Science can fool you, so can the anointed science experts.
Last year, media outlets ridiculed anyone who suggested the COVID-19 pandemic started with a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Daniel Funke at PoliFact asserted, “Research shows that the virus’ genetic makeup precludes it from being man-made,” and “Scientists believe bats are the source of the novel coronavirus and that it jumped to an intermediate host before spreading to humans….” The New York Times published many pieces dismissive of the lab-leak theory, including one headlined, “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.” Jack Brewster at Forbes wrote the lab-origin theory was, “an explosive claim pitting scientists, who remain skeptical of the claim, against Trump administration officials …”
None of the authors appeared to have any special training or professional focus on epidemiology or virology that would justify the certainty with which they dismissed the WIV as the source of the virus. Instead, the journalists’ certainty came from the authority of others. For instance, in February 2020, the British medical journal, The Lancet, published a letter signed by 27 scientists affirming that research studies “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”
The review of the then month-old literature on the SARS-CoV-2 virus by 27 scientists may have ended the discussion for a year, but now it is back. A bombshell article by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists restarted the lab-origin discussion and moved it to the “it’s hard to explain this any other way” category.
The once dismissive press is back-pedaling at warp speed. For instance, The Washington Post corrected their own article about Tom Cotton and published new articles with a we-don’t-really-know message. Until recently, Facebook deleted pages that gave any credence to the notion of a genetically engineered COVID-19 virus. They have stopped, but have not yet offered an apology.
There will be hand-wringing about the damage to science’s credibility. Skip it; this damage is a good thing. Scientists, their theories, their models and their conclusions should have no more credibility than they deserve.
Of more concern is the degradation of science by the twisted incentives of politics, funding and tribalism.
The Public-Choice school of political analysis yielded profound insights with a simple assumption of self-interest in the political world. Unfortunately, that same healthy skepticism has not fully carried over to science and research despite a prescient warning from President Eisenhower. In his farewell address he said, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.”
Federal money and its gravely-to-be-regarded power are at the heart of the WIV COVID-19 story. That February 2020 Lancet letter was drafted and circulated by the EcoHealth Alliance. Funded by Dr. Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the alliance actually paid for gain-of-function research on coronaviruses at the WIV. Five of the letter’s signers are affiliated with the alliance.
Why has this not been common knowledge? Because the COVID-origin story had already become completely politicized early in 2020. This and the intertwined funding and research turned the lab-origin story into professional kryptonite.
Nicholas Wade states the problem this way, “Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities. Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended.”
The domination of federal funding by an inbred coterie of researchers, foundations, and bureaucrats is not unique to virus research. It is an old story to climate skeptics.
Federal agencies have spent billions on research and hundreds of billions more on climate policies. That’s a big boat that does not like being rocked. One example is the outside science advisers at the EPA. The point of these advisers is to provide unbiased feedback on the science done by the EPA. In a clear compromise of the independence, these outside advisers received $77 million in direct grants from the EPA for the three years before Donald Trump took office.
The Trump administration implemented a rule prohibiting EPA grant recipients from being members of these groups. One of the first actions of the Biden EPA was to repeal that rule and, in a totally unprecedented action, fire all the members. Steady as she goes.
The risk to reputations and careers from stepping out of line is obvious. A notable recent example of the degradation directed at skeptics is that of Steve Koonin. The chief science officer for the Obama Department of Energy, Mr. Koonin has a physics Ph.D. from MIT and was a professor and provost at Cal Tech. He was a liberal in good standing until he wrote a book challenging the notion that we face an imminent climate catastrophe. That was too much. So out came the daggers in a bizarre critique — of a book review — published in Scientific American.
The political control of funding, the coordinated personal attacks (ask Roger Pielke Jr. about it), the ridicule of dissenting research and opinions gets transmogrified into a scientific consensus. The media and the public buy into it. Maybe climate change will impose bigger costs on the (much richer) future generations than people think. Maybe the climate policies will not be hijacked by crony special interests. Maybe it will turn out that SARS-CoV-2 was totally zoonotic and had nothing to do with the WIV. But maybe not.
Everybody makes decisions with less than perfect information. Further, people cannot be specialists in everything. In light of recent COVID-19 revelations (if not recent books from Mr. Koonin and environmentalists like Michael Shellenberger and Patrick Moore on climate), it would be a good time to eliminate cocksurety from science (and science policy) discussions. It is time for news-service style sheets to eliminate phrases like “scientists say” and “the scientific consensus” and “according to science.”
Without a doubt, many prominent scientists earned their reputations honorably and deserve to have weight given to their scientific statements, but prominence is not the same as omniscience or infallibility. Honorable or not, scientists are subject to the same self-interest biases as other humans. It would help if reporters recognized this simple truth.
• David Kreutzer, a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, taught economics for 23 years at James Madison University and for three years before that at Ohio University.