The A-Z(T) of anti-science

29 May 2014

Posted by: John Meredith

Category: Staff blog

aids-ribbon.jpgJohn Meredith, our Head of Education and Outreach, discusses the anti-science prejudice of the movie Dallas Buyers Club. Such films create a mistrust in research while encouraging crank science.

If you have sat through Dallas Buyer Club, the remarkably powerful movie about one man’s struggle with AIDS and the American medical establishment, AND you’re the type that stays for the credits AND your eyes weren’t too blurred by tears to see, you may have read these words that appear on the screen for about five seconds at the end:

“A lower dose of AZT became widely used in later drug combinations that saved millions of lives.”

It’s a bit mealy mouthed, giving the impression that AZT is no longer a significant drug, but you get the point: AZT helped save millions of lives from AIDS.

But even if you are one of the few who did read the small print – and my own highly unscientific straw poll of friends and family has uncovered a total of no people who did – it is quite likely that you won’t have taken in the significance of what you read. Why? Because the entire preceding two hours of viscerally powerful film making with an astonishing Oscar-winning performance by the suddenly serious and seriously skinny Matthew McConaughey was designed to persuade you of the opposite: that AZT, the breakthrough antiviral treatment for AIDS, was a kind of poison. Not only that, but a poison foisted on desperate people by an uncaring and cynical medical establishment that simultaneously barred access to effective treatments from outside the USA because… well, it’s hard to say, I guess just because scientists are like that. They just enjoy being nasty.


You might think this shouldn’t matter, after all a movie is just a movie, mostly escapist, and it is not like Hollywood has a history of being kind to scientists as the Frankenstein family will tell you, but it does matter. While crazed anatomists, nuclear scientists and food technologists (think Soylent Green) have long been the targets of the lazy antiscientific prejudice of popular movie makers, smearing the scientists and doctors whose dedication, determination and brilliance successfully uncovered the means of fighting back against a disease as terrible as AIDS, takes popular anti-science to a new low. And we have all got so used to it. Hardly anyone has noticed.

Of course, those of us who work in the world of animal research will feel this more deeply than most. We constantly see the same dishonest, anti-scientific strategies that allow the makers of Dallas Buyers Club to present the complexities and real problems involved with antiviral drug treatments as evidence of their complete inefficacy constantly being used in the co-ordinated attempt to discredit the use of humane animal models for disease. But it should matter to everyone, because we all rely on that medical science all the time. And every time a hit movie like Dallas Buyers Club endorses the attitudes of the misinformed and the mischievous, more damage is done.

The truth of Dallas Buyers Club is that Ron Woodruff, the character so brilliantly played by Matthew McConaughy (who lost so much weight for the part that at one point he is basically two-thirds moustache) was at best a crank who sold harmless vitamins and aloe vera supplements to the seriously ill, and at worst a charlatan who exploited fear and insecurity to prey upon the desperate and turn them away from the only real hope they had. He was wrong and the doctors were right. It is thanks to the science and the scientists, their refusal to back away before impassioned ignorance and militant wishful thinking, that we can now effectively treat AIDS and so many other illnesses. We shouldn’t forget it just because Matthew McConaughey gets the girl and the doctors get unflatteringly lit. And we should stand up and say it even if it doesn’t win any Oscars. Science, including the unpopular stuff like animal research, is the best hope for humanity.

John Meredith

Head of Education and Outreach