Cory Doctorow: Fake News Is an Oracle – Locus Online
In the same way, science fiction responds to our societal ideomotor responses. First, the authors write the stories about the futures they fear and relish. These futures are not drawn from a wide-open field; rather, they make use of the writer’s (and audience’s) existing vocabulary of futuristic ideas: robots, internets and AIs, spaceships and surveillance devices. Writers can only get away with so much exposition in their fiction (though I’ve been known to push the limits) and so the imaginative leaps of a work of fiction are constrained by the base knowledge the writer feels safe in assuming their readers share.
So the writers write the stories. Then the editors choose some of those stories to publish (or the writers publish them themselves). Then readers choose some of those stories to elevate to the discourse, making them popular and integrating them into our vocabulary about possible futures, good and bad. The process of elevation is complicated and has a lot of randomness in it (lucky breaks, skilled agents, PR wins, a prominent reviewer’s favor), but the single incontrovertible fact about a SF work’s popularity is that it has captured the public’s imagination. The warning in the tale is a warning that resonates with our current anxieties; the tale’s inspiration thrums with our own aspirations for the future.
Reading a writer’s fiction tells you a lot about that writer’s fears and aspirations. Looking at the awards ballots and bestseller lists tells you even more about our societal fears and aspirations for the future. The system of writers and readers and editors and critics and booksellers and reviewers act as a kind of oracle, a societal planchette that our hands rest lightly upon, whose movements reveal secrets we didn’t even know we were keeping.
Which brings me to “fake news.”
“Fake news” is a nearly useless term, encompassing hoaxes, conspiracy theories, unfalsifiable statements, true facts spoken by people who are seeking to deceive audiences about the identity of the speaker, and as a catch-all meaning, “I read a thing on the internet that I disagree with.”
But for all that, “fake news” is useful in one regard: the spread of a given hoax, or unfalsifiable statement, or truth delivered under color of falsehood, or conspiracy, or objectionable idea undeniably tells you that the idea has caught the public imagination. The fake news that doesn’t catch on may have simply been mishandled, but the fake news that does catch on has some plausibility that tells you an awful lot about the world we live in and how our fellow humans perceive that world.
The anti-vaxers have a point. Not about the safety of vaccines. I believe they are 100% wrong about vaccines and that everyone who can should get a full schedule of vaccines for themselves and their children.
But anti-vaxers have a point about the process.
About 20 years ago, Purdue Pharma introduced a new blockbuster painkiller to replace its existing flagship product, MS Contin, whose patent had expired. The new drug, Oxycontin, was said to be safe and long-lasting, with effects that would last an incredible 12 hours, without provoking the fast adaptation response characteristic of other opioids, which drives users to take higher and higher doses. What’s more, the company claimed that the addictive potential of opioids was vastly overstated, citing a one-paragraph letter to the New England Journal of Medicine penned by Boston University Medical Center’s Dr. Hershel Jick, who claimed that an internal, un-reviewed study showed that opioids could be safely given at higher doses, for longer times, than had been previously thought.
Purdue Pharma weaponized the “Jick Letter,” making it one of the most-cited references in medical research history, the five most consequential sentences in the history of NEJM. Through a cluster of deceptive tactics – only coming to light now through a string of state lawsuits – Purdue created the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans and counting, more than died in the Vietnam War. Purdue made $31 billion. The Sackler family, owners of Purdue, are now richer than the Rockefellers.
The regulators had every reason to know something terrible was going on, from the small town pharmacies ordering millions of pills to the dead piling up on the streets of American cities and towns. The only way they could miss the opioid crisis and its roots in junk science was if they were actively seeking not to learn about it – and no surprise, given how many top regulators come from industry, and have worked at an opioid giant (and more: they are often married to pharma execs, they’re godparents to other pharma execs’ kids, they’re executors of pharma execs’ estates – all the normal, tight social bonds from the top players in concentrated industries).
Ten years ago, if you came home from the doctor’s with a prescription for oxy, and advice that they were not to be feared for their addictive potential, and an admonition that pain was “the fourth vital sign,” and its under-treatment was a great societal cruelty, you might have met someone who said that this was all bullshit, that you were being set up to be murdered by a family of ruthless billionaires whose watchdog had switched sides.
You might have called that person an “opioid denier.”