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The Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Is a Tale of Weaponized Uncertainty

Does any of that mean, as Washington Post fact-checkers and Wall Street Journal editorialists have written, that the lab leak hypothesis has gained “credibility?”

Or, let me ask again: If the virus that causes Covid-19 didn’t jump from animals to people, where did it come from?

Was it an animal virus that scientists collected for study and then accidentally released? Worse, did scientists do so-called gain-of-function research on a natural virus, making it more likely to pandemicize, and then accidentally release it? Or even worse than that, did they try to make a bioweapon that got out accidentally? The most worst: Did they intentionally release a bioweapon?

The truest answer is: Probably not, but maybe. And that’s the real problem here. The evidence hasn’t changed since spring of 2020. That evidence was always incomplete, and may never be complete. History and science suggest the animal-jump is way more likely than the lab-leak/cover-up thing. So now what we’re talking about is how people frame their views around the crummy evidence we have.

Except not all frames are alike. You are seeing, in real time, the sometimes ugly and confusing search for a better answer—to get international accountability and scientific clarity. But you’re also witnessing the manufacture of uncertainty. Some of the people talking about a lab leak don’t want an answer. They want to amplify and in some cases even create, for mostly venal reasons, doubt. Because then they can leverage that doubt—in leaders, in scientists, in process—to hold or build power. It has worked so well that even presidents and the heads of national institutes have to respond.

The scientists who wrote that letter in Science don’t think the lab leak hypothesis has gotten more (or less) likely since last spring. The evidence hasn’t changed. As some of them told the New York Times, they hesitated to speak up when the Trumpists were fomenting anti-China sentiment, but they’d still like to make virology labs (and the world) safer.

But more writers have climbed on board. People with relevant expertise have spoken up; so have people without it—people just asking questions on social media, in magazine articles, on Medium. These little impressions, the circumstantial coincidences, the weirdly vehement early denials…they all add up to something, don’t they? Don’t they?

When scientists say “we’re not totally sure,” they mean their analysis of some event or outcome includes a statistical possibility that they’re wrong. They never go 100 percent. Sometimes they think they might possibly be wronger than others. This is the world of confidence intervals, of mathematical models and curves, of uncertainty principles. But non-scientists hear “we’re not totally sure,” as “so you mean there’s a chance?” It’s the mad interstitial space between scientific—let’s say, statistical—uncertainty and the meaning of normal human uncertainty. This is where “just asking questions [wink]” lives.

It’s a subtle difference. When Tony Fauci says he’d like to get more certainty, for example, he most likely means that, yeah, all things being equal, it’s better to know than not know—especially if that’s the way the political winds are blowing.

But when political actors like senators and right-wing TV commentators talk about this uncertainty, this doubt, they’re trying to jam a crowbar into this gap in understanding and lever it open. They’re still hinting that the Chinese government is doing something sneaky here, something warlike—and that even the scientists think it’s possible. Because if they can seem to have the backing of science, they can use that power elsewhere. They can bang shoes on tables about Biden administration inaction and Chinese skullduggery to distract from their lies about the election, about attempts to curtail voting rights, about the January 6 insurrection, about efforts to get the world vaccinated against the disease they claim to want to understand better.

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