How do you make your mind up on controversial scientific questions? The debate around the origins of the Covid virus offers a nice lesson in how not to do it.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that the US Department of Energy currently believes that it’s more likely that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid, was leaked from a lab in China than that it evolved naturally. Three days later, the director of the FBI announced that his agency concurred.
For a lot of participants in the debate, this settled it. The establishment, they argued, had been lying to us: we were told that only conspiracy theorists believed in a lab-leak Covid origin, but now that had been spectacularly overturned.
Oddly, many of these were the same people who had spent years decrying US intelligence agencies and government sources in general, but they were still delighted to jump on board with these new announcements.
This raises two separate questions. First: was it right for discussion of the lab leak to be ridiculed and suppressed at the start of the pandemic?
This really did happen. Perhaps most prominently, an open letter in the medical journal The Lancet in February 2020 “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. Several newspapers said the idea had been “debunked”; social media companies censored discussion of it, for fear of spreading “misinformation”.
This was all a very bad idea. There simply wasn’t evidence that spoke conclusively against the lab-leak theory, and in making strong, certain pronouncements, these sources were setting themselves up for serious embarrassment.
That’s not to say that lab-leak proponents don’t tend to be conspiracy theorists. They do. The story of a scientific experiment gone wrong appeals to the type of person with interests in secret plots and official coverups – you can see this in any social media discussion of the origins of Covid.
But it’s also true that those who most blithely dismissed the lab-leak theory tended to be conformists, unthinkingly repeating what they perceived to be the “accepted” view without any real consideration of the evidence. They were misled as much as anyone else by the “conspiracy theory” framing.
This is all very interesting from a sociological perspective, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the truth, or otherwise, of the lab leak theory. We need to decouple a theory from its proponents, and judge it on its merits.
That leads to our second question. What are those merits? Considering the intensity of the debate in the past days, it’s surprising that no new evidence was shared by either of the two US agencies. The FBI’s director made his announcement in an interview on TV news, and noted that his evidence is classified. And importantly, the Department of Energy noted that, even though it leaned towards the lab leak theory, it had “low confidence” in that view. Several other US intelligence agencies still lean towards a natural origin. This is far from a slam-dunk.
These mysterious pronouncements have to be held up against the scientific data. Researchers have carefully traced the earliest cases of Covid, as well as the genetics of the virus, and found evidence that strongly points towards the original cases being centred around the Wuhan wet market, and the trade in wildlife that occurred there. None of this is knockdown proof of a natural origin – this kind of evidence is always circumstantial. But importantly, and unlike the intelligence reports, it’s all in the public domain.
It’s been a long time since the authorities dismissed the lab-leak theory out of hand. US President Biden announced in May 2021 that he had tasked his intelligence agencies with investigating whether the Covid virus “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”. Here in the UK, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office announced this week that it still has an open mind, and wants to see a “robust, transparent, and science-led review” of Covid’s origin.
Given the complexity and messiness of the biology involved – and the fact that everyone agrees the virus originated in China, run by a notoriously secretive totalitarian government who aren’t exactly transparent with information – it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to pin down the origins of Covid. But we have to take a sober look at the evidence, and not be bowled over by every development in the news.
The anthropologist Chris Kavanagh calls this “discourse surfing”: letting your opinions be buffeted this way and that by what’s being discussed in the media, rather than by data.
Until the US intelligence agencies share their reasoning with the world, and not just their opinions, our minds shouldn’t be changed much at all by these new announcements. Next time anyone claims to have made their mind up on the lab-leak theory either way, the most important thing to do is to ask them for the evidence.