I have been seeing more buzz lately on the theory that COVID-19 leaked from the lab in Wuhan. Six months ago, the voices who promoted that concern were labeled conspiracy theorists. An article in the NY Times today (See Good morning. The lab-leak theory is everywhere. We have an explainer, by David Leonhardt, NY Times, may 27, 2021) poses the question: what changed?
A cynic like me (and partisan Republicans) will say the change is that we have a new party in control of the White House. The lab-leak theory is no longer a conspiracy theory because that narrative has lost its expediency and usefulness with the change in political control.
As the article points out, the origin of the virus was unclear from the beginning. Some scientists, politicians and journalists urged consideration of the Wuhan lab. Those voices were drowned out, however, by louder voices.
Now, things have changed. The Times article reports:
“Two weeks ago, 18 scientists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for a new investigation and describing both the animal-to-human theory and the lab-leak theory as ‘viable.’ And three scientists who last year dismissed the lab-leak explanation as a conspiracy theory have told The Wall Street Journal that they now consider it plausible.”
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, now says, “We cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident”, though he maintains it more likely that the virus developed naturally. Over a year ago, a couple of Chinese researchers wrote a paper concluding the virus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”, but not many people were willing to jump on the bandwagon.
The Times article is refreshingly candid in its assessment that the dismissal of this lab-leak theory “appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization”. I could turn this statement into a weapon for a particular political ideology, but I won’t. I also believe a lab-leak is less likely than natural causes based on my understanding of the facts that are known to date.
Regardless of what is more likely than not, the lab-leak appears to be more plausible than the scientific (and political) consensus would allow just six months ago. The political din has subsided long enough now for the disparate voices of scientists to be heard who maintain we should not rule out the lab at Wuhan as a potential source from which COVID arose.
This shift in the “consensus” can be attributed more directly to political ideation and political polarization, than science. This seems to be the indictment of the article.
We are so divided along partisan lines in our country (and world) that we can’t think straight; we can’t even get our facts straight. Our filter for determining fact from fiction and credible theory from conspiracy theory is so tainted by the dirty film of political dross that reality seems to be obscured to a large segment of our society by it.
A classical logical fallacy is the attempt to support of an argument, or the critique of one, based on who is making the argument. In the partisan-charged political environment in the United States, however, that is exactly how we approach the assertations coming from partisan sources. We embrace assertions uncritically that come from our own “side”, and we dismiss assertions out of hand that come from the “other camp”.
None of this is any support for or against the theory that COVID-19 leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, China. We don’t know, still. I am not sure what difference it will make now, other than to give us reason to distrust and be mad at China, though maybe it could help us to develop safer practices in our experimentation on viruses. (As I think about it, the latter is reason enough to want to know the answer, even if the bare truth is not of itself sufficient reason.)
The former – distrust of China and anger directed at them – is the emotional stuff that sells news. Characterizing concerns about a lab-leak in Wuhan as an accusation that it was deliberately created as a biological weapon is even more “valuable” news fodder.
In fact, that was the characterization that some news outlets gave to early the concern expressed by one Republican senator (Tom Cotton of Arkansas) about a lab leak. News reports characterized his concern as a claim that China intentionally created COVID in a lab as a biological weapon. Only, he really didn’t say that.
Digging deeper, that particular Republican senator was known for his criticism of China and “promoting falsehoods”. It was an easy stretch, therefore, to put words in his mouth. (Even if he didn’t really say that, he probably was thinking it, right?)
Here is the thing: even if he was thinking that way, the concern that the virus leaked from a lab was still plausible. Even if it wasn’t the most likely possibility, it was still a possibility.
Why wouldn’t the scientists of the world consider that possibility before dismissing it? (Especially, as potential trails to other sources grew cold.)
The Times article provides the answer: “some scientists and others also seem to have decided that if Cotton believed something — and Fox News and Donald Trump echoed it — the idea had to be wrong.” It didn’t help that we were full throttle into one of the most polarizing and contentious presidential seasons in history.
I don’t argue here that the scientific world should have rushed off on a witch hunt. Appropriate pressure and attention should have been given to this possibility, however, especially in response to China’s complete lack of transparency and cooperation.
Hindsight is often 20/20, as the saying goes. In hindsight, it seems, the scientific world shouldn’t have dismissed the lab-leak possibility out of hand.
The most concerning thing about this chapter in worldwide politics is how easy it is for a “bubble of fake consensus” to form based, not on science, but on political influences. That top scientists (and world leaders) can be more influenced by their inherent biases than the scientific method on a worldwide scale is a frightening reality.
The saying, “its science”, tends to be conversation stopper, but can’t let it be the end of the story because even scientists who are entrusted with the sacred vow of the scientific method sometimes subvert it with their unacknowledged and (perhaps) unwitting biases. We need to be more skeptical of our skepticism. We need to be more partisan against our partisanship.
It doesn’t help that we all sometimes exaggerate facts that are favorable and discount and ignore facts that are inconvenient to our political allegiances. The fact that some Republicans do this hurts their credibility, and it fuels Democrats who want nothing more than to prove them wrong in the battle for partisan supremacy.
I blame both sides in this. It takes two to tango, as another saying goes.
Some Republicans fuel the Democratic weapons against them with their partisan-flavored narratives that use facts like opportunistic tools to be used or discarded, depending on the particular façade they are trying to build for the world to see. Some Democrats do the same thing. We seem to have some skill in being able to see past the “other” façade, but we seem sometimes incapable of seeing the thinness of our own facades.
I am not sure who is winning this war of illusory substance. The partisan battles ebb and flow, trading off victories every two to four years. I do know who is losing this war, though: the American people.
The laboratory of the American experiment in Democracy is leaking a steady stream of false narratives that threaten to undo us. We have failed to appreciate the power of truth for truth’s sake, and the virus of our implicit biases threatens the health of this country.