Joe Rogan and Bret Weinstein Promote AIDS Denialism to an Audience of Millions 


Bret Weinstein, the evolutionary biology professor turned podcaster and ivermectin guy, repeated a series of discredited pseudo-theories about AIDS in a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Weinstein, a frequent guest, told Rogan that he found the theory that party drugs like poppers cause AIDS to be “surprisingly compelling.” (It is not.) Weinstein also told Rogan he came to these ideas by reading a recent book by anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, creating a sort of unholy turducken of misinformation passed onto an audience of millions. 

There is, to be clear, no scientific debate whatsoever about the cause of AIDS, and the information Weinstein was repeating has been roundly discredited for decades. HIV can be spread through several means, including unprotected sex, sharing needles, or, in some cases, from a mother to a child while giving birth; if HIV is untreated, it can develop into AIDS. No one who has been through a basic sex ed class likely needs to hear this information re-stated, but nonetheless, AIDS denialism continues to exist in various forms. The specific idea that AIDS is spread through poppers—a party drug with a long medical and recreational history—first circulated as HIV began to spread in the 1980s. (A Los Angeles Times article from 1986 details the debate at the time over whether businesses should continue to sell poppers.)

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This idea is often referred to as the Duesberg hypothesis, named after the Berkeley biologist who popularized it, and it’s been around—and ultimately discredited—for so long that it has a lengthy Wikipedia page, the gist of which is that correlation is not causation. Peter Duesberg, who was not an AIDS researcher, was given a chance to air his theories at a 1988 panel that convened some of the nation’s foremost AIDS experts; they pointed out that he had no real evidence for his theory and had ignored compelling evidence to the contrary. One of those questioning him was Anthony Fauci, then the coordinator for AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health. 

If you’re starting to see why Weinstein and Rogan are invested in these particular discredited ideas, you’re not alone. 

Rogan interjected that the theory that HIV causes AIDS — which is not a theory, but a fact— is “ignoring a very important factor in AIDS, which is party drugs.” Weinstein agreed that that is the “competing hypothesis,” adding, “For those who think that this is a preposterous allegation, you should look at this evidence. The evidence is surprisingly compelling.” 

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Weinstein’s “evidence,” he made clear, is partially drawn from reading about this theory as outlined by Robert F. Kennedy in his book The Real Anthony Fauci, published in 2021. (One review of the book noted that Kennedy managed to misrepresent numerous scientific studies he cites, which does not make a strong case for its scientific rigor; nor does the fact that it was written by Robert F. Kennedy.) 

“I came to understand later, after I looked at what Luke Montagnier had said and I read Bobby Kennedy's book on Fauci, was that actually the argument against HIV being causal was a lot higher quality than I had understood, right?” Weinstein told Rogan. “That it being a real virus, a fellow traveler of a disease that was chemically triggered, that is at least a highly plausible hypothesis. And with Anthony Fauci playing his role, that was inconvenient for what he was trying to accomplish.”

(Luc Montagnier was a French virologist who won the Nobel prize in 2008 for co-discovering the HIV virus. During the early stages of the pandemic, he promoted unproven theories, according to the Associated Press, about COVID being a manipulated virus.) 

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Besides Kennedy, Weinstein also promoted the work of Kary Mullis, who he described as “the inventor of PCR technology who died tragically, and some would say, strangely, at the very beginning of the COVID crisis.” (Mullis, 74, died in August of 2019 of respiratory and heart failure brought on by pneumonia, according to his widow. COVID is believed to have begun circulating in China in December of that year, well after Mullis passed away in California. When that information was conveyed to Rogan by his “fact-checker,” his producer Jamie Vernon, Rogan muttered, “Woah, right before it popped up. That’s convenient.” ) 

Mullis was a Nobel prize-winning chemist who tended towards weirdness thereafter, casting doubt on climate science, for instance, which was very much outside his field of study.  He also promoted alternative—and false—theories about the causes of AIDS, in ways that seemed to cast blame on the lifestyles of gay men. 

“The guys who were hanging out in the bathhouses of San Francisco had every parasite you could imagine," he told a journalist in 1998. "It was a whole way of life that killed a certain percentage of the people who lived it.” 

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Weinstein, naturally, cast Mullis as a maverick, and seemed to intimate that his death was suspicious in nature. 

“Have you ever seen this piece of video where he talks about Anthony Fauci?” he asked Rogan. “Yeah, let's put it this way. Kerry Mullis was a outspoken, vigorous, highly intelligent person who was not corralled by fashion. And in fact, his objection to the idea that HIV was causing AIDS was an early testament to his maverick nature.” 

Rogan also took a brief detour into AZT, an early AIDS drug that is no longer usually used on its own, saying, “With AZT, with AIDS, it was killing people. So now you have people dying from AIDS and you have this medication which Fauci in the 1980s has famously quoted as saying is the only reason why we use only one medication is because the only medication that's been proven to be both safe and effective.”

This is, again, not a particularly good or accurate summary of what actually happened; false claims about AZT circulated early in the pandemic, in part through the viral pseudo-documentary Plandemic. The claim that AZT was killing people with AIDS is a dangerous piece of pseudoscience, and AZT is still used, in combination with other drugs.

“COVID was a rerun of the AIDS chapter of AZT,” Weinstein agreed.

The conversation generated substantial outcry from scientists and public health researchers on Twitter; David Gorski, an oncologist who frequently writes about the anti-vaccine world and pseudoscience, identified the conversation as an example of “crank magnetism,” writing, “Once you go down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories in one area (e.g., #COVID19), it is nearly inevitable that you will embrace fractal wrongness in the form of multiple kinds of pseudoscience (e.g., antivax, AIDS denial, etc.).” 

And this is, of course, indisputably part of a larger pattern. Rogan and Weinstein regularly repeat discredited scientific ideas, mainly around their promotion of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID and Rogan’s constant promotion of anti-vaccine ideas. The AIDS conversation makes clear that COVID denialists are branching out, using their forms of pseudo-inquiry to draw other bad ideas back into the public discussion. 

It’s also clear that the conspiracy theories don’t end with science: Rogan also interjected some brief suspicions about January 6 and intimated that Fox News may have fired Tucker Carlson because they were pressured by both advertisers and “some intelligence agencies.” 

“I stand outside a little bit more,” Rogan proclaimed, “and analyze things with less emotion and try to figure out what is really going on here and how complex is it, and also, how much time am I going to have to invest in this before I really understand what's going on?”

Near the end of the conversation, in the midst of a full-throated endorsement of Kennedy’s presidential candidacy, Weinstein returned to an idea he’d mentioned earlier, about a shadowy secret group controlling the United States, or what he described as “a hidden cabal acting through a senile figurehead.” 

“If Kennedy can't do it, for whatever reason, if politics gets in the way, we still have to get whatever that cabal is out of power immediately,” Weinstein said, without elaborating who, precisely, the members of the “cabal” are. “This could not be more of an emergency. We've seen through Covid how dangerous these people are, how little they care about our well-being, and we have to rally around whatever it is that addresses this.”  

Rogan will have an opportunity to continue doing whatever he wants, and on even more platforms than before, for many years to come; Spotify recently announced that it had signed a new multi-platform deal with Rogan, reportedly worth around $250 million. 

Update, 2:30 PM EST:

A spokesperson for amfAR, a well-known nonprofit dedicated to AIDS research, HIV prevention and advocacy, tells VICE News it is “disappointing to see platforms being used to spout old, baseless theories about HIV.”

Their statement reads, in full:

It is disappointing to see platforms being used to spout old, baseless theories about HIV. At amfAR, we’ve worked for 40 years to provide people with scientifically sound information about HIV, free of stigma. The fact is that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), untreated, causes AIDS. Access to antiretroviral therapy and accurate information has saved many millions of lives. Mr. Rogan and Mr. Weinstein do their listeners a disservice in disseminating false information and amfAR would welcome the opportunity to correct the record for Mr. Rogan and his audience.

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