Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Science, groupthink, and trust

By

28 comments

As some of you may have noticed, the theory that the source of the COVID-19 pandemic may have been a lab in Wuhan, China, is no longer just the stuff of fevered right-wing fantasies and rabid Trumpists, but has become mainstream. In fact, by the time that this column runs, the lab-release scenario may be recognized as the most likely cause of the pandemic.

President Biden recently ordered an investigation into whether the pandemic was the result of a Chinese lab release, and various establishment media sources now concede the possibility. The World Health Organization (WHO) now allows that the theory is "feasible," and is attempting to investigate despite Chinese obstruction. The iconic Dr. Fauci has reconsidered his earlier dismissals and is now investigating and demanding medical records from China. Facebook and other social media have quietly lifted their censorship of the topic.

Until recently, any discussion of the possibility that the virus may have come from the Wuhan lab was depicted as just another right-wing, xenophobic, foil-hat fantasy held by Trump, unhinged conservatives, and racists. Any crime report in which an Asian was victimized invariably mentioned Trump's charges against China, suggesting that the attacks were incited, even when the attack was obviously just an opportunistic robbery.

Most of the establishment media confidently dismissed any possibility of a lab origin. The Washington Post pronounced the theory "debunked." Facebook and other social media censored any discussion of the theory as "fake news" and "hate speech."

Much of the scientific establishment dutifully jumped aboard the bandwagon. A number of virologists signed a letter published in The Lancet asserting "scientists overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife," ignoring the fact that the scientist orchestrating the letter was the president of the foundation that funded the research at the Wuhan lab using U.S. Institute of Health funds.

What caused this abrupt turnaround in supposedly "scientific" opinion?

Evidence of a lab origin is nothing new. In May of 2020, a study by the Lawrence Livermore Lab suggested the possibility. The recent revelation that three researchers at the Wuhan lab had been hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, and the inability of investigators to find a naturally occurring source of the virus, forced even the reluctant to take another look. Reports that the U.S. had been funding research at the lab, possibly including "gain of function" research (a dangerous process in which a virus is made more virulent), raised questions. A Nobel laureate virologist described the structure of the virus as a "smoking gun" for lab modification. Early gene sequencing data showing that the theory that the virus originated in the Wuhan "wet market" was unlikely, was inexplicably deleted from the National Institute of Health (NIH) database. An internal NIH email warns of "opening up a can of worms."

It is increasingly clear that the attacks on the theory were an effort by some in government and science to avoid blame for having supported and funded the research that may have caused so much death and suffering. When the lights are turned on, the roaches scurry for cover. The attacks were uncritically embraced by a media eager to weaken Trump as we headed into the 2020 election.

A few media voices have had the integrity to admit that their loathing of Trump and his administration caused them to instinctively dismiss the possibility that the theory might be true, and to uncritically accept the self-protective conclusions from the scientific establishment. Others continue to squander their reputational capital in ridiculing the theory. Apoorva Mandavilli, of The New York Times, who purportedly covers science for the paper, continues to argue that the lab-release theory is racist, giving the fading credibility of the Gray Lady yet another hit.

The lab-release hypothesis is still unproven, and may never be, but it was always a serious possibility. The information was there all along but was just ignored while more attractive theories were promoted. Groupthink, and ignoring evidence just to serve political or professional objectives, is dishonest and destructive, especially when it comes from those in science and the media who we must rely upon to inform us in an increasingly complicated world.

Most alarming was the censorship by social media, citing supposed "fact checkers" who had an obvious conflict of interest. Why should we trust them to protect us from "dangerous" points of view? How much of the "fake news" and "hate speech" barred from social media may actually be true?

Science should be based on facts, not belief or career considerations. When many in science were so eager to uncritically promote a false narrative, how can we trust them in other areas? Is the wariness of some toward the vaccine actually justified? Are the conclusions of the scientific community on climate change valid, or just more ideologically driven groupthink? Where does the deceit end?

Should the findings of scientific experts be trusted or considered just another political point of view?

The scientific community, social media, and the media have a lot of work to do in earning public trust. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who is skeptical of everything he reads in the paper except the comics and his horoscope. Send comments for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

Comments (28)

Showing 1-25 of 28

Add a comment
 

Add a comment