Is groupthink threatening democracy?

Democracy Examined

A hypothesis that the most well-respected publications in America once derided as a “fringe theory” (NYT) which “could ultimately be dangerous” (Vox), was definitively a “myth” (AP), and was “repeatedly debunked by experts” (Washington Post) has suddenly become mainstream. And we’re not talking about UFOs.  

The COVID lab leak theory––that patient zero was inadvertently infected from a sample held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology––is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

Is there new evidence to support the theory?

A little bit, but not too much has changed since last year. Whatever evidence exists has mostly been around since the theory first emerged, which is cause for concern. 

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, some scientists and politicians challenged the Chinese government’s official narrative that the virus developed in a wet market in Wuhan, China. They pointed out that the city of Wuhan is hundreds of miles away from the cave systems where novel coronaviruses most commonly develop in nature, but houses the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), China’s highest-risk virology lab. There was never enough evidence to prove a connection, but it’s coincidental enough to at least merit further investigation.

Except neither the esteemed scientists nor the most prominent publications gave it any real consideration. In February of 2020, 27 prominent scientists signed onto a letter in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” They then cited some seemingly important studies, and said “conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice.” Once suggesting a lab leak origin to the virus became conspiratorial and prejudiced fearmongering, debate on the matter all but died.

Meanwhile, the lab leak theory remained plausible while the original explanation for the virus lost traction. In the time since we learned what a pangolin is, the Chinese government disavowed its preferred theory that the virus emerged in a Wuhan wet market and then insisted it was imported into China on frozen food. Come January of 2021, NYMag ran a controversial cover story on the theory, and Beijing felt compelled to respond. Finally, the government suggested that COVID did in fact escape from a lab. Except the government official said it was Fort Detrick in Maryland, amounting to a diplomatic “no, u.”

It’s normal for theories to come and go as new evidence arises. That’s how the scientific method works. But even though there is some new circumstantial evidence in favor of a possible lab leak (three researchers at the WIV were hospitalized in November of 2019 for COVID-like symptoms), nothing has come out which undermines the basis on which the theory was rejected a year ago. In other words, if it’s no longer conspiratorial to explore a possible lab origin for the virus now, it never should have been.

Why bury the lab leak theory?

It seems that the biggest trouble with the lab leak theory wasn’t its substance, but its supporters. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was an early advocate for an inquiry, but was ridiculed by the media and prominent scientists on Twitter for backing a “conspiracy” theory.

President Donald Trump then offered his support for a lab leak, but muddled the conversation by suggesting it was a deliberately-released bioweapon. Calling it the “worst attack we’ve ever had on our country,” Trump probably threw the lab leak hypothesis out of the realm of possibility for many scientists and politicos. With a history of promoting wild conspiracy theories, the former president is hardly a reliable source. But it’s troubling that scientists’ and journalists’ distaste for the messenger caused them to scrap a valid hypothesis.

Is politics inescapable?

Writing about the U.K. in 1948, George Orwell warned about the creeping influence of politics on literature. With the Iron Curtain falling across Europe and the Second World War barely in the rearview mirror, Orwell acknowledged that “the invasion of politics” into literature “was bound to happen.”

The problem, though, was that with the injection of politics came a loss of objectivity. In Orwell’s words, “to accept political responsibility now means yielding oneself over to orthodoxies and ‘party lines’, with all the timidity and dishonesty that that implies.” Loyalty mattered more than integrity; honesty lost out.

When it prematurely discredited the lab leak theory, the American scientific community entered its own 1948 moment. Whether compelled by political passions or reasonably doubtful of Trump’s bombastic claims, the scientific community rejected the lab leak hypothesis without actually having considered its merits.

Herein lies a threat to our marketplace of ideas. In a truly open marketplace, you are free to think for yourself, and follow inquiries wherever they lead. You can be a skeptic or a contrarian. But this freedom is curtailed when offering an opinion or asking a question involves the possibility that you could be socially ostracized or worse––accused of racism

In order to progress and pursue truth, we need to be free to explore all valid paths of inquiry, even the unpopular. From the Earth revolving around the sun to democracy itself, many of our greatest innovations were once implausible or deeply unpopular ideas. This doesn’t mean that we should be equally accepting of all ideas––only that we should have a very high bar for rejecting certain paths of inquiry and distrusting those who pursue them.