Opinion | Media Groupthink and the theory of laboratory leaks
If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the biggest science scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving techniques ethically dubious which make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a badly safeguarded installation, badly concealed by a regime more interested in propaganda than in human life, catastrophic for the whole world.
But this possible scandal, still unproven, obscures a real scandal, which remains to be digested.
I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social and mainstream) to take the lab leak theory seriously. The reasons for this – high-class partisanship and gullible reporting – and the methods by which it has been applied – censorship and defamation – are a reminder that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak for it.
Rewind the tape until February of last year, when people like Senator Tom Cotton began to report a disturbing set of facts: the bizarre coincidence of a pandemic originating in the same city where a Chinese laboratory was conducting tests. high-end experiments on bat viruses; the disturbing report that some of the early Covid patients had no contact with the food markets where the pandemic allegedly originated; the fact that the Chinese government lied and pushed its way through the crisis. Think what you want from the Arkansas Republican, but these are reasonable observations that warrant an impartial investigation.
The common reaction in liberal elite circles? A Washington Post reporter called it a “fringe theory” which “has been repeatedly challenged by experts.” The Atlantic Council accused Cotton to encourage an “infodemic” by “pushing for the debunked claim that the novel coronavirus may have been created in a Wuhan laboratory.” A Vox writer said it was a “dangerous conspiracy theory” put forward by conservatives “known to regularly spit nonsense (and denigrate China)”.
There are many other examples of this type. But the general form of the media narrative was clear. On the one hand, there were experts in places like the World Health Organization: knowledgeable, incorruptible, authoritative, noble. On the other, a group of right-wing yahoos pushing a laughable xenophobic fantasy in order to distract from the mismanagement of the crisis by the Trump administration.
Yet it was also a narrative with holes larger than Donald Trump’s mouth.
Was it scandalous to think that the virus could have escaped the Wuhan Institute? Not if you were listening to evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein’s patient, lucid, and scientifically rich explanation of the laboratory leak hypothesis – which he delivered almost a year ago on the decidedly non-mainstream podcast, Joe Rogan.
Was it smart for science journalists to accept the authority of a February 2020 letter, signed by 27 scientists and published in The Lancet, feverishly insisting on “the natural origin” of Covid? Not if these journalists had polled the the links between the letter’s lead author and the Wuhan lab (a fact, as science writer Nicholas Wade points out in a landmark Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists essay, which has been common knowledge for months).
Was it wise to assume that the World Health Organization, which has serve as a spokesperson for the Chinese regime’s propaganda, should be an authority on what counted as “disinformation” Covid by Facebook, which in February banned the theory of laboratory leaks from its platform? Not if the goal of companies like Facebook is to bring the world together, rather than whitewashing the Chinese government’s disinformation while modeling its illiberal methods.
To its credit, Facebook reversed itself last week. News agencies quietly correct (or stealthily edit) last year’s contemptuous reports, sometimes using the fig leaf of new information about Wuhan lab workers infected in the fall of 2019 with a Covid-like disease. And the public health community is taking a fresh look at its Covid origin story.
But even now we have a clear idea of the herd of independent hard-working spirits. If the lab leak theory is finally getting the respectful attention it has always deserved, it’s mainly because Joe Biden authorized an investigation and Anthony Fauci admitted his doubts about the naturally occurring claim. In other words, the right president and the right public health expert have blessed a certain line of inquiry.
Yet the theory of laboratory leakage, whether or not it turns out to be correct, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed him. Even if the scientific “consensus” contested it. Even if the fanatics – who rarely need a pretext – drew fanatic conclusions.
Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not stories. He should pay as much attention to intelligent flies as to prominent authorities. And he should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.
Anyone wondering why so many people have become so hostile to statements by public health officials and science journalists should draw the appropriate conclusion from this story. When you talk to the public about the dangers of disinformation, you better not peddle it yourself.
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