As we sift through the lab-leak debacle, the good news is that the healthy antibodies in the system are still strong enough to overcome the groupthink that produced the original error. News media are investigating a hypothesis they once dismissed, and the government has announced an investigation to find the truth.
The bad news is that the problem is turning out to be worse than it initially seemed — and worse still, the source of the failure is not going away. The implications of this episode are much broader than understanding the source of the pandemic. It is a question about whether institutions like the media and government can withstand the pressure of ideological conformity.
A recent Washington Post story, looking back at the government’s response to virus’s origination, reported that many officials refused to explore the lab-leak hypothesis because it was associated with right-wing politics. “For some of the officials who were privately suspicious of the Wuhan lab, Trump’s and Navarro’s comments turned the lab-leak scenario into a fringe conspiracy theory,” the Post found, “It became nearly impossible to generate interest among health experts in a hypothesis that Trump had turned into a political weapon, they said.”
That is an extraordinarily damning admission. Health experts who understood all along that it was entirely possible that the virus emerged from a lab simply refused to examine the hypothesis because it had become associated with the likes of Donald Trump.
Katherine Eban, writing in Vanity Fair, has written a lengthy exposé drawing out the failure in detail. One State Department official wrote that his team was warned not to investigate the origins of the pandemic because it would “open a can of worms.” Miles Yu, the State Department’s principal China strategist, tells Eban, “Anyone who dares speak out would be ostracized.” After former CDC head Robert Redfield said he believed the virus originated in a lab, he tells Eban “I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis.”
In retrospect, the error is clear enough all along. The origins of the pandemic were always murky, and the strongest reason to dismiss lab-leak out of hand — that the Wuhan lab supposedly had airtight security protocols — was more rumor than fact. What’s more, the notion that the theory was “racist” was always transparently dubious. A story in which the virus emerged from failed safety protocols at the Wuhan lab is not inherently more racist than a theory in which it emerged from a wet market. (If anything, blaming the pandemic on China’s people for eating bats lends itself much more easily to racism than blaming China’s government for lax security at its research labs.)
Journalists make mistakes, especially operating in a chaotic atmosphere dominated by the ceaseless jabberings of a pathological liar with a giant megaphone. What’s concerning is that, even faced with undeniable proof of the error, many people still refuse to concede it.
An article in Nature warns against a a “divisive” investigation into the virus’s origins. Remarkably enough, given that it comes from a scientific journal, the article does not directly question the possibility that COVID did escape from a lab. Instead, it warns that the investigation is “fueling 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.” One scientist who reports this “bullying” is Canadian virologist Angela Rasmussen, who in 2020 had developed a high-profile Twitter presence laced with confident dismissals of lab-leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory” that was “steeped in racist stereotypes.”
When scientists are openly arguing against the study of a scientific hypothesis, for non-scientific reasons, something has gone haywire. In this case, that something seems to be a hothouse atmosphere centered around social media, that has cultivated an ethos of moral fervor and political homogeneity.
“Personally I think that when a public figure is a known racist liar it’s fine to treat their evidence-free statements as racist lies,” insisted podcaster Michael Hobbes. “If David Duke gives a speech about rising urban crime rates it’s not the media’s job to report the most plausible version of his argument.” Writer and University of Minnesota Law School fellow Will Stancil called renewed attention to the lab-leak hypothesis “the latest example of hybridization between the right-wing fever swamps and the white guys who run journalism.”
The notable aspect of these statements is not the conclusion but the logic that produced it. That journalists dismissed a plausible theory, because they associated it with people who have noxious beliefs, does not strike them as a problem, but a correct epistemological model.
Jonathan Last, an apostate conservative writing for the Bulwark (a new magazine that serves as a kind of refuge for Republican and conservative intellectuals unable to stomach Donald Trump), recently made an observation about conservatives taunting the mainstream media for dismissing the lab-leak hypothesis. Yes, Last allowed, many outlets got the story wrong by describing the hypothesis that COVID-19 escaped from the lab in Wuhan, rather than the nearby wet market, as a false, racist conspiracy theory, when in truth they never really knew the virus’s origins. But most of those outlets have since corrected their error and treated the issue as a live scientific mystery. When has conservative media ever engaged in anything like this sort of self-correction? Is Fox News running self-flagellating segments questioning, say, the network’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a proven COVID treatment? The very thought is a punchline.
This asymmetry between the mainstream news media and the conservative media that was created to oppose it has long been a source of satisfaction for we liberals. Modern journalism, like think tanks and the bureaucracy, grew out of a Progressive Era belief in disinterested expertise. Guided by the principles of scientific inquiry, these institutions would follow the truth wherever it led.
The conservative movement built a counter-Establishment to oppose this network, but the alt-institutions of the right mimicked the hallowed liberal Establishment only in form. The Heritage Institution, the Washington Times, and Fox News were not mirror images of Brookings, the New York Times, and CBS News — they were parodies of them. Liberals had a phrase to describe this imbalance: the hack gap. The Republican Party had an army of partisans at its disposal, unburdened by any fealty to any scientific or professional norms save the advancement of the conservative movement. The liberal media might make mistakes, and bureaucracies may produce wrong conclusions, but at least they aspire to norms of fairness and impartiality that the right-wing counterparts merely sneer at.
Openness to evidence is the historical strength of American liberalism. This is why, for all the errors liberals have committed since the Progressive Era, a capacity for self-correction has given continued vitality to their — our — creed. The lab-leak fiasco ought to be a warning sign of what happens if the urge to not be defeated or manipulated by the right turns into an emulation of its methods. The only thing worse than having a hack gap would be not having one.