Or, How to Avoid It
Everything about Covid was weirdly politicized from the start. I would love to say I never succumbed to that trend but looking back I certainly was a part of it. I recall reading a compelling case for the lab leak theory. And, while I was never dismissive of the possibility, I was more than willing to let the wet-market theory take precedence in my consciousness.
I love your characterizations of the "lepers of respectable discourse". Let's face it, there seems to be an endless stream on nonsense from the right of the political spectrum. That said, the left provided more than their fair share of half-baked ideas. One particularly irritating phrase has been "follow the science" when it should have been clear "science" was feeling along in the dark with the rest of us. We closed schools because "science" told us to and quite likely did more harm than good.
But you make a larger point than Covid. How do we as individuals keep an open mind? How much are we willing to at least consider views that run counter our preferred narrative? What if some reviled member of the other tribe actually makes a good point? Are we ready to speak up in our social group? I wish my personal history was a consistent story of courage in the face of social pressure. Alas, not so much, not so often.
Of course, opining on the hot topics of the day is not my bread and butter. I find that the world gets along quite nicely without my 2-cents. But you have my gratitude for giving voice to these issues and most especially for doing so with thoughtful and well reasoned commentary. I look forward to your next post.
"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?"
As an academic with tenure, I feel very certain that it does.
Anyway, I think this is one of your best posts. Bravo.
This piece convinced me to become a paid subscriber
One wierd thing about self censorship is when you hear people being rabid partisans, and you can tell that they're just kind of juicing each other up with rhetoric, but you don't actually disagree with anything in particular they're saying. It's more just that you notice they're being a little myopic and all the conversations they have just so happen to be organized around the narratives they want to advance. I have a little trouble figuring out in those situations if I should be trying to inject some alternative perspectives or if I should just shut up so long as nothing explicitly wrong is being said and save myself the dirty looks.
I heard friends and family say lots of things condeming the racism of conservatives drawing attention to the Chinese origins of covid, and disparaging the deliberate release as a conspiracy theory. I couldn't decide if I wanted to stick my neck out and be like "ok fair enough but it is from China and it might be from a lab..." Or if I should just let them vent undisturbed. In a situation like that it's hard to see how anything much turns on me injecting that point into the conversation and it's just going to make me look cringe.
I think this is something akin to the "Overton Window"?
Well said. I always supported the lab leak theory and I remember my boyfriend and his brother’s reactions. They were shocked. But this theory seems to come with bad intend and they never considered the accidental aspect. Whatever people believe, the sad part is being associated with Trump when we word our doubts. During COVID, people in French rural Quebec became Trump supporters and started to follow the QAnon conspiracy and the stolen election drama, and of course, they drank everything that was said about COVID. Now, me saying I didn’t agree with all the sanitary measures and considering the leak, many supposed I didn’t believe COVID was real and it was very sad. I don’t see why my doubts position me on any kind of political spectrum. Or ideology spectrum as well. I either agree or disagree or something in between with ideas, no colour needed.
Seeing how China handled the pandemic, and people around Wuhan, it just gives credit to the theory. Thanks for sharing this thought.
I read your post the day it appeared but have needed a few days to sort out a response. Part of my difficulty relates to what I have done for a living, and the values I hold. But I freely admit that my response to the issue, lab leak or wet market origin, was flawed by that occupation and those values. Really, I should have better equipped to make a coherent parsing of the question, due to a bias on my part.
I am a retired wildlife biologist, holder of an M.S., and also retired as a college instructor in a School of Natural Resources. Primarily I am an ornithologist and forest ecologist, living in Appalachian southeastern Ohio. And I have been a life-long conservationist, leading me to be assigned to teach courses in Conservation Biology at multiple colleges.
When I first heard of Covid, and its possible origin in the Wuhan wet market, that was a hypothesis that immediately grabbed my attention. And, I am afraid, my support. I understand that you, Sarah, and most of your readers are not biologists or naturalists. But perhaps some of you are aware of fairly recent books such as The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, and Spillover by David Quammen (an awesome writer. All discuss the impact of habitat destruction, hunting for bush meat, and capture of wild animals for sale as exposing humans to transmission of novel diseases such as Ebola. And, of course, most people have heard something about "bird flu", and the movement of viruses such as H1N1 between humans and domestic animals. I taught about these things. So, I was primed by my training and conservation concerns to accept the market origin, as confirmation of what many wildlife and human health people feared was coming down the pike.
But, hey, I am also just a plain old biologist, who learned and taught about viruses, bacteria, etc. It was remiss of me to dismiss the lab origin hypothesis, based upon my priors. And perhaps it is because I am a "whole organism" biologist and shun the lab "geeks". Some of that is resentment that the lab folks have been gathering an increasing share of the funds going to biology departments, especially for biomedical research. Yes, that's important, but I know several world-class paleontologists at the local university (Ohio U.) who only have jobs because they can teach physiology to pre-med students and scratch out time to do the research they (and I) truly love.
Sorry, this went on a bit long. I have come around to the view that a lab leak origin is the much more parsimonious hypothesis. Guess my flawed thinking is an example of the old saw that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Musk taking over Twitter should help. Either "public intellectuals" are about to get exposed to a lot more heterodoxy, or else they'll all rage-quit the platform entirely which should moderate their exposure to the "respectable opinions" echo chamber.