On what basis was the lab leak theory ruled out for months by the media despite the lack of any evidence or logic for ruling it out? We’re bad journalists, has been the unembarrassed answer from the media this week in a wide array of print and online publications as well as National Public Radio.
We in the press dismissed the lab theory because of an appeal to authority: When anti-
spokespeople ridiculed it, that was good enough for us. We dismissed it because of the equivocation fallacy: “Chinese” is a word that can be used to denote a racial category. Therefore it was racist to suggest a Chinese lab might have leaked the virus.
We engaged in availability bias: Instead of letting the evidence or lack thereof guide us, we adopted the attitudes of public figures whose political, cultural and social status we wished to emulate. Most insidiously, we relied on a fallacy sometimes known as “alleged certainty”: “The question remains open” is not a headline that attracts clicks. A headline that does is “lab leak theory again proves Trump’s incompetence.”
Alas, the question of Covid’s origins not only remains open; in all likelihood it will defy final resolution unless and until the Chinese government is forthcoming with its own records, which it has shown a predilection not to be. The lab leak hypothesis has an unsettling corollary. In nature, the giant mixing bowl of natural selection is mechanism enough to explain how a virus adapted to bats might mutate to become infectious in humans. If it escaped from a lab, how did such a virus acquire the ability to infect humans? “Gain of function” experimentation was a controversial practice among virologists long before Covid. Multiple accidental releases of dangerous viruses from highly secure labs have been recorded in the past. The SARS virus has escaped six times since being identified in 2003. The 1977 global flu pandemic is believed to have originated in the escape from an unknown lab of a specimen collected in the 1950s.
Unfortunately the question of Covid’s origins is likely to be adjudicated for the foreseeable future on circumstantial evidence alone, thanks to Beijing’s recalcitrance. Where is China’s own 1,000-page, data-filled report on the virus’s emergence? China is home to the world’s leading bat virus experts. It should own the science here. Its failure to issue any findings at all is itself circumstantial evidence of a kind.
In almost every profession—law, medicine, engineering, science, architecture—countering bias is central to the discipline. Yet notice that representatives of these professions, when talking to the press, often seem to adapt themselves to a media culture geared to the production of bias. Scientists who found their way into stories dismissing the lab leak theory were the ones most willing to model the media’s preferred standard: If Mr. Trump supports it, I’m against it.
Or consider the press’s embrace of the Steele dossier, whose vague sourcing and lack of documentation were transmuted into a reason to believe. Compare this to the refusal of most of the media to acknowledge the Hunter Biden laptop, whose revelations continue to be published by the New York Post, supported by contemporary U.S. government “suspicious activity reports” filed with banking regulators.
All persons named and quoted in the Post’s coverage have been free to deny the data’s authenticity, including the Bidens. They have conspicuously declined to do so. The latest revelations include seemingly clear evidence, easily checked out, that Vice President Biden met at a private dinner in Washington on April 16, 2015 with a representative of the Ukrainian gas company on whose board the younger Mr. Biden sat.
Another example, albeit less serious: To ward off bias that unidentified flying objects are either objects or flying, government researchers have adopted the term “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Meanwhile, the
New York Times
last year cited officials with security clearances not admitting specific knowledge of government possession of alien artifacts as a reason to believe the government possesses alien artifacts.
Decades ago, in a different job, I sat near a reporter who called up sources seemingly not to find out what they knew but to suggest the quotes he would like to put in their mouths. I doubt he thought about it this way—he was a good reporter in some sense—but he was letting his sources know what line they should adopt to maximize their chances of being quoted. Not every journalistic institution today is engaged in bias production but enough are that we should worry about it. It flies in the face of what we have always claimed we were doing. The exigencies of attracting clicks and pleasing subscribers are real, and so is the absence of the tort and malpractice incentives that in other professions give a commercial motive to strive for what we used to call objectivity.
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Appeared in the May 29, 2021, print edition.