"Nothing can stop scientists from stamp-collecting viruses to pad their resumes."ext
People, even smart people, are so mindkilled these days. It will probably be the death of us all. Here’s how.
Usually the smart people start by learning statistics. Statistics paralyze your ability to reason logically. Also, they equate government with math, which is infallible. The more important people get, the less they doubt themselves; the more infallible they want to feel; and the more attracted to statistics they are, like rock stars to drugs.
The more successful Scott Alexander gets, the worse he gets. He is quite successful these days, so he writes things like this:
Does it matter if COVID was a lab leak?
Here’s an argument against: not many people still argue that lab leaks are impossible. People were definitely doing dangerous work with viruses; Chinese biosafety protocols were definitely mediocre. Maybe the Wuhan Institute had bad luck, and one of the viruses there escaped. Or maybe they had good luck, by sheer coincidence no viruses escaped, and an unrelated pandemic started nearby.
A good Bayesian should start out believing there’s some medium chance of a lab leak pandemic per decade. Then, if COVID was/wasn’t a lab leak, they should make the appropriate small update based on one extra data point. It probably won’t change very much!
I did fake Bayesian math with some plausible numbers, and found that if I started out believing there was a 20% per decade chance of a lab leak pandemic, then if COVID was proven to be a lab leak, I should update to 27.5%, and if COVID was proven not to be a lab leak, I should stay around 19-20%1.
But if you would freak out and ban gain-of-function research at a 27.5%-per-decade chance of it causing a pandemic per decade, you should probably still freak out at a 19-20%-per-decade chance. So it doesn’t matter very much whether COVID was a lab leak or not.
I don’t entirely accept this argument - I think whether or not it was a lab leak matters in order to convince stupid people, who don’t know how to use probabilities and don’t believe anything can go wrong until it’s gone wrong before. But in a world without stupid people, no, it wouldn’t matter. Or it would matter only a tiny amount. You’d start with some prior about how likely lab leaks were—maybe 20% of pandemics—and then make the appropriate tiny update for having one extra data point.
“Maybe 20% of pandemics.” “Freak out and ban gain-of-function research.” Friends, this is why you are going to die of a cold. Meanwhile in China, last week:
We previously reported that the early passaged GX_P2V isolate was actually a cell culture-adapted mutant, named GX_P2V(short_3UTR), which possesses a 104-nucleotide deletion at the 3’-UTR. In this study, we cloned this mutant, considering the propensity of coronaviruses to undergo rapid adaptive mutation in cell culture, and assessed its pathogenicity in hACE2 [humanized] mice.
We found that the GX_P2V(short_3UTR) clone can infect hACE2 mice, with high viral loads detected in both lung and brain tissues. This infection resulted in 100% mortality in the hACE2 mice. We surmise that the cause of death may be linked to the occurrence of late brain infection.
You are going to die of a (mutant) cold because nothing can stop scientists, whether in China or in the West, from stamp-collecting deadly viruses to pad their resumes.
Nature can make lethal respiratory viruses. From history, we know about how often this happens. It is not often. Morbidity and contagiousness are competing factors. As we saw when we saw Covid evolve into just another cold, viruses hate to be deadly. But in a well-equipped virology lab it is pretty easy to torture them into being deadly.
And a murder, to those of us not besotted with statistics, is a totally different thing from an accident. It is easy to merge the death columns in your spreadsheet. It is always the way to hide a homicide. Homicide always wants to hide. Scott is helping it.
Covid was not murder per se. Murder requires intent. No one was trying to kill millions of people. It was criminally negligent homicide—manslaughter. Still a felony, I’m afraid.
Negligence is any activity whose obvious cost-benefit ratio is so high that it can only be seen as a crime—like drunk driving. Covid was a predictable disaster from criminally risky behavior. Covid was your government, the best and the brightest, tossing back a 12-pack of Mickey’s Big Mouth and then trying to take a 25-mph exit ramp at 75, with you and everyone you love in the back seat. It’s learned nothing and is still doing it.
First of all, it is not debatable that Covid was a lab leak. It is proven beyond reasonable doubt. There is no evidence for any prior zoonotic epidemic. There is no way a bat virus with an unprecedented furin cleavage site appears, 1000 miles from bat country, next to a lab which was considering making bat viruses with furin cleavage sites. If this was a coincidence, everyone involved would give themselves anal MRIs on live global TV to prove it. Instead they are doing the usual coverup stuff—successfully.
Anyone saying that Covid might have been a lab leak is not saying this because he has an actual reasonable doubt. He is saying it because his testicles are the size of raisins—and because he knows, at a certain deep subconscious level, that when he says Covid was a lab leak, he is calling for a revolution.
Chernobyl did a lot to help the USSR fall. Covid is like Chernobyl if Chernobyl killed a hundred thousand times as many people, was successfully covered up, was given to the reactor director to clean up, resulted in every Soviet citizen even in Kamchatka having to wear a radiation mask for the next two years, hagiographic children’s books being written about the noble reactor director, and the USSR switching all its power generation to RBMK graphite-moderated reactors.
Besides throwing everyone involved in jail for the rest of their lives—you’d be surprised at how many years you can get for just lying on forms, or to Congress—how would a responsible government handle this threat?
The cause of Covid is that the Vannevar Bush-era infrastructure of science is broken. As a result, scientists have to pad their resumes with useless stamp-collecting. The Endless Frontier turned out to have an end after all. You are here.
In this case, the useless research was also insanely dangerous. For every case like this, there are ten thousand cases of useless research which is utterly harmless—except that it consumes the lives and talents of some of the best people in the world.
No one will knowingly fund useless research, of course. Quite the contrary! All state-supported research, following the Vannevar Bush model, comes with a narrative that justifies its importance.
This story is constantly repeated in abstracts, conclusions and grant proposals. It becomes a kind of currency—a generally accepted legend, at least within the field. No one inside the field has the incentive to question the legend. No one outside the field has the authority to question the legend. So it lives forever.
A career in science today is about relationships. If you are a virologist, how helpful to your career is it to point out that there is no use—and plenty of risk—in “predicting” pandemics? Even after Covid—the courageous virologists who tried to prevent it are still on the sidelines; the virologists who caused it are still at the center of the field.
To protect science from politics, it is only more important that the legend is true. Not that any politicians have suggested that politicians should be in charge of virology. What? How would that be possible? What would it even mean? Would they be deciding what to research on the basis of Facebook memes, Fox News, or goji-berry ads?
This research (and its successful coverup, abetted by Scott Alexander’s “reasonable” doubts) will continue, because no one—here or in China—has the power to stop it. In fact, we cannot even imagine anyone having the power to stop it.
China may be a dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean I like it. While a dictatorship, it is also a bureaucracy. Power flows in many incorrect directions—from the bottom up or the outside in. Why is Xi Jinping playing around with mutant coronaviruses? Because Chinese science is both a colonial endeavor—this research program was an American one—and a bureaucratic rat race. Bad as citation-farming and paper-milling is here, it is ten times as bad in China. Even in China, no one has both the confidence and the power to say that cultivating deadly viruses is negligent government on a megascale.
A world in which this question can be asked, and the answer judged and acted on, is a country with a system of government which does not presently exist in the world. This is why you will die of a cold.
Other than accurately perceiving cost-benefit ratios and leaving the bat viruses in the bat cave, what is the best defense against this “existential risk”? It seems slightly more pertinent than the risk that AI bullshit-generators will take over the world.
The biggest problem is that where manslaughter is possible, murder is also possible. There is enough of an intersection between people who can synthesize DNA and people who feel, for whatever reason, that “billions must die.”
The stamp-collecting virologists have a natural limit on their dangerous experiments. Since they are enhancing viruses to “predict” the “emergence” of natural pandemics, they are limited at least theoretically to tricks that might happen in nature. An eight-base furin cleavage site in a sarbecovirus family in which it has never been seen? Sure. But a whole gene for a complex mammalian immune signaling protein? Only in a lab. The legend always gets bent and stretched as far as possible, but it has its limits. You would never get the grant approved.
An actual terrorist, however, has no such limit. The fundamental problem with which we need to reckon with is that, without self-imposed limits, it seems scientifically straightforward to create a massively, or even universally, lethal pandemic virus.
How would an effective government respond to this threat? In two ways: domestically and internationally.
Domestically, DNA synthesizers need to be treated as munitions. Filtering out death viruses is too important a task to be left to the goodwill of DNA synthesis firms. It is rare that anything in our society needs more centralized bureaucratic process—but this is one such case.
Domestically, the government needs pandemic response tools that will activate only for the short period when the pandemic has been seeded, but can still be eradicated. This window of opportunity is the time to throw civil liberties out the window. Once the virus cannot be eradicated from the population, as we saw, controls are useless.
Internationally, the government needs the power to seal its borders instantly as soon as as a potential pandemic is detected in another country. This is just a risk of travel, like having your flight cancelled. Any country on earth today that cannot prevent informal border crossing—to a zero level—is in a condition of dangerous state failure. Again, not even China was capable of successfully sealing its border against Covid. Again, China only looks impressive because of the decline of the West.
Part of sealing your borders is having quarantine facilities that work. New Zealand got lucky and existed in a blissful state of zero Covid, basking in the applause of the world for its very science government and its beautiful young Prime Minister. But it turned out that some people did need to travel, for whatever reasons, so they were put up in hotels for “quarantine.” Someone coming in infected someone leaving; the virus got out. So much for following the science! Sad.