Pragmatics, Truth, and the “Lab-Leak” Controversy

by Joseph Shieber

The pangolin looks fresh.

One of the tropes of the Covid-19 era is to revisit predictions made earlier in the pandemic, either to issue a mea culpa or to issue a self-congratulatory reminder to oneself or one’s readers about a successful prediction.

The past week or so has witnessed a flood of those sorts of posts centered around the question of whether Covid-19 might have escaped from a laboratory rather than from a “local seafood market” in Wuhan, China.

Given the fact that this was only the most recent example in which some prominent scientific figures seemed to retract what had previously been treated as consensus, I nervously revisited my 3QD post from May 4, 2020, “Let’s Not Allow Our Renewing Trust in Science to Become the Latest Victim of Covid 19”.

In particular, I was concerned that my pushback against appeals to “Trust the Science” would not fit well with this additional evidence of the way in which scientists sometimes arrive at tentative results that are later called into question.

For example, I was critical of the worry that appeals to “Trust the Science” might

… set the stage for shifting blame onto scientific experts should the political decisions lead to poor outcomes. For example, [an article in The Guardian quotes] University of Edinburgh political scientist Prof Christina Boswell as worrying that, “If things go wrong … it will be [painted as being] the scientific advice that is to blame.”

Having reread that May 4 post, however, I have to admit that I think it has aged pretty well. In order to say why, though, I’ll have to dig a bit deeper into the current “Lab-Leak Controversy”.

For most of 2020 — and, indeed, up until a few weeks ago — most media outlets rejected any discussion of the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory as conspiracist thinking. Writing in The Guardian on Saturday, Stephen Buranyi summarized the recent about-face this way:

On Thursday, the [Joe Biden] ordered US intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to find exactly when and how the virus jumped into humans, and the two scenarios he suggested were an infected animal, or a laboratory accident. Just last year, that second utterance would have got a person dismissed as a kook and a conspiracist; but an increasing number of mainstream figures, from those in the press to influential scientists and government officials such as US chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, are at least open to the idea that the pandemic may have started with a containment failure in China, or a souped-up virus experiment gone wrong.

On her Substack, the excellent Zeynep Tufekci provides a useful summary of how the consensus hardened so quickly against the “lab-leak” hypothesis and in favor of the hypothesis that Covid-19 evolved naturally. Eliding some of the details and commentary provided by Tufekci, the process involved the following steps (quotes from Tufekci, numbering mine; for other summaries, see here and here):

(1) Essentially, in early 2020, Trump and Senator Tom Cotton weighed in on the issue, after which it exploded in the fever swamps, with undeniable racism at play, advocating increasingly weird and unlikely scenarios…
(2) At the same time, a small but vocal group of scientists, some of whom had fairly active profiles on social media, provided a lot of content, quotes and viewpoints to the media, generally making themselves very accessible but with a particular point of view on this question. They also wrote strongly-worded opinion pieces for a few high-profile scientific outlets, essentially dismissing a version of what’s getting called the “lab leak” hypothesis …
(3) Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time …
(4) Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims…
(5) Next came the scolding “fact-checks,” painting all discussion of the lab leak as a possibility in any version as mere racism or just a conspiracy theory, suggesting that any attempt to have a sane conversation about a really important topic was, at best, aiding and abetting racists if not outright racist.

Much of the smartest commentary about the changing consensus about whether the “lab-leak” hypothesis is now able to be discussed without being dismissed immediately as conspiracist misinformation has focused on this development as a major blow to the credibility of traditional media sources.

For example, Matt Yglesias titled one of his Substack posts about these recent developments “The Media’s Lab Leak Fiasco”. At various points in that post, Yglesias terms these developments evidence of “a big media fuckup”, a “genuinely catastrophic media fuckup”, and a case of “gross irresponsibility” on the part of at least some members of the media.

Relatedly, in her posts on the topic, Tufekci repeatedly emphasizes the ways in which the recent reconsideration of the “lab leak” hypothesis reflect a failure on the part of the media. For example, in her Substack piece “Checking Facts Even If One Can’t”, Tufekci laments:

Without commenting on the plausibility of the different versions of the origin theories of COVID-19 (as I said, it deserves a separate considered piece, not off-hand remarks), can we at least acknowledge that what happened past year is no way to check any “facts” or even fight misinformation?
If anything, all this overreach and hurry to declare everything a conspiracy theory or “not following the science” just helps erode what trust authorities or fact-checkers may have had in their pronouncements.

Or in the post I cited earlier, “How the Twitter/Media Feedback Loop Can Work to Undermine Our Understanding”, Tufekci writes, “ Of course, these knee-jerk dismissals just makes the problem worse, because when the mainstream media ignores vital, debatable topics, the ones left speaking about the issue most vocally become the racists in the fever swamps.”

Commentary like this might well be correct as a diagnosis of the damage to media credibility resulting from the current developments. However, what the commentary ignores is the difficulty presented by the current media environment.

To see what I’m getting at, it would help to look at the ways in which “the fever swamps” have weaponized media coverage to spread disinformation more generally. And to see that, it would help to consider a “toy case”: let’s imagine that you want to promote the idea that the post-Michelson/Morley consensus in physics is incorrect, and that light in fact does move through a luminiferous ether. (For a debunking of a recent attempt to argue in favor of the existence of luminiferous ether, see here.)

It seems to me that there are a few control points at which academic and media institutions can prevent a crackpot view like the luminiferous ether theory from circulating widely:

1. The first is by not covering the theory at all.
2. The second is by covering the theory, but correctly identifying that it is a minority view that enjoys little to no support among experts (in the case of luminiferous ether, that would be an understatement!).
3. The third is by covering the theory, but explaining, in a way that is clear and accessible for the average reader, why the theory is incorrect.

In the case of the “lab leak” theory, the critiques by Tufekci, Yglesias, and others focus on the latter two control points. With respect to both of those, the members of the media and fact-checkers did indeed fail abjectly.

They failed with respect to the second control point because, although they did attempt to police the “lab leak” theory by claiming that it was a minority view that enjoys little to no support among experts, they were INCORRECT in making this claim. The May 14 letter in Science, “Investigate the origins of Covid-19”, signed by a number of prominent infectious disease specialists, immunobiologists, and epidemiologists, attests to the fact that there is as yet no scientific consensus regarding the origins of Covid-19.

They failed with respect to the third control point because they were unable to explain, in a way that is clear and accessible for the average reader, why the theory is incorrect. This failure is due to at least two factors.

First, those discussing the “lab leak” hypothesis were unable clearly to distinguish between its different versions. Some — including most scientists open to the hypothesis — take that hypothesis to involve an accidental release. Others — mostly denizens of those “fever swamps” to which Tufekci refers — take that hypothesis to involve the deliberate release of the virus.

Second, there is not yet sufficient evidence to rule out either the natural evolution or “lab leak” hypothesis, at least the “accidental release” version. (There is little reason to countenance the “deliberate release” version of the “lab leak” view). For this reason, it is little wonder that members of the media and fact-checkers were unable to provide a clear and accessible explanation why the “lab leak” hypothesis is incorrect. We don’t yet know that it IS incorrect!

What criticisms like Tufekci’s and Yglesias’s fail to take into account is that the weaponization of the “lab leak” hypothesis — in its more extreme versions — by the online “fever swamps” and conservative media outlets like Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax short-circuited the ability of more responsible media organizations to employ the first control point: not covering the hypothesis at all.

This is significant because not all stories are worth covering. The person in Germany who in the 2000’s still thinks the luminiferous ether is real and who publishes papers on arXiv arguing for a reinterpretation of the Michelson-Morley experiment doesn’t need coverage in The New York Times. Nor is it even the case that all true stories merit media coverage. The stereotypical example of this is the “Dog bites man” story: perhaps true, but uninformative.

In the case of the “lab leak” hypothesis, the problem with the story isn’t that it would be uninformative if it were true. Rather, the problem is that the story has no practical (i.e., policy) implications at all.

Yglesias, in his “The Media’s Lab-Leak Fiasco” post, is good on this. He notes:

… the stakes in the lab leak fight seem to be political. In 2014, Olga Khazan wrote an Atlantic article calling for stricter curbs on “gain of function” research at labs. Kelsey Piper wrote an article with a similar thesis in 2019 for Vox. If people believe the lab leak is true, that will bolster their case rhetorically. But I found Kelsey’s article persuasive when she wrote it — and I will continue to think she’s correct even if lab leak theory is eventually debunked.

Then there’s China policy. … Lab leak theory could bolster anti-China politics. That being said, even if lab leak is false, it’s not that hard to find evidence for the proposition that the PRC regime is bad. They crushed Hong Kong. They’re running concentration camps in Xinjiang. …

… there is a difference between a factual controversy where a change in facts affects people’s views and a factual controversy that is mostly about raising or lowering the status of different people and arguments. And this, I think, is a case of the latter.

I think that Yglesias is onto something here with his suggestion that the hypothesis that Covid-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab has no policy implications. Zero. However, Yglesias fails to appreciate the implications of someone’s talking about something that is itself of no practical import.

If the outcome of a certain question has no practical import to your behavior or my behavior, then if I persist in talking about that question, it must be because I have some OTHER motive for being so persistent.

In May, June or July of 2020, the pertinent questions had to do with lockdowns and mask-wearing. Whether Covid-19 originated in a bat in the wild or in a lab in Wuhan had no practical implications on either of these questions. For that reason, if someone in May, June or July of 2020, in the context of discussions of Covid-19, began raising the question of whether the virus leaked from a lab, it would be completely appropriate to ask the question: Why are you bringing this up now?

Of course, it is possible to have an interest in the truth hypotheses simply because one has an interest in the truth. However, in the context of a pandemic, in which conversations about Covid-19 have implications for public behavior that can literally have life-or-death consequences, there is no such thing as “just asking questions”.

As evidence for this, consider the fact that both Tufekci and Yglesias note that few, if any, actual experts were vocal in raising the possibility of the “lab leak” hypothesis in 2020.

Here’s Tufekci: “… many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself.”

Here’s Yglesias: “Unless you like and admire Cotton and Pompeo and want to be known to the world as a follower of Cotton-Pompeo Thought, it is not very compelling to speak up in favor of a minority viewpoint among scientists. Why spend your day in nasty fights on Twitter when you could be doing science?”

What neither appreciate is what this means. Rather than implying that scientists were cowed by the “woke” twitterati, there is a simpler explanation: they were “doing science”, and were “very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself.” Pretty much anyone taking time out from that to discuss a hypothesis with absolutely NO practical import very likely had some sort of ulterior motive.

Yglesias and Tufekci ignore this fact about the pragmatics of a discussion when they suggest that the media was acting on incomplete evidence in shutting down the discussion of the “lab leak” hypothesis as reflecting racist, conspiracist thinking.

Given the context of the discussion in 2020, in other words, the members of the media (and fact-checkers) actually had rather STRONG evidence for thinking that those who discussed the “lab leak” hypothesis had racist or conspiracist motives in amplifying that hypothesis. That was certainly more plausible than supposing that most of those who amplified the “lab leak” hypothesis in 2020 were motivated by a pure love of the truth! (Again, remember that Tufekci and Yglesias both note that virtually NO actual experts publicly entertained the hypothesis in 2020.)

Where the members of the media went astray was confusing the motivations of those who raised the “lab leak” hypothesis with the credibility of the hypothesis itself. It is certainly possible that someone with bad motivations — or even bad arguments! — could nevertheless stumble upon a true claim.

Note that, as many areas emerge from the pandemic (although, unfortunately, many other areas are still threatened), the context of the discussion has shifted. As the threat from Covid-19 recedes and the need for large-scale public health interventions lessens, it becomes possible — from a purely truth-interested perspective — openly to ask, What happened?

In this changed context, asking questions about the accidental release of Covid-19 from a laboratory no longer serves as evidence of racist or conspiracist thinking. Seen from the point of view of the pragmatics of communication, then, it’s not really surprising that a group of eminent scientists would now call for an investigation into Covid’s origins.