The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Beware of ‘expert’ consensus. The covid-19 lab leak theory shows why.

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3 during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of covid-19. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

People who believe the coronavirus was manufactured in a lab haven’t been allowed to say so on Facebook since February — until Wednesday, that is, when Facebook announced it was lifting the ban.

Presumably this has something to do with the wavering elite consensus on lab leaks. This consensus was never as monolithic as proponents claimed, nor as stifling as opponents now aver. But it did produce a Facebook ban and a lot of journalism dismissing the hypothesis as a well-debunked conspiracy theory with racist roots.

In one light, this is a happy scientific ending. Over time, with study, natural transmission looked less likely, and a lab accident somewhat more so. As the evidence changed, a previously hard-and-fast consensus became more open to other possibilities, as should be the case for any good scientific theory.

But in another light, this story is a disaster. How did so many smart people come to believe, not just that a natural origin was much more likely than a lab leak — which is still, to be clear, the opinion of many scientists — but that a lab leak was basically an impossibility? For that matter, what other things do “we all know” that just ain’t so?

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

You don’t have to walk far in my neighborhood to come across one of those ubiquitous front-yard signs announcing that the people living in the house believe “science is real,” among other articles of faith. Upper middle-class Democrats have long prided themselves on belonging to “the party of science,” but former president Donald Trump’s covid denialism supercharged that affiliation into a central part of their identity.

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Yet the form this belief in science took was often positively anti-scientific. Instead of a group of constantly evolving theories that might be altered at any time, or falsified entirely, and is thus always open to debate, “science” was a demand that others subordinate their judgment to an elite-approved group of credentialed scientific experts, many of whom were proclaiming the lab leak unlikely in the extreme.

It seems that expert consensus was somewhat illusory, and it would have been well to remember that like the rest of us, scientists are prone to groupthink and nonscientific concerns can creep into their public statements. We all heard the confident pronouncements of support for Chinese scientists, but less about the quiet doubts that were apparently being expressed privately by people uninterested in a bruising public fight.

Moreover, no scientist can decisively settle the lab-leak hypothesis without a full and transparent investigation — which has not happened yet — just as I cannot personally assure you that someone working at another newspaper, on a story I wasn’t involved in, definitely got it right.

Meanwhile, certain facts were suggestive. Labs have leaked deadly viruses in the past. And a lab in the same city where the pandemic began happened to study bat coronaviruses and had a sample of this coronavirus’s closest known relative, gathered from a cave hundreds of miles away. It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that this was pure coincidence. But it is a hell of a coincidence, and it wasn’t kooky to say so.

In this particular case, there’s probably little harm done, except that a bunch of people are understandably peeved at having been silenced without good reason. But that’s not necessarily true of the other areas where this dynamic has operated. People who questioned whether masks or lockdowns really worked were shouted down and denounced as a “death cult,” or better yet, simply silenced with the click of a moderator’s mouse.

I supported masks and distancing, mind you. And having had many, many arguments over them, I know how easy it is to fall into the “experts say” trap. For starters, obviously we should listen to experts, because they know more than we do. Just maybe not so much more that we should treat their pronouncements as having dropped from heaven on stone tablets.

But the illusion of near-infallibility among experts promised certainty at a time when the world had turned out to be much less predictable than we’d thought. And of course it was an easy way to avoid a nonstop game of whack-a-mole with the amazing series of false memes and “facts” that some conservative skeptics, including Trump, kept generating.

Yet I, for one, expected more out of lockdown and masking policies than we ultimately got, and I wonder how my analysis might have changed if I’d engaged more fully with skeptics. And as a matter of pure scientific analysis, screaming that anyone with a different opinion has joined a science-hating death cult seems to have been among social media’s most popular and least effective non-pharmaceutical interventions.

There’s little that can be done to fix any of that now, except for people who went overboard in dismissing the lab-leak theory to reconsider. And then ask if there are other policy areas where they confused scientists with “science,” value judgments with cold calculation, and a shaky elite consensus with hard scientific facts.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: The media’s big mistake on the covid-19 ‘lab leak’ theory

The Post’s View: Two possible theories of the pandemic’s origins remain viable. The world needs to know.

David Feith: Did covid-19 escape from a Wuhan lab? The WHO report can’t be the final word.

Josh Rogin: Biden’s announcement is the beginning, not the end, of a real covid origin investigation

The Post’s View: How did the pandemic begin? It’s time for a new WHO investigation.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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