Saturday, June 05, 2021

Why The Narrative Shift On The Lab-Leak Hypothesis?

 CJR |  What changed? There’s still no direct evidence to validate the lab-leak theory. There has been fresh contextual reporting: the Journal recently revealed the existence of a US intelligence document claiming that three researchers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized in November 2019. (The Trump administration previously issued a fuzzier version of this claim; the Journal’s sources disagreed as to the strength of the intelligence.) Eighteen scientists wrote in Science that an investigation conducted by the World Health Organization and China failed to give “balanced consideration” to the natural-origin and lab-leak hypotheses. Nicholas Wade, a former Times science journalist, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that, as things stand, “proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence,” and Donald G. McNeil, Jr., another former Times reporter (who recently left the paper following an allegation of racism), wrote on Medium essentially backing Wade up. Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that he’s not as confident as he was in the natural-origin theory. President Biden revealed that the intelligence community is split on the question, and ordered a further investigation to report back within ninety days.

Others say that, actually, nothing has really changed—a position that seems to unite observers who think the lab-leak theory was always credible and those who continue to doubt it. “The theory has always been the same,” Josh Rogin, a Post columnist who reported over a year ago on US safety concerns around the Wuhan lab, tweeted. “The people who got it wrong changed their minds.” Striking a different note, Angela Rasmussen, a prominent virologist, argued that “the media has chosen to dress up old speculation as new information and claim that it’s evidence. It’s not. It’s speculative, and all origin hypotheses remain possible.”

There is an awful lot to unpack here. The nub of the media criticism is, in my view, justified. Last April, I wrote, responding to Rogin’s reporting, that the press should “isolate legitimate questions” from conspiratorial noise “and try and report out the answers”; numerous journalists took this approach to the lab-leak theory, but many others did indeed dismiss it as an illegitimate line of inquiry. Such stories channeled familiar broader problems with pandemic coverage—principally, the contriving of scientific certainty in the absence of expert consensus, exacerbated by the urgent political stakes of all the conspiratorial noise. We are now seeing scientists argue in good faith about what the evidence shows—indeed, what the evidence is. This was always desirable; too often, however, argument itself was tarred as a bad-faith act.