May 21, 2021

The idea that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a laboratory, and then escaped accidentally, always had a certain plausibility. The virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, where there is a laboratory that conducts research on bat coronaviruses — one of only a handful in the world to do so. Yet this possibility was dismissed quite forcefully and from the beginning of the outbreak by prominent virologists.

Now that same lab-leak hypothesis appears to be on the verge of acceptance as the most likely. Such reversals happen; it is the nature of science. In an emergency, it is understandable that a research community might commit to one theory over another, even if prematurely, in order to focus its intellectual energies and resources. Surely that’s what happened here.

But there may be more to the story. On 2 May, the veteran science reporter Nicolas Wade published a long, detailed account of the career of the lab-leak hypothesis. His reporting appears to have triggered a cascade of defections, not simply from a consensus that no longer holds, but from a fake consensus that is no longer enforceable.

Now 18 scientists have signed a letter in the journal Science with the title “Investigate the origins of COVID-19”. The New York Times notes that “Many of the signers have not spoken out before.” “Speaking out” is an odd locution to use in a scientific context; one expects to find it in a story about a whistle blower. If, during the Covid fiasco, scientists have not felt free to speak their minds, then we have a serious problem that goes beyond the immediate emergency of the pandemic. Regardless of how the question of the virus’s origins is ultimately decided, we need to understand how the political drama surrounding the science played out if we are to learn anything from this pandemic and reduce the likelihood of future ones.

 

By now the reader will have heard of “gain of function” research and the hazards it poses. A large number of scientists came together in July 2014 as the Cambridge Working Group to urge that “Experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches.” Later in 2014, the Obama administration issued a moratorium on this type of research, partly in response to some “bio-safety incidents” that occurred at federal research facilities.

But before the ban went into effect, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) funded some gain-of-function research which, through an intermediary nonprofit and subcontracting arrangement, came to be conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The moratorium was lifted during the Trump administration, apparently at the urging of Anthony Fauci, and a 2019 renewal of the 2014 research grant did include gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2 exhibits biological signatures consistent with the plan of research laid out in the grant.

Doing such research requires extreme safety precautions, and these make it very cumbersome to do the work. You have to wear what is essentially a space suit, and every task is burdened with procedures that slow the work down dramatically. Meanwhile, scientists are competing with one another to publish first.

As Wade notes, researchers have an incentive to carry the work out under less restrictive safety standards, and therefore to downplay the risks when applying for grants. And indeed the work at Wuhan was not conducted at the highest safety standard. In this, there may have been a subtle form of collusion. There is no need to posit a conspiracy, one need only take note of the shared incentives. It is other members of the guild who conduct the review process that decides the allocation of research funds; they are unlikely to insist upon more stringent safety standards — which would have to apply to themselves as well. Research communities have internal competition, but also collective interests.

Wade points out that the “consensus” that Covid must have an entirely natural origin was established by two early pronouncements, one in The Lancet in February 2020 and the other in Nature Medicine in March 2020. These were op-eds, not scientific papers. Both spoke with certainty about matters which it was impossible to be certain about. Wade writes: “It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Dr Daszak’s organisation funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Dr. Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

In other words, the guy who was orchestrating research on bat coronaviruses at the lab in Wuhan corralled other scientists, with similar professional interests, into making a declaration to the effect that anyone who mentions the (obvious) possibility that the pandemic (which started in Wuhan) might have a connection to this research could only be doing so with bad intentions. This seems a bit thuggish.

The yawning gap between the actual state of knowledge at the time and the confidence displayed in the two letters should have been obvious to anyone in the field of virology. And indeed, there were scientists from outside the guild, but in fields adjacent enough to speak competently, who said as much. The Lancet  and Nature Medicine letters were in fact anti-scientific in spirit and intent. Yet the pronouncements had the effect of shutting down inquiry that was not only legitimate, but urgently needed.

Wade notes that “in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.”

This is consistent with everything we know from the sociology of science. With the centralisation and bureaucratisation of scientific funding, defection from a well-institutionalised consensus is even more costly now than it was when Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He showed that it is almost always from outside a research community that challenges arise. Progress happens when a prevailing scientific consensus is revealed to rest on the loyalties and intellectual affinities of an established research milieu, and not simply on correspondence with reality.

Something is left unexplained in the consensus view, and to focus on this lacuna is to be an outsider. Reliably, such challenges are fought tooth and nail by the research empire built on the encrusted consensus. The scientific paradigm they are invested in is typically superseded only when the scientists sitting atop the institutional hierarchy literally die, or retire. It is not “anti-science” to acknowledge this. Rather, the point is that one has to keep in mind that scientists are human beings first.

That much is old news. But in the catastrophe of the Covid pandemic, something novel and disturbing comes into view. A peculiar form of intellectual intimidation has become prominent in public life in general, and science has not been spared. The letter in The Lancet stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The invocation of “conspiracy theory” has become a reflex by which incumbents in many domains seek to arrest criticism. They have had to do a lot of this over the last 10 years, as the internet has broken the knowledge monopolies by which institutional credibility is maintained.

As I wrote in a previous essay, policy challenges from outsiders presented through fact and argument, offering some picture of what is going on in the world that is rival to the prevailing one, are not answered in kind, but are met rather with denunciation that is highly moralised. Epistemic threats to institutional authority are resolved into moral conflicts between good people and bad people.

What is significant is how effective the early, pre-emptive declarations of scientific consensus in The Lancet and Nature Medicine were in garnering media enforcement of public opinion on the matter. The “fact checkers” of PolitiFact used these statements to shut down any discussion of the lab leak hypothesis. In effect, it appears the scientists who were signatories to the two letters may have been acting as a classic research cartel. Such behaviour is common enough in science. But because of the political environment, they were able to use the magic words “conspiracy theory” to trigger a wider epistemic immune reaction in high-prestige opinion.

Because this reaction had achieved a kind of automaticity during the Trump years, the guild of virologists could deploy it for their own purposes, directing establishmentarian ire against a perfectly reasonable course of inquiry. At the risk of understatement, such inquiry would have brought unwelcome attention to the US-funded virus work in Wuhan in particular, and gain of function research in general.

As the evolutionary biologist turned cultural critic Bret Weinstein (who specialises in bats, as it happens) has pointed out, the resulting moratorium on pursuing the lab leak hypothesis may have been quite consequential, as an engineered virus behaves differently from a naturally evolved one, and this has implications for how it can best be fought.

Since April 2020, he has been insisting that a possible lab origin for the virus be kept on the table. Notably, his avenue of communication is his YouTube channel. Likewise, Nicholas Wade’s powerful and widely circulated article appeared, not in any national outlet, but on the blog site Medium. (It has since been republished by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, not an organisation within the orbit of virology or public health.) Only now has “the nation’s newspaper of record” and other organs of acceptable opinion been dragged into acknowledging what may be the most important story of the pandemic.

The logic of the surrounding political frame for these events is painfully simple. 1. Donald Trump publicly floated the idea that Covid may have had its origin in a Chinese lab. 2. It was therefore a point of conviction for all those who believe in science that such a hypothesis could only be a conspiracy theory, probably rooted in “Sinophobia”.

The letter in Science calling for an investigation concludes by rejecting “anti-Asian sentiment”. Clearly, this was thought necessary. When the lab leak hypothesis has been mentioned at all in the legacy press, the “conspiracy theory” has often been juxtaposed with reporting on anti-Asian hate crimes, thereby subsuming an urgent scientific question to the Trump-era morality play.

Journalism suffered a general intellectual collapse during the Trump administration, as many have noted on the Left and Right alike. The moral grandeur of #Resistance appears to have been so intoxicating to those who felt the mantle of Saving Democracy settle on their shoulders that the workaday demands of journalistic diligence and sceptical curiosity seemed paltry. The great imperative was to keep underlining the divide between good people and bad people. What we have learned is that a Manichaean atmosphere of moral sorting is intimidating, and therefore provides the perfect cover for “informal pacts of mutual protection,” to borrow a phrase from Martin Gurri.

Liberalism began as a doctrine of political scepticism directed at rulers, based on the truism that power corrupts, and always adopts a virtuous pose. In time, this gave rise to a complementary form of journalism that was basically adversarial towards the politicians it reported on. If we want to revive the spirit of liberalism and adapt it to a technocratic era, it will require a similarly sceptical form of science journalism, based on the recognition that appeals to Science have become the basic idiom for the exercise of authority.