“…truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.”
–William Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice
So, when this series started, this was always the point at which this series was going to become tricky. It is very difficult to talk about the problematic conspiracy theories floating out in the world without being dismissive of the strongly held beliefs of some members of the community we serve… the very baroque, intertwining nature of conspiracy theories means they take time to unwind, and I am intentionally not going to do that. As things have evolved, the world gave us a bit of a gift: the COVID lab theory, once considered a conspiracy theory is now, well, not entirely that, and how an idea makes that transition from #conspiracytheory to #notaconspiracytheory is something worth tracing back and turns out to be useful structure on which to hang this blog post, so here we go.
Early in the pandemic, lo these many months ago, we were informed that the likely source of the pandemic was a wet market in Wuhan, China. The theory was that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is zoonotic and the first people to contract COVID-19 got it from animals at this wet market. At the same time, there was a theory floating around that sounded like something straight out of Stephen King’s The Stand (and, really, while it would have been much less pleasant to live through than our last year, that book was vastly more entertaining than the slow-motion uncertainty of our collective pandemic experience… nothing like a taut narrative arc to take the sting out of living through a horror novel) and involved a virus engineered in a lab that managed to break out into the world at large. This lab theory had definite conspiracy-theory-like markers and was generally disregarded by mainstream news outlets. It was also generally believed to be the source of an alarming increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence in the USA. A scan of current mainstream reporting about the origins of COVID-19 yields different information: the idea that the wet market was a super spreader event and that the initial cases may have come from folks who did, in fact, work in a lab is now surfacing. NOTE: the dramatic Stand-esque storyline is still NOT in play, this is a subtler discussion than that and speaks to the uniquely twisty logical paths conspiracy theories often follow.
The Washington Post did a great summary of the history of this origin story debate that posted just days ago as of this writing. You can find that post here: https://apple.news/ARuu1nU73Q_SwwVTnbN0HxA. It’s an excellent synopsis of the current back-and-forth that has brought the lab leak theory out of ”conspiracy theory” territory and back into the mainstream. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is not a discussion of malicious actors bioengineering a virus and sending it out into the world, super-villain style. The lab leak discussion in the scientific community assume positive intent and honest mistakes. AND the consensus is that we just don’t know enough to know for sure… which is the frustrating thing about watching scientific thinking evolve in real time. Evidence is being sought out, competing hypotheses are being tested, and at the end of the day, we may not ever know for sure. What we do know is that the scientific community, now that they aren’t devoting all of their energy to managing the outbreak, has time and energy to talk about the source of the outbreak… and to disagree… and to do science, which is the job at which they are experts, they just don’t usually have these sorts of disagreements on a national stage in front of the news media.
But here’s the thing about the original Wuhan Lab/Stand-esque Conspiracy Theory and the newly surfaced willingness of scientists to discuss an evidence-based lab story: what they are considering is way less interesting and entertaining than the super-villain origin story that delighted conspiracy theorists. Folks who worked at the lab may have gotten the disease first accidentally, left the lab, and spread it to the general population in Wuhan… then there was a super-spreader event at a Wuhan wet market… then the entirety of last year happened. No nuclear showdown in Las Vegas with a villain from the Stephen King Multiverse (satisfying narrative arcs are so much neater than real life, seriously)… more’s the pity.
One commonly offered trick for identifying conspiracy theories is thinking about the number of people who would have needed to keep a secret in order for it to remain that way. With theories such as 9/11 trutherism (or the idea that the September 11 attacks were a governmental false flag operation) and moon landing conspiracies, the number is a lot. A lot of people would have needed to keep a really juicy secret for a really long time. One scientist has actually created a formula to estimate the number of people it would take to keep a secret to keep the evidence of such a deception from coming to light. More on that here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/math-formula-charts-the-lifespan-of-hoaxes. Longer time and larger numbers of people who needed to be “in the know” make the odds that the story is being kept secret by malicious actors much, much less likely. The point being, in most cases, eventually, the truth will out.
So, to summarize, science takes time. Keep in mind that, while scientists were ultimately able to identify the source of the 2002 SARS epidemic, it did take until 2017 for scientists to successfully identify the specific critter (palm civets) from which it originated. This is very much an ongoing discussion… it is my hope that by deconstructing the lab leak scenario we can learn more about some of the other conspiracies that seem to be impacting the fabric of our country and our community. To find out more, tune in next time to see if I can finally pull this together.
Special bonus JCLS Library Connect Blog shout out: After our last post about why people believe in conspiracy theories, FiveThirtyEight, which is known for its statistical wonkishness, did an excellent article on the same topic with some cool interactive components. If you are interested in a deeper dive into the “why” of conspiracy theories, you can read that article here: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-people-fall-for-conspiracy-theories/.