The lab leak hypothesis and media complicity

Now that the great white shark that is the media — always hunting, always devouring — has moved on, it once again appears to be safe to jump back into the waters of the COVID lab leak hypothesis, as it always should have been.  An analogy will be helpful here to show just how far the media deviated from reality to push their theory.

Imagine that you buy an American-made car, and you show it to your mechanically inclined friend.  Upon seeing it, he immediately says, "Well, the one thing I know for sure is that it wasn't made in Michigan."

He then explains that the car's make and model typically come from Ohio and may even have parts from Kentucky or Mississippi or Mexico — a satisfactory, if pedantic, explanation.

Now imagine that you've bought a second car, but this time, you merely tell your friend that you've bought an American-made car, without giving any details.  At this point, despite an information vacuum, he still says it could not have come from Michigan, even though common sense says Michigan produces the most automobiles in the country.  Despite your friend's expertise, you would find this blanket assertion unsatisfactory. Nor would it help if, in response to a request for more information, he insists only that he knows because he knows, and that's that.

Because the Wuhan Institute of Virology can rightly be called the Detroit of coronavirus research, for media outlets to claim that the one place in the world the virus couldn't have originated is that lab is just as ludicrous as your friend saying the second car could never have come from Michigan.  This means that the media's insistence that this hitherto unknown virus could not have possibly come from the Wuhan lab was clearly — and sadly — political in nature.

Science and politics do not play well together.  Optimally, the scientific process is a perpetual search for the best explanation possible for everything that goes on around us.  The process builds upon itself, shedding parts that eventually prove untenable and allowing new ideas to be investigated to create as clear a picture of reality as possible, ad infinitum.

On the other hand, politics, at its best, is a grasping search for literally anything — true or not — that will help secure one's personal position of power until at least Friday.

From the Beginning, the lab leak hypothesis clearly had enough merit not to be dismissed out of hand, let alone face such virulent attacks that even people who claim that the Moon weighs exactly 17 pounds tend not to have to struggle against it.  Hypothesis.  And note that I use the word hypothesis advisedly here.  A hypothesis in science is the term for an idea that merits further rigorous investigation and testing to prove it one way or another; a theory is what results from that process if the hypothesis turns out to be correct, or at least very highly probable, and can stand up to ongoing scrutiny.

It is also crucial to note that the concept of "settled science" is anathema to the entire undertaking.  Science is not to be followed like a road from your home to the store because, when new information emerges, the store could end up in a completely different location or even disappear altogether.

While not unexpected, the attitude toward the lab leak hypothesis has been both unprecedented and incredibly damaging.  Now, though, even those who were quick to staple-gun tinfoil hats to the heads of anyone who even dared broach the subject seem to have come to the realization they were wrong to condemn an idea that not only had merit, but was, in fact, compared to other concepts floated, the most likely cause of the pandemic: the virus escaped the Wuhan lab during unnecessary and slipshod gain-of-function research.

But even reluctant acknowledgments are coming with a qualifier.  After more than a year of following the party line (in this case a literal party, as in the CCP) on the topic, the media are clearly attempting to shift the blame for their failure onto the former president.  The reasoning, such as it is, can be summed up thusly: we decided to think he was lying — and tell everyone else he was lying — because we didn't like him, and we wanted to do everything we could to make sure he was not re-elected, the scientific method and even human safety be damned.  That, moreover, was an entirely valid position.

The media's hatred was so visceral that, if Trump had ever tweeted that "eating food is an important part of staying alive," they would have met the assertion with fat jokes and general derision; "fact-checked" it, at the very least, as "missing context" because sometimes people shouldn't eat (e.g., before surgery); and at least one story would have appeared claiming that the tweet was a violation of federal law and an ethical breach that could lead to impeachment for self-dealing because people buy food at Trump's hotels.

In the case of Trump extolling food, the scenario is of no lasting importance and a bit silly, even if depressingly plausible.  But in the case of COVID, placing immediate political necessity above the need for the truth has had lethal real-world consequences.

And that is the tragedy of mixing politics and science.

Thomas Buckley is the former mayor of Lake Elsinore, California, and a former newspaper reporter.  He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at  You can read more of his work at

Image: Old car by Aleksey Churushkin, CC BY-SA 4.0, as adapted by Andrea Widburg.

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