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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Science & Religion: Taking Hold and Letting Go

People have likely fought ideological battles since people could communicate with each other. We have grown in intellect, our knowledge of the world and made significant technological advances (though men accomplished things millennia ago that we still can’t understand), but has our nature changed much?

Ideological battles seem to be the basic stuff of which culture and society are made. At the lowest level, it’s “us against them”, and “we” protect our turf like our lives depend on it. We pick our turf, and we defend it: new against old; right against left; science against faith; and on and on.

These ideological battles can be, but don’t necessarily have to be, the stuff of racism, bias and ignorance. We need reference points and bases from which to operate and categorize and contextualize the world, but dogmatic, rigid adherence to our reference points block progress, even if we are “progressive”. The inability or unwillingness to remain open-minded limits our opportunities for advancement.  Continue reading

The Visceral Nature of Truth

Taking a step back from the clamor on social media, from the pundits and news sources, which have rarely been so vitriolic, righteous and passionate since the last presidential election, the more distant perspective gives me pause. One thing rings out to me as truth in the cacophony of disparate voices; it seems that everyone believes passionately that truth is truth, and truth is objective and people should know what truth is.

Yet, there is so much disagreement, and so many shades of disagreement. There is a virtual panoply of disagreement on all subjects, an almost infinite array of shades of disagreement even on matters on which some agreement can be found. But there is one common denominator.

The common denominator is that we all seem to believe that truth exists and that truth is objective. Continue reading

Flushing Out the Bias in Confirmation Bias

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Confirmation bias is a phrase that has been become a popular way of challenging people who disagree with us.  It might be used as a shield or a weapon in uncomfortable conversations… you know what I mean.

Once the confirmation bias phrase is deployed, the substance of any conversation is effectively deflected down the rabbit hole of who is or is not personally biased.

The funny thing is – we all have them. Biases I mean. We tend to be very aware of them, but not necessarily in ourselves. Most likely we aware of the biases (or what we think are biases) in others. Perhaps, less stridently, we are aware of our own.

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