On Guilt

The other night Dana and I watched “The Internet’s Own Boy,” the 2014 documentary about the life and work of Aaron Swartz, which I’d somehow missed when it came out. Swartz, for anyone who doesn’t remember, was the child prodigy who helped create RSS and Reddit, who then became a campaigner for an open Internet, who was arrested for using a laptop in an MIT supply closet to download millions of journal articles and threatened with decades in prison, and who then committed suicide at age 26. I regret that I never knew Swartz, though he did once send me a fan email about Quantum Computing Since Democritus.

Say whatever you want about the tactical wisdom or the legality of Swartz’s actions; it seems inarguable to me that he was morally correct, that certain categories of information (e.g. legal opinions and taxpayer-funded scientific papers) need to be made freely available, and that sooner or later our civilization will catch up to Swartz and regard his position as completely obvious. The beautifully-made documentary filled me with rage and guilt not only that the world had failed Swartz, but that I personally had failed him.

At the time of Swartz’s arrest, prosecution, and suicide, I was an MIT CS professor who’d previously written in strong support of open access to scientific literature, and who had the platform of this blog. Had I understood what was going on with Swartz—had I taken the time to find out what was going on—I could have been in a good position to help organize a grassroots campaign to pressure the MIT administration to urge prosecutors to drop the case (like JSTOR had already done), which could plausibly have made a difference. As it was, I was preoccupied in those years with BosonSampling, getting married, etc., I didn’t bother to learn whether anything was being done or could be done about the Aaron Swartz matter, and then before I knew it, Swartz had joined Alan Turing in computer science’s pantheon of lost geniuses.

But maybe there was something deeper to my inaction. If I’d strongly defended the substance of what Swartz had done, it would’ve raised the question: why wasn’t I doing the same? Why was I merely complaining about paywalled journals from the comfort of my professor’s office, rather than putting my own freedom on the line like Swartz was? It was as though I had to put some psychological distance between myself and the situation, in order to justify my life choices to myself.

Even though I see the error in that way of “thinking,” it keeps recurring, keeps causing me to make choices that I feel guilt or at least regret about later. In February 2020, there were a few smart people saying that a new viral pneumonia from Wuhan was about to upend life on earth, but the people around me certainly weren’t acting that way, and I wasn’t acting that way either … and so, “for the sake of internal consistency,” I didn’t spend much time thinking about it or investigating it. After all, if the fears of a global pandemic had a good chance of being true, I should be dropping everything else and panicking, shouldn’t I? But I wasn’t dropping everything else and panicking … so how could the fears be true?

Then I publicly repented, and resolved not to make such an error again. And now, 15 months later, I realize that I have made such an error again.

All throughout the pandemic, I’d ask my friends, privately, why the hypothesis that the virus had accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology wasn’t being taken far more seriously, given what seemed like a shockingly strong prima facie case. But I didn’t discuss the lab leak scenario on this blog, except once in passing. I could say I didn’t discuss it because I’m not a virologist and I had nothing new to contribute. But I worry that I also didn’t discuss it because it seemed incompatible with my self-conception as a cautious scientist who’s skeptical of lurid coverups and conspiracies—and because I’d already spent my “weirdness capital” on other issues, and didn’t relish the prospect of being sneered at on social media yet again. Instead I simply waited for discussion of the lab leak hypothesis to become “safe” and “respectable,” as today it finally has, thanks to writers who were more courageous than I was. I became, basically, another sheep in one of the conformist herds that we rightly despise when we read about them in history.

(For all that, it’s still plausible to me that the virus had a natural origin after all. What’s become clear is simply that, even if so, the failure to take the possibility of a lab escape more seriously back when the trail of evidence was fresher will stand as a major intellectual scandal of our time.)

Sometimes people are wracked with guilt, but over completely different things than the world wants them to be wracked with guilt over. This was one of the great lessons that I learned from reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Many of the Manhattan Project physicists felt lifelong guilt, not that they’d participated in building the bomb, but only that they hadn’t finished the bomb by 1943, when it could have ended the war in Europe and the Holocaust.

On a much smaller scale, I suppose some readers would still like me to feel guilt about comment 171, or some of the other stuff I wrote about nerds, dating, and feminism … or if not that, then maybe about my defense of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, or of standardized tests and accelerated math programs, or maybe my vehement condemnation of Trump and his failed insurrection. Or any of the dozens of other times when I stood up and said something I actually believed, or when I recounted my experiences as accurately as I could. The truth is, though, I don’t.

Looking back—which, now that I’m 40, I confess is an increasingly large fraction of my time—the pattern seems consistent. I feel guilty, not for having stood up for what I strongly believed in, but for having failed to do so. This suggests that, if I want fewer regrets, then I should click “Publish” on more potentially controversial posts! I don’t know how to force myself to do that, but maybe this post itself is a step.

172 Responses to “On Guilt”

  1. Strichcoder Says:

    I had heard of the lab leak hypothesis only because of you. I read through the linked arguments and discussed it privately. It seems likely that others had done so too. So you might have had an influence after all. Thank you for continuing to post inspiring, rational and controversial things!

  2. Vijay Vazirani Says:

    Somehow, feeling guilty of not feeling guilty, or not feeling guilty enough to do something, seems too little too late to be taken seriously — my 2 cents worth!

  3. Aspect Says:

    I’m curious, what do you think would’ve changed if you’ve gone public on the lab leak thing?

    It seems like you could’ve had a meaningful impact in the Aaron Swartz case by pulling some strings, but what would a blog post achieve for the lab leak? Seems like a decent decision to “play it safe” and wait for the confirmation.

  4. Peter S. Shenkin Says:

    Re. COVID:

    The possibility of a lab leak was never denied by anyone responsible, including Fauci. Why it wasn’t pursued is that everybody with the appropriate skill set and any sense was busy trying to ameliorate the crisis. That rightfully took first priority. Something else that was not pursued for the same reason was a search for another animal intermediate host after pangolins were ruled out. Now, for the first time, we have the luxury of looking back and trying to figure it out.

    The lack of openness from the Chinese about the COVID sequences of the first infected patients from the Wuhan lab sounds suspicious. But if they had released exculpatory data back then, or even if they did so now, the strong advocates of the lab-leak hypothesis would have, and now still would, view the release as a great cover-up and a lie. In view of this likelihood, it makes sense for the Chinese not to openly reveal data, even if it should demonstrate rather convincingly that it was not a lab leak.

  5. Peter S. Shenkin Says:

    Re: Swartz

    “certain categories of information (e.g. legal opinions and taxpayer-funded scientific papers) need to be made freely available,”

    Publication of scientific data in a curated, peer-reviewed journal has major expenses of its own. Even non-profit organizations, like the American Chemical Society, charge large amounts for subscriptions and also charge the researchers page charges or publishing. These compensate the sponsors for the expenses that they have incurred, and, in case of private journals, also supply profit to the owners.

    Researchers are free to publish in free publications, including non-peer-reviewed journals. However, in many fields, these journals are not much consulted, so publishing in the journals with the best reputations (1) Allows the authors to improve their writing and even their research, based on reviewers’ comments — not infrequently a lapse in the interpretation is found that requires the researchers to perform additional experiments in order for the submission to be accepted; and (2) Gives readers, many of whom might not be experts in the sub-sub-field that was the subject of the research, confidents that experts had vetted the presented interpretation.

  6. Scott Says:

    Aspect #3: You’re right, it seems unlikely that I could’ve achieved anything with the lab leak discussion except a public marker, to prove to my grandkids that I wasn’t dissuaded from speaking by fear of public scorn. Even in the Aaron Swartz case it’s doubtful that my intervention would’ve achieved anything—after all, Swartz had many friends and supporters at MIT who knew more than I did, and they didn’t change the outcome—but at least there was a chance there.

  7. lewikee Says:

    Beware of guilt, even for the “right” reasons. It is damaging. Instead allow yourself to think about, in full honesty, why you aren’t doing what you think is right. You might have a good reason that you’re not paying enough attention to! Or you might not…

    But once you allow yourself to gain clarity on your actions or inactions and their causes, you can make a conscious decision on how to move forward. Then you can be aligned with your convictions without having to bear the burden of toxic guilt.

    And in the end, if you identify that you need to do something and still can’t do it, then please be kind to yourself for not doing it. Life’s too damn short.

  8. Scott Says:

    Peter S. Shenkin #4:

      The possibility of a lab leak was never denied by anyone responsible, including Fauci.

    No, it was never called outright impossible, but in the rare cases it was mentioned at all, it was ridiculed, called vanishingly unlikely, and constantly conflated with the idea of covid-as-engineered-bioweapon and whatever else emerged from the Trumpian fever swamps. A lot of this probably originated with the now-infamous letter that Peter Daszak organized, the one where he “declared no competing interests” despite his own central role in funding gain-of-function research at the WIV. Recently, Vox literally went back and stealth-edited an old article to make it look as though it hadn’t dismissed the lab-leak theory, when it had.

  9. Dave Says:

    The folks most invested in investigating the Wuhan leak theory, so far as I can tell, weren’t doing it out of a sense of scientific curiosity, but for specific political reasons that you (and I) thought were bad: to change the conversation away from domestic policy failures around Covid to blaming the CCP in order to shore up Trump’s electoral chances. I don’t think that was a worthwhile place to spend intellectual effort, and I’m not sure that you do, either.

    So I don’t think you need to feel guilty about not engaging in that at the time: both Aspect and Peter Shenkin are right.

  10. Aleksei Besogonov Says:

    Scott #8: Hi! I’m a molecular biologist.

    “Escape from a lab” is not impossible. In the sense that the virus might have jumped from a bat to humans in a lab or maybe when scientists were collecting wild bats for research.

    It’s very unlikely that the virus was engineered in any way. There’s a Nature article that discusses it in details: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

    I specifically recommend looking at this figure: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9/figures/1 The only thing that separates mostly harmless for humans bat viruses and COVID-19 is a 4-residue insertion and maybe a couple more base pair mutations.

    So from a practical standpoint, does it really matter that the virus jumped to a researcher working with a bat or a peasant trying to catch a some meat to sale?

  11. Paul Topping Says:

    There are a few reasons I can think of to justify not giving the lab leak hypothesis much credence at the beginning of the pandemic:

    – Although Trump supported China’s response at the very beginning, he quickly decided to blame China for the pandemic and the lab leak hypothesis was part of that. It seemed very likely he was supporting this theory for his own political benefit rather than basing on information from experts in the medical or intelligence fields.

    – No one has any information on whether it came from a lab or, if they do, they aren’t telling us. This is still the case.

    – Most of us aren’t in a position to judge this. There are experts with opinions, of course, but we pretty much know they aren’t basing them on definitive evidence. I don’t trust a virologist’s claim that there’s no way the virus could have been made in a lab. How could they be sure?

    Some are now claiming the press unreasonably suppressed the lab leak hypothesis. Perhaps a few did but, as I remember it, they pretty much echoed the opinions of experts. What else could they really do? It’s not like CNN could send Sanjay Gupta to Wuhan to get to the bottom of it all.

    We still don’t know anything really. As I see it, there’s no reason to do so much hand-wringing over earlier opinions on the lab leak hypothesis. Although it would be nice to know the answer, I’m not sure it matters so much. Every lab that works with dangerous viruses is bound to be extra vigilant. at least for a few years.

  12. Scott Says:

    Aleksei #10: “Engineered” could mean many different things—would passage through humanized mice count? Insertion of a furin cleavage site from a different coronavirus (for the purpose of research, of course, not starting a pandemic)? Having said that, I completely agree that lab escape is plausible without any tinkering whatsoever with whatever wild virus was taken to Wuhan from the bat caves. Which brings us to your question:

      So from a practical standpoint, does it really matter that the virus jumped to a researcher working with a bat or a peasant trying to catch a some meat to sale?

    I’d say it matters in that, if it did come from bat virus research, then such research will turn out to have had such jaw-droppingly negative total utility for the human race that it should probably be discontinued entirely, or at any rate, moved far away from population centers like Wuhan.

    Having said that, all the plausible routes by which covid could’ve emerged will need to be better defended, regardless of which one turns out to be correct in this case (if indeed we ever find out).

  13. 1Zer0 Says:

    In regards to the lab hypothesis and the fact that’s it’s more “socially acceptable” to speculate about it now, it reminds me of an argument type called Reductio ad Hitlerum “https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Reductio-ad-Hitlerum” , so let’s define a Reductio ad Trumpum;

    Proposition P is true
    Trump claimed P
    ________________
    Thus P is false

    .
    .

    Let P := “The Coronavirus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”

    The Coronavirus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute
    Trump said “The Coronavirus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”
    ____________________________________________________________________
    Thus the Coronavirus didn’t leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology

    I don’t claim to know whether the Lab is related to the C-Virus outbreak or not, I don’t have the slightest expertise in that regard. But this type of logical inference seems to be fairly common to discredit a Proposition.

  14. matt Says:

    So, uh, Scott, how could you have acted differently in retrospect that would have made much difference in Feb of 2020? Personally, as far as I know, you didn’t get COVID nor did any of your immediate family, though I might be wrong, and it sounds like you now are vaccinated. Seems like most of the people that fled to remote, well-stocked hideouts eventually got bored of it, and returned to civilization, having fared just about as well as those that stayed in a city like you. For impact on others, I recall a lot of people working on things like crowd-sourced ventilator designs and stuff. But, it seems like the main things we needed were lower tech and less flashy things like face masks. I really do not see what you could have done that would have had a big impact. After the market crash I remember you saying that had you realized the severity, you would have told your friends to sell stocks….which would have been a bad decision long term. This is a serious question.

  15. Sandro Says:

    @Aleksei Besogonov #10:

    It’s very unlikely that the virus was engineered in any way. There’s a Nature article that discusses it in details: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

    This article made predictions about the evidence we should find of zoonotic transfer, evidence which has not been found. For instance, the host species is still conspicuously absent, as is the subpopulation of humans in which it circulated poorly before becoming well suited to human transmission.

    In other words, there is, quite literally, zero supporting evidence for a natural origin. Justification for natural origin from the beginning has been “the available evidence does not contradict a natural origin” and “the Wuhan lab scientists have been transparent about outbreaks before, therefore we should trust their transparency”. Of course this is reasonable in early 2020 when the search has only just begun. We’re long past that time though. We also know the CPC will punish any unfavourable press from their own people; they imprisoned the first doctors that tried to warn everyone of SARS-COV-2 if you recall.

    The failure to find other supporting evidence of zoonotic origins, and the CPC’s obstructionism, is is conspicuous albeit circumstantial evidence favouring a lab leak. I recommend this article if you want a balanced view on the where we currently stand.

    Furthermore, there is simply no way you can definitively claim it was not lab engineered, in particular, via standard gain of function experiments which were taking place at the Wuhan lab. Gain of function does not leave any sort of traces by which you can distinguish it from evolution in a natural environment.

    So from a practical standpoint, does it really matter that the virus jumped to a researcher working with a bat or a peasant trying to catch a some meat to sale?

    Of course it does. The lab scenario would imply that safety protocols were either insufficient, or were not rigourously followed. It also indicates the CPC was complicit in covering up a mistake will kill tens of millions of people, and that alone will change how scientific research is conducted.

  16. Sandro Says:

    @Peter S. Shenkin #4:

    The possibility of a lab leak was never denied by anyone responsible, including Fauci.

    While technically true, I think you know that Fauci was fairly vocal early on that the evidence strongly “suggested” a natural origin. Of course, the evidence didn’t suggest any such thing, it was merely consistent with a natural origin, as it was also consistent with an origin from a gain of function experiment in a lab.

    Finding the host animal in the wild would suggest a natural origin, as would finding a subpopulation of humans far from Wuhan (or other lab) where the virus adapted to spreading in humans.

    All we have right now is a virus whose genome is close to other natural bat coronaviruses, but that was particularly adept at human transmission from the earliest patients, which is actually not consistent with a natural origin. A zoonotic virus would have had to circulate in a human subpopulation for awhile to develop this ability, but neither this subpopulation nor the host animal have been found after 16 months, despite both having been found within 9 months of MERS and SARS.

    The lack of openness from the Chinese about the COVID sequences of the first infected patients from the Wuhan lab sounds suspicious. But if they had released exculpatory data back then, or even if they did so now, the strong advocates of the lab-leak hypothesis would have, and now still would, view the release as a great cover-up and a lie.

    I assume by “strong advocates”, you must mean conspiracy theorists. If exculpatory evidence was truly available, then everyone other than conspiracy theorists would have accepted it and moved on, and the lab leak would be a fringe conspiracy theory, as the NYT, Forbes and other mainstream media outlets initially claimed.

    Of course, the fact that Chinese scientists were quite open with the SARS and MERS outbreaks, but obstructed investigations into the Wuhan lab at every turn this past year is yet more suspicious albeit circumstantial evidence for a lab leak origin. Frankly, I think you know that any kind of exculpatory evidence could only have worked in the CPC’s favour, so either they don’t have any such evidence, or the evidence is actually unfavourable to them.

  17. Boaz Barak Says:

    Each of us is entitled to their own guilt, but I think you are judging yourself by unreasonably high standards. I don’t think you should feel guilty for failing to speak out about any possible wrong prevalent opinion, no matter how far removed it is from your field.

    If you are “guilty” about not warning people about Covid or not shouting from the rooftops about the lab leak hypothesis, then I am certainly guiltier of the same sins. However, I must confess I feel zero guilt about either. I am a computer scientist. It’s not my job to warn people against Covid, and it’s also not my job to investigate the origins of the disease.

    Aaron Swartz is a different story. This happened in our academic back yard and even though I was never affiliated with MIT, I regret not being involved in any effort or petition that may have led to a different outcome. (On the other hand, I don’t regret not acting in the same way as Swartz: while I agree with his goals, I still don’t think that his actions were right.)

    Hype in quantum computing is also a different story. I am not sure if I should or should not feel guilty for not doing more about it, but you definitely shouldn’t. I don’t think anyone has done as much as you did in battling hype.

    Computer Scientists, like anyone else, are definitely allowed to investigate topics outside of their domain, and speak out about them. But they don’t have a moral duty to do so.

  18. João Says:

    Your post reminded me of a Paul Graham’s essay: What You Can’t Say (http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html).

  19. Nick Says:

    As some guy once said:

    COVID ORIGINATING IN CHINA created the perfect conditions for conspiracy theorizing to fester. Conditioned on that happening, it would be astonishing if a conspiracy industry hadn’t arisen, with its hundreds of books and labyrinthine arguments, even under the assumption that COVID REALLY WAS OF ZOONOTIC ORIGIN.

  20. Paul Bali Says:

    I think you’ve handled this nicely, Scott.

    The blackout on discussion of the LL Hypothesis was a stunning demo of global narrative control, operating at many levels – including the most expert. Many people, like you, privately wondered about the LLH but never spoke on it publicly; yet some, I would guess, had their gaze trained away from seriously ever considering it. They were politically constrained even in their privacy.

    Given the demo, one ought wonder about other parts of the dominant COVID narrative. What else is being missed, under-reported, scoffed at & dismissed? The world proved its capacity to be hypnotized away from the obvious. [The obvious possibility of the LLH; the obvious badness of the standard response to the LLH – conflation with the “bioweapon” hypothesis].

  21. Aleksei Besogonov Says:

    Scott #12:

    It’s unlikely that the virus was engineered in any way. Passage through cell cultures would result in optimized receptor binding domain (since it’s presumably will be selected for) but little evidence of immune system pressure. It’s possible that they passed the virus through humanized mice, but it’s unlikely that they would actually do that (because why?). And mice also have an immune system that differs from humans by quite a lot.

    “I’d say it matters in that, if it did come from bat virus research, then such research will turn out to have had such jaw-droppingly negative total utility for the human race that it should probably be discontinued entirely, or at any rate, moved far away from population centers like Wuhan.”

    This is an argument. On the other hand, bat viruses are still here. And it took only a few mutations (4 or 5) for a mostly harmless virus to become a mass murderer. And this will undoubtedly happen again, especially with humans encroaching on more and more wildlife habitats.

    But wait, it gets worse. Various terrorist groups also can read papers. So imagine a virus strain that is specifically bred in an underground lab to be both lethal and infectious. It only takes a few mutations to do that.

    If anything, viral research should be given priority. We should be investigating broad-spectrum antivirals, rapid antibody production methods, etc.

  22. Max Says:

    There are several topics too taboo for any socially respectable person to hit “publish” on. But the most taboo one is certainly the topic of race and IQ.

    I suggest everyone to make a private list of opinions which one considers too taboo to talk about. This list serves as a reminder not to commit the fallacy of confusing what one feels comfortable to say in public (or even what one feels one, as a virtuous person, _should_ say) with what one believes to be true.

    If one has no such taboo opinions, this is a bad sign of being too much a child of the current zeitgeist. What are the odds that of all the times in history, _now_ is the time where there are no true but taboo opinions? That would be a great coincidence given that this was never the case in the past.

  23. Jay Says:

    Scott #0, weird! I too felt guilty, exactly as you described, except it was the opposite concern. If you thought this was sort of a scam, like I do*, but that reporting the scam amount to help a genocidal gouvernement… what’s the correct line of action?

    *consider the following « reduction » : what if VOC_alpha came from a UK lab? It’s not impossible. It’s not likely. It’d be important to sort out its origin. It’s not on your feeds.

  24. James D. Miller Says:

    Scott, if you think there is a reasonable chance that a few UFOs are aliens, you now have another chance to speak up.

  25. DR Says:

    I remember the Aaron Schwartz case and it really shook me. I had no connection to MIT or him and I still felt a bit of “guilt”.

    I was recently reading the Gita, which is primarily about Arjuna feeling paralyzed with empathy. He realizes it prevents him from doing what he knows is his duty, which by the way, is killing his cousins! He says, I know this compassion is coming in the way of my doing my duty but then, part of me thinks that feeling this compassion is what is right.

    Krishna, in response, calls this the sin of excessive compassion. There is even a word for this in Sanskrit – Kaarpanyadosha. The sin of being imbued with an excess of compassion.

    Maybe the things you chose to be focussed on were indeed your duty. You did what you knew best then.

  26. VKN Says:

    Working with one’s PhD students, advancing science, etc., is a time and attention consuming activity that by necessity forecloses other actions. Perhaps this is the reason why science/maths texts rarely mention the deep moral failings of many great scientists.

  27. Craig Says:

    Look up Dr. Harvey Risch about hydroxychloroquine.

  28. David Sanders Says:

    I understand your feelings of guilt but also want to point out that your actions could also have been seen as pretty rational and *not* cowardly. I’ve often made the calculation that people are unlikely to take me seriously on some issue and so I should probably just stay out of it. That’s not because I’m a weenie but because the cost benefit analysis just doesn’t make sense. As a reinforcement agent, I’m trying to maximize cumulative future gains (and benefits of all of my actions to society); not just those relating to a particular issue. It could be that, by waiting to comment on an issue that you’re not immediately qualified to comment on until it becomes mainstream, you actually *increase* the overall impact of your chiming in. And you don’t risk getting needlessly cancelled and neutralized on future topics that you’re qualified to treat.

    That being said, there’s always a balance to strike with this kind of thing. Sometimes, as you mention, being willing to be the one who sticks their neck out is also important. I guess it’s fate that decides which is which.

  29. Scott Says:

    James Miller #24:

      Scott, if you think there is a reasonable chance that a few UFOs are aliens, you now have another chance to speak up.

    (1) I don’t see that possibility as particularly under-discussed!

    (2) With covid, the lab-leak scenario and the natural spillover scenario both have serious and well-known problems to overcome: there’s no “safe, sane, Occam’s-razor default option.” Whereas with UFOs, we already presumably agree that 99% of sightings have prosaic explanations, so then the “safe, sane, Occam’s-razor default option” is simply that the 99% is actually 100%. 🙂

  30. David Sanders Says:

    And my comments about not feeling guilty were specifically in regard to failing to comment on the lab leak hypothesis. Don’t really have an opinion about the other stuff.

  31. Dee Says:

    It’s weird but I have no connection to MIT and yet I still feel guilty about Aaron. It feels in some vague way that CS academia as a whole failed him, I don’t know if I’m right to feel this way or not.

  32. Don McKenzie Says:

    Scott: Neither you nor I is a virologist, a good reason not to jump on this lab-leak furor, which as far as I can tell has no support among virologists, because no one has turned up any real evidence that it’s the case. There is good discussion of the topic in several sessions at

    https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/

    for anyone who wants to hear what the virology community is saying. No, it’s not inconceivable that the virus escaped from a lab, just highly improbable and not backed by data.
    Bats carry gazillions of viruses, and they hop to other species regularly. Probability that this one did? OK, it’s not 1, but pretty close until some data come along to inform our prior.

  33. James Gallagher Says:

    This is one of the most comprehensive discussions of the issues from BBC’s John Sudworth last July 2020:

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/ewsu2giezk/city-of-silence-china-wuhan

    The BBC’s China correspondent John Sudworth is even now allowed to report that [on the lab leak speculation]:

    Media organisations everywhere gave it the cold shoulder. My own attempts to look seriously at the lab-leak theory in May last year ran into long and fraught editorial discussions before it finally made it to publication.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-57267729

    For me, if it was an accidental lab leak, no big deal, we move on (at least 2 labs in UK leaked smallpox in recent decades, apparently) – chances it was engineered deliberately as a weapon about 0%, chances it was engineered deliberately as part of science investigation, about 30%. Much more likely a pure accident, China should be given immunity from sanctions if they allow a full investigation, all data released.

  34. Scott Says:

    Don McKenzie #32: The fundamental difficulties the natural-origin theory needs to overcome are that

    (1) the bat caves, where SARS-Cov2’s closest known relative RaTG13 was found, are in Yunnan province, more than a thousand miles from Wuhan,
    (2) it was wintertime, when bats would’ve been hibernating, and
    (3) the wet market didn’t sell bats or pangolins.

    These difficulties aren’t necessarily insurmountable. E.g., maybe there was a natural spillover event who-knows-how, and then the epidemic spread through the countryside totally undetected, only being noticed once it reached a major city, which just happens to be Wuhan (home to the WIV, where coronavirus samples including RaTG13 were also regularly flown in from the Yunnan bat caves for storage and analysis, and worked on in BSL-2 labs). This “silent spread through the countryside” hypothesis could be checked by testing blood samples collected in 2019, if any still remain.

    But it’s now been a year and a half, and no such evidence seems to have emerged for any spillover outside Wuhan, though it must have been carefully looked for. That’s the circumstance that causes me, not to be confident in the lab-leak hypothesis, but to say that it and the natural spillover hypothesis both now have Ω(1) probability. I.e., reasonable people will differ about whether it’s 20/80 or 50/50 or 80/20, but in any case it’s not 99/1.

  35. James Gallagher Says:

    btw, if you don’t believe UK labs accidentally released smallpox read:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_smallpox_outbreak_in_the_United_Kingdom

  36. Aleksei Besogonov Says:

    Scott #34:

    The RaTG13 is unlikely to be a COVID-19 predecessor, though they likely share a common ancestor. It just happens to right now be the closest known virus. It’s not clear that RaTG13 even uses the ACE2 as a receptor.

    Geography is also not a major factor. Bats are kinda known for, well, flying. So COVID-19 related viruses are all over the place in China. For example, SL-ZXC21 is found in Zhejiang (which is 1000 miles in the OTHER direction from Wuhan) and it also binds to ACE2: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6135831/

  37. Aleksei Besogonov Says:

    To step back: the lab leak theory is kinda an “extra step” for the Occam’s razor. It’s more possible than some other conspiracies, but it’s still an extra step.

  38. Tamás V Says:

    James Gallagher #33:

    For me, if it was an accidental lab leak, no big deal, we move on (at least 2 labs in UK leaked smallpox in recent decades, apparently)

    Sure, but if it’s proved (with consensus) that it was a lab leak, security will have to be given some thought. E.g. if the Chernobyl disaster had made Europe uninhabitable (which it didn’t, mainly because three volunteer divers risked their lives), we’d definitely not say “c’mon, let’s move on, let’s build the next nuclear power plant”.

  39. Sam Says:

    Scott #34, be aware that according to Dr. Lawrence Sellin, “Based on its composite structure, RaTG13, the alleged closest bat coronavirus relative to #COVID19 is either a completely fabricated sequence or, more likely, a military-supplied, laboratory-created intermediate on the synthetic pathway to the #CCPVirus”

    RaTG13 has only been presented publicly as a sequence on a computer, not as a physical virus, and certainly not a natural virus from a bat cave. It’s purpose is disinformation.

  40. Scott Says:

    Sam #39: See, that’s a perfect illustration of something that (unlike the basic lab leak scenario) really is a “conspiracy theory,” in the formal sense that it posits a cartoonish villain who’s planted the apparent evidence as elaborate disinformation. The problem is, why didn’t the CCP conspirators do a better job here? Like, why didn’t they just fabricate a complete and compelling natural origin story for covid, rather than planting ambiguous clues like RaTG13 that could just as plausibly point to a lab leak?

    The fundamental merit of the lab leak scenario, the thing that distinguishes it from a conspiracy theory, is that no one anywhere in the chain needs to have been either especially villainous or especially competent.

  41. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #40:

    Like, why didn’t they just fabricate a complete and compelling natural origin story for covid, rather than planting ambiguous clues like RaTG13 that could just as plausibly point to a lab leak?

    This is an interesting point in itself. I’d love to know, *independently of COVID-19*, whether a secret-service professional would opt for “ambiguous clues” or a “compelling story”. The latter can be too risky if they make even a tiny mistake, but the former creates confusion, and luminaries like you would actually help by writing comments about conspiracy theories 🙂

  42. Tom Says:

    Don’t feel bad for not beeing controversial enough on the Internet!
    Your thing is boson sampling and everyone could spend all their energy to fight for “the morally right thing” – but would that be a better world?
    Sometimes it is necessary to stand up, but pick your fights wisely.

    Regarding the lab leak: Many people somehow don’t see why a pandemic starting right next to one of a very few Coronavirus-labs might hint to something. Maybe this helps:
    – “uhm, okay. You are all very concerned about the millions of people who died in the last months because of the huge radioactive cloud that eminated from somewhere right next to our biggest nuclear power plant. But rest assured: It has nothing to do with the power plant, it was a completely natural emission. This happens naturally every few decades!”
    – “But there is no natural radioactivity in that area! The next natural source of radioactivity is 1000km far away!”
    – “Yes, we are as puzzled as you about this. But probably someone went to that uranium mine and brought the stuff unknowingly here. And that was definitely not a employee of the power plant! ”
    – “That sounds very unlikely! Can we at least have a look at the power plant and investigate a little bit?”
    – “No! well, not yet,we have to do some unrelated repairs. But in a few months you can send a team.”

  43. Sam Says:

    Scott #40, Sellin is an expert. He has extensive knowledge of the PLA bioweapons program, and personnel involved, as well as their extensive infiltration into American labs. He also gets information from whistleblowers in China. He may not be right about every single thing, but he does not have the obvious conflicts of interest that many have, and he should be taken very seriously.

    The “lab leak” aspect of this is just one small little piece of the picture – amounting to a very minor concession from the censors who could no longer contain it. The bigger things are, how did the virus come into existence in the first place, with various provably artificial features, and why was it allowed to spread by flying people around the world from a virus outbreak hotspot, why did China buy all the protective equipment from around the world (without explanation), why were facts such as transmissibility suppressed, why were therapeutics condemned as useless/dangerous when they could have largely mitigated any pandemic and allowed society to continue relatively normally, why was the lab/artificial origin of the virus so emphatically denied and contrary voices silenced, why was there so much censorship and propaganda?

    You can’t dismiss some possibility just because it would require people to be evil (or stupid or some other negative characteristic.

  44. Scott Says:

    Sam #43: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

  45. Scott Says:

    Tom #42: Radiation doesn’t reproduce like viruses do (it does grow exponentially, but only inside bombs and reactor cores and so forth). Having said that, yes, the pandemic’s origin next door to possibly the world’s largest center for bat coronavirus research understandably set off Bayesian alarm bells from the beginning.

  46. Sam Says:

    Scott #44, the existence of that statement makes it easier to get away with being malicious.

  47. eniteris Says:

    Hi, I’m a virologist (of bacteria, and nothing larger)

    Scott #29

    With covid, the lab-leak scenario and the natural spillover scenario both have serious and well-known problems to overcome: there’s no “safe, sane, Occam’s-razor default option.” Whereas with UFOs, we already presumably agree that 99% of sightings have prosaic explanations, so then the “safe, sane, Occam’s-razor default option” is simply that the 99% is actually 100%.

    We do have a safe, sane Occam’s razor default option: that it’s a zoonotic transmission. Over the course of human history, we’ve had hundreds of zoonotic diseases, hundreds of recorded epidemics, and possibly a handful of lab leaks that have cause community infection, none of which were novel organisms. We already presumably agree that 99% of all new diseases (or flu strains) have prosaic explanations, after all, there was no such discussion for SARS-Cov1, or MERS, or Zika, or Chikungunya, or Nipah (though I do recall theories for HIV). The null hypothesis is that it’s a zoonotic infection, and only after that you apply evidence, however circumstantial (right next to a virology lab, China covering up like they always do).

    Aleksei #37

    To step back: the lab leak theory is kinda an “extra step” for the Occam’s razor. It’s more possible than some other conspiracies, but it’s still an extra step.

    Aleksei is correct; assuming that it was leaked from the lab is assuming an extra step. Why assume that a virus that can infect humans goes to a lab before causing an outbreak, when it could just directly cause an outbreak? If the virus required further evolution, why would it require scientists culturing it in a lab, as opposed to circulating in human populations?

    Scott #34, Sandro #15

    But it’s now been a year and a half, and no such evidence seems to have emerged for any spillover outside Wuhan, though it must have been carefully looked for. That’s the circumstance that causes me, not to be confident in the lab-leak hypothesis, but to say that it and the natural spillover hypothesis both now have Ω(1) probability.

    You’re using absence of evidence as evidence of absence, which in and of itself is not fallacious, but I think you’re overestimating how quickly it takes evidence to be gathered: it took fifteen years to find the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV1 (last paragraph of the introduction gives a good timeline, though I would also accept the 2013 discovery of a 95% identical virus as an endpoint, but RaT13G is 96% and people are still looking for different answers) and seven years to determine the origins of the 2009 Swine Flu (Figure 7 is quite good, as is the first paragraph of the discussion).

    (Sandro #16 claims SARS-CoV1 had identified the reservoir/human subpopulation within 6 months, but I can’t find a source, can you post it?)

    (I also don’t know how carefully they’re looking for any spillover outside Wuhan. I haven’t heard of any results nor any attempts to search for them, though obviously it’s in China’s best interest to keep quiet until they find evidence.)

    Additionally a new paper published on Wednesday has found more natural close relatives to SARS-CoV2 (strain RpYN06, 94.48%, from Mengla, Yunnan, China, sampled from May 2019-November 2020)

    (also cites a paper that has two samples from Cambodia 2010 (STT182 and STT200) that share 92.6% identity which is new information to me)

    Of course, none of this is any evidence against the lab leak scenario, it’s just evidence that SARS-CoV2 could have arisen naturally (and potential evidence against lab-passaging). It is still possible that the virus was sampled, sent to the lab, and leaked out somehow, but it’s an additional step which needs not be assumed.

    And given the timelines of the discovery of the origins of previous viruses, at this time I don’t think evidence of absence is strong evidence for the lab-leak hypothesis. (although given these timelines, I’m unsure any absence of evidence would register as strong evidence to me)

    (though I will note that on the scale of SARS-CoV2 origin hypotheses, Zoonotic >> Lab Leak > Lab Leak with passaging >>> Engineered bioweapon >>> October 11th Meteor > 0.

    But yes, the media likes to state absolutes, and the nuance of science is often lost in reporting.

  48. Jan Says:

    In a sense the “lab leak” hypothesis, while possible of course, was never really crucial, due to the principle of Occam’s Razor: if a simpler explanation of a phenomenon already works equally well, prefer that one. The simpler explanation is that the virus came from bats, so no additional assumptions about lab failures needed. Indeed, that Wuhan lab, and other labs in the world, was studying bat viruses already for many years, precisely because it is so plausible that these viruses can move to humans.

  49. Arko Bose Says:

    Hey Scott,
    I found this paper to be particularly interesting: https://zenodo.org/record/4642956#.YIa66ehKhPY

    Title: “A Bayesian analysis concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is not a natural zoonosis but instead is laboratory derived”, by Steven C. Quay.

    I quote from the paper: “The starting probability for origin of SARS-CoV-2 was set with the zoonotic or natural hypothesis at 98.8% likelihood with the laboratory origin hypothesis set at 1.2%.”

    “The outcome of this report is the conclusion that the probability of a laboratory origin for CoV-2 is 99.8% with a corresponding probability of a zoonotic origin of 0.2%.”

  50. gentzen Says:

    I certainly learn interesting information from this post and the comments. However, Scott’s claimed “guilt” with respect to not having written about this earlier, what should I say, there are certain aspects about that which I don’t like.

    With respect to Aaron Swartz, the described “guilt” makes sense to me, because it faces both Scott’s own perceived and effective powerlessness, as well as his inaction caused by this.

    But focusing on the unknown part of the potential lab leak, together with the implicit hope that one day the truth will be revealed, exactly misses this element of facing that fact that you are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Let me explain: There are many things in this story that are known with extremely high certainty:
    – Peter Daszak organized that now infamous letter and he “declared no competing interests”. So he simply lied, independent of whether the virus is related to a lab leak or not. But he will not face any consequences for this. If a student would be caught cheating, he would face extremely severe consequences. So we have to face the fact that we are powerless when it comes to senior people clearly cheating, even so we know that the same offence could easily ruin the career of junior people. And we know that we can do nothing about it.
    – China threatened Australia with severe consequences, because its independent press had reported early on about this, and the Australian government had latter called for a full and transparent investigation into the origins of the virus. Here one has to face the fact of not being omniscient: you would have to invest a significant amount of time to learn how trustworthy the specific Australian news outlets are in general, and also a significant amount of time to learn about the motivations of the Australian government itself, and its general relations to China. But independent of this, you also need to face your powerlessness, because China’s reaction was clearly blackmailing, at least most respectable German news outlets reported about it (and I guess most respectable American news outlets did so too). But still, there is nothing you can do, you just have to accept that China has the power to act that way, if it pleases them. Of course, you can try to suggest that China’s acting that way is implicit proof that the potential lab leak should be taken seriously. But this is just not facing up to your powerlessness: There is a bully threatening somebody, you don’t know enough about the relation between the bully and its victim, and the bully is probably much more powerful than you anyway.

  51. Gadi Says:

    Scott #44: Unless you already know someone is malicious. We’re talking about the CCP which is proven again and again to act maliciously.

    Minewhile china is opening up 7 new BSL4 labs like Wuhan, so we’re going to have 7 more time bombs. If dangerous pandemic leak happens on average every 20 years in Chinese ran BSL4 labs (the lifetime of the Wuhan lab) we should expect another pandemic in less than 3 years. And nobody is doing a damn thing to hold china accountable and at least stop them from opening even more dangerous labs.

    Your voting for Biden also helped China escape scrutiny. He’s practically their puppet. The world needed a leader that can stop China.

  52. Scott Says:

    Arko Bose #49: I saw that paper when it came out, but (rightly or not) found its unearned veneer of precision from multiplying together made-up probabilities to be laughable and conspiracy-theory-like, so discounted it.

  53. Scott Says:

    eniteris #47 (and Jan #48 and others): Thanks, that’s interesting. From this thread, I’ve learned that the crux of the matter, for those who want to think carefully about this, is precisely whether to conceptualize a lab leak as an “extra step.” I.e., is it

    “a bat virus somehow got out” versus “a bat virus somehow got out through a lab,” the latter clearly being an a-priori disfavored extra condition,

    or is it

    “a bat virus originating far from Wuhan somehow ‘naturally’ reached Wuhan, e.g. through spreading through the countryside, without being noticed anywhere else first” versus “a bat virus originating far from Wuhan was flown to Wuhan for study — something we know regularly happened — and then somehow got out”?

  54. Jay Says:

    Scott #34, this reasoning is based on two low probability hypothesis (that the virus was not circulating earlier, that finding the animal would be fast). Do you know of any actual expert who agree that below 1% is not a reasonable estimate?

  55. X Says:

    I think it’s defensible to avoid talking too much about the lab leak hypothesis for obvious reasons. Suppose there’s a huge forest fire in California. Immediately, the Nazi fringe starts hyping the “Jewish space laser” hypothesis, that the Elders of Zion used their space lasers to attack the US. Meanwhile, you’ve started to believe that a some Jewish guy went camping and is actually responsible for accidentally starting the fire. Should you publicly advocate the “Jewish guy fire-starter” theory? If you do, Nazi sympathizers will seize on whatever you say and use it to attack (both rhetorically and physically) the Jewish community.

    Is it not, then, prudent to worry about what the racist fringe will do with the lab-leak hypothesis in the context of the ongoing wave of violence against Asians? We can wring our hands about the ethics of fire safety in private while trying to avoid real physical violence that may result from our words. There’s a big fraction of the noisy Internet-commenter community that cares more about being right than doing good, and I think their lack of empathy is the root of some of our bigger problems.

  56. Scott Says:

    X #55: For me, the fundamental problem with that way of thinking is that it ignores the inevitability of backlash effects. I.e., if, because of your fears of the Jewish space laser conspiracy theory, you suppress justified suspicions that some guy who happens to be Jewish really did start the forest fire, the conspiracy theorists will pick up on that like bloodhounds, and they will use it as additional fuel. It happens that way every time.

    I, too, was made uncomfortable by the fact that, while my interest in the lab leak scenario clearly wasn’t motivated by animus against Chinese people — I’m a lifelong Sinophile who spent the most formative part of his adolescence in Hong Kong — other people’s might have been.

    On reflection, though, China is a fifth of the world by population, and any explanation of covid’s origins is going to involve events in China and decisions made by individuals there. Ironically, the lab-leak theory implicates an American-trained, American-funded lab; it’s the wet market theory that implicated something more specifically Chinese! In my view, rather than patronizing people by even giving the time of day to ludicrous notions of collective/national/racial guilt, we should all, in China and elsewhere, be working together to get to the bottom of this mystery.

  57. fred Says:

    A thorough investigation of the origins of covid is crucial for two reasons:

    1) correctly assess the pros and cons of gain-of-function research (important whether the virus evolved in the wild or in a lab, or both), and how to properly control it.

    2) the very last opportunity for Western democracies to come up with a plan to deal with the fact that the #1 economic power in the world, which also happens to be a totalitarian regime, is now openly exporting the tactics it uses on its own (willing) citizens to the rest of the world:
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1287863/China-news-coronavirus-investigation-Australian-sanctions-economy-covid19 (see also gentzen #50).
    It can no longer be claimed that China’s own political ideology and views on freedoms is just their own internal business. But, given that 99% of the debate on the covid 19 origins in the US revolves around petty politics (Trump vs the Left), we can see that China has already won, i.e. if the covid 19 crisis didn’t expose this, nothing else will.

  58. Peter S. Shenkin Says:

    Scott #8

    (COVID lab escape)
    “if it did come from bat virus research, then such research will turn out to have had such jaw-droppingly negative total utility for the human race”

    One swallow does not make a summer. There will always be disasters, and some of them will always be directly attributable to human folly, carelessness or ignorance.

    “No, it was never called outright impossible, but in the rare cases it was mentioned at all, it was ridiculed, called vanishingly unlikely”

    The only thing I ever saw that was called “vanishingly unlikely” was the idea that the the virus was deliberately engineered and then released as biological weaponry.

    You also fail to discount what the popular press promulgates, as opposed to what scientists say, and fail to recognize that everyone with enough knowledge and experience to investigate more deeply was too busy trying to end the epidemic than to turn their attention to how it started.

    Those who now advocate the lab-escape hypothesis sometimes seem to forget that the whole reason the lab was placed in Wuhan was because it is so close to natural reservoirs of coronavirus. So Wuhan is a likely place for such virus to have been transmitted to humans by non-lab-related mechanisms.

    The argument that the virus was humanized in the lab loses quite a bit of its strength if instead you ask whether the variant found in the pangolin was pangolinified in the lab. If you don’t think so, why would you think the human variant was lab-humanized?

    To me, the most damning thing that can be said is that the Wuhan lab was not built to the highest biosafety level (what we could call BSL-4). Plum Island (Suffolk Country, NY) has such a facility, and even so, some believe that Lyme disease escaped from there.

    I don’t consider (and never have considered) lab escape from the Wuhan lab to be unfeasible. It’s not at all impossible, but really, there is no evidence for it, and also none to completely rule it out. We may never know.

    I continue to believe that the reason we’re so worked up about it now is that, with the pandemic melting around the edges but still on our minds, we have nothing better to be worked up about.

  59. Sandro Says:

    @eniteris #47:

    Aleksei is correct; assuming that it was leaked from the lab is assuming an extra step. Why assume that a virus that can infect humans goes to a lab before causing an outbreak, when it could just directly cause an outbreak? If the virus required further evolution, why would it require scientists culturing it in a lab, as opposed to circulating in human populations?

    Of course it wouldn’t require those steps, but zoonotic origin should itself leave evidence that is conspicuously absent, and extra steps are needed to also explain that. That isn’t definitive either way of course, but then you’re left evaluating the joint probabilities of the following facts about this bat coronavirus:

      1. SARS-COV-2 was well-suited to human infection from the beginning.
      2. No seroconversion detected in thousands of 2019 Wuhan samples. SARS-COV and MERS had ~0.6% seroconversion in samples.
      3. SARS-COV-2 outbreak happened right next to the only BSL-4 lab in all of China, which had known safety failures, and where coronaviruses were being collected and subjected to gain of function experiments.

    I think these are the main facts that can differentiate these two hypotheses. Natural origin’s explanation of these facts:

      1. Fluke if it was a direct transmission from bats, or an intermediate host that has yet to be identified.
      2. SARS-COV-2 came from outside Wuhan in a population that has yet to be identified.
      3. Coincidence. It simply made its way to Wuhan in some fashion that hasn’t left any obvious evidence.

    Entirely possible, but considering the resources devoted to finding #1 and #2, they are becoming progressively less plausible, and the lack of clinical evidence of #3 is also implausible. The lab leak’s explanation of these facts:

      1. Fluke if it was already well-suited to human transmission from bats, or deliberate gain of function experiments to evolve human transmissibility.
      2. There wouldn’t be any serological evidence in the population prior to the leak.
      3. Poor adherence to safety protocols led to an escape which has a high chance of being detected locally.

    I don’t think zoonotic origin is as favourable as you seem to think. I would still place more money on that bet for maybe another year or two, but it’s by no means a slam dunk.

    (Sandro #16 claims SARS-CoV1 had identified the reservoir/human subpopulation within 6 months, but I can’t find a source, can you post it?)

    This was sloppy wording on my part leading to ambiguous interpretation. I meant that both SARS and MERS had found the intermediate species within 9 months, not that they had found both the intermediate species and the human population within 9 months.

  60. fred Says:

    My understanding is that when a virus has been spreading through the wild, it doesn’t take long for scientists to identify the animal populations that vectored it, with a clear sequence of mutations and geographical spread. This has yet to happen for covid 19.

    It’s also possible that both theories (wild and lab leak) actually happened:

    https://www.mining.com/could-covid-19-have-originated-in-a-copper-mine/

    “In 2012, six miners mysteriously fell sick with pneumonia-like symptoms after entering the mine to clear bat guano — three of them died.

    Chinese scientists from Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses, WSJ reported.

    At the height of the second wave of the pandemic in July 2020, a report in Independent Science News: A Proposed Origin for SARS-COV2 and the Covid-19 Pandemic by researchers Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson suggested that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus covid-19, may not have originated at a Wuhan market in 2019 as widely reported – but instead in 2012, in the same mineshaft in Tongguan where the six workers were exposed to bats. “

    So, it’s very possible that one of the virus that was collected and already very adapted to human spread did leak later on in 2019.
    But China blocked access or even destroyed the lab records and logs pertaining to those samples.

    I think another evidence in favor of the lab leak is that China has been suspiciously quick to suddenly ramp up their own measures against the virus (it went from zero to eleven in like 2 weeks).
    It would fit the idea that the lab leak was first covered up by local officials, then once it became clear it was out of control, someone at the lab came clean with the highest authorities, telling them that there is no known cure/vaccine against that strain (which had been well studied by then) and that extreme measures of lockdown have to be taken immediately.
    Contrast that with the rest of the world, where it took months to realize how serious the human to human spread was. I remember De Blasio telling everyone that, according to our scientific data on the virus, the NYC subway was safe as long as you washed your hands and didn’t touch your own face… what a joke.

    Of course while China was taking extreme measures locally, they were quietly letting the rest of the world figure it on their own (e.g. telling the WHO mixed messages about the danger of the virus), and not preventing their own nationals to travel out of the country (from Wuhan), as if they were betting on worldwide spread to keep the rest of the world distracted (friends in HK were pissed off that China didn’t immediately close the Mainland/HK border until it was already way too late).
    While not being as bad as engineering and releasing the virus intentionally, it’s pretty much as close as it gets. And that’s where knowing the truth matters: if the virus came from the wild, they can save face by claiming some form of incompetence, but if it becomes clear that it came from a lab and they knew it, then their subsequent coverup and active lack of cooperation were clearly intentional and criminal.

  61. Cerastes Says:

    IMHO, the response to the question of COVID-19 origins is simple and obvious: this is a scientific research question, and thus is best answered by having a lot of very qualified virologists go over actual, empirical evidence and gather more evidence, then debating amongst themselves, then gathering more evidence, etc., just like any other scientific question. The fact that it’s important means that it’s even MORE important to actually get the answer right, and that’s going to take time.

    Seriously, what is the problem with saying “I’m going to shut up, stop speculating, and let actual, real experts do their thing. These experts are NOT helped by demanding they adopt positions immediately based on scant data. And nobody is helped by non-experts pretending their opinions matter.”

    TL;DR – Patience you must have, young padawan.

  62. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott #8,

    Recently, Vox literally went back and stealth-edited an old article to make it look as though it hadn’t dismissed the lab-leak theory, when it had.

    It kept to this day the title “The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked.” How much more dismissive can you get?

    Why did it make three tiny edits to tone down its claims? I don’t know, but I do know that the changes were not recent, so they weren’t because of the inauguration. It made the first two changes within 12 hours of the original and the third six weeks later. That was when the author wrote another story on the same topic and added a link from the first to the second.

  63. Gab Says:

    I think this is the n-th post in which you beat yourself up too much.
    (Are you sure your are not a closet catholic?)
    Try to be honest to your beliefs (but question them!). Accept you are not perfect, forgive yourself and go on to the next mistake.
    Peace

  64. Flavio Says:

    eniteris #47

    There is a serious probability problem there. It is the converse of the AIDS testing confusion, where AIDS tests have a 2% false positive rate and 0,012% incidence rate at the general population. If you are not in the risk groups, after a positive test result you have less chance of having AIDS than not having it.

    Here it is the opposite, but works the same way. The origin of the virus being in exactly Wuhan gives it a absurdly huge boost towards the lab leak hypotheses, making it more probable than the natural origin hypotheses…

  65. Scott Says:

    Cerastes #61:

      IMHO, the response to the question of COVID-19 origins is simple and obvious: this is a scientific research question, and thus is best answered by having a lot of very qualified virologists go over actual, empirical evidence and gather more evidence, then debating amongst themselves, then gathering more evidence, etc., just like any other scientific question.

    That is my position! It was the Daszak letter, accepted as authoritative until very recently, that tried to short-circuit the scientific debate you and I both want, by declaring one answer (natural spillover) true on a-priori moral grounds. Have you familiarized yourself with that history?

  66. JimV Says:

    I don’t know if it will do any good, but here are at least two links you should read before spreading the lab theory further:

    https://christopherashleyford.medium.com/the-lab-leak-inquiry-at-the-state-department-96973cff3a65

    https://www.balloon-juice.com/2021/06/11/steve-bannons-useful-idiots/

    As for Aaron Swartz, the people directly involved should be ashamed of themselves, and maybe a few of them are. Maybe some others didn’t know what they were doling and still don’t. Speaking out on something you know about would have been great.

    The people I trust who should know say the lab theory is .. not well-grounded in facts. I shouldn’t have said that. Just please read the links and see what you think.

  67. Scott Says:

    Look, in the history of science, there have been many cases like the following:

    (1) Mainstream scientists claim, on totally insufficient evidence, that X is true.

    (2) Contrarians notice that the evidence for X is insufficient, and make lots of noise about it.

    (3) Finally, mainstream scientists (irked by the contrarians) prove beyond reasonable doubt that X is indeed true.

    (4) The contrarians, alas, are now firmly dug in, and try to convince the public that mainstream science is a sham and X is false.

    A famous example, from what I gather, is where X = the theory that HIV causes AIDS.

    I find it plausible that, in much the same way, the natural-spillover theory of covid might ultimately be vindicated and the lab-leak theory disproved. Even if so, though, the proponents of the natural-spillover theory are going to need to show up for the debate and robustly and apolitically press their case … and history suggests that the sooner they can do it the better!

  68. Douglas Knight Says:

    I think that there is a lesson here about centralization.

    Alexandra Elbakyan is a central figure outside the reach of western law. She needs westerners committing civil disobedience. Instead of relying on a lone Aaron Swartz, she has a large army committing individually small amounts of civil disobedience and thus avoiding repercussions.

    Scott, you lobbied for challenge trials. That’s great, although the bigger problem was the long pauses for the FDA to go through the ceremony of looking at the data. If it actually does look at the data, it could do it after giving permission to move forward to the next phase.

    But maybe the better solution would be to route around the centralized failure that is the FDA? Certainly we should have had a decentralized campaign of civil disobedience where people with labs made covid tests. I don’t know if decentralized vaccines were as good an idea, but they deserved more attention.

  69. eniteris Says:

    @Sandro #59

    I really don’t like the phrase “from the beginning” because that implies that we already found the beginning. “The earliest known cases were well-suited to human infection.” I also don’t have a definition for “well-suited”. Spike protein binds preferentially to human ACE2?

    I also have no idea where you’re getting your sources from; I’ve spent three hours sifting through serological studies and the earliest I can get is a single sera positive blood donor sample in Wuhan from Jan. 20, 2020, which put the seroconversion rate at 0.046%. They’ve tested cats though.

    For MERS, you might be citing this study, which specifically tested those infected and the close contacts of the earliest known outbreak, and found 0.56% seroprevalence (7/124). Excluding those who where already known to be infected, they found 1/114 (0.08%). And the sera was collected two years after the outbreak.

    “Right next to WIV” I think is 20km away, which can be right next to depending on how much you care. BSL-4 is also irrelevant as coronavirus research is done in BSL2/3. But I agree that laboratory incidents are not unlikely.

    I’m also not sure how much effort has been put into finding an intermediate animal host, or finding an earlier outbreak origin; I found a single study surveying animal seroprevalence of SARS-CoV2 before the outbreak, and none looking at human seroprevalence before the outbreak. Perhaps it’s difficult to study if China isn’t open to investigations. Perhaps China is doing internal investigations, and haven’t told anyone. Perhaps China isn’t doing internal investigations.

    Yeah, SARS/MERS found their intermediate animals relatively quickly.

    I can’t keep searching for your citations. Though interesting, it is very time-consuming.

  70. eniteris Says:

    @Flavio #64

    There is a serious probability problem there. It is the converse of the AIDS testing confusion, where AIDS tests have a 2% false positive rate and 0,012% incidence rate at the general population. If you are not in the risk groups, after a positive test result you have less chance of having AIDS than not having it.

    Here it is the opposite, but works the same way. The origin of the virus being in exactly Wuhan gives it a absurdly huge boost towards the lab leak hypotheses, making it more probable than the natural origin hypotheses…

    I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to get at; if you have a positive AIDS result you’re more likely to have AIDS than if you had a negative test result. And I don’t know how this applies to the location situation.

    If a novel influenza virus was first detected 20km away from an BSL-3 facility that works with and produces highly pathogenic influenza viruses, would you expect that to be a lab leak? Because that’s exactly what happened with the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic in San Diego (VIRAPUR Global Virology Center). I assume this occurs because both laboratories and novel disease detection occurs at locations with high population densities and strong medical infrastructure.

  71. eniteris Says:

    @Scott #67

    (1) Mainstream scientists claim, on totally insufficient evidence, that X is true.

    I agree fully that this is an issue, though I put more blame on the media which amplify those who make all-or-nothing statements. Nobody scientist I’ve talked to personally has ever thought that lab leak was impossible, or even engineered bioweapon being impossible, merely that they are unlikely.

    And yes, evidence is needed, but right now it is sorely lacking from both sides. One side points to circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories, while the other points to historical precedent. Neither side has a good case, and all fall back onto priors.

  72. ira Says:

    Wrt The Lab Leak Hypothesis:

    There has been NO new evidence pointing to a lab leak. As one of the authors of the canonical paper from March 2020 in Nature, Robert F Garry, said recently on the ‘This week in Virology’ podcast, ‘If anything, the evidence for a natural source is now even stronger.’

    Nature paper ‘The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2’

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

    Podcast interview ‘SARS-CoV-2 origins with Robert Garry’ (May 30) https://pca.st/rw7anf8q

    Another episode from the same podcast, ‘SARS-CoV-2 origins with Peter Daszak, Thea Kølsen Fischer, Marion Koopmans’ (May 27) https://pca.st/1jwhjlek

    An article from Nature by Amy Maxmen on the possible effects of the renewed interest in the ‘lab leak theory’,

    ‘Divisive COVID ‘lab leak’ debate prompts dire warnings from researchers’

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01383-3

    The renewed interest in the lab leak theory was sparked by a report in the WSJ, whose sources cited intelligence sources. The problem is that whatever that evidence may be, it will never be disclosed for independent investigators to evaluate, since ‘sources and methods’ are the crown jewels of all intelligence agencies, who will do everything possible to prevent their disclosure.

  73. Bayes Base Says:

    @ira#72 Citing Daszak as a source against the lab leak hypothesis is… a bold move. One that casts a shadow on the entire podcast. As for piling evidence – as time passes, the default update is in favor of the lab leak hypothesis. From skimming the links you cite, this point does not seem to be acknowledged. To put it differently, the very passage of time is somewhat of an argument against a natural source.

    Finally – Garry’s paper doesn’t seem to discuss the means of spread at all. The scenario of the virus being brought naturally with some bat from some cave\ evolved in the facility by accident\ developed for non-nefarious purposes of pure research, and then being leaked out is one where the research facility still bears much responsibility, and where procedures and protocols still must be investigated.

    @Peter S. Shenkin #58:

    “The argument that the virus was humanized in the lab loses quite a bit of its strength if instead you ask whether the variant found in the pangolin was pangolinified in the lab. If you don’t think so, why would you think the human variant was lab-humanized?”

    Ummm… like… the studies at Wuhan *may* not have been done by pangolins, and the researchers *may* have been slightly more interested in coronaviruses in the context of humans rather than pangolins? So our priors for lab-humanization should be orders of magnitude higher than for pangolinification. Also, let’s put pangolins aside until a single one with SARS-CoV-2 is actually found. Do red herrings get Covid-19? See also “COVID-19: Time to exonerate the pangolin from the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans”, by Frutos et al.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7405773/

  74. Anon45 Says:

    Yeah, I remember you had put forward the theory in a guest post on your blog that it started from someone eating a bat in the costliest meal in history. Even conditional on spillover that seems to me like an unlikely route of transmission.

  75. Dalton Says:

    Any guilt for your support of the Lincoln Project or to the family of Ashli Babbitt for your post on the passivity of the 1/6 Capitol Police response?

  76. Elsevier fan Says:

    The problem with open access is that published articles can be censored with the click of a mouse whereas articles printed and mailed are here to stay unless the censorious powers that be start sending secret police to collect them. The New York Journal of Mathematics is a diamond level open access journal that is free for authors and readers and is probably what Swartz would have wanted, but this journal made a published article by Ted Hill disappear without a retraction notice because it upset some feminist activists. We’re fast approaching the point where if a straight White male with fewer connections than Hunter Biden accidentally uses someone’s wrong pronouns then all his papers will be removed from the arxiv for the “safety” of Cornell students at the same institution as the administrators. The printing press has a centuries long track record of avoiding this problem. (And anyone who thinks putting open access papers on some kind of encrypted blockchain is the way out of censorship then they’re as naive as the Colonial Pipeline criminal hackers.)

  77. Anonyrat Says:

    Misidentifying the cause of the virus doesn’t have important consequences since lab leaks and spillovers are both bad, but I would like to see more guilt and reflection from those (not saying you’re among them) who took a ventilator-centric view of the public health problem early on. It seems that the fear of running out of ICU beds, ventilators, oxygen tanks, and other medical supplies was what caused leaders in New York, Michigan, and other blue states to discharge elderly covid patients to nursing homes. There they spread the disease to the vulnerable and caused many deaths, while back at the hospitals we didn’t run out of ventilators and in any case patients who progressed to needing them were often too far gone. Scott Alexander even told his many readers in his first blog post on covid (not written until March of 2020) that maybe intentional infection before ventilator scarcity was a wise strategy. One person who in my view deserves tremendous credit for getting this right was governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. He protected the elderly by isolating nursing homes, and his state wound up having better age-adjusted per capita death rates than most others while avoiding lengthy intrusive lockdowns.

  78. Flavio Says:

    eniteris #47, Flavio #64

    I was in a hurry, didn’t have time to properly lay out the calculation:

    Suppose 1% of lab leak origin, 99% direct zoonotic origin. But you have yet to factor in the chance appearance of the disease exactly in Wuhan!

    Appears only at most other 2 labs besides Wuhan (if not only Wuhan) might doing gain of function experiments on similar SARS-COV-2 like samples?

    Assume lab leak = Wuhan + Taiwan as possible leaks, Wuhan has 11.08 million habitants and Taiwan population = 23.57 million

    Assuming the virus had the same chance to appear anywhere in China, it would have (11.08+23.57)/1412 = 2,45% of chance of appearing in Wuhan or Taiwan.

    P(lab leak | Wuhan+Taiwan) = 0.01 / ( 0.01 + 0.0245 * 0.99) = 0.291 = 29.1%
    P(lab leak | outside Wuhan+Taiwan) = 0%

    That’s because I am being absurdly conservative by taking the Wuhan + Taiwan… Taking only Wuhan as probably this was the only laboratory doing gain of function research over the SARS-COV-2 natural closest relative known. You get:

    P(lab leak | Wuhan) = 0.01 / ( 0.01 + 0.00784 * 0.99) = 56.3%
    P(lab leak | outside Wuhan) = 0%

    Now, this is hugely simplified bayesian probability, if you do take all the other circumstantial evidence, I personally would guess the real lab leak probability over 90%…

    Just look at this article in 2017 about this new lab in Wuhan:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2017.21487

  79. Flavio Says:

    And I guess just about every commenter here is not much interested in the politicization of this issue, it is important to discover the correct origin of the virus that caused the pandemic so we make adjustments to make another (potentially worse) pandemic less likely in the future…

    I really like James Gallagher’s #33 idea of immunity to China of sanction as long they really help us figure it out and hopefully come clean about a lot what they have been hiding (which can happen both in lab leak or natural origin scenarios)…

    And if this has lab origin, then we should improve a lot the security for this kind of research. Maybe treat labs as Oil Platforms? Construct them in rural areas only, force quarantine for researchers and lab technicians coming out of the lab, make it easier for cooperation from people outside the lab, triple the pay for those that work in loco for the impact in their lives…

    If it has natural origin, we definitely should figure out other actions to take…

  80. Anon Says:

    The lab leak, if accidental, is the least evil step of the process. People should focus on everything that happened both before and after. After the earliest infections of human the CCP (with help from the WHO and others) indisputably took many deliberate steps that make them culpable of causing an international pandemic, and they’d be culpable even in the natural origin scenario. So it’s just fact that CCP evil caused millions of deaths, and trillions in economic losses.

    But what was the CCP and PLA up to beforehand? Was it a purely natural virus (possibly via a sloppy lab, which case is the silly straw man version of lab leak that some set up to dismiss)? Was it gain-of-function research with a purely legitimate civilian purpose (while possible in some countries, in China the CCP/PLA will always have a hand in it)? Or did it come from a PLA bioweapons program (which could leak accidentally or otherwise)?

    Here is a brief video explaining the latter case. https://twitter.com/LawrenceSellin/status/1398869430684340226

    Also see the arguments of Dalgleish and Sorensen who say that ‘SARS-Coronavirus-2 has no credible natural ancestor’ and that it is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the virus was created through ‘laboratory manipulation’. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9629563/Chinese-scientists-created-COVID-19-lab-tried-cover-tracks-new-study-claims.html

  81. pete Says:

    Fascinating post. Back when the lab-leak theory was ignored, I tried to follow the science but all I came up with was “the virus is too complex to be created in the lab”. I did not really believe this (what if they started with a virus from the wild and improved it). Eventually I gave up, regretting my poor understanding of biology.

  82. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Scott #12 states: “I’d say it matters in that, if it did come from bat virus research, then such research will turn out to have had such jaw-droppingly negative total utility for the human race that it should probably be discontinued entirely”

    It’s not obvious that bat-virus research has negative utility, even if the lab-leak theory is true. There is no reason I can see that you could not get a bat virus that was as transmissible as COVID, but as fatal as MERS (30% or so). But now we know where the virus’s weak points are, what kinds of vaccines work well, and so on. So even if studying bat viruses killed off 3 million people, it could save many more than that in the long run. If so, studying bat viruses was a good idea, even given the possibility of lab leaks.

    In addition, some parts of the research into bat viruses, and the vaccines to combat them, may well be useful in treating other diseases. If, for example, it helps lead to a vaccine against malaria or HIV, it would turn to a net positive in just a few years.

    Now of course you could argue that bat-virus research should continue, but more carefully. Even this can be debated – more security slows research and makes it more costly, and the next pandemic may not wait until our research is complete. Taken as a whole, it’s not obvious that bat-virus research has negative utility, even if the lab-leak theory is true.

  83. Scott Says:

    Anonyrat #77: At the beginning of the pandemic, I did put a totally misplaced emphasis on ventilators—because all the hospitals and health experts did too! As soon as I read that the covid standard of care had sharply changed to de-emphasize ventilators, and therefore they were no longer at risk of running out, I dropped the ventilator advocacy on this blog.

    In clear contrast to

    (1) the looming reality of the pandemic itself back in February 2020 and

    (2) the urgent need for more serious study of the lab-leak hypothesis (something I privately did get right, but was too chicken to bang the drum in public about),

    I really don’t see even in retrospect what mental strategy could’ve led me to get the ventilator thing right before even the front-line doctors did.

  84. Scott Says:

    Lou Scheffer #82: Yes, one could imagine a universe where, even after covid had caused 4 million dead and $16+ trillion in economic damage, research into bat coronaviruses was still a net win, since it prevented some even worse pandemic in the future. But—and I really wish there were a more collegial way to put this—when the stakes are this cataclysmically high, at some point the question inevitably arises of how fully the rest of the world should trust the virology community to do more good than harm. That, to my mind, is why the letter secretly organized by Peter Daszak, the one that “declared no competing interests” even though Daszak had organized the funding for gain-of-function work at the WIV, is so central to this discussion. To whatever extent Daszak is representative of a research community, or a segment of a research community, we now know for certain that that segment cannot be trusted to police itself. And notice that this trustworthiness question is arguably even more directly relevant for the future, than the factual question of lab leak vs. natural spillover—which, some would say, is “merely” a question of which unlucky dice-roll happens to have plunged the world into its current catastrophe.

  85. Fazal Majid Says:

    Both MIT and JSTOR declined to press charges, it was an ambitious US Attorney, Carmen Ortiz, who wanted a scalp to further her career. Nothing you could have done would have made a difference. I suspect prosecutorial malfeasance destroys more lives in the US than police shootings, mostly through coerced guilty plea deals, but is seldom discussed because it is committed by people in white collars.

  86. Mitchell Porter Says:

    To my mind, the most striking fact remains, that Covid first appeared near a prominent institute of virology which was collecting bat coronaviruses, had traced the original SARS back to caves in Yunnan province and mounted many expeditions there to collect similar viruses, was part of Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth initiative that scours the globe for potential pathogens, had just built a BSL-4 lab “poised to study world’s most dangerous pathogens” (Nature 2017), etc.

    Given all of that, the most economical explanation seems to be, that an excessive zeal to prevent something like the SARS pandemic from happening again, actually brought about its far more consequential successor. I remain agnostic on whether genetic engineering took place in this scenario, and whether a secret research program might have been involved. (There is a continuum between pandemic prevention and biological weapons research, and one should expect in every high-tech country that military biodefense people are looking over the shoulder of civilian biosecurity researchers.)

    Peter S. Shenkin #58 says “the whole reason the lab was placed in Wuhan was because it is so close to natural reservoirs of coronavirus”. So far as I know, this is simply not true. It’s worth looking at a map of Chinese provinces, to see the relative location of Hubei (where Wuhan is located), Yunnan (where the bat caves are), and Guangdong (where the original SARS first appeared). They don’t share any borders. Wuhan is one of the big cities in central China, and is well-known as a center of education and research. Maybe the lab was sited there because it was the closest suitable location, but it’s still not that close.

    Sam #39 #43 and Anon #80 cite a retired US biodefense researcher who is pushing the idea that Covid was produced by secret Chinese biological warfare programs. In his Twitter feed, this fellow cites Dr Li-Meng Yan, a Hong Kong virologist who has been releasing papers under the aegis of Steve Bannon’s peculiar attempt to sponsor a postcommunist Chinese government-in-waiting. All of that should be discounted as propaganda and a construct of factions within the spy world.

    Cerastes #61 says “this is a scientific research question”. James Randi once said that scientists aren’t good at investigating claims of psychic powers, because they’re not used to dealing with active deception. That goes both ways here. If China is actually responsible for the Chernobyl of microbiology, they evidently aren’t going to just admit it. But there are also factions keen to manufacture a case against China, and who only care about it being convincing rather than it being true, because what they really care about is something political.

  87. David Says:

    The pandemic wasn’t a complete surprise. In fact virologists had long thought it was inevitable that zoonotic transfer would occur some day and cause the kind of havoc we are now seeing. I don’t think there is much to be gained by speculating on details of the transfer that can only be confirmed by evidence.

    In the meantime, if we want to do good, we should endeavour to vaccinate humanity as quickly as possible to reduce human suffering and put Covid 19 behind us. We are fortunate that virologists managed to produce effective vaccines so quickly.

    While the science has been magnificent, the politics has been less so. It is probably hoping for too much to expect lessons to be learned from the present disaster but it seems obvious we should put more effort into understanding how viruses evolve and are transmitted between species. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the world’s microbiological research labs took a closer look at their safety procedures. No blame, just science and common sense.

  88. Dave Says:

    Why is the theory that it came from the fur industry so little discussed in English language media? Minks and raccoon dogs are farmed at massive scale in China, the farms take in wild animals, these animals eat bats. They also have been a know reservoir for SARS-CoV-1.

  89. Scott Says:

    Elsevier fan #76: I, too, am horrified by the prospect of a published research paper getting “disappeared” for political reasons, but I see very little connection between solving that problem and continuing to fork over vast sums to Elsevier. I suppose I’ll be more worried when and if the arXiv removes a preprint because of political pressure, something I don’t believe it’s ever done. With the Ted Hill thing, note that that paper actually got much more readership after its disappearance from a journal (Streisand effect), which is related to the fact that it’s difficult or impossible to disappear things from the Internet.

  90. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    Scott, while you don’t know me, let me try to set your mind at rest from the guilt on Aaron Swartz. Realistically, really, there was nothing you could have done here. I did know Aaron Swartz (we weren’t close personal friends, but we did have many discussions over the years). In fact, I was one of the few people covering his court case on my own (now long defunct) blog, before his suicide. The legal strategies his lawyers were pursuing at the time didn’t call for a grassroots campaign. In fact, it could be counter-productive to the plea deal negotiations, as the prosecutors made it abundantly clear they were angered by any grassroots campaign. Regarding “pressure the MIT administration to urge prosecutors to drop the case”, that’s two failure points there, both almost certain to fail (i.e. the pressure on the MIT administration won’t do anything, and the prosecutors won’t care anyway). The only legal tactic which might have worked even in theory, would have been for MIT to have gone all in on the defense side, and politically that was impossible.

    “If I’d strongly defended the substance of what Swartz had done, it would’ve raised the question: why wasn’t I doing the same?”

    I think “because he got his life destroyed and was driven to suicide” is a very good answer to that question. My own saying about this topic is that I am a bad martyr.

    “This suggests that, if I want fewer regrets, then I should click “Publish” on more potentially controversial posts!”

    Only if you assume that the results of those posts will NEVER bring regrets. You’re saying you regret not doing things. But you might also indeed end up regretting doing something. Let’s put it this way – there are some substantial negative potential utilities involved in these calculations.

  91. ira Says:

    Bayes Base # 73

    What is the evidence FOR a lab leak ? That a virology institute studying coronaviruses is located in the city where the outbreak was first reported ? That *classified* intelligence sources — ie never to be revealed — say three of that lab’s workers reported to hospital in Nov 2019 with non-specific symptoms that may be associated with the flu ?

    ‘To put it differently, the very passage of time is somewhat of an argument against a natural source.’ ???

    It took 15 years to identify the animal reservoir for the original SARS:

    ‘In December 2017after years of searching across China, where the disease first emerged, researchers reported … that they had found a remote cave in Xiyang Yi Ethnic Township, Yunnan province, which is home to horseshoe bats that carry a strain of a particular virus known as a coronavirus. This strain has all the genetic building blocks of the type that triggered the global outbreak of SARS in 2002.’

    Please listen to the podcast with Robert F. Garry, https://pca.st/rw7anf8q

    And come back with informed rebuttals, including the molecular virological ones, of all the points he makes

  92. Strabo Says:

    @Scott#67

    You might say that, “the proponents of the natural-spillover theory are going to need to show up for the debate and robustly and apolitically press their case.” Isn’t that precisely what Aleksei Besogonov was doing in this very thread until you got bored and stopped responding to him?

    And the notion that virologists can’t be trusted with such important work is rich. It cannot be overstated how bad the state of disease was even a hundred years ago. The flu is a recurring virus every year because even with the pandemic in 1918, the virus was not isolated until the 1930s and a vaccine wasn’t developed until 1942. Now every year a new flu vaccine is put out saving thousands and we got access to a covid vaccine in less than a year. This happens in part because of the hard work of virologists all over the world. It would be better if course if all of them had security on their land tightened up. But we have a long long way to fall if we give up that work.

  93. Ryan Says:

    Re Douglas Knight’s comment:

    Indeed, if one regrets not helping Aaron Swartz then, perhaps one should consider helping Alexandra Elbakyan now…

  94. none Says:

    > Why was I merely complaining about paywalled journals from the comfort of my professor’s office, rather than putting my own freedom on the line like Swartz was?

    Scott, I knew Aaron, though I (sadly) wasn’t in communication with him during the whole time his JSTOR crawl and subsequent legal troubles were going on. I’m pretty sure he had no idea how much trouble he was exposing himself to. He didn’t grasp the amount of force the legal system was willing to bring down on him (mostly because of an earlier operation of his that infuriated them but that was legal, so they couldn’t do anything).[0] He also wasn’t taking significant career risk since he was basically an unemployed hippie with some Reddit cash at the time. You were in a much different situation. Also, despite what the prosecutors claimed, it’s quite unclear what he was planning to do with the JSTOR crawl. Dumping them onto the Internet wouldn’t have been THAT big a deal since so much was out there already. (I don’t remember if Sci-Hub was already in operation then, though).

    Your own best contribution to that movement (if you wanted to pursue it) might have been to join up with Tim Gowers’ initiatives to boycott Elvesier, support the spread of open-access journals, encourage people to contribute to them, and recognize those contributions. For example, be supportive of junior researchers who choose to publish open-access. Terence Tao brought that up in this post on his blog.

    You should also watch the movie Citizenfour if you haven’t yet. It is pretty easy to find online. THAT guy took very big risks on purpose. He definitely had an impact, though it was smaller than it should have been.

    [0] The operation that got the DOJ mad was scraping public domain PACER data for use by RECAP.

  95. Jay Says:

    Strabo #92, Indeed. My own takeaway from this (and similar writings by zvi) is that our best aspiring rationalists (if they care to accept this denomination) can fail the same way as the average trumpist on the street: by putting a lot of weight on irrelevant stories while ignoring the relevant science and, more importantly, by getting so sure they’re right that they start supporting beliefs that can seriously harm themselves and everyone (that Trump can be trusted to handle the pandemy, that we should undermine virology, respectively). Interesting times?!

  96. Scott Says:

    none #94:

      Your own best contribution to that movement (if you wanted to pursue it) might have been to join up with Tim Gowers’ initiatives to boycott Elvesier, support the spread of open-access journals, encourage people to contribute to them, and recognize those contributions.

    I’m happy that I at least did do that much!

  97. Nick Nolan Says:

    I don’t think dealing with issues using error-guilt-resolve is productive. We learn to generate “psychological distance” or avoid paying attention at the moment of moral choice, then we regret it later when we become more aware of it. Even worse, we rationalize it as the right choice after all.

    We should accept that motivation to act morally is not different from other motivations, it’s very limited. Error-guilt-resolve is no way to lose weight, so why it should be a way to improve your moral acts.

    Maybe, instead of resolving not to make an error ever again, resolve to be aware of the choice at the moment you make it, and write it down into your diary or something:”today, I chose not to help this person. I’m lacking moral motivation.” No amount of resolve helps as long as we fear being what we are and create “psychological distance” at the moment of action to protect our self-image.

    Getting to the point of “I choose not to help these people” is closer to action and truth than always walking behind with “Why I didn’t help these people.”

    “Don’t know thyself, you will only be disappointed” – Anonymous

  98. YD Says:

    @Scott
    What do you think of the $10 000 wager between Derek Muller from Veritasium and Alexander Kusenko from UCLA about faster-than-wind wind-powered vehicles?

    Here’s my personal opinion about Alexander’s debunking (spoilered for obvious reasons). The good: slide 2 points out two real flaws with Derek’s experiment. I am no longer convinced that that particular vehicle has achieved sustained faster-than-air travel.

    The bad: the supposed explanation of why it would violate the laws of physics is approximately deci-assed. All of the equations and even some notation are left unexplained. This wouldn’t be an issue if these were slides for his talk, or supplementary slides for his paper, but there is no paper or talk! And if I’m reading the slides correctly (which I’m probably not, because nothing is explained), it seems to completely ignore the interaction with the ground, which is essential to how this vehicle is supposed to work.

    The ugly: raster screenshots of formulas, bad kerning around operators, ⨉ (U+2A09, n-ary times operator) for dot product of two vectors, etc. I heard this isn’t as much of a red flag in physics as it is in CS, but still…

  99. Sandro Says:

    @eniteris #69:

    I really don’t like the phrase “from the beginning” because that implies that we already found the beginning. “The earliest known cases were well-suited to human infection.”

    Yes, that more precise phrasing was the intended interpretation.

    I also don’t have a definition for “well-suited”. Spike protein binds preferentially to human ACE2?

    I was referring to the epidemiological characteristics of zoonotic transmission. It’s highly unlikely that a bat coronavirus would be well adapted to human-human transmission. It typically requires a number of mutations that occur while circulating in a small population before it becomes well adapted, but no clinical or serological evidence of this has been found.

    Of course it’s possible for the virus to have already been well-suited to human-human transmission, but you have to admit that this meaningfully reduces the probability of a natural origin, in a similar sense to how you claimed the lab leak “adds an extra step”.

    I also have no idea where you’re getting your sources from; I’ve spent three hours sifting through serological studies and the earliest I can get is a single sera positive blood donor sample in Wuhan from Jan. 20, 2020, which put the seroconversion rate at 0.046%.

    Maybe I didn’t explain properly. I’m saying that they found no archived specimens that were seropositive for SARS-COV-2 in Shanghai or Wuhan that predate or coincide with the earliest clinical cases of the illness. This suggests that it was not circulating in these populations prior to those first cases, which is consistent with the following origins:

    1. They didn’t test enough data.
    2. Direct bat or indirect transmission via intermediate host within Wuhan, say in a wet market. The wet market was ruled out as the source.
    3. Direct bat or indirect transmission via intermediate host to a human from outside Wuhan, who then made their way to Wuhan. No clinical evidence predating the Wuhan cases has been found.
    4. Lab leak from within Wuhan.

    As for the relationship to SARS/MERS, I was saying there was serological evidence of SARS and MERS circulating in communities that predated or coincided with the first clinical cases. This isn’t the case for SARS-COV-2 thus far. As you said, the first seropositive samples were found mid-January, months after the first clinical SARS-COV-2 cases.

    “Right next to WIV” I think is 20km away, which can be right next to depending on how much you care.

    A little less I believe, but considering the bat caves are more than hundreds of km away, and that the Wuhan wet market was ruled out as the source, the proximity of the outbreak to the lab seems pretty relevant to weighing these probabilities. Either an animal, or more likely a person, would have had to come into contact hundreds of km away and made their way to Wuhan, exactly where these viruses are being studied. Again, it’s a question of the joint probability of all of these coincidences that makes a lab leak more plausible than it otherwise would be.

    Perhaps it’s difficult to study if China isn’t open to investigations. Perhaps China is doing internal investigations, and haven’t told anyone. Perhaps China isn’t doing internal investigations.

    You agree that it’s in China’s best interests to do these investigations if they were not complicit, right? If they aren’t investigating the clinical evidence of SARS-COV-2 outside of Wuhan or searching for the intermediate host, that’s suggestive, and if they are investigating but still haven’t found any such evidence, that’s also suggestive. It’s not definitive of course, otherwise we wouldn’t be having these conversations, but you can’t ignore this evidence either when making claims about the probability of a lab leak.

    Yeah, SARS/MERS found their intermediate animals relatively quickly.

    Relative to what? This seems to suggest that SARS/MERS should be considered the exception to tracing the origins rather than the rule. If that was the intended meaning, could you expand on why that is?

    Anyway, time will hopefully tell. Hopefully we can at least agree that the conversations started around these issues are important.

  100. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @scott OP:

    I think it’s important to realize that we aren’t all individually responsible for all the wrongs in the world (as half the people in this thread have pointed out), but that doesn’t make that feeling of ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket and I’m sitting here doing nothing’ go away. The thing that I found works best for that (for me at least) is doing volunteer work.

  101. YD Says:

    Oops, looks like my spoiler got removed 🙁

  102. John Stricker Says:

    I had a long comment prepared, might still post it at a future date. But in the end, it comes down to a single, simple thing:

    Do what is right.

    Don´t listen to the thoughts of others, indeed perhaps not even your own.

    Just do what is right.

  103. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    If I understand you correctly, you want to be more clueful– better able to see what’s going on that’s important.

    This is at least an interesting goal with no obvious methods since the challenge of cluefulness involves a wide range of topics.

    Might there be a feeling of skimming past a subject which should be a warning sign?

    Should examining what’s going on be temporarily be split from thinking about taking action so that your attention doesn’t shut down from fear of martyrdom?

    As for the specifics, it’s at least possible that speaking up for Aaron Swartz could have helped– if he’d felt less alone, he might not have killed himself, even if he still would have been jailed.

    The one where I feel that I (and a lot of other people) should have had more sense was ventilators. As I understand it, ventilators get air into lungs, but the lungs still need to have sufficiently healthy tissue to be able to use the air.

  104. Scott Says:

    matt #14:

      So, uh, Scott, how could you have acted differently in retrospect that would have made much difference in Feb of 2020?

    Sorry for not replying earlier! Honestly, the main thing would probably have just been to sound the alarm unequivocally on this blog. Selfishly, I missed an opportunity to show the world what it looks like to be contrarian, annoying, and yet demonstrably prescient and right. Altruistically, I missed an opportunity to warn my readers to take whatever preparations were appropriate to their situation.

  105. eniteris Says:

    @Sandro #99

    I’m saying that they found no archived specimens that were seropositive for SARS-COV-2 in Shanghai or Wuhan that predate or coincide with the earliest clinical cases of the illness.

    I’m not a fan of the Shanghai paper, as they don’t show the breakdown of sample dates. The Wuhan papers is much better, and has a good 520 patients before the first detection in January 2020. However, we do know that the first identified case was December 1, with a possible case earlier in November 17, so we know that the virus can spread below the limit of detection in this study (didn’t test enough data).

    As for the relationship to SARS/MERS, I was saying there was serological evidence of SARS and MERS circulating in communities that predated or coincided with the first clinical cases.

    I agree with SARS that the serological data likely shows previous coronavirus infection, but MERS was first identified in 2003, so I am not surprised that antibodies are present in the population by 2011.

    I’m also not confident in serological accuracy after reading this which claims to have found antibodies in Italy in September 2019 (apparently currently being investigated by the WHO, expression of concern of a conflict of interest of a peer reviewer, and a comment on the accuracy of antibody testing).

    You agree that it’s in China’s best interests to do these investigations if they were not complicit, right?

    I am not an expert in geopolitics. But the lab leak theory is non-disprovable.

    (Also, I’ve been finding articles about mass animal serological testing to find an animal host, but those are media articles and not scientific ones, but it sounds like they didn’t find anything)

    Relative to what?

    I apologize, I did not mean to imply anything. They were found quickly; apparently the civet cage was positively glowing with SARS and initial MERS infections were easily contact-traced back to camels. Most zoonotic viruses come from captive animal populations, as they are more easily spread and easier to monitor. I am implying that wild zoonotic infections may be more difficult to trace (HIV being a probable example), but wild zoonotic transmission are less likely.

    Hopefully we can at least agree that the conversations started around these issues are important.

    I’m not fully convinced. I believe that conversations around our response to the pandemic are more important than tracing the origin; the number of epi/pandemics have been increasing in recent years, and pandemic preparedness is important for all pandemics, bioweapon, leak, or natural in cause.

    I guess proof that this SARS-CoV2 was a lab leak scores political points which helps get things done, but it shouldn’t matter if this pandemic was a lab leak or not, the mere possibility that it could have been should be enough to reevaluate policies on gain-of-function research and lab security.

  106. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    none #94 FYI, I believe nowadays Lessig, who does have firsthand knowledge, basically admits Aaron was going to upload the JSTOR files. As much as I hated Aaron being ground down by the legal case, I was always bothered that we were all were expected to pretend it might have been about doing research or some such. The tactics, and what was said by various people who did know something about the surrounding details, made it clear that wasn’t reasonable.

    Nancy Lebovitz #103 Aaron had a supportive girlfriend, family, and influential friends (e.g. a nationally famous Harvard law professor, and a then-director of MIT Media Lab!). Among his problems were the stress of ruinous legal defense expenses, and facing even higher legal costs for the upcoming trial. There’s also been talk of clinical depression, though it’s disputed. No random blogger can change any of that (you can contribute to a defense fund, but without widespread fundraising efforts, it’s really not going to raise anywhere near the needed amount).

    Scott, the problem with raising an alarm about low-probability events, is that almost all low-probability events don’t happen. There have been many pandemic warnings in the past (Swine Flu! Ebola! SARS!), which all fizzled out. Thus listeners form a heuristic mental model to ignore all warnings, since almost all of them will be ones which don’t pan out. Worse, if an alarm raiser turns out to be correct, they don’t get credit – they’re called a broken clock doomsayer which just now happened to hit on the right time. Further, it’s often not clear what the correct action to take is anyway. A case in point is the early advice for ordinary people not to get N95 masks, and in fact to give them up if they already had them. Or even that it might be counter-productive to wear masks at all. Nobody can get all this right, and it’s harder than it looks to estimate the costs of getting it wrong.

  107. Vaarsuvius Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Human time and attention are both limited. By your theory, here are a list of other things you should feel deep guilt over not yelling about:

    Climate change, child labour/modern slavery, global inequality between north and south, food deserts, inequality of access to medical care, dictatorships in various parts of the world… The list goes on and on.

    We can only do what we can, where we can, to improve the situation of humanity collectively. Work in quantum computing may yet help us achieve that goal. Please do what you do best, for if everyone does that then the world will be just a little bit better.

  108. Rahul Says:

    Scott, have you seen this movement? Thought you might like it, given your experiences with the online mobs. Curious to hear what you think.

    https://missionprotocol.org/

  109. Scott Says:

    Vaarsuvius #107:

      By your theory, here are a list of other things you should feel deep guilt over not yelling about…

    One man’s reductio ad absurdum is another man’s “oh shit why haven’t I written more about climate change lately now I feel even worse…” :-/

  110. Scott Says:

    Rahul #108: Yes, I’ve heard about it! There’s some obvious tension in taking a public political stance to be “mission-focused” and not take public political stances … it’s like, hasn’t the ship already sailed by that point? 🙂 Maybe it would be preferable if these companies took a pledge to uphold the values of Enlightenment liberalism, which includes tolerance for diverse viewpoints, and official neutrality as a company when employees passionately disagree with one another about issues to the side of the company’s core mission. I’m happy if “Mission Protocol” constitutes a step in the pro-Enlightenment direction.

  111. fred Says:

    Rahul #108

    Maybe I’m missing something because the statements are so vague, but it would help to bring up specific examples.

    The difficulty is that the missions and technologies of many of the big tech companies are now totally entangled with almost every aspect of society: e.g. AI algorithms being biased one way or another based on race/class/gender, etc. Impact of social media tech on politics/free speech, etc (Facebook, Twitter). Internet commerce destroying brick and mortar stores, and employees working conditions, minimum wages (Amazon).

    Another difficulty is that how employees get to express their politics/opinions/concerns internally (as a black box managed by HR) isn’t always very separable from the external effects of the company products. Like, if it’s okay for Google engineers to boycott working on Dragonfly (tools helping China to subjugate their own citizens), is it also okay for the same engineers to refuse to work with a colleague whose ideas they deem problematic? After all, company goals, such as alliances with other organizations and countries, are set by individuals within the company. As an example of this you have the NBA censorship of their own employees bringing up Taiwan/HK freedoms (Nike, NBA), not because the companies care a bit about the politics, but care about their access to the Chinese market.

    I think the issue is that companies need to be more transparent on their own internal and external rules and ethics. And when there is a dispute, there needs to be some open debate and fair process by which the various opinions of everyone are communicated.

    The irony is that so many of the big tech companies claim to be very progressive, but they’re neither democracies or cooperatives – ethics really has no place, it’s all posturing in order to control perceived effects of public opinion on share value.

  112. fred Says:

    Scott #110

    let’s face it, these days the academia in the US can hardly uphold the values of Enlightenment liberalism: the professors and institutions constantly get shut down by the radical political views of the very young minds they’re supposed to “enlighten”.
    By the time those students get into the private business, it’s already way too late.

  113. Rahul Says:

    Fred #111

    I don’t think it is necessary nor desirable for companies to be a democracy.

    Transperency too is an overhyped trait. Deep down transparency is not a core trait structurally compatible with the functioning of most companies

    Salaries, blueprints, pricing, technology, so many things integral to a company centre around an explicit lack of transparency.

    It’s a feature not a bug.

  114. Michael Says:

    Scott, I don’t know how much Scott Alexander has told you about psychiatry. But problems like the ones you described in comment #171 are associated with fear of guilt. You have to be willing to be risk being a “bad person” in order to get over them- and that’s what you did. Risking a little guilt sometimes is a healthy part of life. Sometimes it’s actually healthy NOT to give a lot to charity. (With the understanding that obviously it’s never healthy to embezzle from a charity.)

  115. fred Says:

    Rahul #112

    of course I get that, but on that thing you linked:

    “Many projects and companies find that they need a principled way to put aside work on larger social problems and focus on the particular mission that they are best equipped to accomplish.”

    My point was that this sort of statement is so vague as to being useless.
    There are many different issues going on at once here nowadays:

    1) CORPORATE COWARDICE (*):
    US companies are facing internal mobs of woke/activist employees managing to cancel other employees they deem problematic.
    So what’s the solution for this? It’s okay or it shouldn’t be tolerated?
    We all agree that corporations aren’t democracies, but right now even the most powerful CEOs are terrified to do anything about this issue.

    2) CORPORATE SELL OUT OF AMERICAN VALUES:
    we have American corporations turning their back on Western “values” in order to increase corporate profits no matter what (aka capitalism gone too far).
    Mostly in the context of companies bowing to the CCP: Nike/NBA/Disney bending to Chinese censorship and removing any LGBTQ/HK/Taiwan/Tiananmen/Xinjiang references in order to please the CCP, or even big tech (Google/MSFT) sharing advanced AI tech with China (while we all know the risk to national security). Btw, why are all those woke/activist employees suddenly so quiet on all this?! Where’s the outrage?
    What’s the solution here?
    Wait until the American public starts to boycott American companies? That’s bound to fail since the Chinese market is like 5 times the US local market. Or wait for the US gov to step in and force those companies to decouple from China?

    (*)

  116. raginrayguns Says:

    The step I want to take is to spend more time staring at a piece of paper, thinking a little on my own about something.

    re: covid19, what I regret is not that I didn’t talk about it online. What I regret is that I didn’t just do some googling to find out an estimate of R, how many people were infected, and extrapolate a bit. Maybe they would’ve led me to hit the post button on a controversial post, maybe not, but I wish I’d done it.

    When people said it was such a coincidence that there was this virology Institute in Wuhan, I wish I had just asked myself: how much of a coincidence? I could have googled a little and got some numbers. How many institutes study coronaviruses? How many people live in Wuhan? Look up these numbers, write them on a piece of paper, and think them through.

    We’re nerds, and when it comes to our research, we’ll happily sit in front of a piece of paper for hours thinking things through, and basically take it for granted that this is where our original thoughts come from. But then when it comes to issues outside of our work, we don’t do this, and just have conversations. So of course we end up acting on cues from people around us. That’s what you would do when it comes to quantum computing too, if you didn’t spend so much time in front of a piece of paper writing out formulas and numbers or just staring and thinking.

    It doesn’t have to take long, I don’t think. First thing I want to do is look up an estimate of how opaque the atmosphere is to infrared radiation, as a function of carbon dioxide content. I have a PhD, how hard can it be to do the simplest, stupidest calculation? Didn’t Arrhenius realize what is going on, even without our state-of-the-art climate models?

  117. Douglas Knight Says:

    none
    #94
    ,
    Sci-Hub did not exist back then. I think Elbakyan was in the US when she registered the domain between Swartz’s arrest and federal charges, which is striking, but probably a simple coincidence. Lots of people had crawled jstor, but none of them had released it publicly. I don’t know if they were doing anything privately with them. In the immediate aftermath, someone released the public domain portion of jstor and I think several people threatened to release the complete archive.

    It is odd that Swartz returned to the centralized approach, having previously graduated from centralized downloading of PACER to the decentralized RECAP.

  118. Scott Says:

    raginrayguns #116: I’ve had the same thought! But of course, if you were to report the results of your own calculations, rather than signal-boosting whichever virologists or epidemiologists seemed the most trustworthy to you, it would only increase the accusations that you must be an autodidactic crank suffering from “physicist’s disease.”

  119. raginrayguns Says:

    Scott #118: Yeah… my idea is that this is less of “where does the content of my post come from,” and more “where does my confidence to make a controversial post come from”… but I’ll have to try it to see how it really works out.

  120. fred Says:

    raginrayguns #116

    “When people said it was such a coincidence that there was this virology Institute in Wuhan, I wish I had just asked myself: how much of a coincidence? I could have googled a little and got some numbers. How many institutes study coronaviruses?”

    No regret on my side – back in April last year, there was a lot of confusion about the existence of a lab, I did post on this blog the results of an in-depth search I did on the location of the Wuhan virology institute
    https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=4762#comment-1838333

    Also included in the thread a video with credible evidence that there could have been a lab leak.

  121. Clint Says:

    Scott,
    Not sure about all this moral philosophy and psychology talk about regrets … I’m here for the crazy quantum/computing discussions!
    According to the multiverse interpretation (which you’ve ranked as least wrong) there is a branch of the multiverse (well OK there would be LOTS of them) where the guy who transported the truckload of infected animal virus reservoirs 200 miles to Wuhan’s wet market has been identified AND where Carmen Ortiz reads your review of The Access Principle, has a fit of conscience, drops the case, Swartz doesn’t kill himself and you’re cited as the guy who “took a tough stance and made a difference.”
    Do the Scott Aaronson’s in those branches of the multiverse have levels of regret equal to the Scott Aaronson in this one? Why not? Haven’t all Scott Aaronson’s ACTED the same (up to those branch points)?
    How can regret depend upon being randomly cast into an outcome where one’s actions (or inactions) prove to be insufficient when there are other probable worlds where one’s actions WERE sufficient to result in good outcomes? How would you assign probabilities to all possible world’s a priori?
    What are we doing after all … using a probabilistic model of computation to form a picture of a probable world where the picture/world amounts to a collection of wavefunctions (amplitudes over state spaces / receptive fields representing probabilities for finding things in such-and-such states) with amplitudes encoded as complex numbers at dendritic synapses? Such a probabilistic model is fundamentally contextual meaning these experiences which build up the amplitudes are fundamentally ambiguous. Sure, you can say things like, “Most viruses have natural origins and do not originate from lab leaks.” But, compared to what? Compared to another random series of outcomes we could find ourselves in where we see a higher rate of lab leaks?
    I can say “I regret this action/inaction did not result in a different world”. But in those worlds where it DID … it was the same action.

  122. Aleksei Besogonov Says:

    Tamás V Says #38:

    “Sure, but if it’s proved (with consensus) that it was a lab leak, security will have to be given some thought. E.g. if the Chernobyl disaster had made Europe uninhabitable (which it didn’t, mainly because three volunteer divers risked their lives), we’d definitely not say “c’mon, let’s move on, let’s build the next nuclear power plant”.”

    Can we PLEASE lay the nonsense of “divers saved Europe and died in process” to rest?

  123. Jo Says:

    Rahul #108
    “Mission Protocol” what fresh hell is this?
    To me this is so obviously an attempt to have an excuse for open source projects or similar ‘cooperative’ endeavors not to have a (proper) code of conduct that it’s almost laughable. “Oh yes such and such person say we are toxic but we don’t need an inclusivity charter or whatever, we have a Mission(tm) Protocol(tm).”
    An out-of context quote from the “token woman” in CS (I guess they didn’t find anything from Ada Lovelace…) … (seriously do a Bayesian analysis of some sort on the gender of the quotee…)
    “We do hard things” … In opposition to what? soft sciences and societal projects I suppose? Such a trope behind this… (in passing, it may be “soft sciences” that save us from climate change and not “hard science”… and oh surprise it’s really difficult!)
    And such general pablum, I suppose it would have been too tedious or they didn’t want to dirty their hands by using the vast corpus of knowledge produced by social sciences, where people, I’m sorry to say, work as hard a people in other fields and produce things that can be used when you attempt to mount a social movement such as this “protocol”… It’s like you want to build a rocket to go to the moon but completely ignore that physicists exist and say “well, you know, fire, kaboom, up!”.

    On another level, what is the “mission” of such and such project? What is on the project’s funding proposal? On the website? This thing will be easily abused by narrowing or interpreting the “mission” (kind of like conservatives in general abuse such things (artifacts produced by our society) … See: 2nd amendment to the US constitution or the Senate filibuster rules…
    Since they talk about “hard things” we can suppose that those are long projects. I am of the *opinion* that it’s always better in the long term to be inclusive rather than keeping/not managing toxic people that are productive in the short term. It’s an opinion, numerous social studies would prove (or disprove) it, but again the “mission protocol” people did *not* do the work of supporting their own claims or try to predict what this will lead to.
    So, it’s either very naive (that’s what happens when you thumb your nose at “soft science” for too long, I guess) or a transparent attempts at muddying the waters, as I said in the beginning of my post. Probably a little bit of both, either way I do not see much positive in this.

  124. gentzen Says:

    Aleksei Besogonov #122: You are aware of the Streisand effect, are you?

    Yes, the three people neither died in the process, nor did they have to actually dive, even so they were wearing wet suits.

    And in Fukushima, even robots died after a very short time inside the reactor, so any suggested heroism simply was not possible. (Don’t expect humans to be longer lived in environments were even robots die young.)

    So when the Obama administration organized the 2012-2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, even so it was partly in respose to Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, it talked of “complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments,” but remained silent about the fact that the most important dangerous environments are deadly even for robots. And we don’t need to invoke desasters for that, a Venus mission does the trick just as well. OK, the environment on Venus is probably too challenging, but the deep sea or the inside of a nuclear reactor might be doable. We might still have to face the fact that we are not omnipotent, and that the cost to develop such “sufficiently robust” robots might not be worth it. But if we face that facts, then this could become at least become a conscious decision, not just an accident of our dreams of omnipotence and omniscience.

  125. Tamás V Says:

    Aleksei Besogonov #122: Ok, maybe it was Bruce Willis. As far as I know, they didn’t die in the process.

  126. fred Says:

    Clint #121

    hehe, but you don’t even need to bring up the multiverse at all.
    Everything we do at a given moment is caused by the state of the universe outside of our brain plus the neural connections inside of our brain (the two are inextricably entangled as well).
    We control neither.
    So, “regret” tied to narratives about counterfactuals (“if only I had done this or that!”) is generating pointless self-blame.
    But one can always hope that one’s brain registering its own past “errors” (aka guilt) will create a positive feedback of modifications in one’s brain connections such that past “mistakes” won’t be repeated in the future! (aka learning)

  127. John Stricker Says:

    Hahaha, Jon Stewart channelling his inner Scott Aaronson (so to speak) about the lab leak hypothesis on Colbert´s show… ;-D

    Don´t worry though Scott, it´s not for everyone, and blogging will also work. 😉

  128. James Gallagher Says:

    Tamás V #38 (and Aleksei Besogonov #122)

    I didn’t mean we just forget about it, I meant we should “move on” from sanctions against China.

    Of course we have to have an emergency debate about BSL-4 labs worldwide and types of research allowed in such places.

    The UK 1978 case with an accidental smallpox release still has cause of leak undetermined, it may have not been a simple leak through air vents, but may have been due to poor procedures in place when Janet Parker visited the lab herself – all this is unproven conjecture, but all smallpox samples were destroyed from that lab and others worldwide except for BSL-4 labs in USA and Russia.

  129. RC Says:

    Nice summary here:

    https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/15/lab-leak-theory-doesnt-hold-up-covid-china/

  130. Tom Levenson Says:

    Oh dear…

    I was going to write a detailed comment, but I give up.

    I was (and still am) on the MIT faculty in the relevant period. I too regret my lack of focus on Aaron Swartz’s case while it was active at MIT. The lab-escape nonsense is in no way comparable to that issue.

    Rather than go off at length, let me simply refer you to this excellent article that describes meticulously the bad faith of the lab-escape argument and the overwhelming probability that COVID 19 is yet one more ordinary zoonotic illness. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/15/lab-leak-theory-doesnt-hold-up-covid-china/

    It’s easy and often satisfying to reason forward from a plausible sounding assumption. But Dr. Aaronson: there was a good reason for you not to leap into this debate over the last year. A serious amount of domain knowledge is in fact needed to have a useful opinion on this.

  131. Scott Says:

    Tom Levenson #130: I read that piece, but found it, like your comment, more patronizing than informative. The piece’s frequent guilt-by-association remarks and attacks on strawmen are telltale signs of a writer who, like many science writers I’ve encountered, is able to start with a desired conclusion, shape what they write around that conclusion, and then sleep perfectly soundly at night.

    The article’s main argument is simply that little new evidence emerged in the last few months to make a lab leak more likely. That’s true, but some of us have a dramatically different interpretation of it: namely, that the discussion has finally reached the place it should’ve been back in early 2020.

    Given the zoonotic origins of most infectious diseases that have afflicted humankind, but given also the circumstances of this one—e.g., the thousand miles between Wuhan and the bat caves, and (especially) the extraordinary coincidence of SARS-CoV-2 emerging right next door to the world’s main lab doing experiments on its closest known relative—the zoonotic and lab-leak theories should’ve both been on the table from the very beginning, without prejudging either as “massively more likely” than the other. Every scrap of evidence should have been preserved. The world should’ve demanded an investigation with meaningful independence from the Chinese government, and no involvement from those (like Peter Daszak) with obvious conflicts of interest.

    None of that happened. It’s easy to understand some of the reasons why: the justifiable fear of aiding Trump and Fox News, or of encouraging anti-Chinese animus, or of eroding trust in medical authorities exactly when people most needed to trust them. It’s just that none of those reasons have anything to do with the underlying truth of what happened.

    Thus, what we’ve seen over the last couple months is a necessary (and, I suspect, inevitable) reversion to where the conversation would’ve been if not for those extraneous political factors.

  132. anon Says:

    @Tom 130, or Scott, or anyone else:

    Can anyone tell me whether the WIV lab had or did not have humanized mice (at least as far as Western collaborators were aware)? I would really like a reliable source on this, if possible.

    Articles that argue in favor of the lab-leak theory all imply that they did have such mice and this was standard, but articles that argue against it all imply that they didn’t (saying things like “it’s hard to keep a petting zoo secret” or whatever, like the article Tom linked).

    If WIV was known to be infecting humanized mice with coronaviruses, then my mind is made up: I don’t know for certain whether COVID originated from a lab but I do know much of the virology community is lying to me (and I’d advocate for their defunding).

    If WIV was not known to have humanized mice, my mind is also mostly made up: in that case, I doubt COVID originated in a lab, because it’s starting to sound like a conspiracy theory.

  133. Daniel Says:

    Funnily enough, I have reached the age of 40 with the opposite feeling: that I really, truly regret all those times I had to open my big mouth and say things just because they happened to be true and needed saying. It didn’t make the world any better and all it did was get people to get angry and say mean things to me. I dislike it when people say mean things to me.

    I suppose it also doesn’t help that in 40 years I have come to thoroughly despise every single group of people that exists. There are only two kinds of people: utter jerks who say mean things to me, and jerk-enablers who stand behind them and go, “yeah!” and “haha, you’re so funny, Jerk Who Is On My Side!” Even if I could somehow help any of those people, why on Earth would I want to?

    Seriously, the world just needs to hold together for about 40 more years, and then I’m outta here. I don’t care what happens after that, and before that all I want is peace and quiet and no one saying mean things to me. Speaking the truth just has no upside at all.

    Er. Not that I wish to discourage *you* from speaking the truth, since it’s what I come here for, you understand. Just… to each their own?

  134. fred Says:

    anon #132

    I have no idea whether it’s legit or not, but I saw this a few days ago (from skynews australia), they mention video proof that the lab had live bats and humanized mice.

  135. anon Says:

    @fred, thanks, but where in that video does it mention humanized mice? They mostly talk about bats. (Also, I agree with you that it’s not clear if this video is legit.)

    Googling my own question, I found this archived page:
    https://archive.vn/DdnaA
    as far as I can tell, this is a page from the official website of the Natural Science Foundation of China, which lists a project called “Pathogenicity of two new bat SARS-related coronaviruses to transgenic mice expressing human ACE2” (Google translate from Chinese), approved in 2018, to take place in the WIV. If this archived page is legit, it seems like proof that WIV has transgenic mice and (more importantly, in my mind) that this was public knowledge.

    Unless someone can point out why this evidence is wrong, I tentatively conclude that humanized mice were present at WIV and that everyone in virology knows this (or would find it unsurprising). If so, let me now start a hall of shame, for all the people who have lied to me about this:

    1. Angela L. Rasmussen wrote, in Nature, in Jan 2021, to dismiss the lab-origin theory. The article included the statement “thus, it is extremely unlikely that gain-of-function research on hard-to-obtain coronaviruses (such as bat SARS-like coronaviruses) could occur under the radar”. But Angela knew, or should have known, that such research was apparently taking place over the radar.

    2. Angela L. Rasmussen and Stephen A. Goldstein, wrote, in June 2021 (around 2 weeks ago), in the Washington Post, to dismissing the lab-origin theory. They wrote “In standard cell culture, features like the furin cleavage site that are crucial for transmission and disease in humans are rapidly lost as the virus begins adapting to the vervet monkey kidney cells typically used to grow it.” But they knew, or should have known, that WIV was studying coronaviruses in humanized mice, not in vervet monkey kidney cells.

    3. Justin Ling wrote that foreignpolicy article that Tom Levenson linked above. It includes the phrase “But maybe this gain-of-function research did not try to replicate the virus in a petri dish but, instead, used live animals to multiply and mutate the virus—using one sick animal to infect the next, and the next, and the next, until an evolved and efficient virus came out the other end […] It would be significantly more expensive, labor-intensive, and difficult to hide. The lab would need to run a veritable petting zoo of different animals to perfect this kind of zoonotic transmission.” However, Justin knew, or should have known, that WIV was indeed infecting humanized mice with coronaviruses. So he is essentially lying here when pretending this is an outlandish hypothetical.

    4. I won’t even mention anything involving Peter Daszak.

  136. Charles Alexander Says:

    #134 At 4:15 the teleprompter lady says Daszak “confirms here while others [plural] nod their heads [plural].” Watching it, only one nods their head during the first part about the Chinese giving claims of hacking attempts, but not during the part about not requesting or getting the data later (heavily implied to be what “others” nodded their heads about).

  137. Jason G. Says:

    Here is the letter from 77 Nobel laureates in support of funding Peter Daszak and EcoHealth. https://www.sciencemag.org/sites/default/files/NL%20letter%20final.pdf
    These are the people who should be expressing guilt.

  138. WTF Says:

    #135

    “Extra Question (Recent Update). One of WIV’s researchers, Ben Hu, ran a state funded project at WIV: “Pathogenicity of 2 new bat SARS-related covs to transgenic mice expressing human ACE2″ Which 2 new bat SARS related CoVs were used?”

    https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/open-letter-to-the-who-covid-19-international

    That some sort of “gain of function” research took place at WIV on humanised cells is hardly contested. They knew. They lied.

    And I’m sorry, but Fauci is also complicit

    “You are entirely and completely incorrect. The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute.” (Fauci)

    Look at the semantic weaving like his follow-up defining “gain of function”

    “taking a virus that could infect humans and making it either more transmissible and/or pathogenic for humans.” (Fauci)

    but Fauci’s compliance with Peter Daszak in an early email exchange still makes me physically ill every time I read it – it is their actions that have been consequential before and during this pandemic:

    “I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

    From my perspective, your comments are brave, and coming from your trusted voice, will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus’s origins” (Peter Daszak)

    “Many thanks for your kind note.” (Fauci)

    Our fearless truth-seekers … leading us off a cliff.

  139. fred Says:

    We all know that researchers always have a foot in the private business, looking for an opportunity to cash out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a need for transparency. It’s of course even more important when they’re also involved with public policies.

    Where it gets really beyond problematic is when the same researchers are having opaque involvement with China.
    So many cases of corruptions these days (including POTUS’ own son) can be traced back to China.
    Anything that can affect national security (e.g. AI or biotech) should be a big no-no.
    Why the hell are we teaching dictatorship that constantly opposes our own values how to build advanced bio-tech labs?! Because if we don’t, they would try on their own, and, God forbid, they could fuck it up and create a global pandemic?
    Why aren’t we also helping North Korea build a safer nuclear arsenal, to make sure they don’t fire their nuke by accident?!

    PS: the only small difference between China and North Korea is that one of the two happens to be the number 1 economic power of the world.

  140. Dandan Says:

    Guilt is the worst manipulator. It’s like you owe something with no particular boundary on price. Dishonest people use it on a standard basis to gain advantage over honest ones. The effect of a self-imposed guilt can be absolutely devastating. Do not fall into this.

    Instead, try to be reasonable about why you think you did something wrong. I’d bet you can find multiple reasons. Everything that happens in this world has many many reasons. It’s never a single human choice.

    Even if you found yourself wrong, there is no reason to be self-destructing. Just correct your behavior, this is the best you can do.

  141. B Says:

    Many people think CCP should show the evidence to clear up the suspicions if there wasn’t lab leak. Thus because CCP doesn’t show the evidence and make it transparent, it’s very likely there was a lab leak.

    The ones that think this way have no idea how CCP works. It doesn’t make things transparent because someone is suspecting. The government maintains its authority from official voice, not from explaining everything. So the default action for CCP is just don’t explain. But the things it wants to cover are mostly political and historical. Lab leak is one of the things that’s not transparent, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

  142. Scott Says:

    B #141: I completely agree with the proposition that just because CCP is covering things up, doesn’t mean the lab leak hypothesis is probably true. But it certainly doesn’t mean it’s probably false either! I want to actually get to the bottom of this, not in a pro forma way serving anyone’s political purposes but for real, if such a thing is still possible in the world of 2021. For example, I want to know the details of the three WIV workers who had covid-like symptoms in Fall 2019: were they tested for antibodies? Don’t you want to know that? If the CCP continues refusing to cooperate, that simply means that intelligence agencies outside China will need to work harder.

  143. fred Says:

    B#141 Scott#142

    Right!
    Similarly, the CCP’s constant and thorough censoring and of any references to what happened during April to June 1989 in Bejing’s Tiananmen Square is really no proof at all that anything special happened during April to June 1989 in Bejing’s Tiananmen Square!

  144. Scott Says:

    fred #143: The difference with Tiananmen Square is that we had non-CCP media at the time that told us exactly what did happen. From the CCP’s response in that and other cases, we learn that it almost certainly would try to cover up a lab leak if it knew that one had happened. The trouble is that it would equally try to squelch discussion if a lab leak hadn’t happened, or if the CCP itself had no idea.

  145. Jr Says:

    Daniel #133,

    I think it is true that almost everyone fails miserably to live up to decent moral standards. (Maybe it is actually true of everyone.) But equally it is true that most people are amazingly decent, if you look at it in other ways. Somehow both things manage to be true at the same time. I still think there are good reasons to care about people and other sentient beings and hope for a good future.

  146. John Says:

    Scott #142:

    “I want to actually get to the bottom of this”

    Normally, I would say “Fat chance”, especially where and when China (read: CCP) is concerned.

    But very intriguingly, per Adam Housley´s twitter, there are “multiple chinese defectors”, at least one of the highest category, that have brought information on this and many other things to the US.

    (His twitter is generally worth a follow, for those of us who do that kind of thing. Housley is a straight, non-partisan, issue-by-issue (ex-) reporter (and ex-professional baseball player; and now on his third career as a californian winemaker, and married to actress Tamera Mowry), with reliable IC sources, plus insight into the workings of california politics.)

  147. jonas Says:

    In the sidebar of your blog, under “The Basics”, “Complexity Zoo” is a broken link, perhaps because it’s pointing to its old URL before you moved it away from the university server.

  148. just a thought Says:

    Nearly 1 1/2 years ago this link was referenced by a conservative blogger.
    https://harvardtothebighouse.com/2020/01/

    While more has come out since, like material from the Nerd Has Power blog,…
    https://nerdhaspower.weebly.com/
    …that first article contains more than sufficient evidence to conclude that a lab origin is the most likely source of the virus.

    At this point in the pandemic, it’s those saying it didn’t come from a lab who most resemble conspiracy theorists. But also at this point, the virus’ origin is far less relevant than what to do or not do about it. Here’s the best source I have on that latter topic.
    https://m.twitch.tv/gigaohmbiological

    The origin of SARS CoV-2 is important, but we shouldn’t allow it to distract us from preventing a horribly inappropriate response, and making a bad situation far worse.
    https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/e89cbef5-70d5-4555-89a9-32f2402dd1aa/SARS2parentsReview_CoueyJJ.pdf

  149. Douglas Knight Says:

    CCP doesn’t want you talking about what happened in Tiananmen Square, but its official account of what happened is extremely close to external journalists’ accounts, indeed, much closer than the account believed by the average westerner. (There is a big discrepancy in the accounts of what happened in the rest of Beijing, but we don’t have direct reports of much of that.)

  150. Ryan Alweiss Says:

    It’s worth noting that rootclaim.com got this right. They have many bold claims and they seem to be using good Bayesian reasoning.

  151. Mitchell Porter Says:

    In other news, someone who gives their affiliation as “Central Propaganda Department, China” has today posted a paper on arxiv claiming to prove that P does not equal PSPACE. Download it now before it’s suppressed 🙂

  152. Scott Says:

    jonas #147: Thanks! Fixed.

  153. Anthony Says:

    There is an interesting preprint on biorxiv:
    The origin and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 remains shrouded in mystery. Here I identify a data set containing SARS-CoV-2 sequences from early in the Wuhan epidemic that has been deleted from the NIH’s Sequence Read Archive…
    Also, discussed here.

  154. fred Says:

    heh

  155. gentzen Says:

    Mitchell Porter #151: That’s an easy one to refute: It is true that Circuit-SAT is complete for NP under logspace reductions, and it is also true that Circuit-SAT is in DSPACE[n], but the conclusion that NP is therefore included in DSPACE[n] is wrong: logspace reductions can increase the length of the input from n to n^c.

    (Yes, I know that you also knew that the paper is invalid, and that you just posted the link because the affiliation “Central Propaganda Department, China” is funny.)

  156. fred Says:

    More “good stuff” on the links between the CCP and western science journals… but, yea, it proves nothing! Move along people!

  157. Anon93 Says:

    Here’s an opinion that I think is correct. Bashar al-Assad is not NEARLY as bad as most people think. The guys at https://www.rootclaim.com/ – an Israeli company, whose founder is the brother of Former Labor MK Einat Wilf – have some good evidence that he did not actually perpetrate any of those chemical attacks. The whole “red line” fiasco? Yeah, well it turns out that was all just fake news. Rootclaim is offering $100,000 for it.

    My current mental model is that Assad I think is like Sisi. He is a brutal and authoritarian dictator, but he is far better than whatever Islamist alternatives there are. The Syrian opposition really isn’t any better than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is laced with Al-Qaeda all over the place and the vast majority of them are jihadist groups. I prefer Assad.

    Assad is not an angel but I think he is a lot better than the rebels. I also think that Tulsi Gabbard is one of the most courageous politicians in the US today. See for instance: https://twitter.com/TulsiGabbard/status/1395765298830012422

  158. just a question Says:

    Scott, I would like to know how, a year later, your thinking has evolved regarding the issues raised in this post: https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=4719. Do you still feel as disillusioned? Why or why not?

  159. Armin Says:

    Scott, a couple suggestions on what I thought your post was really about:

    “If I’d strongly defended the substance of what Swartz had done, it would’ve raised the question: why wasn’t I doing the same?”
    Because sharing the same goals or ends does not obligate one to share the same means to those ends. You did some things and you feel it wasn’t nearly enough, but you are clear what else you can do. Pursuing those things now won’t help Swartz, but it will helps the goal he aimed for, and maybe help a future Aaron Swartz.

    “This suggests that, if I want fewer regrets, then I should click “Publish” on more potentially controversial posts! I don’t know how to force myself to do that, but maybe this post itself is a step.”
    Why not make a policy to at least write out a potentially controversial post but sleep at least one night over it before deciding whether to hit “Publish”? If you decide not to, a record of your reasoning at that time is still available to you, and, pending further developments you still have the option to critically re-examine your reasoning and reaffirm your decision, or possibly edit and strengthen your arguments, or just hit it as is after all.

  160. Andrew Tan Yong-Yi Says:

    In a post discussing Aaron Swartz and morality, I am disappointed to see “courage” ascribed to those who have helped renew the respectability of the lab leak theory. Its renewal is based in ignorance or unsubstantiated accusations that our scientific colleagues in China are lying.

    The lab leak theory was taken seriously in 2020 by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), by some of us, and by the WHO report of 2021 even though consideration of that possibility was not its main goal. Andersen et al (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9 March 2020) argued that a lab leak was improbable, but acknowledged that more data would be needed to address some scenarios. Additional data addressing many of those scenarios was reported by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Instiute of Virology who did at least two checks to examine the possibility of a leak from her lab.

    First, if a lab leak had occurred, it would be likely that some of her staff would have been infected. To check this possibility, they ran antibody tests on their staff. They did not detect antibodies that would indicate a past infection by SARS-CoV-2 or a similar virus.

    Second, if a lab leak had occurred, the lab must have sequences close to that of SARS-CoV-2. They therefore examined all their bat samples for similar sequences. However, the closest detected sequence was RaTG13, which at 96% similarity is approximately 30 years or more from SARS-CoV-2 by natural evolution. That degree of similarity meant that even if RaTG13 evolution had been hastened via handling in the lab, it was extremely improbable for SARS-CoV-2 to have resulted from RaTG13. Furthermore, RaTG13 had never been isolated “live” in the lab. They also reported on all the isolated “live” SARS-like viruses in the lab, but these had only approximately 80% similarity to SARS-CoV-2.

    Those data were reported by Shi Zhengli in an interview in Science (https://www.sciencemag.org/sites/default/files/Shi%20Zhengli%20Q&A.pdf July 2020). The WHO report considered a lab leak very unlikely because of similar reports. Notably, the WHO report said that it would be worth reexamining the possibility of a lab leak, if more data arose.

    While even the above data reported by Shi Zhengli would not rule out a lab leak, simply because no experimental checks are 100%, they do make a lab leak extremely unlikely. Thus for a lab leak to remain plausible, one would have to give more credence to the possibility that Shi Zhengli has simply misled us (ie. falsely reported results of the antibody tests and quite comprehensive searches through their samples and isolated “live” viruses). Morally, before making accusations, I think one would need data.

    Shi Zhengli’s research activities have been openly published in many scientific papers over the years, so their activities seem quite the opposite of doing anything in secret. Certainly, nothing that has recently been “revealed” about supposedly hidden activities would be any surprise to those who have read her papers. Such revelations are thus far antics similar to those that make people want to ban dihydrogen monoxide. From her papers, we know they have for many years been collecting samples that contained new viruses, including SARS-like viruses. They have even published a paper showing that some populations in China have antibodies to SARS-like viruses (without known exposure to SARS or SARS-CoV-2), indicating that there have been other human infections by unknown SARS-like viruses, although those did not result in pandemics. While some details of their research activities were not published, the most likely reasons are that these either did not add much to the scientific point or that work was still ongoing with intended publication at an appropriate time.

  161. Scott Says:

    Andrew Tan Yong-Yi #160: It’s true that, in the normal course of science, we have a strong norm of trusting the honesty of our colleagues unless and until we’re given a good reason not to. But in the normal course of science, we’re not discussing whether our activities might have killed anyone … let alone whether they killed 4 million people and shut down human civilization for a year. Given the almost ludicrously astronomical stakes, the bare minimum to restore trust would be for the WIV to throw open its doors and all its records to a credible outside investigation—meaning, not by the CCP, not by Peter Daszak, but by people whose minds weren’t already made up. This bare minimum is precisely what hasn’t happened. Plausibly that’s the fault of the CCP; plausibly Shi Zhengli couldn’t do much as an individual even if she’d wanted to. But until and unless it changes, I expect the lab leak hypothesis to continue to be discussed. The stakes here are simply too high for any argument that depends on trust, and I hope the virology community will come to understand that.

  162. Andrew Tan Yong-Yi Says:

    Scott #160: It might be the other way. That the stakes are too high to go forward without trust and normal scientific ethics. If the proper checks on the possibility of a lab leak have in fact already been done, and are simply being disbelieved for no reason, the accusatory attitude may jeopardize the international collaboration needed for further studies such as those recommended in the WHO report to find out the origin of the virus. It may also hinder better responses to future outbreaks.

  163. John Stricker Says:

    Andrew Tan Yong-Yi #162:

    How is this approach, in its effects, even distinguishable from the CCP line?! Understanding of real world politics suggest this to be a “gas lighting” approach: “See, everything is alright; surely you don´t wish to insult the experts, or hinder progress?”

    I would find some very harsh words indeed if someone made suggestions like these towards me; out of respect for the host of this blog, and in appreciation of its general tone, I will refrain from mentioning them. What I will say is that I find your comment, at the very most, one degree separated from propaganda, and perhaps not even that.

    Scott #161:

    I ADMIRE your patience and intellectual rigor, and I HOPE you will SOON find the time, energy and joy to work on what you like and/or consider important, as well as delight us with blogposts, be they funny, scientific, thoughtful, or otherwise. Click that “publish” button! 🙂

    Oh, and Armin #159: I appreciate your well-considered and useful comment.

  164. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott #161,

    Yes, normal science is credulous. But normal is not the same as good. Nullius in verba.

  165. Jo Says:

    John Stricker #163 and others: The fact is that the “West”, for better or worse, will get nowhere by “demanding” things from the PRC especially if this can be seen as an attempts to assign blame/point fingers/make one lose face.
    I cannot emphasize enough that this will get nowhere. This is not a question of negotiation, or the right tactics, or the sufficient amount of pressure… This will get nowhere, short of 4 carrier groups and Minuteman missiles, and event then I’m not sure.
    Once you accept this fact what is left is A) beef up security procedures in ALL virology labs worldwide B) Better fund virology research AND ecology research to better understand how human pressure effects virus reservoirs C) strengthen health systems worldwide and resistance/resilience to exponential events D) continue research on vaccines and treatments. mRNA and other tools show good promise but may hardly be sufficient for the next pandemic, or even the next variant.

    A, B, C and D are much more important than knowing if the virus passed by such or such building in Wuhan or elsewhere before starting the pandemic… Frankly I don’t see why this question should be important. It’s not like you will have an ambulance chaser lawyer that will be asking damages to some meat vendor or some lab technician. Not all events need to be litigated. Thinking otherwise betrays a very “American-centric” view of the world I think.

  166. John Stricker Says:

    Jo #165:

    Thank you for offering your views. As for your first two paragraphs, I completely concur and am under no delusions that, absent immense pressure (possibly militarily/clandestine) or, as I believe is the case, robust factual information via defectors, there is no way whatsoever to ever get to the bottom of this.

    I rather disagree, however, on the next paragraphs:

    “A) beef up security procedures in ALL virology labs worldwide”

    This is nothing but wishful thinking. It was supposed to be save in Wuhan! How would one make sure of it, absent influence that will never be granted?!

    “B) Better fund virology research AND ecology research to better understand how human pressure effects virus reservoirs”

    This is a completely useless suggestion IF WE CAN´T MAKE SURE THE LABS ARE SAFE! It will in no way actually mitigate any risk. (Also, it sounds like a self-interested application for more money.)

    “C) strengthen health systems worldwide and resistance/resilience to exponential events”

    Ok, sure, agreed. Of course, the devil is in the proverbial details.

    “D) continue research on vaccines and treatments. mRNA and other tools show good promise but may hardly be sufficient for the next pandemic, or even the next variant.”

    By all means, do this, fine. But I am frankly a little suspicious of supporting (if not downright hyping) a biotechnology (mRNA) that had NEVER BEFORE worked the way it was supposed to, until it was used for the covid vaccine (as opposed to for example the monoclonal antibody therapies that were also accelerated under Operation Warp Speed and work well, but have been receiving only a tiny fraction of the media coverage compared to the vaccines), all the while there is an almost total media blackout on tried and tested prophylactic and symptomatic multi-drug standard covid treatment; see for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU02mdnoNws.

    “A, B, C and D are much more important than knowing if the virus passed by such or such building in Wuhan or elsewhere before starting the pandemic…”

    Perhaps, although there is a whiff of gaslighting about it… And knowing it is still important, not least to confront China (read: CCP) and communicate in very clear terms that reckless offensive behavior and strategically using the effects of an even plausibly escaped virus comes at a high price. (Although it is of course pointless if one is unwilling to follow through with it.)

    “Not all events need to be litigated. Thinking otherwise betrays a very “American-centric” view of the world”

    You got it backwards: thinking the US (or whoever) wants to “litigate” the issue here sounds like a foreigner´s misconception, perhaps from watching too many american legal dramas. In actuality, it is fundamentally foreign policy.

  167. Lars Says:

    The question about a lab leak is actually not one that can be answered solely by virologists or others analyzing genetic sequences, not least of all because one version of the lab leak hypothesis is that the virus arose “naturally” and simply “passed through” a lab before it was accidentally released. In the latter case, the genetic sequence of the lab released virus would not differ at all from one that developed naturally because it WOULD have developed naturally! One would think this would be obvious, but apparently it is not to those who continue to make such probability based arguments .

    Answering the question about a possible lab leak therefore depends on detailed information about what actually went on in the Wuhan labs. So far, there has been a marked LACK of transparency: failure to open up for inspection the labs, lab notebooks, virus databases (at least one of which was actually taken down), details — eg bloodwork –about 3 lab workers who became ill in Nov, 2019, etc.

    Given the lack of transparency, the lab leak question can only potentially be answered through intelligence gathering — notwithstanding the claims that some virologists have made that it’s purely a scientific, NOT an intelligence question and that the intelligence agencies therefore have no role to play.

    All the genetics based “probability” analysis in the world by virologists and others is not going to change this, which effectively renders moot the ongoing paper and letter writing campaigns to Nature, Science, Lancet and other journals in which such genetic-sequence-based probability arguments continue to be made .(To estimate the likelihood that the virus was produced through genetic engineering, such calculations might be useful, but from the standpoint of trying to rule out the possibility of a lab leak of a virus that may well have developed naturally , such calculations are basically mathturbation.)

  168. Lars Says:

    The ones who should really feel guilt about the treatment of Aaron Swartz are the members of the MIT administration who (at best) allowed the prosecution/persecution to go forward and (at worst) aided and abetted it.

    Actually, the idea that MIT remained “neutral” throughout is just laughable, but even if that were true, that would hardly be a glowing endorsement for an institution that claims to pride itself on an encouragement of free thinking and the willingness to question authority that were epitomized by Aaron Swartz.

    But instead of feeling guilt, MIT officials basically washed their hands of any responsibility by claiming (based on an in-house “investigation”) that they had taken a “neutral” approach.

    Has anything changed in the aftermath? I seriously doubt it. Other than the fact that after seeing how Aaron was treated by MIT officials, other individuals are far less likely to take the chances that Aaron did. Some might even say “Mission accomplished!”.

  169. Tim Sassoon Says:

    RE: Wuhan. What does it matter whether the virus was of natural origin, or a lab leak, even if they had been experimenting with functional enhancements? IMHO the only thing that matters is whether it was being deployed as a weapon or not, which I’d be very skeptical of indeed. If it was just a leak, what is our response, after all?

    Pretty much that we all need to communicate, and be much more aware of what the other is doing, which doesn’t seem to me to be a bad thing, regardless. That and we probably do need an international treaty governing infectious agents that goes beyond the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention that promotes transparency in pandemics.

  170. Anonymous Says:

    This is a great piece of journalism about what happened (below). On this topic, virologists are not “immune” (npi) from emotional bias in that they empathetically would not want to see any of their peers lose funding. A lot of the arguments presented here seem like reaching and covering up the basic facts you keep repeating with loads of scientism or numbers just for numbers’ sake. Fauci seemed very naive about the fact that he was funding research that was under the purview of the CCP. He may trust the scientists, but it’s incredibly naive to trust the CCP with deadly virus gain-of-function research. If something ever happened, of course they’d cover it up or at least try – that’s what they do with all human rights abuses. He reminds me of so many scientists i know – great at what they do, but politically naive. This is why it makes sense for virology to be carefully watched by elected officials.

    https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/06/the-lab-leak-theory-inside-the-fight-to-uncover-covid-19s-origins

    Also, don’t feel guilty, you’ve contributed so much to science, culture, and the overall goodness and progress of humanity that you’re the last person that should ever feel guilty about anything. It’s good that you are always questioning yourself and learning. You could not have seen Swartz’s suicide coming.

  171. Leo Says:

    Looking at the comments regarding WIV I noticed that a number of commentators argued that the origin of covid doesn’t matter but our response does. I personally disagree strongly with that for it is clear to me that our collective response upon the knowledge that there is a significantly non-zero probability the virus is lab made or lab leaked would have been so much better and with more focused minds (as oppose to weeks and months of politicians dithering and claiming is like flu..) and as a result the death toll would definitely not have been as devastating as it is today. Aside for that one can only guess how much was already known (or should have been known) about the virus if its spread was the result of a lab leak.

  172. Jim Logan Says:

    Regarding guilt for not writing your thoughts on the pandemic origin early on, I atoned for my own guilt by vowing to do my best not to support the economy of the Chinese communist government, which is working to replace western values and institutions with their version of communism. Take the time to investigate your purchases of big items (cars, appliances, food). You will be surprised at how many products are made by, or majority owned by companies in communist china. For those big items, Europe, South America, and the US usually offer equivalent or superior items. You may pay more, but it’s one of the few impacts an individual can make on opposing the methods and values of the communist Chinese.