It’s May, 2021. The past few weeks have been a major reckoning for some, and a missed opportunity for others.
After more than a year of suppression, the lab leak hypothesis is now out in the open for discussion. And even before we get to its truth or falsehood, some very big questions have been brought into full relief about the media and public discourse.
Start with these: How do we know what’s true? Who should decide which ideas are acceptable to discuss, and what should be shouted down and de-platformed? What is the value of dissent? How adept are we at updating our prior assumptions, which is the essence of learning?
Do you have enough respectful, informed dissent in your information diet, or would you instead prefer not to know the world as it is?
All the forces are here
Forty years ago, I began my journey into computing. When networking came about, I naively imagined the Information Age would be nothing but good. I thought putting computers and later mobile devices in peoples’ hands would help us much more fully understand the world. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I felt interactivity and databases and more would lead to an ever-more informed public.
Today, it’s clear I missed several things in my optimism, such as the power of this interconnected fabric to amplify alternate realities and entrench fractured bubbles of consensus. The past decade has shown that vocal consensus can masquerade as truth. I greatly underestimated the ability of these bubbles to establish what appears to be truth, but are rather just ephemeral consensus of the loud, culturally dominant or self-appointed “fact-checkers” and narrative enforcers.
I didn’t foresee the huge economic incentives that interactivity would create for formerly credible media to evolve (without any sort of announcements or brand-name change) from informing to delighting, enraging and protecting their audience.
General News Economics Used to Reward a Little of Something For Everyone
Forty years ago, our news media had to endure high fixed costs, one-to-many, limited, expensive, and unidirectional channels to get the word out.
From the 1800’s through the early 2000’s, getting news to the public involved enormously costly printing presses, newsstand distribution infrastructures. In broadcast television, production equipment and FCC broadcast spectra were insanely expensive, unidirectional, and very limited. It was nearly impossible to tell who truly was engaged. The famous adage in the advertising world was “I can tell you 100,000 people watched the show, I just can’t tell you which ones.”
To maximize profits in that world, you want everyone to buy your newspaper. You want everyone to watch your TV nightly news. After all, you’ve already done the work and expense to get it everywhere. You want all passersby to spend that quarter. You want all people to trust what you say. You don’t want anyone to flip that channel (an incentive which endures today, but for different reasons, and is even more pronounced.)
In that world, what do you do editorially to maximize profits, or at least… stay in business and grow? You have a clear incentive to program a little bit of something for everyone, and above all, maintain an “above the crowd” generalist credibility that isn’t at least easily seen as heavy-handed agenda-affirming. That’s why there were things like Point Counterpoint Segments and OpEd pages which welcomed diverse viewpoints. It’s why the nightly news had some light interest stories, a sprinkle of sports, and some national news, too. The news prided itself on relative objectivity, ostensibly stayed relatively neutral, and didn’t go “all in” on one narrative as often.
Today, each of these underlying economic variables has changed. News media exists in a low cost, often crowdsourced, many-to-many, ubiquitous, cheap and multidirectional world. In this world it makes sense for news outlets to go more “infotainment”, hot-take, sensational, and engage a much narrower audience by affirming and applauding their worldview. Your top priority becomes affirming the worldview of your readers rather than presenting evidence which might tell them they’ve got it wrong. Thus news media has been made more smug, much more activist, and ever more prone to get way out over its skis. Yet they still have many of the same brand reputation that they rightly earned in a different era. The CNN of Peter Arnett is no more; day by day, it’s transformed into an activist channel, there to tell you: you are correct and are right to feel better than others.
So it’s not just the computer and Internet’s fault, but these have brought major changes which have significantly altered what business The New York Times and CNN think they are now in. They are far less involved in informing and more involved in affirming. We the public are now hooked on never-ending news cycles, viral posts and memes. We feel great when the other tribe is made to look stupid, and ours smart.
Each of these factors destroy nuance, which is the ability to hold multiple, competing ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. Do you have enough nuance and worldview-challenging advocacy in your social media feed?
This “Information Age” has served up the most powerful tool yet to “verify” and amplify any diagnosis or crackpot theory. It’s the most powerful tool yet to narrow the Overton Window of what’s allowed for polite discussion.
Combine all these forces, and you’ll begin to see why:
Elite consensus has gotten it wrong with increasing frequency.
2015-2021 has not been kind to the reputation of elite media. Time and again, their quest for sensational stories, or stories which affirm the worldview of one team versus another, they’ve gotten way out over their skis. We all know the stories by now: Jussie Smollett was attacked on the streets of Chicago by racists. The looming tripledemic. Nick Sandmann went out of his way to mock a native American. Vaccinated people cannot spread COVID. Trump colluded with Russia. Masks are effective. There’s no learning loss from school closure. And on it has gone.
Teams of unknown and unaccountable middle managers at Twitter 1.0 and other social media sites elevated their own “fact checker” sources, and have selectively decided which ideas can catch fire and which should be snuffed out in the crib. “Fact-checking” has been corrupted by ideological forces, who all too often, very unevenly apply rubrics to favor one narrative or tribe over another.
What happens when this consensus gets it wrong? What are the costs? What are the risks? Do we even have reputational consequences for that, or will audiences care?
Will we allow open discussion of plausible ideas respectfully, or will we continue to shout down anything which doesn’t rhyme with our worldview? How much faith should we place in “fact checkers” and credentialed “experts” versus our own common sense? What will happen to our society over time if Big Tech shuts down the discussion of common sense explainers for partisan reasons? Does the opinion of someone who repels you politically mean you have to follow your impulse and reflexively take the opposite stance?
Is all of this any kind of excuse for being blinkered, if your job is, say, that of a journalist? A journalist should be helping people to understand the world as it is. What has happened to formerly credible name brand media outlets? Is there any hope of righting that ship?
I had my own journey on this with respect to being one of the first (and at this writing, one of the few) in my social circle to openly discuss the lab-leak hypothesis.
The Lab Leak Hypothesis
A year and a half ago, those paying attention noticed a startling coincidence: the coronavirus outbreak started in metropolitan Wuhan, which just happened to have a relatively new facility which was known to be studying bat-borne coronaviruses.
It was also known that officials explicitly warned about safety at this very lab. And we have a video interview in December 2019 confirming that bat-based coronavirus research was happening in late 2019 at that lab, from a principle character in this story who was helping to sponsor/promote it.
The idea of natural vs. engineered and lab-involved vs. no-lab were projected onto a single axis, when anyone with a brain knows it is possible for a virus to be naturally evolved yet STILL leak through human lab activity. Nope, to the media of 2020, it had to be either engineered AND leaked or natural AND not leaked. Thus, when an orchestrated letter was published in Lancet saying “couldn’t be engineered” this was amplified by the media as near certain proof that the lab leak hypothesis was bonkers.
Spooky. In my largely deep-blue bubble of friends, family and colleagues, virtually no one was talking about the lab leak hypothesis. Why not? It’s the greatest health crisis of our lifetime — isn’t it important to know how it started?
On TV, no one was talking about it on the “respectable” channels. In big-banner “prestige” news sites, likewise. Yet the coincidence had to be striking to more people than just me, right?
On January 26th 2020, well before the first American died of what would become known as COVID-19, I took to Facebook and wrote this:
The above conclusion required precisely zero understanding of molecular biology or epidemiology, just a common-sense assessment of the startling coincidence, if these two facts were unrelated.
That thread currently stands at 80 comments, with my own a good 10-20% of them. With 400 Facebook friends, only a dozen or so decided to weigh in; there is surprising disinterest among intelligent folks about the nature of the origin of the virus. For context, I’m politically independent, have two masters degrees, worked in high tech, live in Seattle, and the only reason I’m mentioning that here is to bolster a guess that I may have a disproportion of friends and family members and contacts who are smart, enlightened, deep-blue and mostly progressive Democrats in my social media feed compared, say, to the nation at large.
Yet smart and highly progressive friends jumped in with comments like:
“Y’all realize this is a conspiracy theory being pushed by Steve Bannon… Also spouted by ‘reputable’ dirt bags like Tom Cotton. Instead of stating that there’s no evidence of it, but hard to believe it’s a coincidence, let’s wait till there is ANY evidence. Otherwise, you’re repeating 100% unadulterated garbage.”
Do you interpret this as a valid analysis, an invitation to future discussion, or an attempt to shame it down?
Though this person still remains a dear friend, sadly, I eventually had to unfriend another former friend, who repeatedly insinuated that even discussing the lab-leak hypothesis on social media was somehow outright racist.
To that I’d argue:
- Not only is scientific and evidentiary inquiry not only not racist but necessary,
- We the public are funding scientific research all the time and have every right (and even a responsibility) to think aloud about policy risk/reward tradeoffs,
- Spreading the “bat soup” and “stop eating bats” as the then alternate explainer is to me at least far more pejorative, racist and culturally insensitive than suggesting that totally-reasonable-to-imagine human error might have led to a massive outbreak.
Look. I have curiosity and empathy here on this question. I can easily envision myself as a lab researcher collecting samples, doing what I believe to be very well-intentioned research, not noticing a hole in my lab suit, getting sick, and unwittingly being Patient Zero. How mundane! How entirely innocent! But how tragic.
Why does this need to come with value judgment assumptions? We didn’t blame all Russians for Chernobyl, nor did we blame all Americans for Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon or other “once in a lifetime” man-made disasters. Nor should we. We can and should be able to differentiate between human error — here, it very well could have been just one slightly careless individual, as we ALL are — and an entire nation, government, or people.
Back to the comment above. Note the argumentation: it’s not whether it’s true or not, nor what evidence points toward or away, it’s whom the idea is associated with. The idea and facts matter far less than which tribe promotes the idea. How dangerous.
Update: I’ve circled back to this post in 2023, and blogged about it.
Tribal consensus is not truth
For way too many Americans, the rubric to assess truth begins with:
- Is my “tribe” in favor of this, or against it?
… rather than looking at the evidence for or against a particular idea, and reasoning.
While the lab leak hypothesis has been covered and investigated by right-of-center media and Twitter since January 2020, it’s largely been shielded from analysis. It’s been deliberately distorted, conflated and exaggerated by people employed by once-credible news brands to “dunk” on the opposition.
Yet despite this, over the past several weeks, the information fog on the left and center-left has finally been lifting.
First, New York Magazine (January 4, 2021) and then former New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade (May 5, 2021) have brought the lab-leak hypothesis ever more credibility to holdouts on the left, such that it can no longer be cast in the tin-foil hat bin. It can no longer be ignored. The Overton Window has been pried open with the crowbar of accumulating questions and evidence, despite prestige media trying hard to keep it shut.
If one puts aside what governments and highly-conflicted individuals say, the evidence, though circumstantial, continues to mount, and points entirely in one direction. Let’s not underplay circumstantial evidence… that’s evidence too, just not conclusive. But there’s an enormous pile of it.
“Leaked from a Lab” is not equivalent to “Engineered”
A key method of what appears to be deliberate conflation was the immediate rush to elide “leaked from a lab” with “engineered.” But here’s the thing. Leaked from a lab doesn’t in any way require that it be engineered.
Natural/engineered and lab/no-lab are on different, independent axes. One neither requires nor implies the other:
A highly contagious virus can evolve naturally, be relatively isolated naturally, but then suddenly harvested from remote caves by humans, transported to and studied in a lab for academic purposes, and then, carelessly discarded. Any layman can easily envision an epidemic started that way, and I’d call that highly plausible scenario “leaked from a lab.” Note that there are biologists/virologists who say that the “furin cleavage” aspects of this virus which bond remarkably well to human cells (and their lack of presence in any other coronavirus) make this option highly unlikely or even mathematically impossible to conceive — but I don’t have any expertise to estimate those odds.
One of the more fascinating origin hypotheses in the green box above (lab involved, yet also naturally evolved) is the Mojiang Miners Passage Hypothesis. I find much of this explanation compelling; that paper by two well-credentialed virologist PhDs is very much worth a read.
Turning to the vertical axis (engineered vs. naturally evolved), I have no credentials or experience whatsoever which would allow me to weigh in intelligently on whether the virus was engineered via so-called “gain of function” research, so I have no strong or informed opinions on whether it was engineered.
I do find it a shocking coincidence that Peter Daszak was trumpeting gain of function research going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on bats on coronaviruses in 2019 in this video interview in December 2019. And I find it highly interesting that he claimed to have “no conflicts” in the Lancet letter which he helped organize, when he clearly has conflicts.
Wade and others do a very capable job breaking down some of the arguments about engineered vs. not-engineered for laypeople like me.
But most laypeople can use considerable common sense to evaluate the odds of which square the horizontal axis (no lab v. lab involvement) lands.
(There is at least a third axis — intentional v. deliberate. As mentioned below, I fail to see any sensible argument around it being deliberate or malicious.)
The Media and Social Media
Regardless of the ultimate explanation of what happened, the media, fact-checker and social media “what speech is allowed” failure on this was enormous, and perhaps even the more important story, because it affects all other stories and news items. It’s about how we are allowed understand the world.
There was a concerted effort to load up the lab leak hypothesis with the “must be engineered” requirement. The next step was to provide credentialed though highly conflicted experts to “debunk” the “engineered” assertion, thus call the entire thing a “fringe theory.” As Wade detailed, the key person who orchestrated a letter in Lancet which became the canonical “couldn’t have been engineered in a lab” letter, has direct connections to not only gain of function research but the Wuhan lab. He has financial and career interest in a particular narrative being true. This was known back in January 2020, but how many media outlets brought this salient fact to your attention?
Look. I certainly don’t think it was malicious, nor have I ever thought it was intentional. I have never thought either of those things. I don’t know why a government would ever want to release something and endanger its population. THAT is quite crazy and seems reasonable to toss in a tin-foil hat bin.
But mistakes happen. And it’s not racist to contemplate them.
I would say the same of accidents at Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, Three Mile Island, and Exxon Valdez, for instance. They are human-caused, but they are enormously consequential. Because we are alive, accidents happen. Even enormously catastrophic ones.
But regardless of engineered or natural origin, journalists who claim “there’s no evidence” are lying. There is copious evidence. But it’s circumstantial. ALL of it points in the direction of lab-leak. Among them:
- If cellphone mobility data is to be believed, why did traffic come to a halt around the lab for two weeks in October 2019? What would explain this if it’s true, and what motivation would there by this independent for-profit consulting company if the data were in some way fabricated? (And it seems verifiable, no? Devices have unique ID’s, and you could simply spot check a few of them.)
- In more than 3.7 million square miles of mainland China, why Wuhan? What are the odds?
- Viruses from horseshoe bats from Yunnan province share 97% of the genetic makeup of the virus, yet they’re 1,000+ miles away from Wuhan. Why Wuhan, and not villages along the way?
- Why is China blocking access to the caves, and using shifting excuses for doing so?
- Why has no host yet been found in 80,000+ samples?
- Why is China refusing to allow a second WHO team in?
- Why were lab samples destroyed before outside experts could verify?
- Why are 76,000+ hospitalization records requests being stonewalled?
- Why were lab workers among the first hospitalized?
- Why did the chair of the party issue an urgent directive to improve biosafety at labs in December 2019?
- What are we to make of job postings for bat-borne coronavirus research at that lab, and why are they now taken down?
- A 2019 paper written by WIV researchers about China’s effort to add more high-level bioresearch labs warned, “The experience of laboratory biosafety personnel training is relatively lacking … Insufficient training staff and training problems such as uneven standards require urgent improvement and improvement.” A separate 2019 paper by Yuan Zhiming, a chief scientist at Wuhan, described systemic deficiencies at high-security labs: “Maintenance cost is generally neglected; several high-level BSLs have insufficient operating funds for routine, yet vital processes.” Most laboratories “lack specialized biosafety managers and engineers,” he wrote.
- If of natural no-lab-involved origin, how do we explain why the outbreak happened in October/November, when horseshoe bats are generally dormant during this time?
- And why 2019, and not dozens of years earlier? Is it coincidence that just the year prior, the lab went online? Is it just a coincidence that in late December 2019, a major funder of this research was confirming in a video interview that such research was happening?
Even the list above isn’t complete. Think of the astronomical odds for all these things to be true, a major coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and yet no lab involvement. The odds!
None of these pieces of evidence were unknown or unknowable to journalists months ago. Somehow, in the past week or two, we’re allowed to discuss them. Even in the breakthrough summary by 30+ year science writer Nicholas Wade (a must-read), there are very few if any “brand new” findings. Nearly all are months old.
But somehow, we’re now able to talk about it and give it its due consideration.
Where were the journalists at prestige media?
All of a sudden, though virtually no brand new blockbuster evidence has been shown, there is growing social acceptance of discussing and considering the lab leak origin theory of COVID. It is no longer gate-kept by Facebook or Twitter or others.
Lucky you. You won’t get deplatformed, like evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein was.
Please, Big Tech colleagues at Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon and elsewhere: can we please use this moment to reflect a bit?
- Many major news brands that we once trusted have given up objectivity.
- Too few journalists view their jobs as describing the world as it is.
- Internet consensus is not truth.
It’s also been fascinating to watch people’s reaction to this unfolding, especially if they are in the business of informing people.
For prominent journalists, it is revealing who can update their prior assumptions and who cannot. It’s revealing who is actually willing to allow evidence and facts lead them, and who instead doubles-down in the face of mounting evidence against it.
Some remain blissfully unaware or — for reasons I still cannot understand — incurious.
Some are taking a “told-you-so” victory lap, which I’d say is a little premature. But it is NOT premature to say that the media, Twitter, Facebook and Google need to STOP DEPLATFORMING PEOPLE for sharing reasonable ideas respectfully. Even most unreasonable ideas need to be shared and aired. The best antidote to speech with which we disagree is more and better speech.
Still others cling to the ever-more-tenuous threads. And this is a pitiful sight to see in some journalists — they believe either that “we were forced to go into this mode because of an administration which lied a lot” or “no evidence either way”, even though most of them have spent more than a year blasting one hypothesis yet giving the other a very light touch.
The final option some are now turning to “Who cares how it started, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Or Jonathan Chait, who states its just “not that important”:
To which I ask — did it matter how Chernobyl happened? Why do fire departments have both firefighters and fire inspectors? Why does the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) exist?
Those who have falsely and recklessly characterized the lab leak hypothesis as “debunked”, “fringe” or a “conspiracy theory” have been like picketers at an NTSB investigation after the plane crash. They have actively hampered efforts to marshal national and international public support for an independent investigation while the evidence was fresh. Australia tried to get one going. It was defanged. We can never know what might have happened if CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Washington Post and others were much more good at their job of investigative journalism, letting facts and not ideology lead the narrative, rather than the other way around.
Yes, the Trump administration absolutely lied a lot. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t vote for him.
One of Trump’s greatest flaws is that he thinks every issue must be in some way about Trump. One of our biggest flaws is that too often, we do too.
TRUTH should not be relative to what other people that we don’t like are saying. Truth is truth.
Many major news brands that we once trusted have given up objectivity
If your information diet consists solely of CNN, The New York Times, NPR, MSNBC, the Washington Post and their associated podcasts and social media feeds, you’d have spent much of 2020 believing believing that schools cannot be safely reopened. That Governor Andrew Cuomo was a great leader during COVID. That Florida conspired to hide COVID deaths. That children were at high risk of severe complications from COVID. That American police kill hundreds or even thousands of unarmed Black youth every year. That open beaches were worrisome. That teachers unions were working hard to reopen and were focused on students’ behalf. And that a lab-leak origin for COVID was a fringe conspiracy theory.
And, over the course of the past few months, each of these shibboleths have been revealed to be either highly doubtful or patently untrue.
They earned wide online consensus. But online consensus is not truth.
Journalists Reckon With Worldview Adjustment… Or Not
This moment has been a great opportunity to see which journalists truly follow the evidence, and which cling hard to the narrative they wish to be true. Who can update their prior assumptions and who cannot?
In August of 2010, Emily Rauhala of the Washington Post tweeted:
Note that she states “without showing or stating evidence.” The evidence for lab leak is circumstantial but it exists. It existed well before her tweet too, and it is substantial. It includes things like the actions of the Chinese to destroy evidence, the proximity of the lab to the first recorded outbreak, the fact that researchers in the lab are known to have researched bat-borne coronaviruses in the months prior to the outbreak, that data has been deleted, that hospitalization data has been withheld, that mobility data (if true) strongly suggests there was a slowdown in traffic in October 2019, that bats are generally in hibernation in November, and more.
In courtrooms every day, plenty of juries reach their verdict about guilt or innocence based upon a body of circumstantial evidence plus false exculpatory statements. The standard here should be far higher given the stakes, but it is absolutely disingenuous for “journalists” like Emily Rauhala to state that there was or is “no evidence.”
You’d think Emily would reflect on that a bit. Instead, she tweeted:
Shant Mesrobian’s tweet here summarizes my views on this:
Over at The New York Times, “science” reporter Apoorva Mandavilli decided to remind everyone yesterday that the lab leak hypothesis, in her view, has “racist roots”:
She was rightly put on full blast by Glenn Greenwald and others:
As of yesterday, she continues to assert the lab leak hypothesis is “not plausible.” Yet she’s not explained why she feels that way.
I asked her several questions about it here. (Note that I’m using the phrase “zoonotic origin” as shorthand to mean “lab-uninvolved in any way.” That is, the virus can have both zoonotic origin AND be introduced to Wuhan as a pandemic through a lab-leak accident. To me, that’s a lab-leak.)
As of this writing, she’s not responded:
MSNBC ran plenty of coverage distorting and ridiculing the lab leak hypothesis:
There are some good pieces which attempt to dissect why the liberal media got so far out over its skis on this one.
A great segment from the Dark Horse podcast:
Why Dissent Matters
The 1973 Yom Kippur War, known in the Arab World as the Ramadan War, was a truly existential crisis for Israel. And it illustrated the risks of underestimating dangers of unforseen events.
Israel’s surprise and unpreparedness happened because the military establishment was captivated and captured by what they called “The Concept of Arab Intentions.” This was a preset world view that did not even imagine the possibility of an all-out assault.
From that point on, Israel created what they called the Tenth Man Rule. In this rule, if there are nine people who hold one view, it is the obligation of the tenth person in the room to argue the opposite.
Do you have a tenth man in your bubble? I can assure you that Big Tech recommendation platforms do NOT abide by the Tenth Man Rule. All ten will, by design, titillate and reinforce, rather than challenge your priors.
Here, media consensus shut down momentum for an impartial, independent forensic investigation, when any evidence would have been much fresher:
Too few journalists view their job as describing the world as it is.
What to do about it?
If you’ve not read Matt Taibbi’s thoughts on this, you should: We Need a New Media System. Most journalists no longer work from the facts toward the narrative. They work from the point of view of their audience, backward, cherry picking the facts which support that worldview.
The only way you combat that is to be your own editor more actively. Pop your filter bubble:
- If you’re left of center, follow a few right of center news sources and social media feeds.
- If you’re right of center, follow a few left of center news sources and social media feeds. (Far less effort is involved here, as it’s baked into major media outlets.)
- Don’t unfriend or unfollow people just because they may believe differently than you.
- Don’t over-characterize things as “disinformation” when you don’t really know if it’s true.
- When you miss a major story, find people who didn’t. Follow them.
- There is value in dissent.
- Be unafraid to update your priors. Be forgiving of others who do — there are tremendous forces “hooking” people on one storyline after another.
- Remember that The New York Times is no longer The New York Times. CNN is no longer CNN. NPR is no longer NPR. Even The Washington Post is no longer The Washington Post.
- Corollary: STOP CHIDING people from sharing news pieces from sources that carry a certain brand, at least if they are within the spectrum of reason. Find the sources which didn’t mislead you about the non-“debunked” nature of this hypothesis, and give them more credibility. Perhaps follow a few of them. Yes, it’s OK to discount extreme leftist or rightist pieces, but stop narrowing your information window so much! STOP exaggerating the scope of what “disinformation” actually is — it’s not “information which helps the other side.”
- Let speech and sunlight be the antidote. Favor freedom of speech rather than deplatforming.
- Remember that internet consensus is not the same as truth.
There are enormous incentives for formerly great investigative outlets to perpetuate a narrative their audience wishes to hear. Just as you’ll eventually hear only one genre of music on Pandora or Spotify if you “Like” only songs from that genre, if you only consume news media from one side of the spectrum, you probably won’t know what’s true and what’s not. Choose accordingly.