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Media hysteria about media hysteria about lab-leak is the same thing – Reading the Room is Bad Actually

When I posted an interview on the lab-leak hypothesis with Alina Chan I knew I was going to get crap. I’m controversial myself, so I didn’t really care. I was more worried about Alina. But it was OK.

The reason I wanted to “give her a platform” is that the discussion privately among many scientists had diverged wildly from the views being relayed by the media. Basically, the media was perpetuating a lie, whether it knew it or not. The downside risks were that people would accuse me of being racist against Chinese and a fellow traveler with Alex Jones or something. My thought was, “who cares, is this middle school?” But of course, it is always middle school.

I got accused of being Sinophobic, natch. Some of it was from tenured faculty who stood behind the accusation with their names. I kind of respected that. But some of it was from sockpuppet accounts created by scientists to attack people. That was pretty pathetic.

But now things have changed. Though Nick Wade’s Medium piece had a catalytic effect, I think the main reason behind the change is that big names in academic science have now admitted that you aren’t Alex Jones if you entertain the lab-leak hypothesis. One can’t denigrate a lot of the authors on this opinion submitted to Science, Investigate the origins of COVID-19. I knew some of these authors had these opinions by the summer of 2020. Because academic science is all a “power-level” game, the insults and dismissals have faded, and now people are moving on to other talking points (“if it was lab-leak, and I don’t think it was, it doesn’t matter/who cares”).

But what about the media? They have pivoted on a dime and turned all the way around. There are now a bunch of pieces about the previous group-think about the lab-leak hypothesis. But this itself is group-think. The rapidity of the shift might highlight two separate dynamics. It is quite possible that many journalists always knew that views were privately more mixed and equivocal, and so their earlier writing was pretty straightforward preference falsification. They knew what their editors and the powers that be wanted, and they provided that copy. Secondarily, a lot of these journalists don’t care about what the truth is, they just want to be part of the “in-crowd.” Before that means that the lab leak was a racist conspiracy. Now, that means that the lab leak has to be investigated.

Either way, it’s not a good comment on the state of journalism.

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18 thoughts on “Media hysteria about media hysteria about lab-leak is the same thing – Reading the Room is Bad Actually

  1. When you interviewed Alina Chan it was really great to hear in a clear conversation, from a careful specialist, what is really that lab-leak thing. I’m no specialist, but quickly enough (around 2020’s Februray) I realized Wuhan have 2 virology labs, and I previously knew that SARS-like viruses escaped labs on several ocasions — and then I thought “why almost no one on ‘sci-twitter’ is talking about that?”.

    Back then, those who thought “well, shit happens, you know, and this virus could been accidentally released from one of Wuhan’s lab, perhaps by a infected researcher or something” were called crazy and strawmanized as “covid is a Chinese bioweapon”. Now some of the same people that eagerly strawmanized whoever was talking about lab-leak hypothesis are quickly turned “we may consider it as an accetable hypothesis” — and it is hard to believe they all were persuaded by careful argumentation or new facts: they’re most following their own feeling about what their lords want.

  2. Last Weekend Nature (the journal not the impersonal force) counter attacked:

    NEWS | “Divisive COVID ‘lab leak’ debate prompts dire warnings from researchers: Allegations that COVID escaped from a Chinese lab make it harder for nations to collaborate on ending the pandemic — and fuel online bullying, some scientists say.” by Amy Maxmen | 27 May 2021
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01383-3#author-0

    Calls to investigate Chinese laboratories have reached a fever pitch in the United States, as Republican leaders allege that the coronavirus causing the pandemic was leaked from one, and as some scientists argue that this ‘lab leak’ hypothesis requires a thorough, independent inquiry. But for many researchers, the tone of the growing demands is unsettling. They say the volatility of the debate could thwart efforts to study the virus’s origins.

    Global-health researchers also warn that the growing demands are exacerbating tensions between the United States and China ahead of crucial meetings at which world leaders will make high-level decisions about how to curb the pandemic and prepare for future health emergencies. At the World Health Assembly this week, for example, health officials from nearly 200 countries are discussing strategies including ways to ramp up vaccine manufacturing and to reform the World Health Organization (WHO). But a US–China divide will make consensus on these issues harder to reach, says David Fidler, a global-health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington DC. …

    Others worry that the rhetoric around an alleged lab leak has grown so toxic that it’s fuelling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States, as well as offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed.

    The debate over the lab-leak hypothesis has … grown louder in the past month — even without strong supporting evidence. On 14 May, 18 researchers published a letter in Science1 arguing that the idea of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 leaking from a lab in China must be explored more deeply.

    … the first phase of a COVID-19 origins investigation sponsored by the WHO, which released a report in March, focused more on the virus coming from an animal than on its potential escape from a lab. ….

    The investigation concluded that an animal origin was much more likely than a lab leak. But since then, politicians, journalists, talk-show hosts and some scientists have put forward unsubstantiated claims linking the coronavirus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). … Some members of US Congress and the media have gone further, alleging that the Chinese government is covering up a SARS-CoV-2 leak from the WIV, and even that Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is involved, because NIAID funded some studies at the WIV. The WIV and Fauci have denied this, saying that they did not encounter SARS-CoV-2 until after the virus was isolated from patients in late December 20192.

    Even if the letter in Science was well intentioned, its authors should have thought more about how it would feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.

    * * *

    Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, maintains that no strong evidence supports a lab leak, and he worries that hostile demands for an investigation into the WIV will backfire, because they often sound like allegations. He says this could make Chinese scientists and officials less likely to share information. …

    … Global health-policy analysts argue that it’s crucial for countries to work together to curb the pandemic and prepare the world for future outbreaks. Actions needed, they say, include expanding the distribution of vaccines and reforming biosecurity rules, such as standards for reporting virus-surveillance data. But such measures require a broad consensus among powerful countries, says Amanda Glassman, a global-health specialist at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. “We need to look at the big picture and focus on incentives that get us where we want to go,” she says. “A confrontational approach will make things worse.”

    * * *

    So, with a pressing need for biosecurity policies, Fidler thinks the United States should focus on fostering pandemic diplomacy through meetings between US and Chinese ambassadors, as happened with climate-change discussions in April. “Don’t we actually have some things we need to do to get ready for the next pandemic, given the debacle of this one?”

  3. I am sorry. I could have cut out a lot more of that. And Razib, if you want to wack away at it, be my guest. You get the idea. This lab leak theory is concocted on the basis of no evidence and you are going to upset the Chinese and then they won’t cooperate with us anymore.

    To which I say: 1. bovine dejecta: a prima facie case is made with public documents, and 2. When did the Chinese ever cooperate with US or with WHO? They have lied, deflected, and obfuscated since the get go.

    As I said in the open thread, the creation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its leak from WIV are not the only reason to radically change US policy towards China. They are reason number 15. But, if this is what it takes to change policy, make the most of it.

    The Nature article mentions “climate change” as another area where there are US China negotiations. If those negotiations, such as they are, are another area of so called cooperation, there is no hope for pandemic cooperation.

    China is already burning twice as much coal as the US does, and is adding new coal burning power plants at a rate far in excess of the rate at which the US is cling its coal burning plants. Not only that one of their major foreign aid pushes is to built coal plants in southeast Asia and in Africa. China has said that will think about stopping this expansion in the next decade, which is commitment to absolutely nothing.

    The game is afoot, Tally Ho.

  4. This is like communism:

    News yesterday: (Trotsky dead) Down with that counter-revolutionary dog, Trotsky! Long live the glorious leader, Stalin!

    New today: (Stalin dead) Down with that evil tyrant, Stalin! Long live the true communist revolutionary leader, Krushchev!

    Always, from the same newspaper.

  5. Also this Jake Eberts thread (https://twitter.com/wokeglobaltimes/status/1399187095764279303) takes a look at that March 2021 lab leak paper in ECL (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10311-021-01211-0).

    1 is whatever, 2 is ehh to each their own but this many crackpots all together. Yah. There is a reason why 2020 had most people treat this hypothesis with a long pole, because the people peddling this are just a bit odd up top.

    Alina Chan is also in the similar enough spectrum. Her bias is over the top obvious and it pre-dates even Covid.

  6. There was a Nature journal podcast discussing the lab leak and the host started out with “Well, if it was, who cares? Shouldn’t we just move on as thats all in the past”.

    I am dumbfounded by such idiotic statements. Are they putting something in our water? How are people so ignorant to not understand the implications of it being lab leak? Firstly the obvious point that WIV is directly responsible for million deaths and broken economies, but also that the lab would *know* it was their virus that was out there, but refused to tell anyone, or share info that would be helpful. This would be chernobyl x1000.

    Also, so called “Gain of function research” to me just seems like cover words for quite blatent bio-weapon research. Adding spike proteins super charged to stick to human cells to COV viruses that would rarely if ever occour in nature? If the idea of this research is to prepare for pandemics, it clearly isn’t working.

  7. I know this is slightly off-topic, but I’d like to solicit thoughts on the Covid vaccine on minors, ages 12-15 and perhaps even 2-11.

  8. Var

    I didn’t find much objectionable. You should lookup who peddles your news 😉

  9. Don’t worry, in a few months time anyone who argues against the Wuhan lab leak theory will be branded as a CCP shill, Wumao, etc…

    The fact is the journalist these days care not about truth; they exist to launder disinformation. Last year, the deep state called the lab leak theory a conspiracy theory to discredit Trump. Now that Trump is gone, the lab leak theory can be resurrected to attack China.

  10. @LJ: For you and everyone else, here are excerpts from Thomas Frank’s Grauniad column.

    “If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake”

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/01/wuhan-coronavirus-lab-leak-covid-virus-origins-china

    * * *

    Like all plagues, Covid often felt like the hand of God on earth, scourging the people for their sins against higher learning and visibly sorting the righteous from the unmasked wicked. “Respect science,” admonished our yard signs. And lo!, Covid came and forced us to do so, elevating our scientists to the highest seats of social authority, from where they banned assembly, commerce, and all the rest.

    * * *

    But these days the consensus doesn’t consense quite as well as it used to. Now the media is filled with disturbing stories suggesting that Covid might have come — not from “populism” at all, but from a laboratory screw-up in Wuhan, China. You can feel the moral convulsions beginning as the question sets in: What if science itself is in some way culpable for all this?

    * * *

    My own complacency on the matter was dynamited by [Nicholas Wade’s] lab-leak essay that ran in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this month; a few weeks later everyone from Doctor Fauci to President Biden is acknowledging that the lab-accident hypothesis might have some merit. We don’t know the real answer yet, and we probably will never know, but … What if this crazy story turns out to be true?

    * * *

    In the years since [2008] … liberal leaders have labored to remake themselves into defenders of professional rectitude and established legitimacy in nearly every field. In reaction to the fool Trump, liberalism made a sort of cult out of science, expertise, the university system, executive-branch “norms,” the “intelligence community,” the State Department, NGOs, the legacy news media, and the hierarchy of credentialed achievement in general.

    * * *

    “Let us pray, now, for science,” intoned a New York Times columnist back at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. The title of his article laid down the foundational faith of Trump-era liberalism: “Coronavirus is What You Get When You Ignore Science.”

    * * *

    Because if the [lab leak] hypothesis is right, it will soon start to dawn on people that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, or not enough censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above, to understand that there is no such thing as absolute expertise. Think of all the disasters of recent years: economic neoliberalism, destructive trade policies, the Iraq War, the housing bubble, banks that are “too big to fail,” mortgage-backed securities, the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016 — all of these disasters brought to you by the total, self-assured unanimity of the highly educated people who are supposed to know what they’re doing, plus the total complacency of the highly educated people who are supposed to be supervising them.

    * * *

    But even if it inches closer to being confirmed, we can guess what the next turn of the narrative will be. It was a “perfect storm,” the experts will say. Who coulda known? And besides (they will say), the origins of the pandemic don’t matter any more. Go back to sleep.

  11. Of course, you could always play the racist card:

    https://twitter.com/DrLeanaWen/status/1399823180991242241
    Leana Wen, M.D. @DrLeanaWen

    “I & other AAPIs are increasingly concerned that speculation over the lab leak theory will increase anti-Asian hate.

    As we embark on a full scientific investigation, we must take actions to “prevent the next escalation of anti-Asian racism.”

  12. I appreciate that you and fellow readers alerted me to this. I’m not the most media-savvy and am, as a very lowly person, not connected to anyone in the inner circles of the scientific community. I am grateful to the work you guys do, and how you provide an often heterodox perspective that isn’t also wignat-lite, as a lot of accessible right and centre-right personalities, blogs, journalists and other entities or platforms are. Shout out to Andrew too, though. As a younger (but not so young) person of (relative to your audience and co-residents of this corner of the blogosphere) likely middling IQ and lesser education, it’s nice to finally have found a series of sources for opinion and information that exists beyond the anarchist-in-name-only and incoherent, populist, illiterate pseudo-lefties who are the only people socially available to me in real life. Sorry if the gratitude’s a bit sappy, or my meandering and over-wrought comments pollute the dialogue. Just an ant wanting to connect.

  13. This Harvard2TheBigHouse fellow from the link shared above seems even more bonkers.

    A quote from his latest substack post,

    Notorious researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were associated with this controversial and experimental work on coronaviruses, and attempted to continue it into an experimental oral live-attenuated SARS-like vaccination program for the Chinese Military without accounting for the quantum nature of the math underlying quasispecies behavior – once they realized what was going on and deattenuation was already occurring out of control after the Wuhan Military Games, they reopened contact with Dr. Charles Lieber due to his work on virus-distinguishing nanowires, eventually leading to his arrest and the beginning of the largest and most coordinated cover-up in world history since both the pharmaceutical and defense entities involved in this research have a vested interest in attention being pulled away from serial passage and experimental vaccine work, as do the billionaire class that wants to use gain-of-function research for unrestricted tinkering into the human genome.

    And then there are hacks like Alina Chan peddling stuff like this – https://i.imgur.com/wmOVI4r.jpg

    Giving them platform by independent writers/bloggers/influencers though is less worse (due to scale) than mainstream media giving them a platform to share their ridiculous takes but in net terms it’s basically similar enough since the hole is so deep.

    Till then I’ll stick with professionals like these,

    TWiV 762: SARS-CoV-2 origins with Robert Garry – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxwrDSYrhjU

  14. @Twinkie – Hong Kong has just approved vaccinating 12 to 16 year olds with BioNTech (Pfizer to you, I guess). The previous cut-off was 16, but they have now extended it down to 12 year olds.

  15. Razib,

    Can’t help but ask this question again: how’s the “split” of all the people you know in terms of siding with the “natural spillover” v.s. “lab leak” faction? Is it 50:50 or has the lab leak side gained the numerical advantage right now?

  16. If you participated in the unlicensed genetic therapy experiment, I am truly sorry. That’s what this is all about. Not me or my kids.

  17. Almost one and a half year ago I referred on one Nature article from Nov/2015, (https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985 ) but there was not any comment on this. The following Abstract is not so abstract for a random reader especially the last two sentences.

    In meantime this article got one additional Editor’s note:

    30 March 2020 Editors’ note, March 2020: We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.

    Abstract

    The emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV underscores the threat of cross-species transmission events leading to outbreaks in humans. Here we examine the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV, which is currently circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations1. Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system2, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone. The results indicate that group 2b viruses encoding the SHC014 spike in a wild-type backbone can efficiently use multiple orthologs of the SARS receptor human angiotensin converting enzyme II (ACE2), replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV. Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis. Evaluation of available SARS-based immune-therapeutic and prophylactic modalities revealed poor efficacy; both monoclonal antibody and vaccine approaches failed to neutralize and protect from infection with CoVs using the novel spike protein. On the basis of these findings, we synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro and in vivo. Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.

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