Covid’s origins and the systemic corruption of science

For more than a year, honest and impartial scientific exploration of the origins of the Covid-19 virus has been blocked, with consideration of the possibility that it was engineered in the Wuhan Institute of Virology virtually suppressed, mocked as a “conspiracy theory.”  This has had enormous real-world consequences, not merely because it let off the hook China – and Dr. Fauci, who approved American money flowing to gain-of-function research there on coronaviruses -- but because “an engineered virus behaves differently from a naturally evolved one, and this has implications for how it can best be fought.”

Only with the publication of a rigorous examination of the question by Nicholas Wade, former science editor of the New York Times, has the tide turned, with numbers of established figures retreating from their insistence that the virus could not have come from a lab. Even Politifact has withdrawn its “fact check” that awarded a “pants on fire” rating to a doctor who claimed it came from a lab.

[I]n Sept. 2020, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a virologist and former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong, repeated the theory on Fox News, saying, "I can present solid scientific evidence to our audience that this virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature. It is a man-made virus created in the lab."

PolitiFact gave her a “pants on fire rating.”

How this travesty of scientific inquiry and public discourse came about is a matter of great importance. When science is corrupted, the consequences can be disastrous. Matthew Crawford has written a must-read essay on how this scandal came about, and the reasons he cites have little to do with the malign influence of China on our media and much to do with systemic problems in the way science is funded.

Here are some excerpts from the article that should be read in its entirety. Crawford points his finger at the guilty parties.

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.

(snip)

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.”

(snip)

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.

(snip)

[I]n 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.

(snip)

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.

[T]he 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.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tuip: David Kahn.

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