Sunday Open Thread for Subscribers 6/27

The *whew* addition

So it’s been a busy month! Between moving to New York City and working to finalize this piece on coronavirus origins, I haven’t had a chance to dive into many topics I’d been looking forward to writing about, partly because they were related, directly and indirectly, to the origins discussions.

I wanted to get the piece out before filling out the ancillary topics.

Once again, though, I’d like to insist that there *is* an audience that leans against the virality—my New York Times piece had no mention of Trump, no national security sourcing or allegations (didn’t even mention them in passing), no discussion of the media/social media angle that has gathered so much attention. And I did my best to have a dry presentation, and stay away from anything that might feel remotely inflammatory, which isn’t what we are supposed to do for public writing.

And yet…

This was the same pattern for that lengthy article on airborne transmission I had published. I did my best to present the least inflammatory version, and staying away from the villain narrative despite the existence of plenty of incompetent, corrupt and/or dishonest behavior that could have been the center of an alternative piece of the same story. And yet, it, too, found a sizable audience. Maybe not as big an audience as that a version aiming for virality might have, but that’s more than fine.

What’s not in that piece that I’ll now get out? So much.

Including but not limited to the following:

1-More about that furin cleavage site debate (it ended up being too wonky for the article but it’s actually an interesting intersection between science, evolution and academic incentives).

2-Conditional and posterior probability and why it’s so important to know when to use them, and when to stay away from “in general” post-hoc assessments for rare events.

3-How to try to align incentives globally in a way that can also help scientists in authoritarian settings, and also help us all.

4-Safety cultures in complex settings, and what we can learn from examples like the aviation industry.

5-The groupthink! The groupthink! And the motivated reasoning. So much that it hurts, and startling. Humans are humans, even smart ones, part zillion.

6-The striking dearth of biosafety discussions after a year of coverage when it is clearly central to the question. A lot of media coverage of this has been like interviewing only physicists studying fission while completely ignoring nuclear reactor experts to try to understand a potential Chernobyl.

7-Not understanding that all potential pathways are important, even if one judges them to be rare or unusual (though see 3) if the tail risk is catastrophic. How hard can this be even after more than a year of a miserable, deadly pandemic? Apparently, still very hard.

8-Induction, which gets implicitly invoked a lot around in this topic as a methodological tool, and why and how it is not appropriate, especially for rare events.

9-The nonsense around “don’t make China mad, they won’t cooperate.” It was always but a thin-leaf cover for “please don’t talk about things we don’t like.”

Chinese officials could hardly cooperate less, and they have been doing everything from claiming the outbreak started in the US, asserting that it was maybe imported from Japan in frozen fish, to spreading misinformation about Western vaccines. They may cooperate, going forward, though if we can find a reciprocal framework that is mutually beneficial for them as well. Pretending the things that happened didn’t happen—including, crucially the terrible toll of their initial cover-up—doesn’t affect that and “don’t talk about the topic” is really not at all the key to what we may be able to do going forward. If we don’t talk about it, though, we won’t even figure out what might be a desirable end-goal, despite the obvious difficulties.

10-The idea that recognizing the duress and limits scientists in authoritarian countries are under is somehow “racist” against them. It’s actually the opposite—the duress and the coercion they face is crucial to not being racist against them. The alternative to denying this very real duress is surrendering to caricatures of villainous scientists cooking up bioweapons! (With coronaviruses to boot).

So much more to come! Really looking forward to diving into all of this. I hope everyone is having a great week!