The lab-leak mess

Last week, Jonathan Chait, of New York magazine, took the “liberal media” to task for having rushed to repudiate “the lab-leak theory”—the idea that COVID-19 may have its origins in a research institute in Wuhan, China. The theory, Chait wrote, has recently “gained more and more credibility,” in sharp contrast to last year, when many mainstream journalists dismissed it “out of hand as a conspiracy theory”; in part, “they were deceived by some especially voluble public-health experts. In part, they simply took Donald Trump’s bait, answering the former president’s dissembling with false certainty of their own.” Trump and various right-wing boosters blurred together the possibility that COVID may accidentally have escaped from the lab and the unhinged idea that China released it intentionally as a bioweapon; in story after story, the press, Chait argued, tarred both notions with the same brush of condemnation, asserting as fact that COVID was natural in origin, and that suggestions to the contrary were unscientific, “debunked,” even racist. But COVID’s true origins are unknown, and news outlets, Chait wrote, ought to have “erred on the side of uncertainty” over dogma. “The lab-leak hypothesis may well turn out to be wrong,” he argued—but that won’t make all the hasty rebuttals right.

Since Chait wrote, we’ve seen a gusher of opinion essays in the same vein, indicting the mainstream press and prominent experts for characterizing a plausible hypothesis as a conspiracy theory for essentially political reasons. Ross Douthat, of the New York Times, wrote that the Trump era “created expansive pressures to describe more and more things without any ambiguity and shading, and judge more and more right-wing claims pre-emptively.” Bret Stephens, also of the Times, argued that “good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives.” Megan McArdle (the Washington Post) wrote that “science,” in this case, came to mean “a demand that others subordinate their judgment to an elite-approved group of credentialed scientific experts.” Marc A. Thiessen (also the Post) accused the press of “a shameful dereliction of duty.” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. (the Wall Street Journal) wrote that “not every journalistic institution today is engaged in bias production but enough are that we should worry about it.” Matthew Yglesias (Substack) assailed a “genuinely catastrophic media fuckup” and “a huge fiasco for the mainstream press that got way over their skis in terms of discourse-policing.” All this commentary has unfurled against a backdrop of news articles asserting that the lab-leak theory has “gone mainstream,” and is getting a “second look.” The Post’s Fact Checker laid out how the theory “suddenly became credible.” Politifact archived a post calling the theory “debunked.” Facebook stopped banning posts claiming that COVID was man-made. And so on.

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What changed? There’s still no direct evidence to validate the lab-leak theory. There has been fresh contextual reporting: the Journal recently revealed the existence of a US intelligence document claiming that three researchers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized in November 2019. (The Trump administration previously issued a fuzzier version of this claim; the Journal’s sources disagreed as to the strength of the intelligence.) Eighteen scientists wrote in Science that an investigation conducted by the World Health Organization and China failed to give “balanced consideration” to the natural-origin and lab-leak hypotheses. Nicholas Wade, a former Times science journalist, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that, as things stand, “proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence,” and Donald G. McNeil, Jr., another former Times reporter (who recently left the paper following an allegation of racism), wrote on Medium essentially backing Wade up. Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that he’s not as confident as he was in the natural-origin theory. President Biden revealed that the intelligence community is split on the question, and ordered a further investigation to report back within ninety days.

Others say that, actually, nothing has really changed—a position that seems to unite observers who think the lab-leak theory was always credible and those who continue to doubt it. “The theory has always been the same,” Josh Rogin, a Post columnist who reported over a year ago on US safety concerns around the Wuhan lab, tweeted. “The people who got it wrong changed their minds.” Striking a different note, Angela Rasmussen, a prominent virologist, argued that “the media has chosen to dress up old speculation as new information and claim that it’s evidence. It’s not. It’s speculative, and all origin hypotheses remain possible.”

There is an awful lot to unpack here. The nub of the media criticism is, in my view, justified. Last April, I wrote, responding to Rogin’s reporting, that the press should “isolate legitimate questions” from conspiratorial noise “and try and report out the answers”; numerous journalists took this approach to the lab-leak theory, but many others did indeed dismiss it as an illegitimate line of inquiry. Such stories channeled familiar broader problems with pandemic coverage—principally, the contriving of scientific certainty in the absence of expert consensus, exacerbated by the urgent political stakes of all the conspiratorial noise. We are now seeing scientists argue in good faith about what the evidence shows—indeed, what the evidence is. This was always desirable; too often, however, argument itself was tarred as a bad-faith act.

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But the narrative shift underway in some quarters—newfound credibility; media has egg on its face—is too easy. It is firstly, to some extent, self-justifying. Credibility begets credibility; scientists’ calls for open-minded inquiry—which are very basic to what science is, and don’t, in themselves, communicate new information—can warp, via a game of telephone, into a tone of vindication, and blur the lines between the nature of the evidence and the nature of the political climate surrounding it. Secondly, the political climate was always a key part of the lab-leak story, and it remains so. It’s all well and good to say that science doesn’t care about politics, and that’s fair, in the sense that the true origins of COVID will be the true origins of COVID whether Trump or a respected virologist said them. But virologists are generally more credible than Trump, who does lie systematically, and did seek to blame China for the pandemic to distract from his own dismal performance; various actors, meanwhile, have weaponized the lab-leak theory as part of a racist agenda that has had very real consequences. A given theory can be a conspiracy and racist and, at root, true, just as a given theory can be scientifically grounded and not racist and, at root, false; who is propounding it, and why, and based on what, matters. The mistake many in the media made was to cast the lab-leak theory as inherently conspiratorial and racist, and misunderstand the relation between those properties and the immutable underlying facts. It would also be wrong, now, to assume that the lab-leak theory is inherently clean of those taints.

To my mind, staking out the proper boundary between science and politics has been the defining journalistic challenge of the pandemic; it might well be impossible to pinpoint, though we could, collectively, have been more thoughtful about looking, and the errors around the lab-leak reflect that failure. The path forward on that story is the same as it always should have been: cover the context, respect the uncertainty, and report out the underpinning truth; China’s lack of transparency may make this impossible, too, but it remains the goal. Last week, Ben Smith, of the Times, said that he tried to write a media column on the lab-leak theory,  but “realized it was a gloss on a politics article that would be a gloss on a science article,” and gave up. That’s because those categories are, and always were, inseparable, but his conclusion stands regardless: “It does seem the best thing media can do now is just cover the story.”

Below, more on uncertainty and the pandemic:

  • “When conspiracies and reality collide”: Writing for the Post, Charlie Warzel argues that a series of “disorienting events,” including the US government’s recent investigations of the lab-leak theory and, unrelatedly, UFOs, have created “precisely the sense of confusion that disinformation researchers, fact-checkers and swaths of the mainstream media try to bulwark against.” We don’t actually live in a post-truth world, but it “feels that way because the systems we’ve built—social media, traditional media—reward strong emotions and definitive conclusions,” Warzel writes. “So if we feel increasingly like we’re living in a sci-fi future, we ought to embrace it and design for it.”
  • Public trust: Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, are out with a new paper arguing that the media has undermined trust in scientific work by failing consistently to point out that science is inherently self-correcting. “We’ve identified a tendency in news coverage to overgeneralize the prevalence of problems in science and take them as an indicator that the enterprise as a whole is broken,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the researchers, said.
  • Greek life: On Monday, the World Health Organization said that it would start using the Greek alphabet to label the various prominent variants of COVID-19, replacing geographically-derived labels that could be seen as “stigmatizing”; the British variant is now the “alpha” variant, the South African variant is now the “beta” variant, and so on. The government of India recently asked social-media platforms to remove references to that country’s variant (now the “delta” variant). Maria Van Kerkhove, a leading WHO official, told Stat that governments may be more willing to report new variants if their country’s name won’t be indelibly attached to them.
  • Dr. FOIA-ci: Both the Post and BuzzFeed used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Fauci’s correspondence from the first part of last year, when the pandemic hit in the US and he quickly became a subject of intense media interest. In April 2020, Fauci received a Google News alert for his own name, and found inside an article headlined, “‘Cuomo Crush’ and ‘Fauci Fever’—Sexualization of These Men Is a Real Thing on the Internet.”  Fauci forwarded the alert to an unidentified correspondent, and urged them to click through on the link. “It will blow your mind,” he wrote. “Our society is really totally nuts.”


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.