Science Fiction is one of literature’s most treasured genres—invented by Jules Verne, advanced by H.G. Wells, and read by millions. Science Fiction is a late 19th Century genre. Verne wrote scientific romances. H.G. Wells wrote science-oriented, socially critical novels. Who could forget the 1869 treasure titled, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Both experimented with state of the art technology, which they extrapolated into the future. Verne is remembered as the world’s first full-time science fiction novelist. That brand of sci fi is clearly fiction and governed by well-known ethical norms and imperatives—it’s not true—its fiction—it’s original—not borrowed from another writer.
This blog is about the 21st Century subset of unscientific fiction rising up out of the politics, chaos, and mania called Covid-19. Mainstream writers, mostly physicians and scientists write about the truth of Covid-19 and its chokehold on millions. Downstream writers, not scientists, write about the absurdity of Covid-19 denial and Pandemic complicity. These writers claim their work is nonfiction, but spew falsity about death, and disease, disguised as medical and social commentary. They ignore ethical norms in favor of being published and maybe rich, by conning the gullible and confusing the uninformed. It should be called unscientific fiction.
The core of writing unscientific fiction is ignorance. 99% of the people in the world were ignorant about Covid-19 in the fall of 2019. Reasonably well educated people knew about DNA and gene sequencing. And we had scientific experts and epidemiologists that were already examining the science and the worldwide data. Even so, “Who could have imagined that two decades after Collins and Venter unveiled their draft human genome sequences, another ceremony in the Rose Garden, to induct Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, would help to spread COVID-19 because attendees thought they knew more than the health professionals warning about the risk of maskless crowds hugging and kissing. We clearly don’t need genome sequences to unmask the vast spectrum of human intelligence.”
By the fall of 2020 the CDC and other public health experts were deep into uncovering the science behind COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. However, their efforts, knowledge, and advice was questioned by myriad conspiracy theorists, political diehards, and a weakened and disillusioned legislature, not to mention some governors in conservative states. They brought us the new problem of unscientific fiction, disguised as nonfiction for rural America and conservative enclaves seeking to undermine a Democrat administration.
At the same time, reputable scientists and physicians were exploring how humanity can overcome COVID-19 and how large the government’s role in that effort had to be. They worked hard to develop vaccines, find drugs to treat infected people, and understand the basic science and the epidemiology of the pandemic. Collectively, they used machine vision to analyze millions of images of the virus, a gargantuan task that would have been impossible without artificial intelligence.
On the unscientific fiction side, some writers flooded online readers with bogus drugs, treatment therapies, and sources of the virus. “Conspiracy theories started to appear on social media immediately after the first news about COVID-19. Is the virus a hoax? Is it a bioweapon designed in a Chinese laboratory? These conspiracy theories typically have an intergroup flavor, blaming one group for having some involvement in either manufacturing the virus or controlling public opinion about it.”
One patently absurd question asked all over the country was about sex during a pandemic. People asked and believed ridiculous answers. That was unscientific fiction. There was no evidence that the COVID-19 virus was transmitted through semen or vaginal fluids.
The Journal of American Medicine published many articles and reports, including one on November 2, 2020 titled, Science Denial and COVID Conspiracy Theories.
“The US public health response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been dismal, characterized by antimask behavior, antivaccine beliefs, conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, and vocal support by elected officials for unproven therapies. Less than half of the people in the US heed health recommendations to wear a mask when out in public. Antiscience rhetoric has consequences. While only 4% of the world’s population resides in the US, the US has accounted for 20% of the world’s deaths related to COVID-19 and has performed less well than several other wealthy nations. Low science literacy contributes to denial of science. The relationship between antiscience viewpoints and low science literacy underscores new findings regarding the brain mechanisms that form and maintain false beliefs.”
Based on the low rate of science literacy in many parts of the country, unscientific fiction theories took hold. “The coronavirus pandemic has seen a marked rise in medical disinformation across social media. A variety of claims have garnered considerable traction, including the assertion that COVID is a hoax or deliberately manufactured, that 5G frequency radiation causes coronavirus, and that the pandemic is a ruse by big pharmaceutical companies to profiteer off a vaccine. An estimated 30% of some populations subscribe some form of COVID medico-scientific conspiracy narratives, with detrimental impacts for themselves and others. Consequently, exposing the lack of veracity of these claims is of considerable importance. Previous work has demonstrated that historical medical and scientific conspiracies are highly unlikely to be sustainable.”
Given this unhealthy reality, what ethical norms are at issue in writing and publishing “unscientific fiction, falsely labeled as nonfiction?” First on the list is truth. Conspiracy theorists and political opportunists give little thought to truth. Their world feeds on untruth because their readers are scientifically illiterate, see government as dangerous, and grasp conspiracy as an alternative to being told what to do by government scientists.
The second ethical imperative is transparency and source disclosure. Conspiracy theory influencers rarely cite reputable data points and almost never rely on well-screened and evaluated data in the hands of either the CDC or the FDA.
Next in line is motive. Reputable scientific writers write to inform. Conspiracy theorists write to misinform. The former hope to lower death rates. The latter seek buy-in for political or financial gain.
Scientific American released a report titled, Eight Persistent COVID-19 Myths and Why People Believe Them.
- THE VIRUS WAS ENGINEERED IN A LABORATORY IN CHINA. Because the pathogen first emerged in Wuhan, China, President Donald Trump and others have claimed, without evidence, that it started in a lab there, and some conspiracy theorists believe it was engineered as a bioweapon. It’s false. U.S. intelligence agencies have categorically denied the possibility that the virus was engineered in a lab, stating that the Intelligence Community concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.
- COVID-19 IS NO WORSE THAN THE FLU. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has lied about the disease’s severity, saying it is no more dangerous than seasonal influenza. Trump himself admitted to journalist and author Bob Woodward in recorded interviews in early February and late March that he knew COVID-19 was more deadly than the flu and that he wanted to play down its severity.
- YOU DON’T NEED TO WEAR A MASK. Despite a strong consensus among public health authorities that masks limit transmission of coronavirus, many people (the president included) have refused to wear one. Masks have long been known to be an effective means of what epidemiologists call source control (preventing a sick patient from spreading a disease to others). A recent analysis published in the Lancet looked at more than 170 studies and found that face masks can prevent COVID-19 infection.
- WEALTHY ELITES ARE USING THE VIRUS TO PROFIT FROM VACCINES. A book by Judy Mikovits, makes the unsubstantiated claim that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates could be using their power to profit from a COVID-19 vaccine. Mikovits’s claims about the virus’s origin and the efficacy of masks have no scientific support.
- HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE IS AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT. When a small study in France suggested the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine might be effective at treating the disease, Trump and others seized on it. The study is now widely criticized, but some people have continued to tout the medication despite growing evidence that it does not benefit COVID-19 patients. In a tweet, Trump called the hydroxychloroquine treatment “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” and he has mentioned it repeatedly in his public coronavirus briefings, continuing to hype the drug. Several studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine does not protect against Covid-19.
- INCREASES IN CASES ARE THE RESULT OF INCREASED TESTING. As coronavirus cases surged in the U.S., Trump frequently claimed that the spikes were merely the result of more people being tested. He has tweeted that “without testing … we would be showing almost no cases” and has said in interviews that the reason numbers appear to have gone up is that testing has increased. If his scenario were true, one would expect the percentage of positive tests to decrease over time. But numerous analyses have shown the opposite.
- HERD IMMUNITY WILL PROTECT US IF WE LET THE VIRUS SPREAD THROUGH THE POPULATION. There is a fundamental flaw with this approach: experts estimate that roughly 60 to 70 percent of people would need to get COVID-19 for herd immunity to be possible. Given the high mortality rate of the disease, letting it infect that many people could lead to millions of deaths. That tragedy is what happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which at least 50 million people are thought to have perished.
- A COVID-19 VACCINE WILL BE UNSAFE. Worrying reports have emerged that many people may refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it is available. Conspiracy theories about potential vaccines have circulated among anti-vaxxer groups and in viral videos. In Plandemic, Mikovits falsely claims that any COVID-19 vaccine will “kill millions” and that other vaccines have done so. Another conspiracy theory makes the ludicrous assertion that Bill Gates has a secret plan to use vaccines to implant trackable microchips in people. Most Americans still support vaccination, but a Gallup poll found that one in three Americans would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today and that Republicans were less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats. There is good reason to be cautious about the safety of any new vaccine or treatment. Nevertheless, previous safety trials of the top vaccine candidates did not find major adverse effects; larger trials for safety and efficacy are now underway. Nine pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines have pledged to “stand with science” and not release one unless it has been shown to be safe and effective.
While it seems impossible, some Americans used Ivermectin, a veterinary drug, to ward off Covid-10. The same writers who advanced the use of hydroxychloroquine championed another supposed potential wonder drug, Ivermectin, into the political bloodstream. There is no evidence it helps and considerable evidence it could harm. The FDA warned people against buying a version of the drug meant for deworming livestock, after people did just that.
According to the AMA Code of Medical Ethics, when there’s a safe, effective vaccine to help prevent spread of a pandemic disease, physicians have an ethical duty to become immunized. “In the context of a highly transmissible disease that poses significant medical risk for vulnerable patients or colleagues, or threatens the availability of the health care workforce, particularly a disease that has potential to become epidemic or pandemic, and for which there is an available, safe and effective vaccine, physicians have a responsibility to accept immunization absent a recognized medical contraindication or when a specific vaccine would pose a significant risk to the physician’s patients.”
Physicians and scientists know the difference between vaccination and immunization. One is for real, the other for football.
Writers do not have an established code of ethics. But we should mimic doctors during a pandemic like COVID-19. We should be vaccinated. We should tell the truth about the pandemic. We should be at least as ethical as our physicians are.
 Bruce L. Miller, MD. JAMA. 2020;324(22):2255-2256. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.21332
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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