Challenge the “lab leak” theory. But don’t call it a conspiracy.

NOTICE: If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, labels hinder the facts and make the truth even harder to find.

A warning: this article will not tell you if SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab and triggered the Covid-19 pandemic, which has now killed more than 5 million people. I’m not even going to tell you if I think it does.

If this was your hope, you might want to move on. But I hope you’ll be willing to explore why the truth is almost always elusive – and often not because someone is trying to hide it. What is important to keep in mind when reviewing claims and policies during a global health crisis.

First of all, what is the “lab leak” theory? The idea is that the virus was either grown in a lab or taken to a lab for study without sufficient precautions, and then it accidentally infected a lab worker, who somehow spread it. other in the community. Many media outlets, as well as some scientists, quickly called it a conspiracy theory, designed to distract from their own country’s missteps. But, like everyone else involved in the lab leak theory discussions, scientists have something at stake: If SARS-CoV-2 were to escape from a lab, it could further undermine confidence in the lab. research and threaten funding.

In the search for truth, it is good to ask questions, and it is good to doubt, as colleagues and I have noted elsewhere. It is also good to try to understand the motivations of those who ask questions. A lack of obvious financial incentives doesn’t mean someone isn’t biased or isn’t making other gains.

But just because your intellectual opponent has specific motivations doesn’t mean he’s wrong or, conversely, he’s right if his motivations match yours.

I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t fallen into the alignment trap. Including me. I co-founded science monitoring site Retraction Watch over a decade ago, and faced with some really horrific science papers that made me and co-founder Adam Marcus wonder how they came to be. published, we frequently used phrases like “anti-vaxxer” and “conspiracy theory” in our reviews. It was a way for us to dismiss ideas as unworthy of discussion.

But we stopped doing it, in large part because we saw how this instinctive dismissal – on both “sides” – repeated itself time and time again during the pandemic.

In the past 18 months, for example, virtually no one has been able to have an unbiased discussion of the evidence – or lack of evidence – of the use of various older drugs, generally approved to treat parasites, against Covid. -19. Such discussions have often escalated into screaming matches between polarized opposites. If you had ever made a comment that could be interpreted as saying that Donald Trump was not wrong about absolutely everything – including his strengthening of one of those drugs, hydroxychloroquine – you were clearly promoting the drug because you were partisan. If you rejected drugs, you were surely in favor of the other side. And if you’ve gained followers through media mentions, or ever been paid to write anything for a media outlet, you’ve clearly opposed ivermectin, another such drug, just for the sake of it. make a name for yourself. Etc.

A similar dynamic has played out in discussions about vaccines. Public health officials, aware of the reluctance of some towards vaccines, have made vaccines appear 100% safe, when such a thing does not exist. They opted for a clear message rather than nuance, dismissing security concerns. But when a small number of blood clot reports surfaced and they halted a vaccine rollout, it only increased suspicion (and conspiracy accusations). Peter Sandman, a longtime communications strategist, argued that a better approach would have been to provide what is known as “look ahead advice,” which involves educating people about the rare side effects that can occur. . It removes the reagent »but you told us X, so now I don’t trust you ”argument that can confuse a complex situation further.

Much like the nuances about vaccine safety, too many people have been too quick to dismiss the lab leak theory as a conspiracy. But once they carefully considered some of the evidence, they sometimes had to update stories and statements to recognize the possibility, however remote, of a lab leak. (A correction by the Washington post specifically deletes the term “conspiracy theory.” “)

To be clear: conspiracy theories exist, just like bad faith actors. And one can believe in a conspiracy theory without being a bad faith actor. It would be naive and counterproductive to claim otherwise.

Some may argue that in the midst of a health crisis like Covid, it is justifiable to halt an idea that lacks evidence for certainty by calling it a “conspiracy theory”, especially if it distracts from the public eye. main goal of preventing more illnesses and deaths. .

But there is at least some evidence that the approach doesn’t work. According to a 2016 study, people are no less likely to believe something simply because it is labeled a “conspiracy”; in fact, this label may even prompt them to give more consideration or credibility to the idea.

This makes intuitive sense: If you hear something called conspiracy theory and then learn that one of the arguments supporting that theory, however minor, is factual, this revelation may reinforce the idea that there really is a concealment. Or perhaps you learn that a vocal critic of the lab leak conspiracy theory had a significant but undisclosed conflict of interest – namely that his organization had collaborated with the Wuhan lab that was allegedly the site of the escape. In this sense, the evidence of the Chinese government’s obstruction also reinforces the suggestion of a cover-up.

It is human nature to want a definitive answer to questions. But science is not about certainty, and it seems likely, for many reasons, that we will never have a definitive answer on the theory of laboratory leaks. Science may allow us to approach the truth, but always within a range of probabilities and probabilities – a reality that has been obscured by the need for headlines and the likes of social media on the part of politicians, journalists, industry players and others, as well as the condescending call for “clear messages” so as not to confuse the public.

So where do we go from here? One solution is to avoid making definitive statements – including that an idea is a “conspiracy theory” – and instead adopt nuances. This increases your chances of getting the ever elusive “truth”.

Uncertainty is not a sign of weakness. It is a powerful force in finding the facts.

This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis and Recovery , one in progress Known magazine series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its aftermath, and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

10.1146 / knowable-112221-2

This article originally appeared in
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