The Wuhan Lab and the Virus of Our Implicit Biases

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 dismissals 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 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 it obscures reality to us.  

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