How To Be A Wingnut
Or, How to Avoid It
On a recent recording of my podcast with Meghan Daum, A Special Place in Hell, in which we discussed the recent Vanity Fair/ProPublica piece about COVID origins and the Wuhan lab, I was reminded of my own (inadvertent) self-censorship around the subject.
I, like many, had initially thought that an accidental lab leak was worthy of serious investigation as a potential cause of the outbreak. But after the first few weeks, another consensus began forming in the media landscape, later solidifying as the sole view of the “correct-thinking people”: the wet-market hypothesis.
One of the more bizarre things about Modern Times is that journalists—the people we depend on to fish out the truth from a chaotic reality—are perhaps the class most captured by politics. There is a real tragic element to this–many starry-eyed young people go into journalism specifically to bring truth to light–to do the deep-diving, investigative work the rest of us simply don’t have the time or the skills to do. But these intentions are quickly overpowered by a greater force: social pressure.
In practice this means that journalists often do the opposite of truth-telling: rather than speaking “truth to power”, they can function as enforcers of the consensus of the powerful.
The lab leak hypothesis is a great example of the power such a consensus can have: dulling curiosity and infusing prejudices which subvert true journalistic impulses. I suspect that the label “conspiracy theory” had a lot to do with it—casting a shadow of racism and xenophobia that proponents could not shake off. (There is another post to be written about the near-magical ability of certain words to collapse reasoning capacities. The label of “conspiracy theory” being one such phrase, which has the power to transform an idea, regardless of its merits, into chattering-class kryptonite.)
It is true that there are some who think the leak was deliberate (which is almost certainly false, and ridiculous besides. One imagines bioweapons are best released outside the homeland). But many more were pointing to the much more realistic possibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of the outbreak.
The implications of such an origin are hugely important—if it is true, surely it is in the interest of the international community to know and to implement appropriate safeguards everywhere such research is conducted, lest we are treated to yet another global pandemic.
But even the accidental leak was repeatedly cast as a fringe theory and debunked on various “fact checks” (my favorite of the genre citing a political science professor from MIT as an “expert” on the matter. The other expert, chemical biology professor Richard Ebright, later became one of the signatories of a letter calling for an open investigation of COVID origins. In a move that displays the shift in the discourse over the last year, a correction has now been issued on the article by the Washington Post: “The term “debunked” and The Post’s use of “conspiracy theory” have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus”.)
I suspect what really did the theory in was its association with the lepers of respectable discourse, those with the power to damn an idea merely by agreeing with it: the R*publicans. In this case, that includes Tom Cotton (a senator from the Bible Belt, who also bears a suspiciously southern-sounding name) and, of course, the untouchable-in-chief, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, one of the first publications to suggest a connection between the lab and the outbreak was the Daily Mail and later, the Washington Times—their reputations as partisan rags counting as yet another point against the theory, again, primarily by dint of association.
Altogether, these associative signals were powerful enough to serve as veritable proof that this theory was too crazy for respectable people to bother with.
On this substack I spend a lot of time thinking about how we think, and looking back, I am still impressed by how one of the most obvious explanations became the most unsayable one—at least, for a while.
Even I didn’t speak of it much.
Once, I blurted out my unvarnished thoughts about the possibility of a leak in the company of a very smart, but correct-thinking man. “You sound like Glenn Beck”, he said. The implication made me furious. But although he offered no other rebuttal, the shadow from the opprobrium was effective: I began to second-guess myself. Was he right? Was I falling into some rabbit hole?
Both of us, in that case, were deferring to the hivemind. His unreflective dismissal tarnished my own view of the theory, prompting more skepticism than was warranted by the information we had available to us. It is worth noting that deferring to the hivemind is the objectively correct position much of the time. But more pertinently, it is the socially correct position, all of the time…
The Balancing Act
But what happens when the socially-correct and the objectively-correct contradict? For a multitude of reasons, social approval grants memes powerful advantages that mere “reality” cannot always overcome. And I suspect, counter-intuitively, that the effect of social opprobrium is far more intense among the so-called “thinking class” than it is among the less intellectually-oriented crowd.
One of the reasons might be because certain classes face “reality” more directly than others. The Americans who couldn’t work from home, the Americans who couldn’t afford to leave work and stay at home with their unsupervised children, the Americans who couldn’t access “learning pods” or nannies–it was those Americans who suffered more intensely both the effects of the lockdowns AND the direct loss of life and illnesses brought on by the virus. And yet it was not these Americans who made the decisions of how we should deal with the virus. It was the class with less skin in the game that made decisions on their behalf.
The relative isolation from the real-world consequences of their ideas can lead to some very bad thinking. Perhaps one might argue that this “isolation” can also be thought of as a kind of “independence”, one which might allow more open and creative problem-solving. This might be true, if in fact they were entirely independent of any other pressures. In reality, however, the lack of material pressures allow social pressures to pull with fewer impediments. (Might tenure create a similar effect in academic circles? Rather than protecting academic freedom by providing job security, does it simply clear the way for social pressure to be the sole influencer in academia? This helps explain some of the political uniformity of academics, despite all the “freedom” to speak and think.)
Consider also the balancing act that must be performed by the “public intellectual”. In the name itself the tensions are evident—the figure must think independently but at the same time maintain respectability among peers and the extended intelligentsia. The bread and butter of the intellectual isn’t just insight, it is insight that invites respectability. The more successful public intellectuals in any given time are those who are able to hone their tone and message to inspire just the right amount of agitation. Too little and you are boring and no guest will be impressed seeing your book on a coffee table or share your talk on LinkedIn. Too much and you are a crackpot (or worse, you may be cringe). Of course, ideally the intellectual “follows the truth wherever it may lead”. But in reality, the truth may occasionally lead one into oncoming traffic. It helps, therefore, to look both ways first.
Luckily, self-funding is an avenue available to even the most disreputable writers. (I will take this time to thank paying subscribers for making my personal cringe possible. I am grateful!)
But funding doesn’t quite eliminate the problem of respectability. If you do not have sufficient respect from peers (particularly powerful ones), you will be relegated to the sidelines of discourse. This is more than just socially damaging, it hampers your ability to think well in its own way. The “discourse” is useful because it provides valuable feedback from other smart people—rebuttals that are critical in honing better arguments. Independence is important, but speaking and hearing nothing but your own echo in response is a recipe for derangement.
And importantly, in this isolation, your ideas will not reach society’s decision-makers.
It is true that despite all this, some great thinkers exist on the margins, puttering away on their samizdat blogs, and a few have managed to acquire followers of influence. These followers may surreptitiously pull a few of the banished thinker’s ideas back into mainstream discourse.
But this is a relatively rare occurrence. Few who have attained mainstream respectability are open-minded enough to explore dangerous ideological territories—even in private. The double-life of a secret heretic is a cognitively taxing one, and for many, untenable for lengthy periods. They will inadvertently move closer to a more comfortable position, or speak against respectable consensus and expose themselves as “fringe”. The former is more likely—it is often less risky in terms of social position and career, and easy enough for smart people to accomplish. (High IQs do not necessarily imply a greater predisposition towards rationality, they imply a greater capacity to rationalize anything. Perhaps another reason thinking-types might be less limited by the constraints of obvious reality.)
But I want to pull back a bit—lest this is wrongly construed as a creed against intellectuals, or even, against consensus. More broadly, I think we need to re-conceptualize what everyday thinking even is—and accept that much of it is influenced by our social environments and unconscious needs and desires. Today, I think of thinking as largely a social activity, rather than an individual one. The kind of abstraction required for complex physics is unintuitive and difficult for the vast majority of humans not just because we may not be smart enough to “get it” but because our smarts evolved for a very different kind of function: to help us survive our local environments. Higher order math is, in a way, the off-label use of our brain.
Thanks to the environment crafted by our technologies, we can better and more easily monitor what is socially-correct. We can watch the behavior of our herd from a bird’s eye view, witnessing broader movements come and go and can instinctively place ourselves in advantageous locations. In other words, we fall in line better and faster. This re-conception of thinking as inherently social and partially unconscious might help instill in deeper skepticism of the public discourse, providing a necessary resistance to the pull of social pressure.
Looking back on my own self-censorship, at the time I was doing it, it was barely conscious. I recognized, dimly, that I was feeling uncomfortable with the idea of voicing something aloud, something that I otherwise felt worthy of consideration. In all likelihood I was unconsciously monitoring my social landscape, and weighing the costs of wondering out loud. I think of myself as fairly disagreeable, so it is alarming to see this in myself, but perhaps it is also inevitable. To complicate things further, I am not clear on whether my (in)action regarding COVID origins was a bad tack, or what I would change if I were to do it all over again.
Having said all this, I recently tried to be more deliberately forthright on Twitter. I interrogated my own motives for silence, and blew past them anyway. It did not go well. I will discuss what I learned in a future post, when I’ve had some time to process it.