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

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

If that was your hope, you might want to move on. But I hope you’ll be ready to explore why the truth is almost always elusive – and often not because someone is trying to hide it. What’s important to keep in mind when considering 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 brought to a lab for study without enough precautions, then it accidentally infected a lab worker, who somehow spread it. other in the community. Many media, as well as some scientists, quickly called it a conspiracy theory, designed to distract from the missteps of their own countries. But, like everyone else involved in discussions of the lab leak theory, scientists have something at stake: if SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab, it could further shake confidence in the research and threaten funding.

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

But it is not because your intellectual adversary has particular motivations that he is wrong or, conversely, that he is right if his motivations correspond to yours.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fallen into the alignment trap. Including me. I co-founded the scientific monitoring site Retraction watch over a decade ago, and in the face of some truly awful scientific papers that made me and co-founder Adam Marcus wonder how they got published, we frequently used phrases like “anti-vaxxer and “conspiracy theory” in our reviews. It was a way of dismissing ideas as unworthy of discussion.

retraction watch

But we stopped doing that, in large part because we saw how this knee-jerk dismissal — on both “sides” — repeated itself time and time again during the pandemic.

Over the past 18 months, for example, virtually no one has been able to have an unbiased discussion about the evidence — or lack thereof — for the use of various older drugs, generally approved to treat parasites, against Covid-19. Such discussions have often degenerated into howling matches between polarized opposites. If you’ve ever made a comment that could be construed as saying that Donald Trump got absolutely everything right – including his beefing up of such a drug, hydroxychloroquine – you were clearly promoting the drug because you were partisan. If you rejected drugs, you were surely a supporter of the other side. And if you’ve gained followers through media mentions, or if you’ve ever been paid to write anything for any media outlet, you were clearly opposed to ivermectin, another one of those drugs, just to make you a name. etc

A similar dynamic played out in discussions about vaccines. Public health officials, aware of vaccine hesitancy in some quarters, have made vaccines appear to be 100% safe, when such a thing does not exist. They opted for clear rather than nuanced messaging, dismissing security concerns. But when a small number of reports of blood clots surfaced and they halted a vaccine rollout, it only heightened distrust (and conspiracy charges). Peter Sandman, a longtime communications strategist, argued that a better approach would have been to provide what is called “anticipatory advice,which involves advising people about rare side effects that may occur. It removes the reagent” but you told us Xso now I don’t trust you” argument that can further muddy a complex situation.

Much like the nuances of vaccine safety, too many people were too quick to dismiss the lab leak theory as a conspiracy. But once they looked carefully at some of the evidence, sometimes they had to update stories and statements to acknowledge even the remote possibility of a lab leak. (A correction by the Washington Post specifically removes the term “conspiracy theory. »

The Washington Post specifically removed the term “conspiracy theory” from a recent article, as described here in a correction notice.

To be clear: conspiracy theories exist, and so do bad faith actors. And you can believe in a conspiracy theory without being a bad faith actor. It would be naive and counterproductive to pretend otherwise.

Some may argue that in the midst of a health crisis like Covid, it is justifiable to shut down an idea that lacks evidence of certainty by labeling it a “conspiracy theory”, particularly if it distracts from the public eye. main objective to prevent more illnesses and deaths. .

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

This makes intuitive sense: if you hear something called a conspiracy theory and then learn that any of the arguments supporting that theory, however minor, are factual, this revelation can reinforce the idea that there really is a concealment. Or maybe you learn that a vocal critic of the lab leak conspiracy theory had a material but undisclosed conflict of interest — namely that his organization had collaborated with the laboratory in Wuhan which was allegedly the site of the leak. In this sense, the proof of Chinese government obstruction also reinforces the suggestion of concealment.

It’s human nature to want a definitive answer to questions. But science isn’t about certainty, and it seems likely, for many reasons, that we’ll never have a definitive answer on the lab leak theory. Science can allow us to approach the truth, but always within a range of likelihoods and probabilities – a reality that has been obscured by the need for headlines and social media from politicians, journalists, actors in industry 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 rather embrace the nuance. This increases your chances of accessing the ever-elusive “truth.”

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

This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis and Recovery, an ongoing series from Knowable Magazine exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences, and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Ivan Oransky, MD, is co-founder of Retraction Watch, editor-in-chief of Spectrum, and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is a member of the advisory group of Knowable magazine. Find Ivan on Twitter @ivanoransky

A version of this article originally appeared on knowable, and is republished here with permission. Subscribe to their newsletter here. Knowable magazine is available on Twitter @Knowablemag

This article was first published on the GLP on December 15, 2021.

Sharon D. Cole