How the Twitter/Media Feedback Loop Can Work to Undermine Our Understanding

And why stepping back and stepping out would help the reporting

There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the change in media coverage of, and official reaction to,  what’s called the “lab leak” hypothesis. I don’t think we are even having the correct conversation yet on the topic itself (as per this newsletter’s Sunday open thread discussions…). Still, there is a media/coverage side of the lab leak issue that’s increasingly being talked about that I wanted to highlight a bit, and also want to talk a bit about how causal inference can work for things that happened versus the future possibilities.

I typed some of this out on Twitter quickly about two weeks ago after a cross-section of really eminent virologists and scientists signed a letter in Science. The letter criticized the dismissive attitude towards the possibility of a lab leak, as well as the attempts to portray the notion as racism or an evidence-free conspiracy theory that’s being pushed merely for nefarious purposes.

As a recap, here’s what I said two weeks ago.

Now that all the discussion is happening more out in the open (see some more of it discussed here, though I’d have a few quibbles with that piece), it’s easier to explain what I was trying to say there on Twitter.

Essentially, in early 2020, Trump and Senator Tom Cotton weighed in on the issue, after which it exploded in the fever swamps, with undeniable racism at play, advocating increasingly weird and unlikely scenarios. All that made it kind of became harder to talk about the topic at all. 

At the same time, a small but vocal group of scientists, some of whom had fairly active profiles on social media, provided a lot of content, quotes and viewpoints to the media,  generally making themselves very accessible but with a particular point of view on this question. They also wrote strongly-worded opinion pieces for a few high-profile scientific outlets, essentially dismissing a version of what’s getting called the “lab leak” hypothesis—which is fine, as is their right.

By itself, there isn’t anything wrong with what I just outlined. That small vocal group of critics were not even entirely wrong, in my view, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions and to being loud about them. 

But the response to that reality from traditional journalism/media is where things went awry. 

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Next came the scolding “fact-checks,” painting all discussion of the lab leak as a possibility in any version as mere racism or just a conspiracy theory, suggesting that any attempt to have a sane conversation about a really important topic was, at best, aiding and abetting racists if not outright racist. Of course, these knee-jerk dismissals just makes the problem worse, because when the mainstream media ignores vital, debatable topics, the ones left speaking about the issue most vocally become the racists in the fever swamps. 

In any case, just looking at the names on that letter itself would make it obvious to someone who was familiar with the field why it was such a big deal, but it seemed not to get the media attention it would get in that context, probably because most the signatories, while leaders in the filed, are not on social media much, if at all and not that active — and there are many others in this and related fields who aren’t involved openly at all, but would maybe talk to reporters if contacted. However, media keeps quoting the same few very accessible people, to the detriment of the story.

Plus, the coverage has been weird in terms of logical analysis and causal inference. Once something does happen in the real world, we cannot go directly from considering the abstract odds of it happening before to understanding what actually happened after it already happened. It’s one thing to understand how pandemics happen, in general and in the past. It’s an entirely different process to try to answer the question as how did this one happen.

Those are radically different processes for purposes of causal inference. Scientists in one particular field can help provide very important frameworks for all this, but cannot alone answer the question of what happened with a real-world event, because their expertise largely is in the former question. The latter question — what caused the current pandemic — requires a different and broader set of evidence and a different study of causal mechanisms, including forensics, investigative processes, and the examination of circumstantial evidence when details are missing (because it matters for events that did happen). Of course, scientific plausibility and facts are crucial, too—otherwise, you do get uninformed conspiracy theories. 

Here’s a way to understand this (analogy inspired by this conversation). The odds of winning a lottery are very low. However, when they are won, it is almost always by people who purchased tickets. So if we are looking to win a lottery (well, in this case, a pandemic so we are trying to avoid winning one), the advice would be to purchase tickets, understanding that the odds of winning are low anyway, but this is the likely path. However, imagine that someone named Joe who did win the lottery is suspected of having found his ticket on the street. In general, the odds of both the event and the path to success are very, very low. In particular, after the person has produced the winning ticket, the former analysis—what’s the best way to win the lottery?—no longer answers the question of how Joe won the lottery, though it is something to consider.

Another way of thinking about it is building safer planes versus studying a crash that happened. People who know the science behind how to build safer planes are essential in a study of a crash, but that’s not all that goes into understanding it once a plane crash has happened. It may well be because rare events that aren’t really about principles of aerodynamics may have played a role—pilot error, hijacking, bombs, deliberate crashing etc. even though the latter, for example, is exceedingly rare.

But yes, if we build planes that are structurally faulty, we will have more crashes. But posterior analysis of a plane crash is not the same question. To put the technical jargon here, assessing priors is not the same process as assessing posterior probabilities.

It’s true, this isn’t the topic I’d think about right now in my preferred world, given all that is going on with the pandemic. (I do have another piece coming out soon on the ongoing crisis). However, for most of the traditional media to ignore or dismiss an important issue for a whole year is exactly what fuels the racism and the conspiracies, because a mass media blackout of a topic is essentially a conspiracy, and one that concedes discussion of key points and facts to the racists. 

I believe that working to answer key questions that otherwise would be monopolized by racists is core to practicing antiracism. I also believe that equating criticism of the Chinese government with racism against Chinese people is, to put it bluntly, is, indeed, racist. The government is not the people, and like all authoritarian countries, China has great many dissidents.Some dissidents we know of, and there are many others who cannot speak out freely, including some who risked everything to warn us about the pandemic early on and were punished by their government. We should honor and highlight their work, not bury them by acting like criticizing a government — any government, to be honest, but especially unelected, authoritarian ones — means we’re somehow being racist against a billion of people who just happen to live there, or people of that descent. These people are not puppets of a singular government, and criticizing a government is not racism; rather, it’s often a requirement of antiracism. 

That’s why I really liked how that letter in Science ended, as it should, reminding us the sacrifices of doctors, journalists, scientists and citizens from China who risked so much so that we’d be better informed.