August LocSec Column

As part of my day job, I help to work with clients who want to become better and more systematic about how they predict and plan for the future (I’ll bore you with more particulars after I wait until the last minute to write this column). A big piece of that work deals with cognitive biases, or bad habits of and errors in thinking that cloud and contaminate the rational thinking process. There are literally dozens that have been identified by science over the years, and more will certainly continue to be uncovered and articulated. Recent headlines have brought one in particular to the fore, and I’d like to explore it a bit.

There is an ongoing pandemic in the world. Almost all evidence points to the pandemic starting in or around Wuhan, Hubei in China starting in the latter half of 2019. Ever since cases started appearing across the globe, questions about the pandemic’s origin have flowed like the Yangtze River. Some “know” it was a lab leak. Others “know” it came about from random human contact with particular critters capable of carrying coronaviruses. Give it a few more months, and we’ll probably see that wacky hair guy on The History Channel explaining that it came from aliens. To be clear, we (in the public) honestly don’t know. There is some evidence pointing in different directions, much of which is obscured by the avalanche of conjecture and speculation that has befallen the world for going on 19 months. However, the state of political affairs in the US when the pandemic broke gave rise to what psychologists call the “social desirability bias.” Long story short, this simply means that people will tend to say things that they think others want to hear. While such a tendency is what gets officials elected in the first place, it is very dangerous when it contaminates the scientific process. Unfortunately, it has polluted the public conversation about the origins of COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 and why it only returned to mainstream discussion after a change in the White House.

I would be happy to discuss the various origin hypotheses as to their merits any other time, and I am not writing to promote one theory above another. What I will call out is the parade of glaring examples of how President Trump’s, shall we say, “fascinating” rhetoric about the pandemic appears to have hit parts of the scientific community like one of those triangle hammer thingies doctors use to test reflexes on your knees. The knee-jerk race to avoid being perceived as being on Trump’s “side” saw the lab origin hypothesis effectively blackballed as foolish, baseless, or even racist. And why did this happen last spring? Because many saw distancing themselves from anything associated with Trump as more socially desirable than finding and evaluating evidence to support or disprove the lab leak hypothesis. That should scare you. A lot.

I won’t knock anybody for not wanting to be associated with a particular political or social figure, but in this instance it gave uncertainly as to the origin an almost year-long head start. When contemporary toxic political rhetoric is allowed to steer the rudder on a search for truth, absolutely no good can come from it. Perhaps the great irony is that some of those scientists who early on labeled lab leak as absurd and dumb did so by letting Trump’s rhetoric indirectly define what those scientists called real science. In other words, they let Trump’s choice of words defined the probability of an event, something I guarantee wasn’t the idea.

What’s the lesson out of all of this? Think and be careful. Again, this isn’t about COVID-19 origins per se. I don’t know the full truth and I am skeptical that the public will ever know all of the particulars. But pretty please, with sugar on top, don’t let modern political bedlam influence any of your quests for knowledge. There’s a great Arab proverb to keep in mind: “Examine what is said, not who speaks.”

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