Inventing conflicts of interest
if you can’t win on the evidence, discredit the experts
“Innocence is the weakest defense. Innocence has a single voice that can only say over and over again, “I didn’t do it.” ― Leonard Peltier
If you want to follow my work, you can subscribe for free. I post irregularly a few times a year and only about things that are worth your time. Attention is a critical good in today’s information age, let’s try to respect it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only revealed old weaknesses in public health, but also new vulnerabilities in our shared information spheres. Especially on scientific topics, be it vaccines, alternative treatments, or virus origins, much of the public has been confronted with and taken up false, misleading, or contradictory information.
Social media dynamics and incentives play a crucial role in what can be called the “ecosystem of anti-science falsehoods”, and so do contrarian scientists, cynical information combatants, ignorant or unethical amplifiers, and our own gullibility and biases.
More worryingly, sometimes the sheer pace and collective onslaught of supposed revelations, investigations, tell-all books, contrarian opinions, and tweet storms cause a flair-up of attention on social media that cascades from anti-science networks via influencers into wider media and public conversation. Feeling a duty to report the ‘controversy’, even respectable journalistic outlets and amplifiers get sucked into the dispute, ever-increasing its attentional footprint on the public’s consciousness.
The origins controversy has seen many of these “boom and bust” cycles of attention, moments when information cascades surrounding a supposed lableak and alleged cover-up broke into wider public conversation (going viral), most recently with a partisan ‘interim’ report from GOP senate staffers and a journalistically malfeasant Vanity Fair/ProPublica investigation. And like all the times before, these feverish moments would be gone just as quickly, usually when the scientists, fact-checkers, and reporters have time to do a follow-up on claims that were unsubstantiated in the first place.
Still to this day, there is not a single piece of evidence in support of a ‘research-related’ origin of SARS-CoV-2, and this is certainly not for lack of trying to get to the bottom of this issue. Quite the opposite, these efforts yielded a growing body of detailed scientific evidence in support of a zoonotic origin of the disease, most likely via wildlife trade. It is important to note that this scientific evidence could have turned out either way but ended up precluding, disproving, or debunking any and all of the advanced alternative origin theories, from bioweapons to engineering, from serial passage to sampling accident, and a lot of ignorant, unscientific and unfalsifiable gobbledegook in between. (the casual reader might be excused if this is the first time you hear about this, please feel free to check the references & further reading below)
Despite this, the controversy will live on, and we can reasonably predict that more of these substance-free flare-ups of attention around this topic will occur, based on the inherent attractiveness of the lableak conspiracy myth and our asymmetric information landscape that favors fast, false, sensationalist, emotional, and satisfying content over the often slow, technical, arcane proceedings and unsatisfying caveats of science. These anti-science narratives are of course not limited to the lableak theory, but they should make us wonder:
What do these consistent media flare-ups of scientific falsehoods do to us as a society?
While these flare-ups might often be unsubstantiated, I worry they are not without impact. They leave behind a feeling that something ‘untoward’ has happened, that perpetual distrust of science is warranted, and that nobody should believe scientific expertise and scientists anymore when they contradict one’s intuition. Recent polls show that 68% of US voters believe the virus leaked from a lab, likely one of the starkest differences between public opinion and scientific consensus on any scientific topic. Most detrimental of all, I worry that society gradually becomes cynical towards the scientific process, believing objective truth is something abstract, unobtainable, or malleable depending on who is in power.
This is of course false. Science is a process to approximate ever more likely truths, it offers actionable (although not absolute) certainties about our shared reality and thereby provides the basis for productive cooperation towards common goals. Humans have an inherent need for truth, but we are easily discouraged to trust others, especially those we don’t know or can’t identify with.
Being bombarded with never-ending falsehoods because these perform better in our broken info sphere doesn’t necessarily lead people to believe all the lies, but it does breeds cynicism and epistemic nihilism. This is dangerous for any democratic society, and a contributor to polarization, conflict, and misery.
“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” — Hannah Arendt, political theorist, philosopher, and holocaust survivor
So today, we will try to do our small part to fend off some epistemic nihilism and do something that is probably unheard of on this contentious lableak topic:
We will look for objective reasons to restore trust in some maligned experts on the origins controversy. Trust that was taken away from us by an ecosystem of anti-science falsehoods we did not consent to participate in, but also could not escape from being exposed to.
Part 1: But what about their emails?
Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime. — Imre Lakatos, Cambridge University Press, 1978
One major point of contention that regularly boils to the upper echelons of imagination includes events involving well-known officials, for example, former head of NIAID and presidential advisor Anthony Fauci in the US and former director of the UK’s Welcome Trust Jeremy Farrar.
To understand how these officials got dragged into year-long conspiratorial fantasies, it is worth traveling back to the beginning of the outbreak.
Even just a few weeks after the pandemic started, multiple baseless conspiracy theories (e.g here or here) about the origin of the 2019-nCoV (as SARS-CoV-2 was named at the time) had been going viral enough on social media that several fact-checkers felt the need to correct the record.
But also within the scientific community, the uncertainties about this new pathogen led to some head-scratching, and by browsing through the genome, Kristian Andersen was seeing some oddities that he could not explain at the time, so he reached out to Eddie Holmes to talk them through. Eddie Holmes, already in conversation with Jeremy Farrar, relayed these concerns, plus some other peculiarities with this outbreak, boiling down to basically:
the proximity of the WiV lab to the outbreak site
the fact that Shi Zhengli had just published RatG13 a week prior as the closest known ancestor to SC2 (at the time)
the occurrence of a furin cleavage site
and the explosive growth of the cases
Based on these concerns raised the last week of January 2020, Jeremy Farrar then started to arrange a scientific meeting with multiple coronaviruses and zoonotic disease experts to discuss whether there is any merit to the hypothesis that SC2 was the result of the research-related activity. So the word started spreading.
“We wanted to make it a proper investigation. […] We also had to talk to our national security services” — Prof. Edward Holmes
Jeremy Farrar suggested to Anthony Fauci to talk to Kristian Andersen as well, which is how Fauci got pulled into what would later be falsely misattributed to the “Fauci cover-up teleconference”.
From the outset, it was clear that this was not a secret meeting but a group call, albeit a confidential one.
Nevertheless, experts discussing important topics in small circles are known to invite the imagination of the public.
For more than two years, the exact content of these discussions has been treated by some media outlets as “the place where it happened”; meaning some elaborate cover-up conspiracy including Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, Jeremy Farrar, and many well-known virologists, including Kristian Anderson, Ron Fouchier, Eddie Holmes, Christian Drosten, Andrew Rambaut, Robert Garry and other names that have since become household names in conspiratorial circles. Multiple scientists involved in the meeting have explained over and over again that these meetings were about science, arguing about coronavirus biology, evolution, genomic features, and what they can tell about the origin of the virus.
In the end, even the scientists who first raised concerns and thought lableak quite likely gradually became swayed by the (often still emerging) evidence strictly pointing to a natural, evolved virus. (Also important to mention that evidence was still fast-moving in the first weeks of the pandemic, and holdouts like Kristian Anderson eventually changed their minds when a SC2-like receptor binding domain was found in a pangolin coronavirus, definitive proof that nature could bring forth such a feature. Bonus: These pangolin CoVs were sequenced before the pandemic, disproving related conspiracy theories that they must have been ‘faked’).
In any case, this is the scientific process at work. Experts discuss the merit and explanatory power of a proposed hypothesis, knowledge gets shared, more data gets collected, and most of the time, an unusual hypothesis finds itself rejected or is found unsubstantiated. Occasionally, there might be enough useful insights created to write down some kind of scientific note (and indeed, Andersen and some others used this starting point to keep working on the topic, leading to the ‘proximal origins’ paper). And that would have been the end of it, in usual times.
But not in times when scientific authority has become an obstacle to the interests or dominance of some political, economic, and social power holders.
Scientists changing their minds when the evidence demands it is something that can be used effectively by anti-science combatants to paint them as flip-flopping and dishonest.
A few months later, as a public official responsible for advising on many Covid policies, Anthony Fauci became an obvious target for any motivated group who had an axe to grind. Predictably, weaponized FOIA (freedom-of-information-act) requests for the emails of Anthony Fauci would ‘discover’ how scientists had raised some initial concerns by email about a research-related origin of the pandemic, and much of the rightwing media uncritically ate it up as proof of a cover-up. It was red meat for a conspiratorial audience. These (often heavily redacted) emails were mercilessly abused by an information ecosystem of anti-science falsehoods to both support the lableak conspiracy myth (“look experts agreed it is highly plausible”) and to discredit the experts at the same time (“these scientists lied to us by discrediting the lableak theory”).
Never underestimate the power of decontextualization and malicious framing that anti-science propaganda outlets are so adept at exploiting. Repeat a lie often enough, and people will start believing it. Take USRTK, a US-based attack organization funded by various anti-science networks, which wrote no less than 71 ‘origin-focused’ attack pieces in the last two years using weaponized FOIA emails and other internet garbage, repackaged into outrage-heavy hit pieces on scientists.
Every single piece carries the same message: You cannot trust those scientists and scientific experts.
The sad part is, for most people, these manipulation tactics work. We humans are quick to distrust others, and despite having done nothing wrong, you will be hard-pressed to find people willing to stick their necks out for these scientists today. ‘Maybe something improper did indeed happen? Look at all these articles, there is just too much noise to be about nothing, right? Also, why did they change their mind? What about this unrelated grant money? Can we really be sure to trust those scientists, there certainly seem to be many conflicts of interest going on…’
Inventing conflicts of interest to discredit the opinion/knowledge/science of experts has been a tactic from anti-science actors for a long time, and social media has made it much easier to do so.
Once scientists have been artificially maligned like that, there is no way to be redeemed either, apparently.
It does not even matter that just recently, these scientists were completely vindicated by the unredaction of the Fauci emails in question (unredacted emails can be found here). These email conversations do not only corroborate what the scientists have been saying, they also prove that nobody had any idea about the virus, that they applied their scientific expertise and thinking to figure out if it could have been engineered and in the end, they always let the evidence guide them.
So finally, the public has clarity that nothing shady has been going on in the background.
Has there been since any mea culpa, any apologies or corrections been on offer by those who made baseless allegations against scientists? Did we learn to maybe be less quick in our judgement? Of course not, trust remains gone, and lableak influencers are already double down on the conspiracy myth yet again, asking if maybe there are no other hidden emails somewhere, because those they sued out from scientists did not contain what they claimed they would do.
Can’t win them all, I guess. But I do wonder:
If we are willing to distrust scientific experts based on baseless insinuations and remain skeptical even after these insinuations have been proven wrong, what exactly do we expect scientists to do?
Part 2: An informative forgotten manuscript
Zheng-Li Shi has become famous for the wrong reasons. On January 23, 2020, she published a preprint containing the closest known ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 at the time, a bat virus called RaTG13, sampled in 2013 in Yunnan. Ever since, accusations have been made that SARS-CoV-2 must have been one of ‘her’ viruses that escaped. After all, had she not collected thousands of bat samples? Did she not sequence hundreds of viruses? Are we really to believe SARS-CoV-2 related viruses were not among them? What sequences was she hiding?
By the time Zheng-Li Shi had published all CoV sequences they had in August 2020, and the paper showed that she had no closer SARS-CoV-2 related viruses than RaTG13, people had already made up their minds about her trustworthiness.
Unfortunately, publications published after the pandemic will always face baseless insinuations by conspiratorial crowds that they have been ‘tinkered with’ to cover-up the fact that the WIV actually had secret SARS-CoV-2 related viruses. This is nonsense, given that collaborators on that paper would have known if Shi had suddenly removed certain sequences from a project they had worked on for years. Humans are quick to distrust, after all.
If only we had any confirmation from before the pandemic that they were not working on SARS-CoV-2 related viruses; yet scientists rarely publish work in progress, and even work that is done does not always find its way into publication.
But sometimes luck would interfere.
It would take until 2022 for Eddie Holmes to be informed by the sequence database Genbank about some CoV sequences with his name on it. His former postdoc, Jie Cui, had been working in Zheng-Li Shi’s lab and at the time in 2018, they had performed some of the evolutionary genomics work Eddie’s lab was specialized in, wrote up a paper, but failed to get enough interest from a journal to get it published (funnily enough, the journal wanted full-length sequencing). Nevertheless, Jie Cui’s PhD student had (like is good scientific practise) uploaded all the partial genomic sequence information from this project to a database, to be embargoed for 4 years (also common). In 2018, Jie Cui would move on from his postdoc position soon after to start a new job, and the paper fell through, never to be thought of again.
Except of course, these genomes would contain a resequencing of RaTG13 (formerly known as Ra4991), and this is a bombshell.
Let Edward Holmes explain the significance:
(i) The paper talks about 163 sequences: 60 full-length RdRp genes, 49 full-length S genes and 54 ORF8 sequences were successfully amplified (Table S2). 163 were released on GenBank. So released *everything* they had sequenced.
(ii) This paper provides no evidence of a virus closer to SC2 than RaTG13/Ra4991 at the WIV. (although it might have if they had any)
(iii) What they did in this paper was get a longer RdRp sequence for RaTG13/Ra4991 and tried but failed to get more genome sequence in 2018. This exactly confirms Shi Zhengli’s story (as in her interview with Jon Cohen).
(iv) The paper states that they could not get the spike gene for RaTG13 (Ra4991). This kills the theory that they had it all long.
(v) Their focus at the WIV was clearly SARS1. Exactly as Shi said.
(vi) Most of all, this paper and correspondence was in 2018 when they no reason to hide anything. Pre-pandemic. Indeed, the paper was submitted to 3 journals. It completely confirms what Shi says. Clearly the only SARS-CoV-2-like virus they ever had was RaTG13/Ra4991. You can judge all this for yourself.
(vii) Finally, the sequences just came out is that they put a 4 year release embargo when they submitted them to GenBank in 2018. Don’t ask me why. When the paper didn’t get published they just forgot about them. The 4 year clock expired and they were then released. They didn’t know it was coming. They forgot .
— Prof. Edward Holmes (personal communication)
The beauty about this phylogenetic tree that was build in 2018 (see below) is that it provides a rare, independent snapshot of all the viral sequences Zheng-Li Shi had at the time. If she had lied, this would have exposed her, but it turns out, she was telling the truth.
So where does this leave us?
Both published and unpublished scientific studies have shown that Zheng-Li Shi was truthful about what viruses her lab was working on. If she had been engaging in a cover-up, dozens of other scientists would have needed to be involved too, at a time pre-pandemic when there was no need for hiding any SARS-CoV-2 related viruses. In fact, the one and only SARS-CoV-2 related virus they said they ever had was there, all along, an outlier enshrined in a phylogenetic tree from 2018. A tree that would have exposed their lies if they had committed such.
In the end, Zheng-Li Shi never gave us a reason to distrust her, and yet we were manipulated to just assume that she must be lying when she denies that her lab could have started the pandemic. But she is among the few who would surely know and be able to rule it out, for example by explaining over and over again that her work was focused on SARS-1 and her lab never possessed or cultured any other SARS-CoV-2 related virus, a claim that has been vindicated now, four years later, through coincidence and sheer luck.
Does that mean that people will now start believing her? I certainly think we should give it a try, but we all know this is not going to matter.
No matter how one puts it:
Being merely innocent is a truly poor defense when the world is looking for somebody to blame.
So where do we go from here?
The controversy around the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has been an illustrative example of how an initial scientific uncertainty can give rise to dynamics, mechanisms, and forces that can turn a legitimate scientific discussion into an illegitimate public one.
Illegitimate, because it is increasingly decoupled from any science or evidence although it pertains to be about it.
Illegitimate because it is inauthentic, driven by crowd-sourced distortions, financial, social, and political or personal interests, not a desire for truth or solutions, but conflict and dominance.
Illegitimate, because it dehumanized scientists and makes them a target of lies, harassment, doxing, and death threats for the purpose of manipulating public opinion.
People have to realize that there is a well-funded information ecosystem of anti-science falsehoods online and that it feasts on our attention and gullibility. But we also pay for it with our trust. Trust in each other, trust in scientists who had had the misfortune to become targeted based on their expertise, engagement or involvement.
They are trapped, and so are we. There is no resolution in sight. The regular outbursts of attention, the emotional energy of the conspiratorial audience, the inherent attractiveness of the lableak myth will keep ‘public discussion’ on this controversy alive. However, my worry is that if we keep being played for suckers by this information ecosystem, we run the risk of not only causing harm to scientists, but wider society. Cynicism towards science rarely stops at one topic, it festers.
Not being able to tell apart what feels good and what is true is a recipe for misery, disaster, and death.
I believe we can be smarter than this. For example, if you are tired of being lied to for clicks, I recommend to build up a social media literacy skill called ‘critical ignoring’:
Low-quality and misleading information online can hijack people’s attention, often by evoking curiosity, outrage, or anger. Resisting certain types of information and actors online requires people to adopt new mental habits that help them avoid being tempted by attention-grabbing and potentially harmful content. We argue that digital information literacy must include the competence of critical ignoring — choosing what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities — (Kozyreva A. et al., Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2022)
I guess what this means:
If you are interested in the truth about the origins of this virus, ignore the op-eds, memes, politicians, influencers, and even journalists, basically everything except the slow-moving wheel of scientific publications and those who refer to the scientific consensus.
It’s not much, but it’s the best I’ve got for the moment.
Happy new year.
Latinne A. et al., Nature communications, 2020
Jiang & Wang, Science, 2022 (Perspective)
Worobey M. et al., Science, 2022
Pekar J. et al., Science, 2022
Kozyreva A. et al., Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2022
Further reading and resources:
Blog: The scientific case for a zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2
Blog: Lableak myth influencers & their fear-based communication tactics
Blog: How algorithmic curation empowers controversies
Blog: How our information architecture favors conspiracy myths over science
Video: Long-form discussion with Prof. Edward Holmes about his origin-related work, his collaborations in China, the lableak theory, and his involvement in public discussions
Video: Long-form scientific discussion with Dr. Michael Worobey and Dr. Kristian Anderson about their research establishing the Huanan market as the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic
Video: Long-form discussion with Dr. Angela Rasmussen and Dr Stephen Goldstein debunking common bad lableak argument
Video: Long-form discussion with SAGO member Dr. Carlos Morel (SAGO is the WHO’s scientific advisory group on the origins of pandemics)
Video: Long-form discussion with bat ecologist Dr. Alice C. Hughes and the risk of SARS-CoV-3
Video: Long-form discussion about lab leak uncertainties with virologist Dr. Stuart Neil
Thanks for reading The Protagonist Future! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.