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Journalists should be skeptical of all sources — including scientists
A group of prominent scientists spread misinformation about COVID's origins. Mainstream journalists missed the story.
I’m not usually one for scandals. My eyes glaze over at Congressional hearings. I’ve never read the Mueller Report. There are usually too many threads to unwind, and too many competing claims to evaluate. But I’m going to make an exception here, because we have a scandal where the facts are relatively simple and clear — but which was nevertheless extremely consequential.
Here’s the scandal. In March 2020, a group of scientists — in particular1, Kristian G. Andersen the of The Scripps Research Institute, Andrew Rambaut of The University of Edinburgh, Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney, and Robert F. Garry of Tulane University — published a paper in Nature Medicine that seemingly contradicted their true beliefs about COVID’s origins and which they knew to be misleading. The paper, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, has been cited more than 5,900 times and was enormously influential in shaping the debate about the origins of COVID-19.
We know this because of a series of leaked and FOIAed emails and Slack messages that have been reported on by Public, Racket News, The Intercept and The Nation along with other small, independent media outlets. You can find a detailed summary of the claims and a copy of the emails and messages here at Public. There’s also good context around the messages here (very detailed) or here and here (more high-level).
The messages show that the authors were highly uncertain about COVID’s origins — and if anything, they leaned more toward a lab leak than a spillover from an animal source. But none of that was expressed in the “Proximal Origin” paper, which instead said that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. Granted, there is a little bit of ass-covering — “More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another,” they also wrote in the paper. But the message — natural origin good, lab leak bad — was received clearly enough by mainstream news outlets. “No, the new coronavirus wasn't created in a lab, scientists say”, reported the CBC in covering the paper. “COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin” was the headline at Science Daily.
In the Slack and email messages, the authors worked to manipulate the media narrative about COVID-19’s origins and to ensure that their private uncertainty wasn’t conveyed in conversations with reporters. They also thought they were going to get away with it. “The truth is never going to come out ”, wrote Rambaut in one message. This went beyond mere motivated reasoning. There was an enormous gap between what the authors believed privately and what they stated publicly, including in the “Proximal Origin” paper — again, see the above links for more detail.
What were the authors’ motivations to mislead the public? I think that’s also pretty straightforward. In fact, you can find prominent virologists quoted on record as to why the lab leak theory was so problematic — even if it wasn’t necessarily wrong. The problems fall into three buckets:
Evidence of a lab leak could cause a political backlash — understandably, given that COVID has killed almost 7 million people — resulting in a reduction in funding for gain-of-function research and other virological research. That’s potentially important to the authors or the authors’ bosses — and the authors were very aware of the career implications for how the story would play out;
Evidence of a lab leak could upset China and undermine research collaborations;
Evidence of a lab leak could provide validation to Trump and Republicans who touted the theory — remember, all of this was taking place during an election year, and medical, epidemiological and public health experts had few reservations about weighing in on political matters.
To be clear, I’m not sure how COVID originated either. I’d “buy” the lab leak at a 50 percent likelihood (I think this is pretty convincing) and sell it at 80 percent, which still leaves a lot of wiggle room for me to be persuaded one way or the other.
But I think this is a big scandal either way. As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to convey statistical and epistemic uncertainty to the public, I’m deeply disappointed by the scientists’ conduct here and how unmoored they were from any attempt at truth-seeking.
The COVID origins story has also been a journalistic fiasco, with the lab leak having been dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” and as misinformation even though many prominent scientists believed it to be plausible all along. Perhaps it’s tempting to give the media a pass — they were manipulated by the “Proximal Origin” authors, after all. But I’m not inclined to, for two reasons.
First, the coverage of the recently leaked emails and Slack messages at major center-left outlets like The New York Times has been pathetic. The Times portrayed Andersen as the victim of a Republican witch-hunt — rather than someone at the center of a major scientific scandal of his own making.
And second, journalists ought to have decent bullshit detectors — including toward scientists, academics and other experts.2
Maybe you think Andersen et. al. are bad apples, but the messages make clear that they were speaking for a pretty broad swath of the scientific community. Still — and maybe this is wishful thinking — but I’m going to assert that people like him are in the minority among scientists. I fairly often speak with scientists and academics myself — especially when I’m working on a research-driven book project, as I am now — and those experiences are overwhelmingly positive.3
And yet, even if the incidence of bad apples is relatively rare among scientists and academics — rarer than it might be among politicians or other groups that journalists intrinsically treat with more skepticism — it’s clearly not exceedingly rare. It was just this week that the president of Stanford was forced to resign in a research scandal. (Perhaps not coincidently, the scandal was broken by the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, and not by a major center-left outlet like The Times.)
I also think journalists are more prone toward being manipulated by bad apples in academia and science than they were ten or twenty years ago. As a result of increasing educational polarization, both journalists and the expert class of scientists and academics are far more aligned politically than they once were (the very large majority are left-of-center and vote Democratic in American elections). Even if “trust the science” or “trust the experts” is usually right — and I think it usually is right! — it leaves an opening for bad apples like Andersen to exploit the trust that honest scientists have worked so hard to earn.
There’s also a generational divide in journalism, with younger journalists tending to be more openly left/progressive than their older peers — and tending to be more Manichean in dividing the world between good and evil rather than proceeding from the notion that people and news stories are complicated and it’s not particularly their job to pass moral judgment. It’s slightly amusing that The Times fired their Pulitzer Prize-winning coronavirus reporter in middle of the pandemic — a reporter who saw the lab leak theory as credible — and replaced him with another reporter who dismissed discussion of the lab leak as “racist”.
But this really isn’t complicated. All I’m suggesting is that journalists ought to treat scientists like they do any other source — that is to say, with an appropriate dose of skepticism.
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I mention these four by name because they were both co-authors of the “Proximal Origin” paper and participated in a conference call with Frances Collins, Tony Fauci and others that the documents suggest was a turning point in how scientists’ beliefs about COVID origins were portrayed to the public.
I certainly don't get everything right, but it’s been obvious to me for a long time that Andersen is an huge bullshitter.
Perhaps we can have some sympathy for the authors for operating under the strain and stress of early stages of the pandemic; I don’t think any of us were at our best.