761 Comments

Does anyone else feel like this whole thing is an argument that science should be done purely anonymously?

It seems impossible to separate ego and tribalism from these analyses. If everything HAD to be published anonymously, maybe that would remove all incentives or anything other than just getting the best evidence in a place where other people can evaluate it?

Expand full comment

Maybe? But then you have this problem:

"The “in SHAMBLES” is always a couple of papers that have “now debunked” the best papers of the other side. These come out on a regular schedule. They’re usually by people in unrelated fields - the ones I saw on COVID origins were by computer scientists, physicists, and agricultural scientists."

I don't know how you square anonymity with verifying credentials. And I don't think pseudonymity (a la our very own esteemed host) would alleviate the ego concerns.

When it's easy to flood the market of ideas with crap, "does this person have the background such that they can be expected to speak with accuracy on this?" is a good first filter.

Expand full comment
author

One option might be to have anonymous scientists, but nonanonymous journals (eg you don't know who this guy is, but they got into Nature so maybe you should take it seriously). I don't like this because it gives more power to journals, though.

Expand full comment

Journals are one solution to the problem of “how do I decide where to deploy my limited attention.” They used to be a solution to “how do I disseminate this idea,” which is now a solved problem.

You’re right that _any_ solution to the “what do I pay attention to” problem conveys immense power to whoever implements it. I think if we want liberalism to survive the Information Age, the only workable answer is people encoding their values in algorithms and using those + their social networks to determine where to deploy attention.

You can imagine replacing journals with approves/aggregators. So instead of “it’s published in this journal”, which is really “journal X this seriously” everything is published on the internet, and journals simply give their stamp of approval. So the same paper can be approved by three journals, rather than published only in one.

Anyone can then decide whether or not to take seriously journals that ignore papers I consider important. Not approving a paper now signifies a rejection of its importance, which carries its own risks. Does this reduce the power of individual journals by making them compete?

Expand full comment

It certainly would reduce their rent-seeking power, which something tells me is the most desired one.

Expand full comment

If I know anything about academic publishing houses (and I published 20+ papers in journals) this will quickly devolve into the publishing editors contacting the authors with a "pay us X and we will give you the stamp".

And if you think that those journals that do that will fail because they will be outcompeted by those who actually do due diligence, I have a one word reply for you: "sigh".

Expand full comment

How about basing it on public-key cryptography? Key-signing follows successful thesis defense, then everyone involved is sworn to secrecy, and reputable journals (or at least some consistent subset thereof) refuse to publish anything from an unsigned key, or a key whose true name their peer reviewers are able to establish beyond reasonable doubt based on open-source evidence, while reviewers are likewise disqualified if the paper's author is able to identify them.

That way it'd be possible to build up a reputation for expertise in particular fields without journals being able to gatekeep - since messages, or even cash payments, provably passing to and from the same private key aren't restricted to any particular channel - but leveraging that reputation as social-media clout personalized enough to be properly ego-gratifying would soon force retirement from serious research.

Expand full comment

Having the background to speak with some degree of accuracy is also the background that would lead someone to have a vested interest in *not* being accurate about certain sensitive topics. Like some of those communications of virologists and funders from early in the pandemic that lab leak proponents wave around- zoonosis vs lab leak didn't really matter; it was a threat to GoF research either way.

Everything is tradeoffs.

Expand full comment

I think this is very wrong.

Firstly, anonymity doesn't stop ego and tribalism. The internet is the most anonymous place in the world, and it's also the most egoistic and tribalist. Look at us here in The Best BTL Community That Exists - we still get into arguments fairly frequently.

Secondly, real name accountability is what makes people calm down. Anonymous arguers melt away. They don't have to come back the next day and deal with the fallout - e.g. that instead of getting on with their jobs, everyone in the building has to have *another meeting* about the utility of ivermectin because Cregg in Accounting just can't leave it alone. At some point, Cregg has to prove his case or get fired. (Sorry, that's a dumb example, but I hope the point holds.)

Expand full comment
Apr 11·edited Apr 11

100 percent agree.

I'm old enough to have sipped the 1980s/1990s kool aid about widespread public Internet usage becoming an improving change for civic discourse. Obviously today it's difficult and frankly a bit embarrassing to recall the logic of that hope. But anyway it's seemed clear for a good while now that normalizing online anonymity has on balance been disastrous.

I totally recognize and agree with the arguments for anonymity, to be clear! But sadly, at scale it is a force multiplier for some of the worst human instincts. Making it a default expectation online has, all things considered at least in the developed world, turned out to have been a huge unforced error. And taking the scientific world to that same place would be ultimately tragic.

Expand full comment
Apr 9·edited Apr 9

I don't think the problem here is ego or tribalism. The debate is long because people think they are right and there are a lot of possible branches in it.

To me it feels like we need some better way to structure debates.

Expand full comment

YES. I used to think Kialo was a great idea, but it seemed nobody was interested. Have you seen it before?

Expand full comment

Yes I know it, and I also think the idea is great.

It is unfortunate than people aren't more interested, I think it is because people aren't used to it, and it isn't done exactly right or there are some important functionality lacking.

I was also interested in this project : https://github.com/canonical-debate-lab/paper

Expand full comment

I imagine that would also remove most incentive to do science. We dont rely on saints to build our best companies, we let money do the work. Scientist get prestige (and sometimes money) and on net its better than having to rely entirely on however many saints we can produce.

Expand full comment

I think public goods are very different from businesses. These giant companies all use open source software, which is a public good and produced on a model that I think generally works better than publicly funded science.

If goods and services are cheap enough, independent wealth becomes doable and acts as a kind of “free market tenure.” That plus patronage plus corporate funded science I think will get better results than the current setup where most academic papers are not read by anyone.

Expand full comment

Georgist LVT + UBI would make de facto independent wealth the default for everyone, greatly reducing the need for corporate funding or other patronage, and hopefully also concomitant bias.

Expand full comment

I think there are some pros and cons.

On the plus side, there is less pressure to conform to the narrative of your tribe.

On the negative side, with a name attached to the researcher you can at least look up their other publications and get a gut feeling of how biased they are.

If someone claims a surprising result, I might take it serious if they have some academic reputation which they stake on it, but completely ignore it if it was just some crank churning out one revolutionary paper a day.

A case could be made to keep the author anonymous from the reviewers who make the recommendation to publish it in a journal or not. While this would get rid of credentialism ("Well, he is a famous professor, we should be honored to publish his paper"), there are again trust issues. A published academic is less likely to publish a paper using made up data, or plagiarized from another journal. An uncredentialed outsider has no reputation to stake, so they might submit a paper hallucinated by a LLM for shits and giggles.

Expand full comment

Journal submission via public-key cryptography, with keys signed by initial thesis committee and then various co-authors, could in principle allow a professional reputation to be built up based on someone's previous relevant work and absolutely nothing else.

Expand full comment

"The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."

Going a little past that, I suspect there is a lifecycle to institutional information sources: (1) an institution will gain reputation as they make public(izable) statements that turn out to be true and relevant (and therefore useful); (2) the reputation for speaking useful truths eventually attracts people who want to harness that reputation for advocacy or propaganda (I may be repeating myself); (3) those people eventually get in (barring institutional resistance), degrading the truth-alignment and therefore the usefulness of the institution.

People still want to know true things, so in a free market *someone* eventually goes back to (1), albeit probably not at the same institution.

Expand full comment

Does anyone else feel that this situation is more evidence that this is all a waste of time for them to pay attention to because they only have X hours in the day, and if people laser focused on it seem to vehemently disagree with animosity, the different conclusions are more likely to be something like “the same hard-coded priors that cause political and religious differences”?

I’m glad someone else is looking at this for sure, but it seems like it would be foolish for me to claim to know anything beyond “people are fighting about it, this one group says X, this other group says Y.”

That seems like it would have worked better through most of the history of science, rather than trying to, eg pick between gradual and calamitous theories of geological formation, the hot button issue of a few centuries back.

Expand full comment

This is what I've been thinking. Almost none of what I believe about the rest of the world hinges on whether or not the virus is from a lab leak or a zoonosis. China shouldn't have wet markets, there shouldn't be gain-of-function research, scientists shouldn't supress debate or mislead journalists about what they think just because they don't like the social implications.

Yes, it's important to have correct knowledge, but it seems like this is a debate that will never be resolved without more information of the right kind.

I don't understand why animosity is necessary in debates like this.

Expand full comment

Well... the cost/benefit ratio of gain-of-function research depends on how reliable BSL facilities are at preventing lab leaks, a statistic which in turn will be affected to some non-zero extent by whether a lab leak in fact took place at the WIV. I think the frequency of (well-documented) lab-leaks from other facilities is high enough to plausibly justify a ban regardless, and it's not like the Wuhan biolab was an impregnable fortress in terms of security procedures. I do feel a little annoyed about not being exposed to useful rebuttals to the furin-cleavage-site argument sooner, though I suppose I could have gone digging on my own initiative.

I don't think anyone disagrees about shutting down wet markets.

Expand full comment

Yeah, that's sort of why I said almost none what I believe depends on lab leak. I'll admit my reasoning with regard to the lab leak theory was a little biased, but in the opposite way, which I don't feel great about. Namely, I have been more partial to zoonosis from the start than lab leak, which seems discordant with what should have been my priors. I had an impression of the historical track record of lab leaks, so I should have suspected that from the start, but I didn't put two and two together until more information came to light. In the end, it's not my area, so I didn't feel like investing a lot of time on it.

But I feel like in a lot of debates, there's a lack of practicality that makes them higher stakes than they otherwise would be. For instance, a lot of solutions to climate change would be good regardless of what people believe about whether or not it's happening or human caused. If the Earth isn't warming now, it will at some point in the future, so we should develop geoengineering techniques address that. Energy abundance combined with a resilient and diversified power grid is a good thing to do as well. But people seem to want to disagree with animosity no matter what the topic is.

Expand full comment

I'm not totally unsympathetic to green policy objectives on paper, though I reckon either nuclear or space-based solar are the most feasible long-term solutions here, but I think Scott already went over the reasons why climate change is overhyped as an existential threat to humanity. Obviously, the flip side is pretending it doesn't exist at all.

There's a theory that people broadcast preposterous convictions as either a conscious or unconscious mechanism for signalling in-group loyalty in the absence of other mechanisms for friend/enemy recognition (such as war-bonds, local relationships and/or genetic proximity.) I hate this idea, but I can't say it's incompatible with observation of contemporary western politics.

Expand full comment

Yeah, I agree about nuclear and space-based solar. I'm actually pleasantly surprised someone brought up space-based solar, it's been thought about for ages, but rarely talked about in energy debates or in currently common space-colonization schemes. My larger point about energy is that we should be pursuing as many options as possible for getting it, storing it, and using it efficiently in a variety of ways.

I agree that anthropogenic climate change is overhyped, much to the detriment of energy abundance discourse. One perspective I find interesting about acknowledging that it's happening is that we can basically declare success in our first, albeit unintentional, geoengineering experiment. People should be proud we accomplished something like that because it gives us options when natural climate change occurs.

Whatever the reason for Western politics, I agree it's dysfunctional.

Expand full comment

There's a good reason people don't talk much about space-based solar. It just doesn't pencil out.

Expand full comment

The problem with geoengineering is that the world is a complex system and every intervention has unpredictable side effects. There's no magic bullet, but talking as if there is a magic bullet might make people feel like they have an excuse to make the problem worse.

Expand full comment

I think we can either intervene unintentionally the way we are currently, without any regard to consequences good or bad, or we can try to be responsible. I don't think there's a magic bullet, we will have to engage in many different coordinated projects to be successful. I'm also not saying it's easy. But I don't think non-intervention is possible with nearly 8 billion people on the planet.

Expand full comment

I guess you mean anyone here. Wet markets are pretty common and nobody is shutting them down, so there must be a lot of people who really like them.

Expand full comment

Fair enough.

Expand full comment

My understanding is, it's not that the government doesn't genuinely want to shut them down, or that most of the populace wants them to remain in place. Rather, the government's efforts to shut them down are stymied by corruption. The national government hands down directives to shut them down, but at a lower level, the enforcers see this as an avenue to extract bribes, the people running businesses at wet markets bribe the officials as part of the cost of remaining in business, and the majority of the population who don't patronize them ignore them.

They're an embarrassment to the government, not simply because they're defying international sentiment on the risks, but because they showcase the government's weakness, that they don't actually have the power to get rid of them without what they consider an unacceptable cost in social capital.

Expand full comment

It's somewhat amazing that the CCP were able to shut down their own people's rate of reproduction more easily than they were able to shut down consumption of bat-meat and boiling of live dogs.

Expand full comment

This might be terminology confusion? A wet market is a market that sells fresh food, such as a farmer's market, in contrast to a dry market which sells stuff like fabrics and electronics.

Expand full comment

I think that's not the definition people are usually using in these debates, although I don't know the technically correct definition.

Expand full comment

Yeah, I think most people are talking about markets with live animals, but the terminology could be confusing.

Probably because we don't use the term wet market in western countries (we call them farmer's markets), and there was a lot of talk in the news about wet markets during COVID, people started misusing the term.

Expand full comment

Hearing Scott Adams' podcast I've become aware of persuasion and 'sticky' words, and 'wet market' is sticky for all the right reasons. Wet. Germ transmission. A tinge of yuck: blood, mucus, who knows what else, that brings an emotional content. And the words rhyme. It's got all the ingredients. Accuracy in description counts--but not as much as emotional stickiness.

Expand full comment

It seems to me that there are really two debates here, the object level debate, which like you, I don't care too much about.

And a debate about how we should analyse data and different hypothesis, and also how we should debate them, which is what RootClaim is about, and I care more about that.

The object level debate seems more like some kind of test to the epistemic positions to me.

Expand full comment
Apr 9·edited Apr 9

I don't think any animosity is needed, but I think the animosity come from there being too much stuff to read/analyse/respond to, and people being sort of overwhelmed by it.

And also some sort of "I think this argument/analysis will finally work to convince", and this failing to be the case, which could be frustrating, even when all parties are reasonables.

Expand full comment

That makes the animosity seem even worse to me. If one of the goals is to test a new epistemic method for determining which explanations work best, then the people involved should be even less inclined to bring their egos into it. I think epistemology is difficult to improve on at this point. I know that one of the goals of this blog and others is to do just that, but at this point I think the scientific method is really, really good to the degree its principles are instantiated and incentivized. It's unlikely that any one person will make dramatic improvements, so people that try should be humble about it. I get that the people involved are humans with kludgy brains, but this could have been fun, especially if the object level debate has little practical value given the policies that follow from both a lab leak theory and a zoonotic theory.

Expand full comment

Yes, it wasn't a justification of the animosity, just one possible explanation (and I am really unsure it is a correct explanation to be clear).

Take into account I don't feel like there is a lot of animosity, it still seems mostly ok to me.

Expand full comment
Apr 12·edited Apr 12

I've been stuck on the animosity question for days, and Scott labeling it as a fight and saying he doesn't like fights, and it's swirling in my head next to the map of the initial infections.

From inside of Scott's presented narrative (not accepting it as gospel, just trying to understand it), it sure sounds to me like we’re back at mistake theory arguing with conflict theory. Often the lab leak proponents in this narrative have as a direct object the individuals on the other side of the debate (e.g. "Scientists back away from" "the guy making the claim is slippery"), not just their arguments. Saar parses Scott's take on Rootclaim with "sadly, Scott seemingly hadn’t enough time to" "dig into our analysis and fully understand it." Poor Scott!

On an intuitive level, this is not inherently a judgment for or against either side. If the consensus narrative is wrong, then we should ask if something is also wrong with the gatekeepers of consensus. If there is a conspiracy (and, dammit, there was at least one, so we can't just go "that sounds paranoid"), the conspirators have done wrong, possibly with a direct known cost in human lives, not simply made an error and failed to properly update for the next pandemic. Whereas those siding with the consensus narrative have the relative luxury of focusing on the problem, because consensus gatekeepers don't normally need defending within the consensus. (I remember once seeing a Punnett Square on changes to the status quo, with Support and Oppose on one axis and Active and Passive on the other, and then the Passive Oppose box was Xed out because Passive Opposition to the Status Quo works out exactly the same as Passive Support in practice.)

Then... iunno, something something conflict something something Moloch something something everyone ends up with chocolate in their peanut butter and you've got animosity and a fight. I wish after days of thinking about this I had a better conclusion, but I don't.

Expand full comment

...Centuries? I thought plate tectonics wasn't really settled on until the 1970s?

Expand full comment

But catastrophism vs gradualism was largely settled in favor of gradualism centuries ago. (Of course, we now have a tempered gradualism, where the vast majority of geology is gradual, apart from a few special flood basalts and meteor impacts.)

Expand full comment

Ah, I see.

Expand full comment

That's mostly my conclusion too. I was leaning lab leak due to skimming Michael Weissman's blog and thinking this guy looks like he weighed the evidence in detail. I'm grateful for Peter and Scott's work, which sounds even more convincing. But at this point it feels like a waste of time to spend more time on this.

Expand full comment

I feel like I got the opposite impression here. A bunch of people who were gung ho about lab leak a few months ago have now been convinced for zoonosis, and it was worth paying attention to that. Beyond that though, it’s like trying to follow a scientific debate in a field that isn’t your own - very little will come of it and it’s better to let the people who spent the time and effort understanding it report what they think.

Expand full comment

This was my impression, too. “These people changed their opinions” does seem like useful information to me. Especially Scott, given I trust him to try his best to be fair and I think he really does a better job than almost anyone. I don’t see a point in going much deeper than “people I trust think there are multiple distinct lines of evidence pointing at the market”. Maybe I’ll get around to watching this debate, but an hour? I don’t see the utility matching the cost.

Expand full comment

It has been a "fascinating" back and forth about one of the least interesting questions of the pandemic, for sure.

Expand full comment

This is why I like this blog. I wish the media would do more stuff like this. Very interesting, and now I feel like I have an informed opinion on something that two weeks ago I would’ve punted on. Kudos to Peter.

Expand full comment

OK, so if we don't over-focus on tiny details (which is what Peter's argument is), then after all that discussion what we still get is:

1. A novel coronavirus emerges in the same city as a lab doing experiments on novel coronaviruses and not anywhere near where such viruses naturally occur, or in any of the other cities of the world where animals and humans come into regular contact.

2. PRC immediately blocked all investigations.

3. Self-proclaimed "prestigious scientists" thought a lab leak was "just so freaking likely", lied about it deliberately and then organized a PRC-style conspiracy to shut down all such speculation.

Sum that up and it looks very likely that it came from the lab and everyone with relevant expertise immediately realized that was the most likely probability.

For the specific questions about things like Brazil or whatever that seem baffling, all those apparent problems are only problems if you continue to accept that modern epidemiology has any accuracy or value. It doesn't, at all. These are the people who claimed with 100% confidence that COVID wouldn't be seasonal, that it spread in a homogenous population and it would grow without end until everyone had been infected unless there were hardcore lockdowns. No other respiratory virus works that way, and sure enough COVID cases turned out to be seasonal, to depend heavily in things like age and superspreaders, and to peak long before everyone was infected. Lockdowns meanwhile made no difference.

So if there was an early release that went around the world before it was officially recognized, we shouldn't be baffled by non-problems like "why did it not double every 3 days in Brazil" because that claim was wrong to begin with. There is no prestige, there is no skill. Computer scientists are far better at building models and agricultural scientists (or indeed workers) understand animal disease dynamics far better than academic epidemiologists. The people with prestige here are not the ones ignoring counter-arguments.

Expand full comment
author

I agree that 1, 2, and 3 are somewhat suspicious, but:

2. PRC had a weird relationship with investigations that I don't think it's fair to describe as "immediately blocked" - see my timeline above for details.

3. I'm not doubting this, but can you find me where a prestigious scientist said this? I find them saying things in other words, but a Google search for "just so freaking likely" doesn't bring up any results. Again, it wouldn't surprise me if this were true, I just want to find the primary source to see if I have an opinion on it.

I don't think epidemiology "has no accuracy or value" - for example, if you believe the lab leak theory, they exactly identified what features the next pandemic would need to have! Again, I see lots of epidemiologists saying in 2010 or 2015 or whenever that the next big pandemic would come from China, from a bat virus, and be related to SARS. All of those were true (even in case of lab leak).

I also think you're exaggerating the mistakes they made during the pandemic. I'm not sure I see anyone saying with 100% confidence that COVID wouldn't be seasonal (link me to someone if you have them), and it also doesn't seem super obvious that COVID *is* seasonal yet -looking at https://ourworldindata.org/explorers/coronavirus-data-explorer?country=~USA&Metric=Excess+mortality+%28estimates%29&Interval=7-day+rolling+average&Relative+to+Population=true&Color+by+test+positivity=false , I see peaks in April, December, September, January, and possibly another August and/or January. My guess (discussed at https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/diseasonality ) is that COVID will be non-seasonal for a while until everyone gets coordinated antibodies, then stabilize to a seasonal pattern. After forming this theory, I found a paper by Dr. Fauci who had already come up with it, which made me feel more fondly towards him. I feel the same about some of your other comments here.

I'm not sure that anything you say really explains why COVID didn't double every 3 days in Brazil. I think this might be confusing levels of understanding, like "doctors said that one Alzheimers drug would work and then it didn't, why should we believe them when they say injecting bleach into your veins won't kill you"?

Expand full comment

I mis-remembered the wording slightly:

https://unherd.com/2023/07/the-secret-messages-behind-the-lab-leak-cover-up/

> “The main thing still in my mind is that the lab escape version of this is so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario,” [Kristen Andersen] said.

Andersen is a molecular biologist who signed his name to a paper that appeared in Nature in March 2020 and was reported around the world, like here:

“The Discussion Is Basically Over”: Why Scientists Believe the Wuhan-Lab Coronavirus Origin Theory Is Highly Unlikely (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/05/why-scientists-believe-the-wuhan-lab-coronavirus-origin-theory-is-highly-unlikely)

The quote in question comes from a secret Slack channel called #project-wuhan_engineering in which a bunch of scientists organized the publication of anti-lab-leak papers, whilst simultaneously admitting that the claims were probably true. The contents of the channel were eventually obtained and they're interesting, you can see them talk themselves into believing the zoonosis theory over time even when they didn't start out that way. The justification for their conspiracy is also given here, they feared a "shitstorm" that would help Trump and maybe start WW3.

> I don't think epidemiology "has no accuracy or value" - for example, if you believe the lab leak theory, they exactly identified what features the next pandemic would need to have!

Virologists did that. Epidemiologists don't use any virological or genetic knowledge as part of their work. It's one of the things that surprised me when I first started reading epidemiology papers. Where's the science? It was all simulations and basic statistical extrapolation without any firm grounding in biology. Where I had expected to see complex formula that derived expected transmission characteristics from well verified micro-biology there were instead numbers they'd obtained from reading Chinese news reports, or just pulled out of their backsides, or simple derivatives of public data.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks for the Anderson quote. As I said on the original post, I agree that Anderson and other scientists acted maliciously in under-rating their real belief in lab leak. But I think if you look at all of Anderson's communications, you see someone who's not sure (to be more pessimistic about this, who's 50-50) and waiting for more evidence to come in, and who eventually found evidence that convinced him. I still agree he is bad.

First of all, many of the people I'm citing above are virologists - for example, I think Pekar's Lineage A vs. Lineage B molecular clock work is clearly virology by this definition. I also think Worobey (technically a professor of evolutionary biology) is more a virologist on this definition than an epidemiologist (and his previous work on genetic diversity in HIV is really good and AFAICT now proven correct). But also, I guess I find the epidemiology less dubious than you? Figure out where all the early cases are, figure out what's in the middle, check a bunch of records to make sure you got it right. Like, if you read Worobey 2022 ( https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715 ) including the supplementary text, I think it's both pretty straightforward and also pretty good work.

Expand full comment

Thing is, I'm not sure him being convinced or on the fence is meaningful. His salary depends on it being natural. His political ideology wants it to be natural. He really, really badly wants to believe it's natural. So when he says it's really friggin likely that it's not natural, that's a very strong piece of evidence. Later he manages to collect enough talking points that he convinces himself, but this isn't a rational process of detached evidence collection and analysis. Anyone can convince themselves of anything given enough time to work on it.

My views on epidemiology are mostly shaped by their approach in modelling papers, admittedly. I think the classical cholera style investigations are much more straightforward and potentially robust, except for the investigative approach making some assumptions that aren't necessarily true in this case:

1. That you are studying a natural process.

2. That your data is clean.

3. That cases transmit in a very localized way.

The third point may deserve some elaboration here. In the past, scientists have been quite comfortable with the idea of very long range transmission. In the 80s there was some attempts to investigate whether influenza could travel between continents on upper atmospheric air streams. The WHO investigation concluded SARS-1 travelled via air currents within and between buildings. Ferguson's department circa 2000 published a lot of papers on viral animal diseases like foot-and-mouth, in which they tried to model winds travelling over the landscape due to their belief that the virus was being blown between farms.

So if you're dealing with a virus like Ebola or one that transmits via water in a standalone well, plotting cases on a map will be helpful and accurate. If you're dealing with viruses that can travel long distances invisibly via very non-obvious routes, or hang in the air for long periods with only a small proportion of people who pass through it getting infected, it'd be easy to end up making plausible but incorrect inferences based on geographical proximity. I saw no attempt to tackle this possibility in any of the epidemiology papers I read. I had to learn about their willingness to entertain long range transmission from reading papers from the archives.

Expand full comment

> So when he says it's really friggin likely that it's not natural, that's a very strong piece of evidence.

Not if Andersen himself didn't have any good evidence for that opinion, which they didn't that early in the pandemic. He's speculating because there's a virology lab in Wuhan that studies coronaviruses. You're oddly simultaneously placing a lot of faith in Andersen's ability to determine the source of the virus in January 2020, while also placing very little faith in his ability to form an unbiased scientific opinion. He didn't and couldn't know where it came from; we know a lot more now than he knew then.

> very long range transmission... investigate whether influenza could travel between continents on upper atmospheric air streams

This feels like a hail Mary to support lab-leak. Odds of transmission of COVID drop drastically with distance. 2 meters outdoors is generally considered safe. Even if COVID could survive and travel unlimited long distances on air currents, the average amount of virus within a kilometer of an isolated infected person would be about 125 million times less than at 2 meters.

Expand full comment

I think there's a difference between shoe leather epidemiology and modeling based on biased data that has been handed to you by an authoritarian government. The first confirmed case is two to 8 weeks after the index case depending on which peer reviewed phylogeny you believe.

Also the worobey paper has 90 p values (!) and the statistical methods they used are completely confused. See the stoyan and chiu paper

Expand full comment

> I think Pekar's Lineage A vs. Lineage B molecular clock work is clearly virology by this definition

Have you seen this recent paper showing the Lineage B descended directly from Lineage A? https://academic.oup.com/ve/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ve/veae020/7619252?login=false

Expand full comment

> The justification for their conspiracy is also given here, they feared a "shitstorm" that would help Trump and maybe start WW3.

Well, that's something they put in their chat.

You have to be careful when people describe their own motives. If your only concern is that a lab leak might reflect poorly on you, because you work in a lab, it will still sound better to say "we can't let this get out, because what if it helped Trump?"

Expand full comment

Kevin Drum summarized the slack discussion you quote from here:

https://jabberwocking.com/i-read-the-entire-slack-archive-about-the-origin-of-sars-cov-2-there-is-no-evidence-of-improper-behavior/

Kevin provides a link to the full archive so that readers don’t have to take his word for it. In contrast, you don’t link directly to the archive and you don’t link to a blogger who in turn links to it.

I checked your quote of Anderson, and it is an accurate quote, appearing on pager 3. However, two messages later (still on page 3), Eddie Holmes says that his initial reaction to the lab leak theory was “can’t be true.”

You claimed that the scientists (plural) thought the lab leaks hypothesis was probably true, but the quote you used to support that claim is cherry picking because it doesn’t represent a sentiment shared by the other scientists. Furthermore, it’s cherry picked even as evidence of Anderson’s view. The next day Anderson discusses the probabilities again (page 5, 11:47 AM):

<blockquote>Natural selection and accidental release are both plausible scenarios explaining the data - and a priori should be equally weighed as possible explanations. The presence of furin a posteriori moves me slightly more towards accidental release, but it’s well above my paygrade to cell the shots on a final conclusion.</blockquote>

Here Anderson isn’t saying that the lab leak hypothesis is “probably true,” the position you ascribe to all four scientists. How do we square the two quotes from Anderson? The first is that “so friggin’ likely” means something along the lines of “likely enough that we cannot dismiss the possibility.” The other is that Anderson’s views changed overnight. Even if we accept the latter explanation, I still think your use of your Anderson quote is fundamentally misleading. “There was a 24 hour period when one of the scientists believed that the lab leak theory was probably true” is not what you claimed.

More generally, you accused the scientists of bad faith without evidence. Indeed, you now seem to partially walk that back, writing that they “talk themselves into believing the zoonosis theory over time even when they didn't start out that way.” The phrase “talk themselves into” implies that changes in their views weren’t driven by the evidence but you give no evidence of that. So their crime is that they argued about the evidence, updated their views as new evidence came in, and wrote a paper that reflected their beliefs at the time it was written.

Expand full comment

I think it's obvious that they all believed it could easily be true, hence why they were in a chatroom called #project-wuhan_engineering and were busy telling each other how important it was to squash any speculation about lab leaks.

Yes, they are also in denial and trying to find any get-out that would let them absolve any responsibility for their profession. Their views aren't really changing overnight, what's happening is pure panic and a desperate search for any kind of story that makes things better for them. Again, we're not watching neutral people and I'm not quoting them as experts. I even put "prestigious experts" in quotes originally, because they aren't prestigious and their "expertise", such as it is, is hopelessly compromised by bias.

> you accused the scientists of bad faith without evidence.

Lol. Are you serious. We know they acted in bad faith because we can read their chat logs where they collude on fake papers that claim things the authors don't believe are true, where they work together to confuse and distract journalists, and where they try to cover up what they are doing. There is mountains of evidence of bad faith. It's beyond question that this ENTIRE PROFESSION acted in bad faith.

Expand full comment

Yes, I’m serious. There's a syllogism that I've seen on the political right, which probably happens on the left as well:

1) Premise: The scientists behaved badly.

2) Premise: We have chat logs showing how the scientists behaved.

3) Conclusion: The logs contain evidence that the scientists behave badly.

4) Secondary conclusion: The first premise is supported by evidence.

That is circular reasoning. You may believe that “we know they acted in bad faith because we can read their chat logs,” but to actually know that, you would have to actually read the logs.

Expand full comment

I actually have read them which is why I was able to quote them, and in a just world they would be in prison.

Expand full comment

At the risk of beating a dead horse:

Robert Garry (Feb 2, 14:16): If nCov was not engineered then RatG13 or a very closely related Bat virus somehow ended up in a situation in nature like the poultry farms for H5.... That's very scary and perhaps engineered would be better - at least that can be regulated so it doesn't happen again.

Kristian Andersen (Feb 2, 19:25): Bob said it well... I'd prefer this thing being a lab escape so we have less reason to believe other coronas might do this again in the future.

Expand full comment

Sounds like Garry /also/ thinks it's unlikely to have happened in nature.

Expand full comment

> The justification for their conspiracy is also given here, they feared a "shitstorm" that would help Trump and maybe start WW3.

The closest to this that I can find is a comment by Andrew Rambaut (page 5, 11:53):

“Given the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural processes.”

Expand full comment

Separate subpost for thread readability:

Re: seasonality. Read any papers by Ferguson's lab from 2020. They were the most influential epidemiologists at that time, and key drivers behind lockdowns. The concept of multiple waves isn't considered at all. Their modelling all assumes one giant wave that overwhelms the entire health system of any country, that passes when 100% of the population has been infected. Lockdowns are presented as a way to "crush the curve" and spread the load out over time. They don't successfully predict that COVID will go away by itself over the summer, which is what happened.

The data is obviously very noisy but this is easier to see if we select test positivity rate (so controlling for varying numbers of tests), and look at the UK which is smaller so has more consistent climate patterns and yet still has high quality public data:

https://ourworldindata.org/explorers/coronavirus-data-explorer?facet=none&country=~GBR&Metric=Share+of+positive+tests&Interval=7-day+rolling+average&Relative+to+Population=true&Color+by+test+positivity=false

We see clear evidence that positivity rates are low in the summer, and go up in winter, then low in summer again. Sometimes there's a smaller wave around August. This is how other respiratory viruses behave, so, it's what we'd expect to see for COVID as well. This expectation was verified early on by the outbreak on the the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which ended with most of the ship having not fallen sick.

So although you're looking at US data, I'm not sure how you can see the clearly multi-wave shaped structure with depressions in summer and not see some seasonality there. At the very least, we can agree that it's not one massive wave.

So why did epidemiologists not predict this? Having read many dozens of their papers, I think the answer is because their field lacks any firm foundation in well validated theory. It's not micro-biology. They don't know why respiratory viruses are seasonal, or why epidemics come in waves that end before everyone is infected. Nor do they know how to find out, because they are desk-bound spreadsheet jockeys and not really scientists who do experiments or lab work. Many of them don't even have any training in biology. Ferguson used to do physics. Others clearly have a stats background. So they just .... guess (make assumptions). And if they don't know how to guess something, they just ignore it. The results are reams of nearly identical papers that make predictions without validating them against reality.

> I'm not sure that anything you say really explains why COVID didn't double every 3 days in Brazil.

Epidemics don't grow exponentially, they have logistic growth patterns.

Expand full comment
author

I don't find your data presentation that convincing for perfect seasonality - eg the spike in April (maybe it's cheating to take when it was first introduced? but I thought that was part of our discussion), then the dual (but separate) spikes in October and January), then a crash in the spring, a bit more in summer, etc. I think that matches "pandemic which has some factors pushing it to be seasonal, but hasn't fully entrained itself to a seasonal rhythm" pattern.

Re: lockdowns - I can't really argue against your critique of that paper, because I'm stuck on a more fundamental question - why didn't scientists expect that, even if all of their assumptions were correct and the lockdown worked, they would have to keep it going forever or else the epidemic would restart as soon as they stopped?

Since this makes no sense, I'm forced to assume they were doing something moderately sensible like trying to spread things out to preserve hospital capacity, or delay until a vaccine was invented or something. But nobody specifically said this and I admit I'm trying to be charitable. I can't really analyze any of the other assumptions behind lockdowns (like that cases would come in one big bolus) until I understand their basic point.

(that having been said, I think it's true that when a novel virus reaches an unexposed population with no lockdowns or behavior changes, cases will start in one big bolus, and I don't think anything that's happened has disproved this. I think most of COVID happening in waves has as much to do with behavior change - voluntary or forced - as seasonality, although as my Diseasonality post says, I don't think those are necessarily uncorrelated).

I'm not sure what you mean by exponential vs. logistic - growth is highly path-dependent at the beginning, and logistic at the end, but in the middle there's a period where you expect it to approximate exponential, at least moreso than "only twenty people in Brazil get the disease and then it goes away for no reason".

Expand full comment

That's OK, I accept the seasonality isn't perfect. The huge spike at the start in April in the UK data is an artifact of tests being highly limited at that time, so they were only being used to confirm already known cases. As tests became more available random testing became prevalent and positivity rate starts to mean something. So we're seeing a vastly magnified tail end of the winter 2020 season there.

> nobody specifically said [they were trying to spread things out] and I admit I'm trying to be charitable

They did say that specifically, over and over. Very odd that you don't recall this, perhaps the discussion in the USA looked different. Here's an entire Wikipedia article all about the 2020 strategy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flattening_the_curve

"The origins of the expression date back to 2007, though during the COVID pandemic the expression became a repeated "sound bite" used by numerous medical and non-medical individuals in the media"

Here's an example:

https://twitter.com/itvnews/status/1238160224181268480?lang=en

Boris Johnson: "This will help us delay and flatten the peak, squash that sombrero."

Here's an article from April 1st in the NEJM saying that the goal should not be to flatten the curve but to crush the curve:

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2007263

So the whole spreading-it-out strategy was very widely discussed.

> I'm not sure what you mean by exponential vs. logistic

Epidemiologists claimed COVID would grow exponentially until everyone had been infected. In reality epidemics always have a roughly bell-curve shape (often skewed rightwards). This isn't what the word exponential means. An exponential curve would go upwards continuously. In other words, assuming for simplicity a population with a power of two size, the last day of an epidemic would see half the population all be infected simultaneously and then the next day the epidemic would vanish, having nobody left to infect. Obviously that isn't something that's ever happened. Instead you see growth start slowly, then speed up, then slow down, until it vanishes into a long tail of background noise (until the next wave).

Expand full comment

I don't see how you current claim curve-flattening relates to your original claim that lockdowns don't work.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_lockdown_in_the_United_Kingdom#/media/File:UK-lockdown+lifting.png

Expand full comment

That was in response to Scott saying he didn't understand the rationale for lockdowns to begin with and that it was pointless to discuss lockdowns further until that was clear.

That they don't work (along with masks, contact tracing etc) is obvious and widely discussed, there's no need to repeat that whole discussion here when it's been done to death elsewhere and the conclusions are certain.

Expand full comment
Apr 9·edited Apr 9

"Flatten the curve" and "hammer and dance" were *extremely* common in the US discussion too; I suspect Scott has just blocked out that time period after everything that followed it (and the parenting thing can be a bit of a brain-drain too).

Edit: I was curious, so here's Scott on flatten the curve:

https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/03/19/coronalinks-3-19-20/

https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/lockdown-effectiveness-much-more

Expand full comment

I remember hearing "flatten the curve" over and over, across many forms of media, during the first months of the pandemic. Today is the first I have ever heard of "hammer and dance.," either the Medium piece itself or the phrase. Apparently the latter was viral? Must have missed me (wouldn't be the first time something viral missed me). Anyone else remember "hammer and dance" being a common phrase in the US?

Expand full comment

> But nobody specifically said this and I admit I'm trying to be charitable.

I'm confused about what you're saying here. Justifications for lockdowns shifted a bit over time, and I don't think there was ever unanimity among the establishment, but there were obviously lots of people saying we should "flatten the curve", even before the first lockdowns began.

Expand full comment

Could the seasonality including April and August be related to allergens? I am going through a non-COVID, initially viral, multi-month bout of illness that has been greatly exacerbated by pollen. Could increased coughing and such provide an addition day of contagiousness? Or perhaps assumption that the cause of symptoms is non-biological influences behavior in ways more likely to aid transmission (e.g. go play racketball indoors rather than....)?

Expand full comment

Logistic growth, 1/(1 + e^(-x)), is very close to exponential growth when not near the inflection point. Until you reach about halfway to the inflection point (about 5.5 days before the inflection point if the doubling rate is about 3.5 days), then the growth is doubling very close to every 3.5 days.

Whether you use an exponential function or a logistic function, you still end up with hundreds of thousands of COVID cases in Brazil.

Expand full comment

One possible element of the PRC government response that I don't recall seeing discussed in the comments is that there speculation that the PLA was conducting bio-warfare research at WIV. (Please note, this is not saying that Covid-19 was specifically a bio-weapon or even necessarily related to any military research). If that's the case, and I seem to recall several intelligence agencies had at least some confidence it was, then it creates a strong incentive for PRC to shut down anyone looking in depth at the WIV, and certainly would bar complete transparency to outside researchers. You can't just fling open the doors and records in a spirit of open source cooperation when there's classified military stuff in the facility.

I have no idea, personally, if it's true, but it's been mentioned, and if true, it would create some very confusing incentive patterns where the WIV records would get completely stonewalled and downplayed, while simultaneously the Wuhan authorities (who never want to look bad to the upper layers of PRC government) would be downplaying the wet market stuff. So everybody is obfuscating on slightly different terms, but there's a very strong blackout on WIV questions.

I only mention it because this is pretty close to how I model pretty much every data source out of Wuhan - everyone lying but with slightly different focus, and absolute bar on WIV transparency due to classified military stuff.

Expand full comment

Prestige is the mechanism used to train a large language model: reward it for saying what sounds right, rather that acting in correspondence with an accurate predictive model of reality. Should it be a surprise that LLM-like mechanisms produce LLM-like results, ie “sounding right”?

Expand full comment

The PRC covered up the wet market outbreak, or at least the local branch at Wuhan did. However, they released information about an outbreak of pneumonia on Dec 31 which the WHO read (previously this was reported by the WHO as China informing them) and by 9 Jan China declared it a novel coronavirus. That’s actually pretty rapid - Sars1 took a few months to classify.

As I recall Fox was calling it fake until March or so.

Expand full comment

You watch a lot of Fox, do you? Here they are in Jan 2020 reporting on it as very much not fake:

https://www.foxnews.com/health/how-did-the-coronavirus-outbreak-start

By PRC coverup I meant the refusal to let anyone external investigate the lab, anyway.

Expand full comment

Regarding epidemiologists, I don't think it's very controversial to point out that simply drawing straight lines (on logarithmic plot), or making extrapolations like "in ddmm there were x confirmed daily cases in Italy, two weeks later there were y daily confirmed cases. In some country there are now x confirmed daily cases, so in two weeks we should expect y daily confirmed cases" would have given you a better prediction score than the epidemiologists working at state institutions. If not all state institutions then at least some of them, and even some of them performing worse than this in their predictions looks really really bad for the epidemiologists as a group. Let's not get bogged down about who said what and when and to what exact degree that's bullshit because that's kinda ephemeral to the argument I'm making in their defense.

After all, there are various factors at play that ought to lead to a more charitable view:

1. Political incentives: Just like epidemiologists have incentives on question of lab leak or not, they have incentives from their superiors (government/ultimately taxpayers)! For example, let's for the sake of the argument say that the prudent in the long-term most cost-effective response to any novel disease being detected is to do like Madagascar in flash game Pandemic II, and shut down everything. Well, some of those are false alarms, indeed most of them are. If epidemiologists always recommended the most prudent actual-fact-based solutions, they'd quickly be out of their jobs and replaced by politically more savvy ones: there's always the angle of political acceptability, so at best their public recommendations are as fact-based as is politically acceptable, even if they in fact knew better.

2. Institutional constraints: Is it insane that Americans cannot use medicines that have been found safe and effective in EU, or vice versa? Well yes it is. But that's how institutions roll. It's not enough to rationally be able to know that a treatment is safe and effective, institutions are required to get to the conclusion their own way. Sometimes red tape is there for a reason, sometimes not, sometimes you really just ought to cut through the damn tape in any case, but if the institution is set up such that they aren't e.g. allowed to run models created in other countries, or rely on "rational evidence" (like drawing straight lines in loglinear plot) as opposed to "scientific evidence" (present claims made in peer-reviewed scientific literature... when such papers don't as of yet exist), then what can you do, even if you did know better?

3. Lies-to-children: If you ask the general public about what they've heard evolutionary biologists tell them about theory of evolution, they're not going to talk about deriving and proving theorems and testing them in the field, or antagonistic pleiotropy, or introgression, or ongoing debates about the role of chance in evolution, or whatever. Chances are the general population heard a version for 5-year-olds, which is necessarily not strictly correct, and understood it like it was Pokémon which is more incorrect. If epidemiologists are brought out to speak to the whole nation, would you expect anything more than damnable lies to children?

4. Domain expertise doesn't imply expertise in epistemology: Here I'm joining Yudkowsky in defense of a hill prepared to die on, and claim that I am 99% confident that conditional on our current understanding of quantum mechanics is broadly correct, the Many-Worlds Interpretation (or, "the theory the ontology of which is Hilbert space, and that evolves according to the Schrödinger equation", as some physicists are proponents of that theory while claiming not to be in the MWI camp) is correct. A large fraction of physicists disagree: it's normal for there to be scientific controversy, but in a situation such as this, how am I hubristic enough to claim I know better? Well, I claim that physicists are really good at things that they do: making calculations, building experiments, analyzing the data from those experiments, checking if the data supports or does not support a given theory, etc, etc, generally following the scientific method as taught in schools (you know, the method that famously advances one funeral at a time, but at the same time is also so preposterously successful). Physicists have a habit of reaching correct conclusions, but they do it in large part because of the institution of science, not because your average physicist has any deep insight into epistemology. The status of MWI is a special case where as of now experiments haven't ruled out all rival theories and there are historical contingencies etc, etc, but it's a case where scientific method falls short, and large fraction of physicists are disastrously wrong in an issue that ought have become more or less part of a normal science by now (in Kuhnian sense).

Likewise, you could postulate that epidemiologists are good at what they do in their day job, but when presented with something truly novel (like a novel coronavirus), then their usual tools aren't cut out for the job, just like tools of physicists aren't cut out to evaluate the merits of MWI.

-

At the end of the day I didn't actually present a single case of epidemiologists employed in any government institutions getting anything particularly right to credibly demonstrate their expertise and domain knowledge, even in terms of stuff that they do "at their day job". I don't even know what those things are. But I've noticed a pattern of certain types of laypeople making a generic arguments against competency of individual persons at institutions (where points 1&2 apply) or science (3&4), in instances where I DO believe I can evaluate the claims on their own merits, and it's consistently something along these lines. Perhaps epidemiologists are among candidate gene researchers or parapsychologists whose entire fields I believe to be bunk upon examining them closer, but I would reserve harsher judgement until I've looked at the issue more closely. Or some kind of middle-ground: perhaps the field as a matter of fact is completely hopeless at providing good truthful advice during pandemics, but the basic research they do allow people with skills at epistemic rationality, like Scott, to come to correct-ish and actionable-ish conclusions (just like physicists have already produced everything it takes to elevate MWI to very strongly preferred status, but it takes philosophers of physics to tell them why that is).

Expand full comment

Responding purely to your point 1:

> Let's for the sake of the argument say that the prudent in the long-term most cost-effective response to any novel disease being detected is to do like Madagascar in flash game Pandemic II, and shut down everything. Well, some of those are false alarms, indeed most of them are. If epidemiologists always recommended the most prudent actual-fact-based solutions, they'd quickly be out of their jobs and replaced by politically more savvy ones

If you asked a general, "What's the best way to invade Iraq to prevent them from using WMDs?" should the general's answer factor in the possibility that there aren't any WMDs in Iraq at all? That's not the question you asked of him, is it? I suppose you could say not accounting for it shows a lack of political savviness, but I would say it's just the reality of advising politicians on anything. Since the final answer will involve politics one way or another, the best thing an advisor can do is stay in their lane and answer questions from within the scope of their expertise. It's silly to fault epidemiologists for not being experts on propaganda-driven media systems.

Expand full comment

I agree that experts being consulted, whether they are generals or epidemiologists, ought to answer questions from within their scope of expertise as you say.

Let's try to put it another way. Of course politicians don't necessarily appoint complete brown-nosed yes-men and their institutional appointments might be broadly competent, they might give solid advice, and it's actually the politicians who at the end of the day make the bad decisions (or, the electorate who want tax cuts/blood/bread and circuses now and no buts). But surely there's some sort of selection process that at least weeds out the folks who'd start stirring up trouble "because their job is to safeguard public health and the current policy isn't helping it" than those that meekly decide "I've given my advice to the best of my ability, it's now out of my hands". How strong the effect is would depend on political culture, etc, but I don't it's surprising we end up with Faucis than firebrands, even if it turned out that the firebrand position was the technically more correct one.

I think Scott had a similar defense of Fauci where he, as usual, presents the argument vastly better than I ever could.

Expand full comment

>2. PRC immediately blocked all investigations.

I've never found this argument particularly convincing. PRC is an authoritarian state; they might have blocked all investigation for any number of reasons, including even the slightest suspicion that it might have *potentially* been a lab leak, fear (justified or not) that enemy powers would foment some sort of a false accusation against them, or simply having a SOP of clamping down on all information until the best possible narrative could be crafted. *By itself* such a blockade is not proof of anything; it could happen if it was a case of zoonosis and it could have happened if it was a case of a lab leak. Same applies largely to 3. They are barely circumstantial evidence, if even that.

Expand full comment

Especially since they also tried to cover up SARS1, which was very definitely zoonotic.

Expand full comment

This is really great Scott. Thank you.

Expand full comment

To me it feels like the bayesianism was the hardest hit in this debate. I have long suspected that in the vast majority of cases when one says about "priors" and "updating" they're basically doing this https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/bayesian, and in the debate we can see four people (Saar, Peter, judges) doing Bayesian analysis ("The Math And The Aftermath" in the original section) and getting wildly different results from plugging wildly different numbers in the same formula. How can you properly do Bayesian analysis if you can't even agree on the priors and updates which then become all sorts of ways to smuggle your biases into the result? So it doesn't surprise me that "[the judges] both thought of probabilistic analyses as an afterthought"; it looks like an obviously correct decision and (at least to me) somewhat demonstrates that no one generally does proper Bayesian stats with math and numbers for fuzzy, politically charged real-world problems. (I guess it's still useful for estimating the distribution of black and white balls in the urn or the probability that given email message should go into the spam folder.)

Expand full comment

Here's how we responded to this objection in our post (https://blog.rootclaim.com/covid-origins-debate-response-to-scott-alexander/)

Using this as evidence of the weakness in probabilistic inference is a bit funny. We have 6 estimates that span a very wide range, so obviously this concept doesn’t work. It’s not important that 5 are by people who have never done a full probabilistic inference analysis in their life, and one is by a team doing it for a decade.

Expand full comment

I'll quote the summary of the process.

>a) Seek and honestly evaluate best explanations under the assumption the hypothesis is true, b) Estimate the likelihood that there is some better explanation that is yet to be found – the more complex the issue is, the higher the likelihood, and c) Estimate the likelihood of mistakes in the estimates themselves.

B and C here are both just "change the numbers around until they make you more comfortable." What makes you think there's a better explanation? Obviously it would be not being comfortable with the one you ended up with. So just lower the numbers to reflect that. If that doesn't make you comfortable, then obviously the estimates aren't trustworthy, and we need to factor that into our equation too.

It's just vibes with numbers attached.

Expand full comment

Indeed, in many cases, you have to guesstimate. But you're far better off if you're doing it using a methodology that is specifically built to avoid the specific pitfalls humans have when working with probabilities.

The idea is to be less wrong, not perfect.

Expand full comment

Are you familiar with the research on human performance? Merely doing something for 10 years doesn't mean you're good at it. Lots of financial engineers and hedge fundies have decades of experience but fail to consistently beat an index fund. Many people play a sport or instrument casually for years without getting any better.

In particular, one of the things you need to improve is practice *with quick feedback*. Feedback here meaning a clear *external* signal of how well you did. I know that you've claimed a lot that a lot of your analyses were supported by later evidence, but this is easily susceptible to confirmation bias. Are there any examples where a wide range of 3rd parties agreed that the later evidence supported your initial conclusion? And how quickly does this feedback happen?

Expand full comment

To clarify - what I wrote above is not "Rootclaim works because we're doing it for years", but "It's silly to say something doesn't work because people who've never done it reached a different conclusion".

Expand full comment

I mean, ok, that's technically true, but it's also hardly a defense of your method. Without some evidence that all your experience is really valuable, I don't see any reason to favor "you got different results because Rootclaim's method works, it just takes a lot of practice" as an explanation for the different outcomes.

Expand full comment

I agree. We're definitely struggling with making Rootclaim convincing and accessible. The only way to be convinced takes many hours of studying the methodology. We're open to suggestions.

Expand full comment

So far it seems like you mostly focus on things that have already happened, but some aspect of it is in question. Could you apply the method to future events, ala Tetlock's superforecasting, so that it's very clear to everyone whether you were right or wrong?

Expand full comment
author

As I've said before, I think of Bayesianism as like physics. You know it's true in some sense. But baskeball players won't benefit (and will be harmed) by trying to use physics calculations directly to calculate each particular shot. There are some things that nobody has intuitions about yet where maybe using physics is your best bet.

Expand full comment

Yeah, this is how I feel about evolutionary psychology. It *has to* be true. (The second-most plausible explanation for the human brain is “Intelligent Design” and there is no third-most plausible explanation.) And yet, any time anyone ever tries to use the principles of evopsych to reason about something, they somehow end up with a conclusion that validates all of their prior biases.

Humans are just really really bad at correctly applying theories with lots of degrees of freedom. (I have a 73.4% prior that this is because it didn’t help our ancestors in the savannahs acquire mates!)

Expand full comment

> there is no third-most plausible explanation

Oooh, a low-hanging bronze medal! I'll posit that the human brain is the result of a collective hallucination and be taking that third-most plausible medal, thank you very much.

Expand full comment

A collective hallucination of what? Surely a mind, right?

Maybe you do believe in intelligent design of some sort ;)

Expand full comment

Trying to snatch away my bronze participation trophy? Well this certainly cannot be allowed to stand, looks like I must elaborate on my explanation! ;)

The human skull is actually perfectly hollow. At some very early point in human history, a Greek dude who was in a morgue was suffering from ergot poisoning (i.e. tripping balls) and hallucinated a giant ball inside the skull of one of the corpses. He was a pretty respected man in his local community - not the sort of outwardly famous guy you'd expect to get namechecked by Pliny or anyone, but he wielded a fair amount of local soft power, so people sort of agreed to Emperor's New Clothes regarding this freak hallucination from an otherwise very upstanding and respected individual. Now, over time, this became a sort of primed suggestion - respected individuals saw a brain, so you should probably claim to see one as well, to signal that you're a respected individual as well. And eventually we didn't even need the signaling motivation - it was simply due to cultural priming that Michelangelo saw a particular pattern inside a cadaver which he then replicated on the throat of God on the Sistine Chapel.

Now, in the data driven scientific age, we've come up with various scientific models and theories that happen to replicate quite nicely if - and only if - we agree upon the legal fiction of a human brain. The so-called "human brain" is, to analogize, the absence of light that proves the black holes of contemporary research.

For most, that isn't a problem, but there are those whose need for a more base and material "belief" hampers their ability to focus on the downstream research. Fortunately, there are plenty of organizations who can create replicas of the hallucinated "brain body" in order to aid these temporal-focused individuals in forming the legal fiction from whence much new and valid research stems.

P-values for all those associated priors are very high and P-values for alternative explanations are extremely low, so obviously the math can hold up well enough for third-most-likely.

Expand full comment

Humans are just really really bad at correctly applying theories with lots of degrees of freedom. (I have a 73.4% prior that this is because it didn’t help our ancestors in the savannahs acquire mates!)

+1

Expand full comment

See also: utilitarianism

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

Utilitarianism is wrong (as are its main competitors), but openly saying this highly correlates with being a selfish sociopath (case in point), therefore the discourse is distorted in predictable ways.

Expand full comment

Why do you think this correlates with being a selfish sociopath ? I would bet on the complete opposite.

Expand full comment

Well, because it's wrong in such a way that you shouldn't actually care about total strangers as much as about yourself and those most important to you.

Expand full comment

Caring about total strangers seems like the exact opposite of selfishness.

You can think it is wrong, I think you are wrong about this, but this is a difficult debate. But this being wrong doesn't make the people thinking it is right selfish sociopath, this makes no sense to me.

I think the correlation you are speaking about just doesn't exist, you just don't like utilitarianism (in fact, I think it correlation is in the complete opposite direction).

Expand full comment

As a non-cognitivist, I think "Utilitarianism is wrong" is a type error.

Ethical frameworks like Utilitarianism are not descriptive, but prescriptive. You can either claim that a framework is not even self-consistent, or you can claim that following that framework would lead to some outcomes which you consider evil from some other framework or gut feeling.

Expand full comment
Apr 11·edited Apr 11

Exactly.

Another important thing to consider beyond self-consistency, is if the ethical framework correctly describes our own ethic, or our own ethic at reflective equilibrium.

Expand full comment

The math is perfect and absolutely true but the priors are often just BS. It’s also basically impossible to account for all the possible paths through the graph and sum over them and so you end up just multiplying them as if they independent to derive probabilities that are like 10^100 against which are laughably false (if it was that unlikely how did it happen? Are we really in the only universe out of trillions where a coronavirus pandemic happened? If so, how did we almost end up with two of them?). Basically reality is full of impossible coincidences but it’s only by summing over all the possibilities that you get reasonable probabilities.

Think of the configuration of atoms in the room you’re sitting in: it’s so unlikely to end up in that exact configuration that it might as well be zero. But there are an astronomically large number of configurations that are basically equivalent for all practical purposes so you have to sum over all of them to get reasonable probabilities like 1/2.

Expand full comment

Great analogy on atoms in room.

Expand full comment
Apr 9·edited Apr 9

> As I've said before, I think of Bayesianism as like physics. You know it's true in some sense.

But wouldn't that be the sense in which outcomes either happen or don't, so that all probabilities are either zero or one? Bayesian reasoning isn't a fact about the operation of the universe, it's a way for you to draw conclusions from things you already know. That doesn't help you if you're trying to start from something you don't already know.

Bayesian math can tell you, correctly, that "if this is what you believed before, then _this_ is what you should believe afterwards". But it can't tell you what you should have believed before; I don't follow the analogy to physics being "true in some sense".

(Tangentially, note that the reason it's not helpful for basketball players to do physics calculations is that they aren't capable of performing the actions those calculations say they should take. We have basketball players and we have physics dweebs, and the physics dweebs are much more accurate than the basketball players are, unless you make them take the shots themselves. An ICBM is the same thing as a basketball for these purposes.)

Expand full comment

>Bayesian reasoning isn't a fact about the operation of the universe, it's a way for you to draw conclusions from things you already know.

Sounds like a description equally applicable to physics. We don't know a single fact about how the universe "really" operates, we just have a ton of observations and extrapolate from there best we can.

Expand full comment

Let me try rewording.

Our physics models describe e.g. the motion of objects through space. The models are fuzzy around the edges - we have some trouble clearly demarcating what is and isn't an object, what the nature of space is, and whether the model is accurate at all at certain scales. See MOND.

But we have agreement anyway that space exists and objects exist, and in most cases on what is and isn't an object, and that there are rules governing how objects can move through space, even if we aren't sure of the details of those rules.

Bayesian reasoning doesn't follow this model. There's nothing in the universe to be bound by its laws. In this case, we _do_ have perfect knowledge of the laws; there's nothing fuzzy there. But they do not apply to things in the universe. They are computational artifacts. When you describe a basketball following a parabolic arc under the influence of gravity, the basketball really exists, and so does the gravitational force field. Nothing analogous is true if we replace "physics" with "Bayesian reasoning".

Expand full comment

Would you say the same about math in general? 2+2=4 doesn't at first glance seem to bound "space" or moving "objects" in any way, and yet there would be no physics without it. Bayesian reasoning is part of information theory, which is part of math, which is at the heart of all science. What precisely is the relationship between science and math is a pretty thorny metaphysical question ("the unreasonable effectiveness of math" etc. etc.), but that they are conceptual relatives is pretty straightforward.

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

It's not difficult to cast 2+2=4 in terms of the behavior of objects. It's not necessary to do so, but you can, and generally as soon as you're trying to apply the knowledge, you do.

If one of my herds of sheep, after paying the shepherds' fees, has produced two dozen lambs, and the other one has likewise produced two dozen lambs, I can apply this identity to know that all together I've gained four dozen lambs. The lambs exist; if they didn't, I would have no need to count them. This is generally how things go when you're applying math to a problem. There is an underlying reality, you show that it meets certain mathematical requirements, and then you get the mathematical results that follow from those requirements for free.

Bayesian reasoning is not like this. There is no underlying reality to take account of. All of the inputs to your problem are computational artifacts generated by you in the course of doing something else. As you set up your Bayesian problem, an external observer _cannot_ determine what numbers you should supply, because those numbers do not correspond to anything with objective existence.

This is why I'm questioning Scott's claim that Bayesian reasoning should be understood in terms of the idea that "you know it's true in some sense". I don't believe that's correct. This is an analogy that is being misapplied. It's not that there are phenomena out there that obey rules (1) of which we have imperfect knowledge, but (2) that are approximated by Bayes' Theorem. We don't have imperfect knowledge of Bayes' Theorem and it is not an approximation to some phenomenon that is subject to further unknown details. It just doesn't apply to objective phenomena. Whether and how Bayes' Theorem applies to a problem that you wish to address is determined solely by how you subjectively think about that problem. Someone else with different subjective feelings will apply it differently, getting different results, and they will be no more or less correct than you are. This is not how things would work if there were an underlying reality involved.

> ("the unreasonable effectiveness of math" etc. etc.)

Tangent: I find the idea of "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" to be incredibly fatuous. The only way to understand it is as a complaint by people who have not even the slightest inkling what math is. It should not come as a surprise that describing how something works is useful when you're investigating how it works. A description of how something works is math.

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

Bayesianism doesn't describe any part of our universe, but it still describes something : It describes some rules that the credences of a perfectly rational agent would follow (but perfectly rational agents don't exist).

Expand full comment

Well a perfectly rational agent who also had perfect knowledge of all possibly relevant hypotheses and their logical relations but was not actually omniscient beyond that.

Expand full comment

It is true that most uncertainty exists in the map, not in the territory. Bayesian rules are rules about combining uncertainties, so they operate on the map, i.e. the beliefs in your brain.

But you are wrong to state that basketballs really exist. To the best of our knowledge, what exists is some kind of wave function describing the (mostly absent) entanglement of all the particles which make up the observable universe.

A basketball is not part of the fundamental description of reality, it is an abstraction you have in your mind. It is certainly useful in some edge cases (e.g. when it is traveling through the atmosphere at less than Mach 2 and you don't care about describing the faint rubber smell it emits), but it is all on the map, not the territory. Neither is your model of a point mass in vacuum under a constant gravitational field (which yields the parabola) "perfect", it is just a good enough description for some cases (e.g. atmospheric friction is low, you don't care about Brownian motion, it is not rotating at relativistic speeds and the maximum height of the throw is small compared to the diameter of the Earth.)

Expand full comment

I think the basketballs exists in the sense that the concept associated with the word refers to something in reality, it doesn't have to refer to something fundamental nor to be a perfect description of it.

Expand full comment

I think the situation is more akind to engineering than to playing a baskeball match, where explicit calculations work well.

In particular, we have all the time we want between each steps, and don't have to do everything in our head.

Expand full comment
Apr 11·edited Apr 11

Explicit calculations do not in fact work in most of engineering. You would never be able to get anything done because you would be too busy doing math. Most of engineering is rules of thumb lumped on top of other rules of thumb followed by lots of (eventual) verification (with help from computers). e.g consider trying to make a multivariable equation for an entire bridge rather than deciding ahead of time (based on rules of thumb) 90% of the parameters.

Expand full comment

Then you shouldn’t call it “Bayesianism”, because anyone looking that stuff up will just end up looking through Wikipedia pages about math and equations, and assume that’s exactly what you mean. Just call it “probabilistic reasoning” or something.

Expand full comment

Pedantic addendum: As long as that anyone sticks to the math and equations there is no problem, it only gets bad if they got to the more philosophical articles like "Bayesianism" itself.

That is because "Bayesianism" already has a bifurcated meaning, it can be a perfectly cromulent approach to statistical modeling of restricted domains (the stuff e.g. Andrew Gelman is trying to sell to the wider scientific community) or a comprehensive approach to epistemology (the crack Jaynes was smoking). The math is the same, the practical application isn't. Of course in the context of the Yudkowskyan tradition the second meaning is the relevant one, so you are basically right after all.

Expand full comment

You've done a great service sponsoring this debate, so thanks. Before I read it, I rated the evidence for Z vs LL as about 50/50 To me the takeaways are (1) Zoonotic origins much more likely and (2) Bayesian reasoning is limited value in these kinds of problems.

As one of the judges commented, Bayesian reasoning works well when the relevant evidence can be confined to a manageable number of quantifiable data points. Saar's discussion of DNA evidence in criminal cases illustrates these sort of cases. But both of the main Covid origin stories propose extremely complex causal chains, and in both stories there are many, many events whose likelihood is almost impossible to quantify. A better way to do this sort of analysis is to look at the entire causal chain proposed by each theory and look wholistically at the likelihood of that causal chain. What I notice is that the zoonotic causal chain proposed by Peter resembles other zoonotic crossovers we have already seen in the real world. It does not require any special assumptions, and it fits with the (admittedly limited) hard evidence. Whereas the LL hypothesis requires us to accept a causal chain which has not left enough evidence of its existence. eg, no evidence that a Covid precursor virus was known to WIV, no evidence that the type of gain of function research required to produce Covid from unknown precursor was conducted at WIV. In place the LL proponents make assumptions of a cover up that deleted all the evidence of a LL, ie assuming that which is still to be proven.

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

I think this is going too far. I think it can be useful to think about Bayes factors as a way of noticing when some piece of evidence is particularly strong in comparison to others, in particular when there is some objectivish way of estimating what it is. I think the discussion of the bayes factor of "it started in Wuhan" vs. "it started in a wet market" was somewhat useful for example.

I also think of the Amanda Knox case discussed years ago on Less Wrong, hinging on the fact that the weight of "the base rate is super low given Guede. a stranger, is definitely involved" is >>> than that of "her behavior post-murder was a arguably little sus".

It's adding up all the of pieces to get an overall estimate that doesn't seem to work as a methodology in complex cases. I'd suggest 3 reasons

1. It's really easy to completely miss evidence when doing the calculation especially for the side you don't prefer.

2. It is hard to fully account for the non-independence of each piece of evidence. Often there could be some explanation you didn't consider of that explains multiple things.

3. Most of the factors will have highly subjective estimates. It is very hard to estimate something like "chance the virus would be a modification of a known viral sequence if it were from GOF research".

Expand full comment

1,2, and 3, is true even if you don't use Bayesianism.

But by not using Bayesianism, you also get :

- You can easily incorrectly put all the piece together and do reasoning mistakes that make you draw the completely wrong conclusion.

- The way you draw your conclusion is hardly communicable, mostly we just hope other people will draw the same conclusion.

- You can very easily end-up with an incoherent set of positions. (typically, you think X is very improbable when you think about Y, but not when you think about Z. Choosing one particular credence force you to stay more coherent)

Expand full comment

Those are all true of bayesian reasoning as well, it's just that you get false confidence along with it. Yes, even with bayesian reasoning you still get incoherent sets of positions because it is impossible to to ever do math on every possible hypothesis and piece of data since the world is inherently bigger than the minds of anyone in that world.

Expand full comment
Apr 11·edited Apr 11

You can get false confidence but it as nothing to do with Bayesianism per see.

You don't have to consider every possible hypothesis if you don't want your positions to be incoherent, you only have to consider every position you have. You only need to consider every possible hypothesis if you want to do the complete Solomonoff induction form of it, which is impossible and only work as a useful way to define what would be ideal.

I think we can see Bayesianism as propositional logic but for credences, it helps you to reason, fix your incoherence, and communicate your reasoning more clearly.

It is true that you will still do reasoning mistakes, have incoherent positions, and have hard time to communicate some of your positions, but it is still better than the alternative.

What I wanted to say, is that it doesn't really work worse on the 3 points Nate was speaking about, but it works better on the 3 points I described (even if it isn't perfect).

Expand full comment

Are there any things nobody has intuitions about where using Bayesianism is your best bet?

Expand full comment

While some people try to argue that bayesianism should come with specific priors and tell you how to find The Right Opinion, I think there’s a large Bayesian orthodoxy in economics and philosophy that will tell you that there is no such thing as The Right Opinion - bayesianism is just the optimal way for computationally unbounded agents to manage their own private uncertainty, but doesn’t tell you what private uncertainty to have.

It’s like double entry bookkeeping - it tells you how to track the money in all the accounts you have, but doesn’t tell you what amount of money to start with in each account.

Expand full comment

I really like this framing.

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

Yes, Bayesianism is like propositional logic for credences.

Expand full comment

One problem is that it breaks down in situations that aren't modeled well by the "infinite omniscient computer floating outside the plane of reality" assumption. And that includes many important situations across a wide swathe of daily life. The situations that resemble Spherical Cow Game Theory Land are more the exception than the rule.

Expand full comment

I am 99% sure it’s zoonotic because of the arguments presented here and in other blogs I have read. However if it’s proven to be 100% lab created I would go with an American attack.

Why? Well as Sherlock said if you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And the leak is highly unlikely given where the virus clearly originated - the wet market.

Lab created is not lab leak, yet everybody assumes this to be true. But these are independent variables.

Also were it an attack then choosing Wuhan has two layers of plausible deniability - the wet market (where in this scenario it’s deliberately implanted). The second layer is if the virus is proven to be proven to be lab created then people would still blame the Chinese.

Obviously this wouldn’t work with Beijing.

Another fact that might put some credence into this conspiracy theory is the very strong efforts by western media and scientists to deny the lab origin. Were it proven to be lab grown this would be retrospectively suspicious.

Anyway this isn’t my belief - I’m team zoonotic. Take one thing away from this - lab grown is not lab leak.

Expand full comment

> Lab created is not lab leak, yet everybody assumes this to be true. But these are independent variables.

How can it be true that they are independent variables?

Expand full comment

I explained that. The other option is a deliberate release. Obviously the Chinese wouldn’t do that.

Expand full comment
Apr 10·edited Apr 10

Why wouldn't they? They likely would've thought that their superior socialist system would deal with the virus better than the decadent West (which even ended up seeming plausible for a couple of years), and releasing it anywhere else would just invite more suspicion with the same eventual result.

Expand full comment

You can't deal with it without damaging your economy, so tha'ts kind of crazy.

Expand full comment

Well, that might be worth it if it damages adversaries even more, especially if you intend to conduct some not-necessarily-peaceful reunifications in the near future.

Expand full comment

I seem to remember that Mao was on the record as having desired a nuclear war, because china's enormous population advantage would mean that china would get a huge head start in rebuilding civilization after a mass casualty event

xi isn't mao, but also, covid-19 isn't nuclear armageddon

still in general i agree, deliberate release is very very unlikely

Expand full comment

I have thought about the American bioweapon theory, from time to time.

You could take the "lab leak rate" out of the calculation -- typically that's on the order of 0.2%, the judges here guessed higher at around 2%. So you get a factor of 50 right there. Instead of that 2%, I guess you'd replace it with some percentage for odds the US would choose to try such an attack (i.e. maybe the Trump admin thinks it could cripple the Chinese economy without blowing back on the US).

You could maybe also take the factor of ~10,000 out of the bayesian calculation for "lab leak goes straight to the market and nowhere else, if you just assume that was intentional.

But is that really the one most likely place that the US would launch it? Maybe you need to mark it down for all the other possible locations. Why not release the virus right next to the WIV? And if they did pick Huanan market, how would the US know to release the virus right at shop 6/29, with its suspicious history?

Also, why not make something more obvious like a virus with a WIV16 backbone, or at least something closer to SARS1? Or one with an optimal cleavage site? How would the US attackers even have a suitable backbone virus, in the first place?

All these scenarios are substantially less likely than zoonosis, to me. But, like Chinese lab leak, they're not strictly impossible. I don't think that bayesian analysis, as practiced by Rootclaim, gives objective or precise numbers for the odds, but it could still be interesting for someone to set up one of these bayesian analyses to compare the US vs Chinese lab scenarios and try to rank the relative likelihood.

Expand full comment

> Another fact that might put some credence into this conspiracy theory is the very strong efforts by western media and scientists to deny the lab origin. Were it proven to be lab grown this would be retrospectively suspicious.

Retrospectively? I think you're being a little too generous.

Compare https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/08/why-the-chair-of-the-lancets-covid-19-commission-thinks-the-us-government-is-preventing-a-real-investigation-into-the-pandemic :

> Well, more than that: I appointed him—this was Peter Daszak—I appointed him to chair the task force of the pandemic commission that I was running for the Lancet. And he headed a task force on the origins. I thought, naively at the beginning, “Well, here’s a guy who is so connected, he would know.” And then I realized he was not telling me the truth. And it took me some months, but the more I saw it, the more I resented it.

> And so I told him, “Look, you have to leave.” And then the other scientists in that task force attacked me for being anti-scientific. And I asked them: “What are your connections with all of this?” They didn’t tell me. Then when the Freedom of Information Act released some of these documents that NIH had been hiding from the public, I saw that people that were attacking me were also part of this thing. So I disbanded that whole task force. So my own experience was to witness close up how they’re not talking. And they’re trying to keep our eyes on something else. And away from even asking the questions that we’re talking about. We don’t have the answers. But we have good reasons to ask.

> So you’re saying that Daszak and others did not disclose to you pretty serious conflicts of interest? Since, on the hypothesis that it had something to do with this kind of research, that would have implicated Daszak himself in the origins of the crisis?

> Well, he could have explained to me right from the beginning that there was a big research program and that they were manipulating the viruses, and here’s how. He could have given me the research proposals. And when I asked him for one of the research proposals, he said, “No, my lawyer says I can’t give it to you.” I said, “What? You’re heading a commission. We’re a transparent commission. You’re telling me your lawyer says you can’t give me your project proposal.” I said, “Well, then you can’t be on this commission. This is not even a close call.”

> But there were so many other things. He was just filled with misdirection. I don’t know whether he understands or not, maybe he doesn’t understand. But the things he said just were absolutely not right.

Expand full comment
founding

"Lab created is not lab leak, yet everybody assumes this to be true. But these are independent variables."

This strikes me as absurd. Certainly it is possible for a virus to A: be created in a lab and then B: leak from that lab. To me, it seems obvious that this is far more likely than a lab being A: created in a lab and the C: deliberately released as a covert biowarfare attack. Careless biologists trying to do good work are far more common than bioweapons researchers, and most bioweapons researchers are working for government that want their products sealed away in the deepest vaults against the direst contingency.

OK, maybe you believe that the covert biowarfare experience is the most plausible. Go figure. But even then, you'd have to acknowledge the *possibility* of lab creation -> lab leak, and would not be saying things like "lab created is not lab leak".

Expand full comment

> December: COVID doesn't exist, it's all lies

Early January: Fine, it exists, but it’s just some wet market thing that can't spread from person to person

Not quite. It’s called Covid 19 because it was recognised in 2019, albeit on New Year’s Eve.

(Although an Irish health minister did think that there were 18 other versions. We’ve made him prime minister. )

Edit:

Actually I was posting this based on an old report by the WHO. They’ve updated since to say that it wasn’t confirmed by China until Jan 9th.

Expand full comment

Our new Taoiseach, who is going to lead the party into an election, and totally coincidentally we got news today about the tender for a major development in the local city being received and evaluated 😁

Nothing like an election for loosening the purse strings! Also Simon is going to be very law and order, he reminds me of Tony Blair back in the early 00s. I wonder if Simon is modelling himself on Tony?

Expand full comment

Scott's good faith treatment of some of these "very prestigious authors" is not well-deserved.

Scott is great at Normal Scientific Situations, where there's a thorny question, and maybe it's answerable through exhaustive literature meta-analysis, and where the papers comprising the literature have been written by dispassionate actors.

This is not like that. Practically all of the scientists mentioned above who have published about this have conflicts of interest, and their livelihoods would be adversely effected if LL was institutionally accepted or conclusively proven. Because they're scientists, and all they know how to do is write papers, that's what they do, and because they're human, they're engaging in motivated reasoning while writing those papers.

Some of them are just lying. The model is big tobacco or an industry lobby.

Expand full comment
author

Can you give an example? What's Worobey and Pekar's COI? Do they do gain of function (wouldn't surprise me if so, I just hadn't heard of it). Didn't Worobey originally call for more investigation into lab leak before deciding it was false? Was that just a red herring to get people to trust him later?

Expand full comment

I admit my view about this is a little extreme, but I think anyone who's worked in virology and received public grant money (especially from the NIH) is conflicted out of this debate.

Politicians fund things and slash funding for things in hamfisted ways. It's not just virologists who do GoF research whose funding would be endangered by a calamitous lab accident, it's virology writ large and possibly even broader areas of biomedical science. Virologists know this, have acted/published accordingly, and that's the state of things.

Worobey possibly did act in good faith.

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abj0016

I'm not sure. But he later wrote a shoddy, overconfident paper, and doubled down in defending it.

Expand full comment
author

I agree it sucks that there are so many fields where everyone relies on government money that it becomes a giant correlated failure mode and we have to have discussions like this.

Expand full comment

Do you have an estimate of how many virologists in the US have NOT received public grant money, from NIH or otherwise?

Expand full comment

No. Though maybe the ones who have not received such funding don't want the deaths of millions of people on their field's collective conscience. May be the ones who did get such funding also don't want that.

Expand full comment

If everyone who received grant money from the government can't be trusted, then your critique isn't limited to unique bad-actor situations, it applies to almost all "Normal Scientific Situations" because governments fund at least in part most of the research in the world.

Expand full comment

I specifically said virologists who received government funding were conflicted out of *this* issue.

Expand full comment

Why specifically *this* issue, and not every other scientific issue that potentially weighs in on whether a policy might have been good or bad?

Expand full comment

Well, most research is pretty trivial and low stakes. Some but not a lot has real-world application or implication. Institutional science is a machine for turning tax dollars into published papers and that's the end of the line.

By way of contrast this particular line of research led to the deadliest accident in human history, or so I believe.

Expand full comment

Lab safety is tedious and expensive. Nobody enjoys having a bunch of bureaucrats imposing imperfect rules on them either. This really does seem to be a problem for people, e.g. the wastewater sampling guy who has no interest in gain of function complained about additional paperwork.

Unfortunately, while the origin of covid is still up in the air it's clear from the followup that the virology community cannot be trusted to self-regulate.

Expand full comment

Is it not relevant that high-profile virologists are on record lying on *this* issue?

Expand full comment

It is more than that.

Like all humans, scientists are prone to form tribes. Sometimes around a paradigm, sometimes around a political cause.

Let us say that you are a climatologist and most of your colleagues are (rightfully, IMO) concerned about human-caused climate change. They also feel under attack by climate change deniers who may or may not be sponsored by the fossil fuel industry.

You study some glaciers and find out that they actually shrink slightly slower than current models suggest. I would estimate that framed as such, this result would be much less publishable than if you found the reverse. Every reviewer knows that such an article would give fodder to the deniers which they consider their enemy. You yourself know this. So instead you change the framing. Perhaps one glacier was shrinking faster than expected, so you lead with that. Or you focus your attention on some other detail and only measure that previous models require a correction (in an unspecified direction) in passing.

I have no idea if climate science works this way. I have also no idea how much biologists form an anti-lab leak block. But in humans in general, these tendencies do exist. I know that most nuclear physicists would not be annoyed if the amount of red tape around radiation protection was amplified by a factor of ten. I assume most biologists would be similarly annoyed if the BSL requirements for all classes of research were incremented by one or two, so they have some motivation to reason against the lab leak hypothesis.

Expand full comment

The crazy thing is that everything you said is true *even if millions of people had not died and entire economies were not brought to their knees*.

Expand full comment

Climate science is actually much worse than that :((

Expand full comment

The people who really seem to have put a thumb on the scale here are the journal editors. The most surprising example is the Proximal Origins paper where the journal actually strengthened the conclusion beyond what the authors felt they could support!

Having a low bar for publishing the Worobey and Pekar papers looks like a less egregious example.

Expand full comment

The motives are somewhat less transparent for journal editors, but only somewhat.

Expand full comment

Hopefully without going off on a tangent - I saw a survey on a controversial issue in psychology research that included questions on political beliefs. The journal editors were much further left than the academics.

Expand full comment
Apr 9·edited Apr 10

Worobey did sign the Bloom et al. letter, yes. Personally I do suspect it was a red herring, but it's hard to prove.

The Worobey et al / Pekar et al coauthor network also includes the original "Proximal origin" authors (Holmes, Andersen, Garry, Rambaut) as senior authors. Imo it's easier to show bad faith for those authors, by looking at their FOIA'd internal communications about that paper (https://usrtk.org/covid-19-origins/visual-timeline-proximal-origin/). I think these authors' bad faith is demonstrable, regardless of what COI or politics motivated it. Personally for them I'd bet it's more about indirect incentives (prestige; staying friendly with NIH leaders who don't want to disrupt China collabs) than direct ones ("here's a bag of hush money"). But that's beside the point: we *know* that they really really really wanted to disprove lab, regardless of why; and we know they exaggerated their confidence against lab publicly.

Personally, I also consider their papers themselves to be evidence of bad faith. Their arguments are so bad, so consistently, always in favour of zoo, that it can't be sincere error.

Expand full comment

(To me the most important part of the FOIA'd communications is that when they published that "we do not believe that any laboratory-based scenario is plausible," they privately knew that at least one was: serial passage in an animal, which their "glycans" argument didn't rule out.

Their other arguments imo they do seem to have genuinely believed.

Another important moment was changing "do not believe to be necessary" to "do not believe to be plausible," in between the Nature rejection and the Nature Medicine submission. That was the point of no return in their Tragic Hero arc.)

Expand full comment

Could be wrong, but I don't think either of them do any lab work with viruses, at all.

Pekar was a student working on his PhD (in bioinformatics, I think?). He's hardly some well connected scientist.

Worobey actually strikes me as a guy who's got a soft spot for lab leak theories being possibly true.

Worobey and Bill Hamilton travelled to the Congo to test whether or not HIV was natural (Hamilton died from the trip, complications of Malaria, IIRC).

In 2021, Worobey signed the Jesse Bloom letter asking for a better investigation of covid origins.

Here's a 2021 tweet where Worobey is talking about the 18060T mutation, indicating that at some point he took the proCov2 arguments seriously:

https://twitter.com/MichaelWorobey/status/1439665957656432640

And if you read Pekar and Worobey's 2021 paper, it has passages like this:

"The first described cluster of COVID-19 was associated with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late December 2019, and the earliest sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes came from this cluster (8, 9). However, this market cluster is unlikely to have denoted the beginning of the pandemic, as COVID-19 cases from early December lacked connections to the market (7). The earliest such case in the scientific literature is from an individual retrospectively diagnosed on 1 December 2019 (6). Notably, however, newspaper reports document retrospective COVID-19 diagnoses recorded by the Chinese government going back to 17 November 2019 in Hubei province (10). These reports detail daily retrospective COVID-19 diagnoses through the end of November, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was actively circulating for at least a month before it was discovered."

(from: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abf8003)

Worobey also endorses the 1977 flu as being a lab accident:

https://twitter.com/MichaelWorobey/status/1494004351232143360

I guess that's a more widely held opinion, though it's still not proven, no one has any idea which lab is to blame. I'm just mentioning that because I've also seen more elaborate theories where all these scientists are paid apologists for every disease in history.

So, Worobey and Pekar come in thinking lab leak is possible, hold that opinion until mid 2021, then go on to do the most thorough investigation of the data that anyone has done, along with the best genetic simulations, and discover that it was just a market outbreak, after all.

What's the conspiracy theory to do?

The same thing every conspiracy theory does when it is challenged -- it expands. Now they say Worobey and Pekar are in on the plot. Maybe Fauci didn't have enough money to pay them off in 2020, but he finally raised enough cash in 2022?

Conspiracy theorists say that they think that it was a long game, where the earlier comments open to lab leak were a "red herring":

https://www.astralcodexten.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-the-5d7/comment/53570474

Perhaps they were planning to discredit the lab leak theory all along. But they were so meticulous about their plot that they waited until early 2022 to publish, after a majority of the public had already gotten frustrated by the lack of good explanations from scientists and been convinced by the lab leak theory.

A brilliant ploy by those clever scientists! After intentionally losing the PR battle, they decided to publish 2 dense papers that most people would be too lazy to read, alongside a few articles in NPR or the NY Times, that wouldn't reach the majority of people.

Expand full comment

You don't need to posit a complicated secret plot to observe the behavior we're seeing from virologists. You actually just need a professional class of people with a shared set of incentives. Except in a few circumstances we know about through documentary email evidence, this isn't a cabal. It's an industrial lobby.

The specifics about Worobey deserve attention. I think what happened is that he was open minded about this issue, wrote a high profile, overconfident, but incredibly shoddy paper when he looked at a bunch of limited data on the subject, and realized he would have allies defending the shoddy paper in truly bad actors like Kristian Andersen and Robert Garry. Shared incentives.

Expand full comment

That's why you ignore the motivations of any particular person involved and look at the evidence. The evidence all points - overwhelmingly - at zoonosis.

Expand full comment

And what evidence would this be? Did they identify the intermediate host? Find a closely related virus circulating in animal populations? Or are you talking about the pictures of Raccoon Dogs locked up in cages that Eddie Holmes took on his iPhone in 2014? Because if it is Eddie Holmes iPhone picture then I agree the evidence is overwhelming!

Expand full comment

This is an excellent example of willful ignorance. Nice work.

Expand full comment

Exactly. This just sounds like an attempt to pre-emptively rule out all possible contradictory evidence, much like a moon-landing hoaxer would say "of course you can't trust *them*, they're in on it." (And never mind the COIs of people pushing lab-leak of course!)

Expand full comment

You don't have to look terribly hard at any particular person on any particular subject to invent some sort of motivation for what they think or say.

Expand full comment

“If they secretly knew they’d just started the worst pandemic in modern history, wouldn’t they at least be wearing masks?”

They’re all under 60 and have a healthy BMI, so… no? Assuming a massive coverup they’d presumably know that the virus is only fatal to elderly people, those with a BMI over 30, and those with major comorbidities.

I don’t believe the massive cover up theory but IMO it’s perfectly rational for extremely sophisticated actors to not wear a mask in that situation. Not to mention they’d have to wear N95 masks to avoid getting infected, a simple surgical mask would do ~nothing to protect them from others.

Expand full comment
author

Even I wore a mask the first month or two of the COVID pandemic! Also, they're Chinese, and Asian people start wearing masks at the drop of a hat.

I guess maybe they're virologists and know more about mask-wearing than the average person.

Expand full comment

Yes, average people never developed a good model of why or how masks could work. Some highly paranoid countries mandated P95 mask in 2021 but everyone else were happy to keep up the surgical mask charade for 3 years. I think a virologist would never wear anything less than an N95 mask, ideally with goggles.

Expand full comment

Only p95s worked really. I wear them when visiting hospitals but that’s the only time really.

Expand full comment

They all work to varying degrees. Wearing a cloth mask works if some guy coughs upwind of you outside and it happens to catch a strand of spittle. No mask works if you are sharing a diving bell with 4 sick people for several hours.

Expand full comment

There is a perfectly good model: paper masks are for other people, not for yourself. They don't limit your chances of getting it, they limit your chances of breathing it onto other people during casual contact.

This is how masks are used normally in Asia: you wear them when *you have a cold* to protect co-workers, not to protect yourself.

Expand full comment

People also wear surgical masks in Asia to protect themselves against smog, which makes no sense.

And sure, if you wear a surgical mask while infected it will marginally help others.

Expand full comment

Does protection against smog not make sense? It helps a little, if only because the area around your airways become more humid and the dust particles become less airborne.

Anecdotally, I was in Australia in February 2020. The east coast was out of masks everywhere because of the smog from bushfires (setting us up for a hell of a lot more pain and shortages when we needed them for COVID, because we'd used them all up trying not to breathe ash)

Expand full comment

It’s pretty easy to test. Light up a cigarette, smell the smoke. Then put on a surgical mask for a few minutes and repeat. I promise you’ll barely notice a difference.

Then do same with a P95.

Expand full comment

Unreal that years later this basic idea is still misunderstood.

Expand full comment

One of many corners of things where reality is looking pretty thin these days.

Expand full comment

It's not misunderstood, it's rejected by people who understand that masks have no effect (go look at case graphs! It's not complicated stuff!)

Expand full comment

> Also, they're Chinese, and Asian people start wearing masks at the drop of a hat.

The masks are worn when you're already sick, not when you're trying to avoid becoming sick.

(At least, that's the traditional system. Currently, there are quite a few people wearing prophylactic masks on the subway.)

Expand full comment

Why wouldn’t a surgical mask reduce their risk by about 10% or something? And why wouldn’t someone care about reducing that risk of getting something that would be very unpleasant just because it wouldn’t kill them?

Expand full comment

It would be more like 1%, not 10%, given that you breathe in mostly unfiltered air when you have a surgical mask on. Not worth the annoyance of having to wear a mask. Surgical masks do help if _everyone_ is _correctly_ wearing one, but otherwise they're just a security theater.

It's even more silly for people to use a surgical mask to protect themselves against smog/forest fires, as smoke particles are smaller than Covid aerosols. But tens of millions of people in Asia do this every year.

Expand full comment

There is no reason to think they would have any idea on what mortality looked like at that time.

Expand full comment

I guess it took some mental effort to keep your odds at 90-10, even though I agree with them. Essentially, none of the arguments listed in the original debate post were thoroughly debunked or disproven, and many of the weird coincidences stayed weird.

But man, don’t you want to update when one side seems so overconfident in their theory and arguments? Not sure what the associated fallacy is for this one.

Expand full comment