Coronavirus origins – an accident of unnatural science?
A better headline for this blog entry would be ‘Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?’, but this has already been used as the subtitle for a forensic piece by blogger Nicholas Wade examining the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which can be found at https://nicholaswade.medium.com/origin-of-covid-following-the-clues-6f03564c038. It is worth reading, reading slowly and reading properly – but most of all it is worth reading with an open mind.
I’ve read a fair number of articles over the past 15 months as apparent clarity over the origins of COVID-19 first flowed and then seemed unaccountably to ebb. Most have felt like smoke and mirrors, which makes the systematic, logical flow of Wade’s investigation all the more refreshing.
I am not going to attempt a summary or paraphrasing of Wade’s disputation and conclusion here because it is would not do justice to the original, and every reader should decide on the merits of the arguments presented.
For me, the overriding impression in reading the article was a conflation of two things. The first was the truly superb 2019 HBO dramatisation about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (https://www.hbo.com/chernobyl), in which the Soviet-era politics of cover-up and reputation management overrode all other considerations, including the saving of human life. The second was the 2020 book ‘Science Fictions’ by scientist-turned-author Stuart Ritchie (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1117290/science-fictions/9781847925657.html), which meticulously documents the numerous ways in which institutional and human distortions undermine the purity of the scientific method in today’s academic world, especially the perennial threat of orchestrated reputational assassination.
I would wager that anyone who has been exposed (so to speak) to both Chernobyl and Science Fictions will have the same sensation on reading Wade’s article. For everyone else, I would strongly recommend both and then I think you will see what I mean.
The principal difference between the Chernobyl explosion and the Wuhan origins of COVID-19 is that, for the former, the political and virological omertà was limited to one state, the USSR, whereas for the latter the political and scientific tendrils are global. More than that, the very association of one theory (the Wuhan lab origination theory) with a contentious politician (Donald Trump) seems to have been enough for it to be dismissed a priori rather than as a result of rigorous, politically disinterested scientific investigation.
Wade is careful not to force the reader to a conclusion different to the prevailing consensus: he simply asserts based on his built-up argument that the grounds don’t exist for such a conclusion. The clock is ticking on who is proved right, if there remain the appetite and will to find out.
The immediate case of coronavirus is big enough, but healthy scepticism based on the exposure of inadequately applied scientific rigour can hardly avoid leaking into other fields. Which ones? Well, any in which there is a dogmatic assertion that “The Science Is Settled”.
The methodological axiom that all scientific theorems are contingent on nothing being found in the future to disprove them seems to have been set aside, and with it the modicum of humility necessary to keep genuinely enquiring minds from closing.
Game of the Causes of Climate Change, anyone? My hunch: Humankind 1:4 The Sun - away win.