me if being Rh negative was the same as having a CCR5 delta-32 mutation. That woke me up.
Having two copies of the delta-32 version of the CCR5 gene does give some protection from HIV infection. But it has nothing to do with being Rh negative.
Being Rh negative has to do with red blood cells and CCR5 delta-32 with white blood cells. Not only that, but CCR5 and RhD are separate genes on separate chromosomes. (The RhD gene is the gene involved in being Rh negative.)
Clearly the questioner had put two and two together and came up with the answer that CCR5 delta-32 and being Rh negative were the same thing. Which is not the case. I decided to set out and try to find out where this rumor was coming from.
As I talk about here in a previous post about Rh negative blood, I traced it down to a couple of things. One was the supposed mystique associated with being Rh negative. The other had to do with a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of four separate bits of science.
This rumor probably isn’t that big a deal yet. It isn’t like the polio vaccine one in Nigeria that has caused a resurgence of polio there. Or the one about vaccines in general being risky which is at least part of the reason for the whooping cough epidemic here in California.
But if the rumor that being Rh negative protects you from AIDS does take off, then people will get AIDS who otherwise might not have. Rh negative people who do risky things are as likely to get AIDS s anyone else. This is why I wanted to find out what was behind the rumor and try to nip it in the bud.
Hopefully the few people who read what I have written will trust me. I have no axe to grind here and really only care about the truth. Which, unfortunately, is not what a lot of people think about most scientists.
Scientists, along with many other experts, used to be seen as impartial. This is no longer true. In fact, the “everyone has to be an expert” idea probably springs from this general mistrust of authority.
If you don’t trust scientists, then you are going to try to interpret the science yourself. That is hard enough that you may come to the wrong conclusions.
So one answer might be to try to find or create a reliable source of science information. Some place where the scientists involved have no vested interest in the answer.
This used to be universities and the government but that ended long ago. We obviously need something else.
Maybe someone with way too much money like Google needs to set up a foundation where scientists can squash these rumors before they spread. The foundation would have to be independent and receive no outside funding and the scientists would have to work for no one else. This might be enough to give most of the public the confidence they need to trust the answers that come out of the foundation.