How scientists failed the pandemic test

Philip Ball has an interesting article about UK science advice called [q]uiet, uncritical, obedient: how the UK’s scientists failed the pandemic test. It make some good points about there appearing to have been collusion between the science advisors and the government, that scientists seemed reluctant to present certain options given the likely biases of the government, and how they failed to speak out when there was an apparent disconnect between the government’s actions and their words.

Although I think there are many reasons to criticise the science advice that was given, there was a framing in the article that I largely disagreed with. For example, we keep getting told that there isn’t some linear relationship between scientific advice and decision making; there are many other factors that play important roles. If so, how can we then judge the scientific advice on the basis of the decisions that were made? What about all the other factors that will have influenced the decision making?

The article also implied that the scientific community needs to wake up, and that [a] policy of appeasement, normalisation and objective detachment has not worked. One problem is that the scientific advisors are not really representatives of the scientific community. They are mostly individuals who have either volunteered to sit on a committee, or have been appointed to what is essentially a political role. There were plenty of scientists who were speaking out and challenging the government’s decisions.

Also, if the government wants advice from those who will speak truth to power and will challenge them, then they can aim to appoint such people and can encourage them to do so. Of course, people in those positions can choose to speak out, but if they’re discouraged from doing so, then it seems likely that these positions will be filled by those who are pre-disposed to not do so.

I do agree with the article that how science advice has faired during the pandemic bodes ill for the climate crisis. What I don’t quite agree with is the suggestion that somehow the scientific community needs to work out how to fix this. The article itself highlights that we have a libertarian, populist government who will be pre-disposed to prefer certain options. I don’t think it’s the job of the scientific community to work out how to counter the biases of the government that we’ve, collectively, chosen to elect.

I also agree with the article that scientists should be careful of how they might be used by the government. As suggested in the article, scientists will be blamed if necessary. This is why we should be careful of “follow the science” type of rhetoric. We should be clear that the scientific advice is information that can be used by the government to make decisions. However, it’s not the only relevant information and the responsibility for making these decisions lies with the government, not with the scientific advisors.

If we want scientists to speak truth to power and to challenge the government, we should support those who do, we should put pressure on the government to appoint advisors who will do so, and we should feel free to vote for those who we think will aim to be properly informed when making important decisions. Of course scientists have a responsibility to provide reliable information, but they’re not responsible for the decisions that are then made and I think we should be careful of suggesting otherwise.

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57 Responses to How scientists failed the pandemic test

  1. dikranmarsupial says:

    I felt very sorry for advisors (I don’t think it was Faucci) having to play along while Trump was bloviating about bleach and internally applied UV light because you don’t tell the president that they are talking out of their rear end. This is more a problem of the politicians if they can’t take being corrected when they say something incorrect, what else could the advisors do? I suspect Machiavelli might say that you won’t be in a position to wield power for good if you have been sacked.

  2. Dikran,
    Indeed. I did think of saying something about that. You sometimes hear people arguing in favour of pragmatism, but if advisors are too pragmatic, they can then be criticised for essentially colluding (to use a phrase in the article). If, on the other hand, they were too blunt, they would probably not last long as an advisor. I don’t know where the right balance lies, but I would suggest that it mostly depends on what the government is willing to put up with and there is little that the scientific community alone can do (other than speaking out as individuals, rather than as formal advisors).

  3. dikranmarsupial says:

    I think the US and UK have both had poor choices of political leadership for scientific advisers to have a straight-forward (I won’t say “easy”) job. The problem never lies with the politicians it seems, just with the scientists! ;o)

  4. jamesannan says:

    The scientists were obviously thrilled to be in the limelight when it was all about “following the science”. Some of us warned at the time it wouldn’t end well.

  5. James,
    Yes, I agree that that was a problem and I’m not arguing against criticising the scientists who gave advice, or the advice that was given. I’m mostly suggesting that extending that to argue that this is a problem that the scientific community needs to fix is the wrong conclusion to draw.

  6. jamesannan says:

    I think they needed to be much clearer that they were providing policy-relevant information and that the politicians were deciding….they were all too eager to pop up on TV and tell everyone what should and should not be happening. It was naive of them.

  7. James,
    Indeed, I agree. In fact, you reminded me of something else that I thought. The ideal scenario seems to be scientists who are willing to speak truth to power, call out the government when their actions aren’t consistent with what they’re saying, avoid rhetoric like “follow the science”, and try to distance themselves from the policy makers so as to not appear to collude.

    However, it clearly is convenient for the policy makers if the scientific advisors are seen to be on the side of the policy makers, and “follow the science” rhetoric can be convenient for policy makers who can then blame the scientists when the outcome isn’t what we wanted.

    So, in an ideal world the scientists involved in giving advice will try to avoid the limelight, will try to make clear that they’re providing policy-relevant, but not prescriptive, advice, and will try to make sure that it’s the policy makers who are held responsible for the decisions that are made.

    In the real world, however, it won’t be difficult to find scientists who are keen to pop up on TV, who are keen to highlight the importance of following the science, and who are happy to take credit for influencing the decisions.

    I guess my point is that expecting the scientific community to somehow police this also seems naive. This doesn’t mean I don’t think we shouldn’t criticise the TV hogging scientists who naively play politics, just that we probably need to encourage policy makers to also be more responsible. This probably doesn’t suit them, though.

  8. Joshua says:

    I had quite a bit of discussion with friends about whether Fauci should have been more openly critical of Trump when he served as Trump’s advisor.

    I just don’t think there are any clear answers. It’s a judgment call and I think we should respect that, and not treat it as if it’s a black and white issue with an obvious answer.

    I also think it’s likewise counterproductively simplistic to argue that there’s a clear and explanatory causal mechanism here – and that it’s all explained by scientists acting out of self-interest.

    Of course self-interest is going to be part of what’s going on, but one should be mindful of thinking that aligns with known processes of bias, like the fundamental attribution error.

    It’s easy to see the ridiculous nature of the “scientists are self-interested” line of thinking sometimes, like when “skeptics” at WUWT rant about how AGWis all a hoax perpetrated by scientists seeking gesnt funding. What I don’t understand is why people who see that inane tendency in some contexts then apply the same thinking in others. Sure Nullius in Verba has some validity, and sure, scientists like anyone else DO act out of self interest. But there’s also a point where that NiV rule of thumb becomes it’s own form of self-serving confirmation bias. I’d think the ubiquity of the Joe Rogan school of scientific and political analysis should make people more aware of the hammer/nail problem.

  9. Joshua,

    I just don’t think there are any clear answers. It’s a judgment call and I think we should respect that, and not treat it as if it’s a black and white issue with an obvious answer.

    I think there are valid criticisms that can be made and I think James is right that some of the science advisors in the UK could have been clearer about their role and not been quite as prominent as some were. However, I do agree that there isn’t an obvious simplistic answer. What I find a little frustrating about some of the discussion about this is that the same people who will criticise scientists for linear thinking and highlight how this is such a complex environment, will seem to ignore this complexity when deciding to criticise science advisors. Scientists should be honest brokers of policy alternatives, unless one of the alternatives is something you don’t like.

  10. I almost responded to this tweet by the author of the article, but then decided it would be better if I didn’t 🙂

  11. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Let’s look at the language.

    > The scientists were obviously thrilled to be in the limelight when it was all about “following the science”. Some of us warned at the time it wouldn’t end well.

    >> I think they needed to be much clearer that
    they were providing policy-relevant information and that the politicians were deciding….they were all too eager to pop up on TV and tell everyone what should and should not be happening. It was naive of them.

    I was just listening to part of a Gurus pod where they discuss Rogan interviews that are filled with that kind of polemical over-generalizations.

    Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I think that kind of undifferentiated gross characterization is counter-productive and actually more than likely feeds into the power of the Rogans of the world.

  12. Joshua says:

    Just kind of has an old man yelling at clouds feel to me.

  13. James can defend himself, but I took it to be referring to the small subset of advisors who were quite prominent and quite close to the policy makers.

  14. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Even so…and I’m not particularly familiar with the UK situation…

    My guess is that relatively few advisors simply pop up without considering a range of factors. There are political and scientific calculations that have to be made, sometimes in conflict with each other. It’s easy to reverse engineer from the decisions we don’t like to conclude that the underlying logic was binary.

    For example, right now the right wing is attacking Fauci as being motivated by personal enrichment – because he’s recommending vaccinations and mask-wearing and the like. When Trump was in office, many folks on the left were reverse engineering from his lack of direct criticism of Trump to assume he was merely responding in ways that would enhance his power and his time in the limelight.

    I’ll look at people like Scott Atlas or the GBD crowd, and be tempted to attribute their actions to indifference to the plight of those who are vulnerable to COVID or to mere self-interest or partisan politics. And no doubt those kinds of factors come into play (in the very least indirectly through “motivated reasoning” if not more directly). But I’m going to also guess that they’re also motivated by a desire to reduce suffering and to promote the policies they truly think are most beneficial.

    These kinds of issues are complex enough that we can pretty much guarantee that a lot of mistakes will be made. Lately I’m feeling that our inability to integrate the errors into a reality-based world view is approaching an existential-level problem. I’m not equating James’ argument with Rogan, but I do think there are fuzzy lines there, which approach an existential-level threat of not being able to address problems effectively. The stark differences in how different countries have handled decision-making during the pandemic are noteworthy. I actually think that different baselines in how people prioritize self-interest with community welfare are actually in play, but cartoon characterizations just seem pretty useless to me – even if they’re directed at a specific few.

    /rant

  15. The National Academy of Sciences would appear to be fit for purpose if/when we are talking about science advice in the US.

    “The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars. Established by an Act of Congress, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. The NAS is committed to furthering science in America, and its members are active contributors to the international scientific community.”

    http://www.nasonline.org/about-nas/mission/

  16. Eventual_Horizon says:

    I think the scientific community did itself a tremendous disservice by insisting at the outset of the pandemic that the lab-leak origin was not only implausible but a “conspiracy theory.” The most glaring example was the Nature letter, some of whose authors ended up having undisclosed conflicts of interest (i.e., they were associated with coronavirus research at WIV. Oops.)

    Since then I’ve read numerous instances where this or that development was declared a “dagger in the heart of the lab-leak theory” or something similar. In reality the evidence for lab origins continues to grow and has more and more support from independent thinkers in the scientific community.

    I’ve tried to understand the bias of the mainstream scientific community when it comes to COVID-19’s origins. That Trump floated the WIV as the source of the pandemic likely resulted in knee-jerk reactions. Science is not immune from politics. But it’s pretty clear now the scientific community sought to “circle the wagons” for the sake of professional reputation. This was spelled out in one of the recently leaked emails between top scientists (including Fauci) at the outset of the pandemic. Direct quote — ““further debate would do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.” It’s clear in these emails that the scientific leaders were very much leaning towards a lab leak but decided the public did not deserve to know because of optics. I can’t think of another word but “shameful” for this decision.

    To quote your conclusion, ATTP, “…scientists have a responsibility to provide reliable information.” Indeed they do. And didn’t.

  17. Joshua says:

    EV is clearly concerned

  18. Magma says:

    In my own experience, scientific advisers are generally selected *very* carefully by governments from short lists of sober, cautious, don’t-rock-the-boat types. Where this is not the case, either the topics and policies they are advising on are not priorities and any recommendations made can be safely shelved or ignored, or blame for any errors and poor policies noted can be laid at the feet of a different government.

  19. “.. mostly individuals who have either volunteered to sit on a committee, or have been appointed to what is essentially a political role”

    True. And all that it implies

  20. Dave_Geologist says:

    E_H, it’s the exact same bias that applies when scientists are dismissive of the Iris Effect, magic clouds, sky dragons, cosmic rays, sunspots, Jupiter’s gravity, heat islands, the Sun’s magnetic field, crocoducks, 747s self-assembling in a junkyard, the indivisibility of Kinds, and all the rest of the same-old same-old. Oh, and of course mined quotes (or alleged quotes), “dem emails” and “dat conspiracy”.

    A bias that comes from observing Mother Nature, and from knowing that Mother Nature always bats last and that She doesn’t give a damn about your hopes, your dreams, or your political or religious convictions.

    I can think of another word, one which applies in those other contexts too, oddly enough. Fictitious.

  21. I don’t really want to get too deep in the lab leak hypothesis as I don’t really understand enough to have an informed view. However, my understanding is that most think that the letter signed early on to strongly argue against a lab leak was too strong and was probably motivated by a desire to support their Chinese colleagues. Even though we probably can’t rule out some kind of lab leak, my understanding is that most of the evidence supports a zoonotic transfer and that the supposed smoking guns that indicate some kind of lab leak are not nearly as smoking gun-like as some have suggested.

  22. Joshua says:

    Sorry, I meant that EH is concerned

    > I think the scientific community did itself a tremendous disservice by insisting at the outset of the pandemic that the lab-leak origin was not only implausible but a “conspiracy theory.”

    My understanding is that while a relatively small number of people outright classified the lab leak theory as a flat out conspiracy theory, most said that it was relatively implausible, and importantly that many of those who were promoting the lab leak theory had often been either directly or indirectly associated with promoting flat out conspiracy theories in the past.

    Surely, EH, if you have investigated this matter then you know that your characterization of “the scientific community” is simplistic and shallow and hence, only counterproductive in terms of carefully evaluating the underlying issues related to “bias in the mainstream scientific community.”

  23. Joshua,

    My understanding is that while a relatively small number of people outright classified the lab leak theory as a flat out conspiracy theory, most said that it was relatively implausible, and importantly that many of those who were promoting the lab leak theory had often been either directly or indirectly associated with promoting flat out conspiracy theories in the past.

    Yes, that’s my understanding too.

  24. Dave_Geologist says:

    Ditto ATTP. Both in the actual statements by the actual scientific community, and on the perils of wearing your heart on your sleeve previously. If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, don’t be surprised or offended if people take you for a duck.

    Especially the genetically-engineered weapon stuff, where the more informed commentators were about genetics and genetic engineering, the more certain they were that only a really stupid person would do it that way, or someone so ill-informed they wouldn’t have the resources to do it in the first place. And as evidence has come out about what the original strain was adapted to (lots of different animals, multiple organs in bats), and how poorly adapted it was to humans (hence it only took a year for variants 2-5 times better-adapted to evolve), that’s become clearer. The exception was David Baltimore, but I’m not sure how much his later career was as a manager vs. an active scientist. He was quickly called out on two errors which were obvious even to me: one was the 747-in-a-junkyard fallacy, the other claiming (or repeating a claim) about amino acid substitutions vs. other coronaviruses which was simply and factually wrong (SARS-Cov-2 sits right in the middle of the pack).

    If there was a human element, I imagine the more likely route would be via collectors who were infected in a bat-cave and took it asymptotically home with them or into the canteen or a market. Which is functionally the same as some farmer or poacher encountering bat droppings inside or outside the cave. The ignoring or rapid dismissal of that sort of option by the ducks is another “tell”. It doesn’t give them what they want.

    IIRC there was only about a one in six chance of a contact being infected by the original variant, so in a small village that sort of zoonotic infection may be common, but most will die out stochastically. There was a recent numerical modelling paper about that. It’s only when it gets into a big city that it can take off. AIDS was like that (Kinshasa, despite molecular clocks showing at least two spillovers into humans decades earlier), and I remember reading that measles only became an issue once we had cities with six-figure populations.

    I remember playing around with that sort of thing decades ago in a logistic-parabola representation of a breeding population in a pond with a fixed resource. The one where you can go from a stable population of adults and juveniles, to alternations of mostly adults and mostly juveniles, to chaotic flips between the two. If you randomly kill a percentage of the population each year or some years, it can go extinct for a small population size but not a large one (IOW if you kill six and they happen to be juveniles, there were only six juveniles and it’s an annual life cycle, it’s curtains for the population). If there are six hundred of each, it’s much less likely that you’ll wipe out an entire generation by killing six hundred at random.

  25. Dave_Geologist says:

    This is the paper I was referring to: Timing the SARS-CoV-2 index case in Hubei province. I’ll try to link the figure with the conceptual models.

    FIG. 2 Hypothetical coalescent scenarios depicting how the time between index case infection and time of stable coalescence can vary on the basis of stochastic extinction events of basal viral lineages.Coalescence can occur within or contemporaneously with the index case (upper left) or, in cases infected later in the course of the epidemic, with one (upper right) or more (lower left) basal lineages going extinct. In extreme cases, the epidemic can persist at low levels for a long time before stable coalescence (lower right).

    Only a minority of their simulations were like Fig. 2A, where the most recent common ancestor was the actual zoonotic index case. In all others the pandemic index case came some cycles after the zoonotic transfer. The same logic applies to index cases in various overseas countries. An early occurrence found by back-checking blood samples may belong to a chain of infection that died out or never even took off. Of course that also means the Wuhan index case was genetically different from the zoonotic transfer, and that potentially the successful take-off in humans was of a variant which had evolved in a human population to become more transmissible in humans.

    Back to science communication. For pandemic-management purposes, the index case that matters is the one that started the successful chain of human-to human transmission. But for learning how the zoonotic transfer happened, and what we need to do to reduce the risk of it happening again, that’s not the index case that matters. Shades of the controversy over AIDS Patient Zero. Which IIRC wasn’t even Patient Zero: it was the letter O out of a bunch of labelled cases, which someone later misconstrued as the numeral zero.

  26. With disrespect to … Junior is much closer to Rogan then the other way around. If you just say stuff that others are saying you will most likely be ignored. So it is always best to just ignore the Juniors and Rogans of the world. I still get those tweets but have learned to just ignore them or not read them. The only purpose is to keep track of why others are upset by someone saying something.

  27. With disrespect to … the USA … Trump was POTUS. Next up? Jeff Bozos! Urban Cowboys and Bozos, one and all (Reagan, Bushs, Trump, Bezos). Don’t forget the hats and the boots.

  28. Pingback: The tragedy of climate change science? | …and Then There's Physics

  29. Dave the G said:

    “E_H, it’s the exact same bias that applies when scientists are dismissive of the Iris Effect, magic clouds, sky dragons, cosmic rays, sunspots, Jupiter’s gravity, heat islands, the Sun’s magnetic field”

    These hypotheses are all sitting-duck targets for dismissal. When the underlying causative effects are more realistic, the response bias tends toward silence or apathy (a circle-the-wagons response?) The movie “Don’t Look Up!” can be considered a treatise on apathy. A lowly graduate student. A prof that hasn’t published in a long time. A functioning bureaucrat heading a meaningless gov’t agency. Where were their colleagues?

  30. Dave_Geologist says:

    Where were their colleagues?

    Fictitious of course, just like the heroes. It’s a movie.

  31. Eventual_Horizon says:

    Joshua —

    “most said that it was relatively implausible, and importantly that many of those who were promoting the lab leak theory had often been either directly or indirectly associated with promoting flat out conspiracy theories in the past. ”

    We know that to be patently false. The characterization of the lab leak as being supported only by conspiracy theorists is a classic smear in attempt at narrative control. Quoting an article in The Telegraph:

    “An email from Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, [to Fauci] on February 2 2020 said that “a likely explanation” was that Covid had rapidly evolved from a Sars-like virus inside human tissue in a low-security lab…. The emails also show that Bob Garry, of the University of Texas, was unconvinced that Covid-19 emerged naturally. “I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature,” he said. … Professor Andrew Rambaut, from the University of Edinburgh, also said that furin cleavage site “strikes me as unusual”. ”

    That avenue of explanation is quickly shut down as scientists in the thread point out how further investigation would cause “unnecessary harm to science.” I call that circling the wagons in thoroughly disingenuous and self-serving fashion.

    We subsequently learned that neither bats nor pangolins were sold at the wet market in Wuhan which puts a crippling blow in the hypothesis that animals there were the source of the virus. Indeed we have yet to find the intermediary animal despite being able to do so with earlier, smaller SARS outbreaks. I won’t bother piling on further evidence.

    I find it very telling how persnickety and openly hostile the scientific community is to those who dare look further into the lab leak idea. As if a bat virus, highly adapted to human transmission, emerging a stone’s throw from a low-security lab (with a history of safety concerns) where gain-of-function research was likely being conducted on bat viruses is just too outlandish to even consider.

  32. EH,

    The characterization of the lab leak as being supported only by conspiracy theorists is a classic smear in attempt at narrative control.

    Joshua didn’t say “supported *only* by conspiracy theorists”.

  33. Willard says:

    EH,

    Try this:

    When properly read, the letter does not forbid anyone to cry foul, as long as due diligence is paid to the evidence basis.

    How to Reason by Analogy

    I find it telling that you’re peddling once again. It’s time to stop, now.

  34. I think EH overstepped when he says supported “only” by conspiracy theorist. But if the criticisms of folks who wanted to talk about the possibility that Covid had leaked from the Wuhan lab were met with a statement like: “yeah, that’s a very popular idea among the conspiracy theory folks” then it still feels like a smear to me. I think the question of origin got politicized fast with a label like the Chinese flu and others. After the virus emerged and got politicized, reasonable and non-reactive communication on all sorts of covid matters became quite difficult. We can still aspire to reasonable and non-reactive communication on scientific matters that have become politicized. That seems like a good idea to me.

  35. “yeah, that’s a very popular idea among the conspiracy theory folks” then it still feels like a smear to me.

    It’s not a smear if it’s true. As far as I can tell, it is essentially true. This doesn’t mean that everyone who discusses the possibility of a lab leak is a conspiracy theorist, or that it’s something we shouldn’t consider. It is useful, though, to be aware of who else might support a particular position, and why they might do so.

  36. I will reiterate what I said before. I don’t know enough about the topic to have a strong view about lab leak versus a zoonotic origin. My understanding, though, is that most regard the evidence as more strongly supporting a zoonotic origin and that many of the supposed smoking guns that would indicate a lab leak are not really smoking guns. I also think that some of the early rhetoric around this was unfortunate and maybe some should have been more open to the lab leak than they were. This doesn’t, though, make a lab leak more likely.

  37. This might be the most recent published piece on Covid 19 origin: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abm4454
    The theory of zoonotic origin seems to be supported by this piece. I think a reasonable person would likely conclude that zoonotic origin is most likely. Early on in the pandemic, I thought the origin question would be controversial because the outbreak occurred in relatively close proximity to a virus lab. I also thought from that time forward that the origin question was of little or no interest to me, in part because the origin would probably never be established to a great degree of certainty. The origin question certainly has legs.

  38. “Where were their colleagues?”

    “Fictitious of course, just like the heroes. It’s a movie.”

    So if I was to start a discussion about models of climate variation, you won’t come back with an equally flippant and apathetic response?

  39. Joshua says:

    EH –

    > We know that to be patently false. The characterization of the lab leak as being supported only by conspiracy theorists is a classic smear in attempt at narrative control.

    Go back and read what I said. The interesting question is whether you deliberately mischaracterized what I said, are enough “motivated” so as to have just made a remakably sloppy error, or just plain simple-minded enough to think your characterization was accurate.

    Regardless, why you bother to peddle such nonsense here is a mystery.

  40. Joshua says:

    Mike –

    Some people overstepped, no doubt.

    It’s also just a fact that the set of lab leak proponents overlapped quite a bit with many sets of mongers of quite a few conspiracies, and China-bashers.

    That’s not an excuse for the oversteps, and shouldn’t be read as one. The oversteps were counterproductive.

    But conflating the oversteps with the robust discussion that has taken place is entirely counterproductive as well.

    There are complicated issues here – not the least of which are problems going forward if we don’t have a good working relationship with Chinese researchers, given that China is likely to be a region where many pandemics will originate in the future. Playing footsie with China-bashers is a really, really bad idea.

  41. Joshua says:

    From quite a while back – but still I think this podcast did a good job of explaining the complexity of dangers of politicizing the lab leak to China-bash.

    https://supchina.com/podcast/covid-19-origins-revisited-with-deborah-seligsohn/

  42. Dave_Geologist says:

    I think someone needs to learn the meaning of the word “apathetic”.

    And to understand why conflating a movie, with fictional characters good and bad, with the real world and with real-world science and scientists, might draw a flippant response.

  43. gator says:

    One can’t divorce the lab-leak hypothesis publicity from the political motivation to shift blame for the pandemic onto China. We had the POTUS calling this “China flu”, we continue to have Sen. Rand Paul claiming the virus was engineered in a Wuhan lab and publically libeling Dr. Faucci. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10394583/Paul-says-theres-90-10-chance-COVID-came-Wuhan-lab-tears-political-creature-Fauci.html This is the conspiracy theory part. They might be right (highly doubtful) but they can be conspiracy theorists at the same time. They are reasoning from political expediency, not from scientific evidence.

  44. at Joshua: I see some overstepping going on here. WRT the possibility that covid originated from a leak from the Wuhan virology lab: It is possible that a leak of covid from the Wuhan lab is the way that covid arrived in the human population. I think that is clear from the studies that I have read. I have provided links to those studies. Acknowledging that possibility is not “playing footsie” with China-bashers. Acknowledging that possibility doe not suggesting there was any conspiracy or diabolical intention involved in that possible origin.

    It is more likely that covid originated as a zoonotic infection in the same region where the Wuhan virology lab is sited. I think I should be able to state these simple ideas, based in scientific study without giving rise to rhetorical smears that lump me with conspiracy theorists or put me in league with the china-bashers. I don’t think I should be described a mainstream tool or a coverup apologist for stating that zoonotic infection is the more likely origin. I am just reading the studies and coming to certain conclusions without any necessary political agenda. No conspiracy or footsie games are required to accept these two possible explanation of covid origin.

    I just read gator’s comments that say it is not possible to divorce the lab leak premise from the political motivation to shift blame to China. I disagree. I think it is difficult, but not impossible. I also think it is important that we don’t allow the politically motivated discussions to poison the well of inquiry. The politicization is unfortunate and deadly, but I think we should not allow the politicization to shut down legitimate inquiry and discussion of the possibilities.

    I think that is the last thing I will say on these questions.

    Cheers

  45. Yesterday Sabine Hossenfelder @skdh asked where are the websites that catered to sharing “research project proposals for topics we can’t work on ourselves”

    some good responses from her followers (won’t provide links for usual reasons) :
    1. The Seeds of Science. org
    2. ResearchHub. com
    3. Assoc for Mathematical Research Problem Lists
    4. Reddit
    5. GitHub
    *6. I volunteered the Azimuth Project

    Regarding GitHub, notice how readily software types will work together on an open project, yet scientists don’t show that same responsiveness. Is that apathy, or as the Philip Ball article quoted as “lacklustre” ?

  46. Regarding GitHub, notice how readily software types will work together on an open project, yet scientists don’t show that same responsiveness. Is that apathy, or as the Philip Ball article quoted as “lacklustre” ?

    githhub is now used quite commonly in astrophysics, and quite a large number of the epidemiological models are also available on github (including the Imperial College code that was used for some of the key reports in March 2020).

  47. Ben McMillan says:

    The lab-leak stuff reminds me of the bushfires in Australia, where the game played by the climate denialists was to try to turn the discussion by blaming the fires on arsonists. People love a “bad thing caused by bad people who aren’t me” narrative. Especially if those bad people are some out-group like a different race/nation.

  48. The key is to be able to funnel interests so like-minded scientists can get directed to an appropriate site. I have a GitHub project that I maintain, but of course it’s buried in the information overload. Research Hub looks interesting in that the disciplines are categorized and one can actually find potential ideas to dig deeper on. Users can either contribute papers or hypotheses that others can comment or vote on.

    Virology is fast-moving research, as testable vaccines were produced within a few days after the SARS-COVID-2 genome was released. How many realized early on that the pandemic epidemiology modeling would be pointless to pursue as it was always going to depend on game theory aspects of human behavior? We were debating whether to pursue this at the Azimuth Project but for me it was a no.

  49. Joshua says:

    Mike –

    > It is possible that a leak of covid from the Wuhan lab is the way that covid arrived in the human population. I think that is clear from the studies that I have read.

    It’s odd to me that you have repeated that. No one in this discussion has indicated otherwise.

    Acknowledging that possibility doe not suggesting there was any conspiracy or diabolical intention involved in that possible origin.

    That seems like an odd thing to point out. No one in this thread has indicated otherwise.

    > I don’t think I should be described a mainstream tool or a coverup apologist for stating that zoonotic infection is the more likely origin.

    No one has done that.

    > No conspiracy or footsie games are required to accept these two possible explanation of covid origin.

    That’s also an odd thing to say. Accepting the possibility of a lab leak is not playing footsie with China-bashers and people exploiting the science for political purposes.

    Saying that “the scientific community” called the possibility of a lab leak as a conspiracy theory is playing footsie with China-bashers and people exploiting the science for political purposes. If you haven’t don’t that, then you’re not playing footsie with those folks.

    > I just read gator’s comments that say it is not possible to divorce the lab leak premise from the political motivation to shift blame to China. I disagree. I think it is difficult, but not impossible.

    Since there are many China-bashers and political opportunists who are exploiting the possibility of a lab leak, in point of fact you cannot divorce those two phenomena. You don’t have the power to do that. You can’t remake reality.

    Of course, you may be able to at the same time consider the lab leak as a possibility, and not be using that possibility for political expediency and to China-bash. I don’t think anyone would say you couldn’t do that. In fact, the majority of people in the scientific community with the prerequisite expertise are able to view those two paths as NOT mutually exclusive.

    > I also thk it is important that we don’t allow the politically motivated discussions to poison the well of inquiry.

    On that you and I agree.

    > The politicization is unfortunate and deadly, but I think we should not allow the politicization to shut down legitimate inquiry and discussion of the possibilities.

    And that.

    Which, makes some of your statements above only that much harder for me to understand.

  50. I am pleased that we agree what I think are the most important aspects, Joshua

  51. Joshua says:

    Prolly a good place to end the discussion then.

  52. Joshua says:

    Mike –

    Or maybe not.

    I’m curious. Do you agree that over-egging the lab leak theory (beyond what the evidence supports), (1) is being done by a lot of folks for political expediency and (2) will likely have seriously detrimental impact at multiple levels (whether being deliberately for political exploitation, or just because people haven’t looked carefully at all of the evidence on both sides for whatever reason)?

    I think that’s all pretty damn important – and actually in some ways more important than whether this particular virus came from a lab leak or not.

  53. Eventual_Horizon says:

    Joshua –

    > Go back and read what I said.

    Fair. I did mischaracterize what you wrote. This is a passionate subject for me and I lumped you in with what I perceive to be the broader scientific community’s deliberate myopia with regards to COVID’s origins.

    The Lancet letter came out in February of 2020 and stated “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Such a sweeping conclusion was totally unwarranted especially when early leaked emails between top scientists showed that at the same time (almost to the day) they were very much discussing the possibility of lab origin. Jeremy Farrar wrote the spike protein was ““highly compatible with the idea of continued passage of the virus in tissue culture.” But the emails also show people quickly concluded such an angle of investigation would be very unhelpful to science as a whole. So, in my view, under the rug it went.

    You wrote that motivations for wanting a through investigation of the lab leak angle is “in some ways more important than whether this particular virus came from a lab leak or not.” I really don’t agree. There are massive implications for lab safety and what research we should be conducting in the future if COVID did come from a lab.

    I’ll stop here as I’m not sure this exchange is appreciated. Plus I’m now on Willard’s radar. Apologies for mischaracterizing your position.

    In closing, a quote from Angus Dalgleish, the guy who discovered how HIV infects cells. “”It was a political decision for this to be suppressed … I was ostracised. I was fearful – really frightened at the way I was being treated.”

  54. Willard says:

    > The Lancet letter came out

    You haven’t read my comment, EH, have you?

  55. Yes, I agree with that.

  56. Joshua says:

    EH –

    > Apologies for mischaracterizing your position.

    Not a problem. It happens. I may have even mischaracterized something someone said a time or two. 😉

    What matters much more, imo, is how people react once they’ve done something like that. Everyone makes mistakes but in my experience relatively few people I encounter online are willing to be accountable in the manner you just showed.

    👍

  57. Dave_Geologist says:

    Ah, now I understand.

    NASA faked the moon landings, therefore Covid is an escaped Chinese bioweapon.

    Got it.

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