I have been enthusiastically promoting Nicholas Wade’s long article on the origins of the COVID virus.
Wade compares the two common theories: (a) the “wet market” theory, that the virus jumped from bats, or from bats via some intermediate host, to humans at a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, and (b) the “lab escape” theory, that the virus originated in a lab, also in Wuhan, doing research into viruses.
Wade allows that we can’t say dispositively which theory is correct; but by a judicious and thoroughly-researched sifting of the facts we do know, he leaves his reader thinking that the lab escape theory is the more probable one.
I’ll confess some partiality here. I’m a major Wade fan. I read his articles in the New York Times for years, and I’ve reviewed at least three of his books, including his 2014 race-realist book A Troublesome Inheritance. I have some slight personal acquaintance with him, too; and yes, like me he’s an immigrant from Britain.
Well, this is a brilliant piece of science journalism; and I speak as a person who’s been reading science journalism since the Eisenhower administration. Wade might be wrong on the balance of probabilities—and the article where I found it, at the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has a good argumentative comment thread—but for the sifting of facts and the weighing of probabilities, this piece is a classic. [The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? by Nicholas Wade, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 5, 2021]
That sifting, that weighing, that arguing, is science at its best. It doesn’t come easily to human beings. To quote myself
Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. There is probably a sizable segment in any population that believes scientists should be rounded up and killed.
We of that freakish brotherhood just turn away wearily when we hear some fool politician or pundit with a degree in Media Studies tell us to “follow the science!” Politics and political punditry are the last places to go to for scientific understanding. You need a guide who understands how long and grueling the path to scientific certainty is.
Nicholas Wade quotes Francis Bacon, grandfather of the Scientific Revolution, quote: “Truth is the daughter not of authority but time.” End quote. We don’t believe that the Earth goes round the Sun because Copernicus said so, although he did, or because Galileo agreed with him, although he did. We believe it because we have been persuaded by thousands of pieces of evidence accumulated over hundreds of years by legions of observers sifting, weighing, and arguing.
I should say, however, that prior to Wade’s article, the most striking piece I’d read on the origins of COVID was the one by Ron Unz at his own website in March this year, arguing a third possible origin for COVID. This is (c) the “American biowarfare” theory, that the virus was developed in our own labs then deliberately let loose in China by one of our intelligence agencies.
Ron’s article is almost as long as Nicholas Wade’s, and also comes with an argumentative comment thread—975 comments when I looked just now. There are of course all sorts of objections you can raise against it, although it’s highly probable your objection has already been posed in one of those 975.
What do I think of Ron’s theory? I wouldn’t rule it out, given the lawlessness and deep stupidity of our intelligence agencies. For sure, Ron makes as good a case for it as can be made.
And it is kind of … strange that other than China’s immediate neighbors, the second country to be seriously hit by COVID was Iran, bête noire of the neocons who run those agencies. Several senior Iranian officials died of COVID. Hmm.
However, I’m temperamentally inclined to believe that, while conspiracies and plots are glamorous, dramatic, and exciting to contemplate, carelessness and error are much bigger factors in human affairs. On those grounds, and having seen up close how things are done in China, I favor the lab escape theory as most probable.
Will Francis Bacon’s principle be vindicated? With the passing of enough time, shall we one day we may know the truth of the matter? I won’t be holding my breath. To either verify or decisively eliminate the lab-escape hypothesis, for example, we’d need to have a good look at the records of the Wuhan lab in late 2019 and early 2020, and have unsupervised interviews with relevant employees.
In communist China, that won’t happen. Those records have long since been reduced to their component molecules and the ashes dumped in the Mariana Trench; those employees, in the unlikely event they survived their interrogations by the secret police, are now employed at stone quarries on the Qinghai Plateau.
It’s coming up to fifty years ago since Lin Biao, who had been Mao Tse-tung’s right-hand man, disappeared from the scene and was declared to have been a counter-revolutionary traitor. Was he? Did he really die while trying to flee China? Why was he trying to flee? After fifty years, scholars are still arguing.
If the ChiCom regime collapses, we may get to learn something new about the origin of COVID. Unfortunately there are no signs of that happening. Right now, we just don’t know.
This topic has, though, generated some good deep public debate: not from the clown show of our national politics, of course, which is not capable of engaging with anything deeper than a kiddie pool, but from smart, sane, thoughtful inquirers like Nicholas Wade and Ron Unz. Thanks to them both for their work