Scientific opinion on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus got into human beings has not changed much over the past year. The greatest probability is that a human caught it from an animal; a long ways down in probability is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nonexistent probability is that it is a biological weapon.
Most human diseases have come to us from animals. We know the origins of some of them. Studies of this kind take years and even decades. We have known about SARS-CoV-2 for a year and a half. Many similar viruses are known to exist in bats.
Those studies now can call on genome analysis. A number of virologists and epidemiologists make this their career. A professional who spends all their time on this has a wealth of knowledge that is never published – their last conversation with a colleague, the ways that ideas have gone wrong in the past, and much else that goes into their judgments. A professional in a given field also has a sense of how to evaluate new developments. Without this background, it’s easy to cherrypick data and publications, even without realizing it.
The popular writers who have been pushing the idea that the possibility of laboratory escape has been unthinkingly neglected have none of this background. They may not have thought about it for the last year, but that is not a significant consideration. Nor does their evaluation of the probabilities of various scenarios.
In particular, Nicholas Wade’s article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists should not be used as a reference. Wade demonstrated his ignorance of genetics in a book in which he argued that racial differences are genetic. Much of the argument on the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 depends on genetics. Likewise, Donald McNeil, Wade’s former colleague at the New York Times, supports Wade and should be ignored.
Much of the argument over laboratory escape is that Donald Trump and his people had this one thing right in the overwhelming cascade of racism and antiscience that they blasted out through 2020. But why? Whatever they said about laboratory escape was within a blame-China frame, free of evidence. In the same way, once Wade proved his inability to understand an essential part of the argument, I dismissed him.
There is so much being written on this subject now that heuristics are necessary to weed out the garbage. That is one of them. Another that I use is seeing stuff that’s wrong in an article. I then discount the rest of the article.
A stopped clock is right twice a day. There are some things right in all of these. But when those things are combined in a faulty frame, they become meaningless or misleading.
And so we come to what I think of as the bro culture pushing the “lab leak theory.” Words are important, and they know it. Scientists say “laboratory escape,” as I do here. The phrase “lab leak” is very, very recent. It’s an attractive alliteration, helps the phrase to stick in the mind. Where did they get that terminology?
The bros include Nate Silver, Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, David Leonhardt, and others. All well-off young white men with large media platforms. Most of them also felt that they were more qualified than the epidemiologists to decide when and whether masks and other non-pharmaceutical interventions are necessary. The media culture they are in favors being the first with the hottest, often contrarian take. They have been the primary promoters
There may be a story in how they became aware of this “great failure of the media” they now excoriate. Yesterday, Christopher Ford, Donald Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, published a striking open letter on both Medium and his own website. There is a lot to the letter; it seems primarily to be a response to criticisms of him in a Vanity Fair article that my heuristics told me to reject. Within the letter, however, is a documented story of how two of the minions Mike Pompeo inserted into Ford’s agency set about crafting a story of China’s developing SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon. As Ford tried to stop them, they burrowed in further, keeping their activities from him.
The simple question is where the bros got their tips and whether those tips are related to the disinformation campaign developed in Ford’s shop. Certainly the zone is being flooded with mis- and disinformation, as Steve Bannon recommended.