Why the Wuhan lab leak theory matters

It goes beyond a geopolitical blame game to issues of media groupthink and safeguards on science research.

The sharpest commentary on the lab leak theory has taken the form of media criticism from contrarian liberals in the past week.PHOTO: REUTERS

(NYTIMES) On Long Bets, a website where prognosticators test their mettle by playing for real (or at least proceeds-donated-to-charity) stakes, there is an open bet between British astrophysicist Martin Rees, a noted worrier over apocalyptic possibilities, and Harvard University's Steven Pinker, famous for his vaulting optimism.

For Dr Rees to win, the following prediction must be vindicated: "A bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six-month period starting no later than Dec 31, 2020."

The bet was made for the 2017 to 2020 period; you will notice that its timeframe has expired. And yet it remains unsettled, pending a resolution of the question that the Western media has finally decided to take seriously: Did Covid-19 somehow escape accidentally from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rather than leaping from bats or pangolins to its human patient zero?

So if you're wondering how much the so-called lab leak hypothesis really matters, and what's actually at stake, there's one answer: The US$400 (S$530) that Dr Rees bet against Dr Pinker on the self-destructive capacities of the human race. There are other answers, too, before we get back to what the wager represents.

The liberal bias

In the past week, as the Biden administration has ramped up its Covid-19 origins investigation, the sharpest commentary on the lab leak theory has taken the form of media criticism from contrarian liberals like Mr Matthew Yglesias and Mr Jonathan Chait.

They have tried to explain how a theory that was always circumstantially plausible - given that the outbreak started more than 1,000 miles from the bat habitat where similar viruses have been discovered, but just a stone's throw from an important laboratory studying coronaviruses - was treated as pure conspiracising by mainstream news outlets and Facebook content-warning providers for so long.

The Chait-Yglesias argument is that this was a case study in media groupthink, and especially the way that putatively neutral institutions increasingly cover controversial questions, as Mr Chait puts it, "based entirely on how they believe political actors will use the answer".

In this case, because the lab leak theory was associated early on with Republican China hawks like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, given prominence by conservative publications and eventually picked up by the Trump administration, there was self-reinforcing pressure - among journalists who covered the story and Twitter experts who opined on it - to put the possibility in the QAnon box and leave it there.

I will leave it to the reader to consider how similar pressure might manifest itself in other areas, from the 2020 to 2021 murder spike to the recent rise in anti-Semitic violence, where journalists might wish to avoid making concessions to conservative interpretations of reality.

But let me offer a narrower addition to the media critique. One key change to United States mainstream journalism in the Trump era was the impulse to tell the reader exactly what to think, lest by leaving anything ambiguous you gave an inch to right-wing demagogy.

It was not enough to simply report, "Republican politician X said conspiratorial-sounding thing Y". You also had to specifically describe the conspiratorial thing as false or debunked misinformation, in a way that once would have been considered editorialising, so as to leave no doubt in the vulnerable reader's mind.

I'm very sceptical that this achieved its intended purpose. (Has anyone drawn to a conspiracy theory been disabused by seeing it described as such in the mainstream media?) But even if it sometimes did, it also created expansive pressures to describe more and more things without any ambiguity and shading, and judge more and more right-wing claims pre-emptively; which is only a good rule for a truth-seeking profession if you assume the day will never come when Senator Cotton has a point.

Strikingly, though, both Mr Chait and Mr Yglesias argue that this media critique is the most important thing we can take away from the Covid-19 origins debate. "I don't know if this hypothesis will ever be proven," Mr Chait writes of the lab leak theory, and "I don't care" because "there's no important policy question riding on the answer".

This seems mistaken.

Major policy implications

Yes, if we never figure out the truth of Covid-19's origins, the dangers of media groupthink will be the only lesson we can draw for absolutely certain. But if we could find out the truth, and it turned out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology really was the epicentre of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the revelation would itself be a major political and scientific event.

First, to the extent that the US is engaged in a conflict of propaganda and soft power with the regime in Beijing, there's a pretty big difference between a world where the Chinese regime can say, "we weren't responsible for Covid-19 but we crushed the virus and the West did not, because we're strong and they're decadent", and a world where this was basically their Chernobyl except their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe.

The latter scenario would also open a debate about how the US should try to enforce international scientific research safeguards, or how it should operate in a world where they can't be reasonably enforced.

Perhaps that debate would ultimately tilt away from China hawks, as Mr David Frum argues in The Atlantic, because the lesson of a lab leak would be that we actually need "more binding of China to the international order, more cross-border health and safety standards, more American scientists in Chinese labs, and concomitantly, more Chinese scientists in American labs". Or perhaps instead you would have an attempted scientific and academic embargo, an end to the kind of funding that flowed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the US Agency for International Development, an attempt to manage risk with harder borders, stricter travel restrictions, deglobalisation.

The nuclear panic

Either way, this debate would also affect science policy in the US, opening arguments the likes of which we haven't seen since the era of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island about the risks of scientific hubris and cutting-edge research.

This is especially true if there's any chance that the Covid-19 virus was engineered, in so-called "gain of function" research, to be more transmissible and lethal - a possibility raised by, among others, The New York Times' former science writer Nicholas Wade.

But even if it wasn't, the mere existence of that research, heretofore a subject of obscure intrascientific controversy, would become a matter of intense public attention and scrutiny. That scrutiny might not lead to wise decisions, just as the panic over nuclear power arguably led both energy policy and environmentalism astray.

To return to the bet with which we started, the regulation of science has to exist in a balance between Dr Rees and Dr Pinker, between healthy pessimism about human blundering and healthy ambition about what human ingenuity can do.

If the pandemic blossomed from a reckless blunder, any reckoning could easily go awry, with a crusade for safety pushing us deeper into technological stagnation. But if we find out that a single laboratory and a few scientists are responsible for one of the greatest human catastrophes in generations, it's no use to wish the reckoning away.