And why stepping back and stepping out would help the reporting
"A mass media blackout" like this is truly incredible in 2021. It plays right into the hands of Trumpers. Profoundly not helpful.
Thank you for writing about this.
One thing I have been thinking about lately is the downstream effects of not covering this issue properly enough. Due to the blackout of this topic in the (American) media, we never got the point of talking about why was gain of function (etc) research such a dud in helping us get through the pandemic. As far as I can tell, most or all of the research that produced therapeutics and vaccines was produced by research that wasn't the result of this lab that was specifically studying coronaviruses of this exact nature.
A case could be made that the dangers of this kind of research are acceptable because they give us a headstart if one gets out via "natural" methods. But, if this wasn't a lab leak, the research done here seemingly gave us nothing. In addition to that, seems completely plausible that not only did the research give us nothing of value but it also could have been the cause of this turning into a pandemic. Even if the source is never pinned down, assessing risk/reward on this research seems like a good idea. Then, after that, figuring out an effective way to enforce what we find to be the right balance.
None of this has happened in the public eye (the latter of which is more or a political question than a scientific question), largely because the discussion got incorrectly short-circuited.
Well said. Often this blanket attack on everything Chinese is counterproductive and forces everyone to retreat into the safety of silence as louder voices prevail.
While everyone hails the great vaccine breakthrough, no one ever mentions it was Professor Zhang Yongzhen of Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center who made it all possible by releasing the genome of the virus in record speed to the entire world and without waiting for the official channels to do it. Scientists talk to each other in a language they understand. The trouble starts when politicians get into the act with their narrow vision on how the world should be.
Great point on how a filter effect on the experts willing to comment ended up distorting the conversation that was out there. I think this is sort of the dark side of your earlier points on needing to consider the sociological points of statements that you make. A lot of people want lab leak to be true simply to reduce the world into a simple ethno-nationalist framework (never mind how much US work and interest went on at the Wuhan lab), and it's easy to see why folks would want to sit on even true evidence if it's going to be distorted on that way. But what that means in practice is that the only people talking about lab leak are the ones who want to reduce the world into a simple entho-nationalist framework and the people who want to refute it; and the temptation is pretty overwhelming to just say "the entho-nationalists are factually wrong" and not "we have no idea if the facts are this way or not, but even if they are it wouldn't support your framework".
I's a coherent and true argument that "It could have been an escape from the Wuhan lab; this should prompt discussion about scientific institutions and risk, not nationalities or ideologies", the correct viewpoint loses a lot of potency when the entho-nationalists can correctly say "Hah! You were just trying to say the lab leak was impossible at first; you're only changing your mind when the truth is close at hand." Conspiratorial thinking ends up getting a lot of help from folks who are cautious with true facts when they think they'll lead to wrong conclusions.
Actually, this is why I'm in a minority of folks who was pretty happy with the CDC guidance change about fully vaccinated people. The statement "Does being vaccinated mean that being out without a mask is safe for everyone?" is a different one than "Should local mask mandates remain in place"? It's probably the right call to say YES to both. But there was a popular undercurrent of "If people know it's YES to question one, they'll never agree to YES to question two, so let's not say anything about question one for now regardless of evidence". Conspiracy thinking breeds from that kind of paternalistic omission, right? Now, I agree that the CDC should have done more to stress that these are two separate questions and that the answer to one didn't impact the other (they had a "still follow local mandates", but could have stood to reinforce it more). But in general, I do think it's good to remember you can really lose the initiative if you sit on facts because you're worried about the first-blush conclusions.
(With disclaimer that as a California health care employee, I knew that the guidance wouldn't lead to all mask mandates being dropped tomorrow or anything like that. Wanting the full truth is also something of a privileged position. It's very easy for me to say "Give me the facts and I'll do the work to steer them to the correct conclusion, even if the apparent destination of those facts is bad", but vulnerable people might not be able to survive that gulf between misleading-fact-being-revealed and misleading-fact-being-synthesized-into-correct-framework. How exactly do you balance gaining the credibility reserves of being willing to tell hard truths against "I am doing exactly the institutional lying I'm being accused of in a way that bolsters conspiracy theories, because if I don't vulnerable people will get hurt?" Interesting to think about.)
Great discussion - there are many lessons here. Among the most important imho: it's one more demonstration of the consequences of too much focus on misinformation and too little on how valid belief is constructed. With skepticism as a default posture, rather than a specialized tool to be deployed when we spot misinfo warning signs, it's a lot easier to avoid being carried along by a Narrative™ - as you so nicely brand it - for which no case has actually been made.
I am deeply impressed by your meticulous investigation into this particular issue and value your opinions. My only contribution to the discussion is my objection to the term "racism" in the case of judgements involving China, or any other foreign government. I personally think we are tribal thinkers and particularly hostile to outgroups when feeling threatened by them. Not convinced "racism" would be the proper epithet to describe our defensive, circle-wagoning tendencies. Open as always, to differing opinions.
The onus for changing the Twitter/media feedback loop probably has to be on journalists. But do we need the true subject matter experts to engage more - or maybe that's an unfair call to distraction from their work, with little benefit as their voices might be lost in the cacophony.
There is, of course, another question beyond the filigree one you pursued: what was the relation between the MSM ignoring the possibility of a lab leak and the fact that Trump promoted it and the current opening up of the question and the fact that Biden has endorsed the Trump view that China is a menace? Now, I can imagine someone saying that there is no connection. It just so happens that the MSM made a mistake not considering the possibility in the first place and now has come to realize it was hasty. Sure. But of course this is not a one off case where the MSM has jumped to the wrong conclusion quite conclusively and then jump backed equally conclusively. There are patterns here and avoiding seeing them is a bit of a disservice.
At risk of seeming a nut, let me go further. Right now there is very little evidence that there was a lab leak. Indeed, there is some evidence that the virus was circulating in Italy BEFORE the dates being considered for the purported leak. This bit of evidence has not been prominently featured now that the new story is whether covid might really be the « kung flu. » Why not? Moreover, I dont hear much discussion of the fact that Biden has placed investigating the issue not in the hands of a scientific panel but in the hands of the Intelligence Community and gave them a deadline of 90 days. Any bets on how good an investigation that will be? If the issue had not already been politicized putting it in the hands of the CIA/DIA/NSC is sure to anchor it solidly in scientific facts, right (a rhetorical question)? Right now there is virtually no chance that an investigation will do anything useful at all, except exacerbate tensions that so e will find more useful than others.
Last point, a philo of science one: right now we have very little idea concerning the mechanisms of Covid’s evolution even from the base form to its more virulent Kent and Indian forms. That means we have no idea really on how the virus could have developed as we know next to nothing about how it changes. There is decent evidence that an ancestor was widely circulating in Europe and maybe China and maybe other places before the outbreak in January. That means there is decent reason to think that the virus evolved naturally. Remember, the Kent variant had many simultaneous mutations that drove its development, a large enough number that many were surprised as to how this might have happened and led to various speculations a out it lingering in semi sick people as hosts. This sounds far fetched, right? Do you think the British might have developed it in one of their many bio labs?
I could go on, but you no doubt get the point. The real question is whether this investigation can be conducted in good faith and on a scientific basis. I doubt it. You seem not to. I am wondering why.
Here is a useful piece on this issue in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/chinese-lab-leak-hypothesis-coronavirus/619000/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=atlantic-daily-newsletter&utm_content=20210527&silverid=%25%25RECIPIENT_ID%25%25&utm_term=The%20Atlantic%20Daily
The main point is that it is quite unclear what pursuing this question will teach us. So the old motto might apply: those things not worth doing are not worth doing well. In fact, the main potentially useful thing we might learn is something he thinks scientists won’t like. Namely that lab leaks might be sources of disease. The article is worth a read.
The essay was both sad and encouraging. Sad because it identified all of the sloppy thinking, reliance on the usual suspects, tribal allegiances, etc that hurt informed discussion. But it was encouraging in that these are human, and correctable failings. Reporters and essayists can do better especially helped by criticism, rewards and punishments.
When you are at Columbia, perhaps you can connect with Andrew Gelman and get some funding for a twice a year awards dinner to recognize the best and the worst of the prior months reportgage.
Thank you Zeynep, for this post. You have made sense of the refusal of many to take the possibility of the lab leak seriously- when, we find out, all along, we shouldn't have been so quick to dismiss the possibility.
With any investigation, It is important to ask what gain will result from answering a question? Placing the blame more narrowly for some millions of deaths and trillions of lost productivity doesn't seem like a gain to me. Deciding which actions in labs and in our contact with edible species will decrease the chance of this happening again sounds like a more reasonable goal. Finding out if recognition that a lab escape of an experimentally-enhanced coronavirus could have shortened the development of a vaccination strategy by still another month or two, if that could be what happened and if it were recognized and exploited -- that would be a gain.
> These people are not puppets of a singular government, and criticizing a government is not racism, it’s often a requirement of antiracism.
I very much agree with this principle. Nonetheless, there are inevitable accusations of racism from puppets of the government, and although there are many dissidents, there are also many (maybe more) adherents, who agrees with such accusations and take offense much the same as if from actual racist statements. Like believers in conspiracy theories, the mental distraught they feel is real; unlike conspiracy theories which usually are not real, though, the increase of risk of racist attacks may also be real. This is why it was especially hard to talk about “lab leak” theory during the Trump admin, and why it may be easier now, but still very hard.
The solution I think is that there needs to be a simultaneous crackdown of the racist organizations to offset their potential recruiting efforts or radicalizing effects. I don’t think that’s likely in the US, though, with its focus on free speech and racism in its police force.