Researcher Backs Pope, Both Are Still Wrong

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Researcher Backs Pope, Both Are Still Wrong

Joe Veix

A distinguished AIDS researcher backs the Pope's comments that the AIDS epidemic is made worse by condom use. His logic and his motives are questionable.

Not long after the Pope’s comments about how condoms “worsen” the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we have Dr. Edward Green backing up the Pope.

There are obvious problems with this article, the first being that the headline calls Green a “Harvard” researcher – as opposed to what, a Yale researcher? The fact that they’re using Harvard to indicate intelligence and reputability immediately elucidates the likelihood that the whole article is constructed as a puff piece to back up the Pope’s statement (not a surprise, though, as it is in the Catholic News Agency, after all).

Green is a reputable doctor, though, with over 30 years of experience in AIDS prevention research. He’s authored five books. What’s frustrating is that someone so reputable, who has clearly put significant time and effort into putting an end to a horrible epidemic, could be so misguided. His comments are even eerily conspiratorial:

Green recalls that when the AIDS epidemic hit Africa, the “Industry” began using AIDS as a “dual purpose” marketing strategy to get more funding for condom distribution. This, he claims, effectively took “something that was a 2nd or 3rd grade device for avoiding unwanted pregnancies” and turned it into the “best weapon we [had] against AIDS.”

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But the crux of his argument hinges on risk compensation:

“[Risk compensation] is the idea that if somebody is using a certain technology to reduce risk, a phenomenon actually occurs where people are willing to take on greater risk. The idea can be related to someone that puts on sun block and is willing to stay out in the sun longer because they have added protection. In this case, however, the greater risk is sexual. Because people are willing take on more risk, they may ‘disproportionally erase’ the benefits of condom use.”

The article doesn’t provide any statistics to back up his statement, so it’s difficult to take him seriously. Arguing about risk compensation is tricky, too. Do people who purchase cars with safety features drive more recklessly? Do those who get flu shots put themselves in reckless situations, where they’re more likely to get the flu? If the answers to both of these questions are affirmative, should we then abandon our safety measures (seat belts and airbags in cars, flu shots) if they increase risky behavior? Are we better of in an accident with or without seatbelts?

Condom use is encouraged because people are engaging in risky behavior to begin with (just like they are by driving), and it’s the safest response to the risky behavior (like safety measures in a car). The doctor’s argument is, in a way, a fallacy. An increase in risky behavior caused by safety measures doesn’t necessarily mean we should abandon the measures that make the risky behaviors safer. The argument can spin your head around.

Uganda is commonly cited as an example of abstinence policies working to prevent AIDS (Green even uses it as an example), although condoms actually played an important part in the success there.

It’s frustrating that someone so experienced could let ideology guide them so. The facts about condom use clearly contradict what Green says.