There’s a lot of shouting right now about whether SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some of the more partisan shouting is that Donald Trump and his minions were right last year to “consider” a lab leak. They were right last year in the sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Yes, they mentioned that possibility, embedded in claims that the virus was a bioweapon and the overwhelming motivation to blame China to take the focus off Trump’s inability to deal with the pandemic.
The virologists I follow have kept a lab leak as a possibility all along. I haven’t followed this story closely until now because
- The most important story has been dealing with the spread of the pandemic and
- We are not likely to know how the virus got into humans for a long time.
The probability that most scientists (including me) assigned to the possible origins was bioweapon 0%, once the genome was analyzed and showed no telltale signs of human-caused rearrangements; transmission from animals to humans, most likely because that’s how we’ve gotten most of our diseases; and lab leak possible but unlikely because accidents happen but people handling viruses take precautions against leaks.
Far too much of the shouting comes from people who have no experience in the field or have been discredited in other ways. Jonathan Chait is loud and decidedly not a virologist. His home magazine published a long article by Nicholson Baker, who writes novels about such things. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a long piece by science writer Nicholas Wade, who also published, a few years back, a book detailing his genetic theories about why Chinese are good at business and Jews at money. That should have discredited him from being taken seriously on anything relating to genetics again.
Then there are the reporters. Some are doing a reasonable job. Last night a tweet reminded me that Michael Gordon, who reported a Wall Street Journal article with the unconfirmed claim that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute had been hospitalized in November 2019, also coauthored with Judith Miller the infamous New York Times article saying erroneously that the US Intelligence community found that Saddam Hussein’s aluminum tubes were suitable for centrifuges.
I have a strong emotional reaction to that error. It helped to precipitate the Iraq war, for which people in the Middle East and the rest of us will continue to pay for a very long time. More personally, I was watching the Times carefully for that article. An intelligence finding was expected to be released. I had had professional interactions with the group at Oak Ridge who design centrifuges. I knew that they would be involved in the evaluation of those aluminum tubes. My own sense was that the aluminum was not of the quality needed for centrifuges, but I knew those folks would know.
Eighteen intelligence agencies make up the US Intelligence Community. The Department of Energy includes one of them, and that is where the Oak Ridge people would have input. I was surprised when the Miller-Gordon article said that the intelligence community assessed that the tubes were appropriate for centrifuges. I scoured the article to see what the DOE said, but that wasn’t made explicit. I reluctantly accepted the finding and the likelihood of war.
Years later, we learned that a CIA analyst, who had no particular knowledge of centrifuges or materials, drove the assessment. The DOE and the Department of State’s INR bureau dissented.
The Times later evaluated their coverage of the runup to the Iraq war, and found this article wanting. Editorial decisions around the article – placement of the article and corrections to it – were also problematic. Gordon continued at the Times until 2017, when he moved to the Wall Street Journal. Miller was forced to resign from the Times in 2005, largely for her coverage of the Iraq war.
There are subsidiary issues that this history brings up. The overwhelming urge to give white men second chances, for one. We see this with Nicholas Wade being rehabilitated to push the lab-leak theory. Miller’s fate was more appropriate. There is no shortage of capable reporters to replace those tho mess up badly.
The motivation behind the big push on the possibility of a lab leak. Far too many people tweet about it with NO – repeat NO – background to evaluate it in any way. They are “following the logic” or other excuses to push their names out in the hope that they will be the lucky clock on which the correct answer stops. But we are unlikely to know how the virus jumped to humans for many years; that has been the case with other diseases.
Three big science stories now surrounded with misinformation. Microwave directed-energy weapons (Havana Syndrome), the lab leak, and UFOs. The zone is flooding with shit. Is it that too many people don’t understand science, that we’re looking for excitement after a year of grim science news, or disinformation? They all have a political side, mostly justifying war against China or Russia if they turn out to be responsible. Good grief, haven’t we been here before?
I might as well add that there is a crappy lab-leak article in Vanity Fair that is not worth your time to read. Not linking to it.
And the Times, back in 2004, had the integrity to look back at what went wrong with their reporting which helped to precipitate a national disaster. It’s almost five years now, and they haven’t bothered to look into how Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers reported “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” on the eve of 2016’s disastrous election.