Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Seasoned science journalist sparks new round of debate.
Nicholas Wade has been writing important science journalism for decades. I’ve blogged about one of his books, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, which was published back in 1982.
Two weeks ago, Wade penned a lengthy essay, Origin of Covid – Following the Clues. It also appears online under the title The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?
In Wade’s words, “if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence,” we need to know how the current pandemic began. Did the SARS2 virus emerge naturally, jumping from bats to humans via a still unidentified third species? Or did it accidentally escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a facility that studies dangerous pathogens?
Today, 17 months after the world became aware of SARS2, no direct evidence supports either theory. “I have only clues,” writes Wade, “not conclusions, to offer. But those clues point in a specific direction.”
Since the earliest days – we’re talking February of 2020, long before anything could have been known for certain – key individuals have insisted loudly that the virus is natural. Anyone who thinks otherwise, they say, is a conspiracy theorist. But, as Wade observes, these people “were behaving as poor scientists: they were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.”
Two things are beyond dispute: The Wuhan Institute studies deadly coronaviruses. And lab leaks are surprisingly common. As Wade points out:
The smallpox virus escaped three times from labs in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s, causing 80 cases and 3 deaths. Dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since. Coming to more recent times, the SARS1 virus has proved a true escape artist, leaking from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan, and no less than four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing.
Please consider setting aside an hour of your time to read Wade’s complete essay. Compelling and thought provoking, it has sparked an important, new round of debate here in North America.
I encourage you to pay special attention to two places in that essay in which he discusses the reasons other scientists might have hesitated to challenge their colleagues publicly:
Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work. So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.
Nor have other scientists stepped forward to raise the issue. Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees…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.
We are urged, constantly, to follow the science. But science is highly politicized. Whether we’re talking how much red meat humans should consume, climate change, or COVID-19, science is conducted by human beings. Far too often these human beings behave like sports fanatics promoting their team. Calm, cool researchers are rarer than we think.
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