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As one of your resident PhD scientists (molecular biology and genetics), I would like to heartily endorse your concluding paragraph (outtake below).

I started actively using Twitter (just reading, not posting) for the first time during the pandemic primarily to see how other scientists were evaluating the primary literature on covid. This allowed me to see how quickly “consensus” was generated on particular topics and then transmitted to the media, and how all the same scientists — the ones active on Twitter — are always quoted. Since this is a domain where I am able to evaluate the primarily literature on my own and come to my own conclusions, the curtain was pulled away from the media interpretation of “The Science.” It was easy to see that what was represented as The Science was often (not always) a sensationalized version of what a handful of prominent scientists who are active on Twitter are able to transmit in 140 characters. Now I know that Twitter wags the dog in a field I have sufficient professional experience to evaluate on my own, I have become quite skeptical of reporting of any issue at all! Bc chances are high it’s just the reporter repeating a Twitter consensus.

It’s one of reasons I come and read here — at least we are referred to some data and we can check Matt’s work a bit.

Outtake I endorse:

“ Then if you secure your impression of what “the scientists” think about something from scanning Twitter, you will perceive a consensus that is not really there. If something is a 70-30 issue but the 30 are keeping their heads down, it can look like a 98-2 issue.”

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It’s not it was zero twitters question about the lab leak hypothesis. Razib Khan was a center of some discussions. It just the loudest voices vs the quiet considerate voices.

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I was taken by Matt's 70/30 -> 98/2 point, but then I thought about the people I mostly followed on Twitter about COVID. They were Ashish Jha and Scott Gottlieb, with Andy Slavitt thrown in there. They're pretty good!

Are we sure there's a Gresham's Law effect there? Or maybe the most popular voices were also the most believable and accurate?

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Yeah, there isn’t NO nuance on Twitter. One thing about science-as-it’s-happening, aka science the process (as opposed to science in textbooks, aka science as “truth”) is that since it’s in progress, the nuance is always present: “this is how we understand this topic in this study, right now, in relationship to these other studies, to the best of our ability.” Transmitting that level of nuance uses up too many characters on Twitter! So the theme I saw repeatedly was nuanced and imperfect movement towards more complete knowledge becoming translated into a un-nuanced Tweet that was more easily understood, and then passed up and out to the media. It’s less a person at fault, and more a system I see at work. And now I suspect that system is at work at just about anything else I read about that requires specialized knowledge to understand.

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>>And now I suspect that system is at work at just about anything else I read about that requires specialized knowledge to understand.

There's even a name for this: the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, coined by Michael Crichton.

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I recall Scott Gottlieb usually giving pretty nuanced answers on the origin story. I've probably heard 70%+ of his TV appearances (I've seen every single appearance on Face the Nation). I don't recall him ever saying lab leak was a conspiracy or casting aspersions on that line of inquiry. But I might be misremembering the earlier days.

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Another important issue is the role of expert virologists dunking on the lab-leak theory. This is a glaring conflict of interest-acknowledging that COVID may have been one big screw-up jeopardizes the continued practice of this entire scientific discipline as we know it.

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Right. I think the MSM hasn't caught up to the fact that if this was a lab leak, the story isn't really about China at all.

Rather, it's about the entire scientific establishment misjudging the risk of research that is happening all around the world and causing the worst industrial/scientific accident in the history of humanity.

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Bingo. I’d add that it may not be the entire scientific community with clouded judgment. The references to dissenting scientists in the article were interesting (and new to me). Instead, I see this—in part—-as disciplinary failure. We can’t leave it to virus researchers who are applying for Federal grants to do more virus research to give a fair assessment of the inherent danger of their work.

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I don't know how else to tell you this, but even if COVID-19 is the result of a leak of culture from a research lab (it conclusively isn't, according to it's genetics) and that somehow indicates virologists all over the world have mis-estimated the level of risk their research produces - nature is still evolving human pathogens as well, and that isn't going to stop just because you make it utterly untenable for people to anticipate them, look for them, and develop treatments and vaccines against them. You simply have to accept the elevated level of risk from scientific study of potential pathogens.

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1. It simply isn't true that it is conclusive. If it was there wouldn't be scientists arguing it could have leaked.

2. The blind deference to scientists is no more reasonable than blind deference to police officers. Both have important jobs. Both improve society. Both have to be accountable for their actions.

If this research did lead to COVID catasthrophe, and there were no safety protocols that could have prevented, scientists will need to be able to demonstrate enormous value or this research should be banned.

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There aren't any scientists arguing it could have leaked; they're just arguing the investigation wasn't thorough enough. I dunno, maybe that's true although it seems to have arrived at the correct conclusion nevertheless so I don't agree.

But they also implicitly seem to be saying that the virus could have leaked from the lab without being cultured there, and to my knowledge no scientist has put forward an operating theory whereby that could have happened, and that seems to simply betray an ignorance about how microbiology works in the lab.

"If this research did lead to COVID catasthrophe, and there were no safety protocols that could have prevented, scientists will need to be able to demonstrate enormous value"

The vaccines are the enormous value.

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"There aren't any scientists arguing it could have leaked;"

This is disinformation.

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6543/694.1

One of these signatories to a letter stating that the lab leak theory remains 'entirely viable' is Ralph Baric, one of the world's foremost experts on coronaviruses, who has worked with WIV scientists on SARS in the past.

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If the research led to the pandemic, the vaccines would only justify it if they had been available prior to the outbreak. Gain-of-function research is supposed to lead to ways to combat new threats *before* those threats actually arise and take their toll.

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>> "You simply have to accept the elevated level of risk from scientific study of potential pathogens."

That's not how I see it. If scientists have mis-estimated the risk, it may mean we should be prepared to pay a much higher cost to mitigate the risk than we were willing to pay previously.

For example, perhaps this research should only be conducted on a remote island or at sea with researchers completely isolated from society for long periods of time, with a quarantine/isolation period before return.

I bet it's impossible to completely eliminate all risk, but there are reasonable mitigation approaches well beyond what's currently being done today that might make sense once we adjust the inputs to the cost/benefit calculation.

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Hey I was thinking about this a few days ago! The alternative to ban gain of function research: sequester the researchers on an island with quarantine protocols to enter and exit. Seems smart.

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Are you aware that viruses evolve naturally in every single location on the surface of the Earth, including deep-sea vents?

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It's an article of faith that we have to accept that risk, but why? How useful was the information we learned from that research when COVID-19 hit? All the practical knowledge for treating COVID-19 seems to have come from research on COVID-19 itself or other known human pathogens.

If virus research on pathogens with pandemic potential (unknown infectiousness among humans) is that important, it can be done in extremely isolated locations with strict quarantine procedures before leaving. The expense of doing that is absolutely trivial compared to the cost of a pandemic leak.

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It was extremely useful - the genome was sequenced and distributed within days of conclusive identification and that's the basis on which they were able to develop the vaccines.

Again the natural reservoir of this virus is all of southeast Asia and south China. You're going to quarantine everyone? Billions of people?

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Ralph Baric, one of the world's foremost experts on coronaviruses, has publicly stated that the lab leak hypothesis remains entirely viable and must be investigated (though he continues to believe natural origins are likelier).

There is absolutely not any "conclusive" determination that this pandemic could not have stemmed from gain-of-function research.

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It's easy enough to always call for "additional investigation" no matter how much has already been done, and also note that Baric has a patent interest in making you think it's possible to do "seamless no-see-um genetic manipulation."

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How is it conclusive?

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The viral genome has none of the expected signs of being under culture, or incubation in hosts besides humans and bats.

That's conclusive - if the lab didn't culture it, it can't have escaped from there.

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What would a sign of it being under culture look like? Maybe we're talking past each other, but even most experts don't discount the possibility of a leak entirely.

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“Arrogance” is when you think you can have a worthwhile opinion on a topic without any qualifications in the field.

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…if my “qualification” was a BS from low-tier university with no relevant research, I would not accuse others of being too ignorant to have worthwhile opinions

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I guess I can't follow here why at least a story wouldn't be about China - if even just in a Watergate sense (e.g., What did they know? When did they know it?). I think the leak inself could be a series of unlikely and unfortunate events but if that was hidden ... that would be a big deal.

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IMO, this isn't very much like Watergate, where the coverup was arguably worse than the initial crime.

In the case of an accidental lab leak, the harm from China's lack of cooperation on the investigation is insignificant compared to the harm of the actual incident.

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Wouldn't there be - or probably better said ... couldn't there be a relationship between those two though? To what extent is the actual global harm reduced with a very public acknowledgment of a lab leak in say January. Would travel restrictions have been the immediate default rather than a much later exception?

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Good point. Without any evidence, I was thinking of China's involvement in a coverup being more likely as an after the fact thing rather than a real-time thing. I thought that was the case with the pandemic in China in general. Local leaders downplayed the problem to national leadership at first.

OTOH, if this was a concerted national coverup from the start that is a bigger deal because it means we could have taken different steps earlier as you say.

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A good analogy is expert virologists dunking on the lab leak theory are similar to the police officers who investigate a cop shooting and come back saying it was justified.

Both the police and virologists aren't neutral investigators and shouldn't be viewed as such.

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I think if lab-leak is true, it would be super easy for the scientific community to say “China bad” and move on. The world already doesn’t trust China much and would just roll Chinese scientists in with that. I don’t see how it would damage the scientific community at large

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I think that forcibly excising 1/6 of the scientific community from within the scientific community would be a huge trauma to the community. The non-scientific world might think it's easy, but it's hard to do when the community itself is so globally integrated.

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So, while I agree that the discussion around lab outbreak in the early stages might have been unfair to the lab leak hypothesis, I think that by the time most of the right wing ecosystem picked up and began shouting about lab leak stuff was when it was apparent that the Trump administration had failed to contain the virus and the US was gonna get nailed.

Nearly every time a right winger tried to kick up lab leak dust, it was not to be helpful, it was to distract from the body count in the US by getting folks mad about China.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be mad about China, but these guys gave away the game by not also being helpful about stopping the virus while shouting about lab leak.

Also, Tom Cotton is a notoriously bad faith spewer of right wing lies. The man has no integrity. I can't exactly fault the media for thinking a bad faith actor was acting in bad faith and using the lab leak theory as cover for something more sinister. A broken clock is right twice a day.

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I fault the media for making sweeping statements without checking to ensure that the science actually backed up their statements. Just b/c your enemies lie and mislead doesn't mean you should to.

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There are no angels here, but right wing bad faith has so corroded the discourse that it is hard to take anything they say or any narrative they're pushing seriously. That's corroded the discourse far more than any media errors in judgement.

Basically, I think the media operates from a place of good faith, where they are at least trying to get it right, and the mainstream right wing operates from a place of bad faith, where truth matters far less than the narrative they feel is more useful to them in any given moment.

Think about the information ecosystem of 2020. You have the right trying to gaslight everyone on nearly any topic, so when notoriously uncharismatic weirdo Tom Cotton starts going on about lab leak, and you don't have complete information yet, but you do have a pretty plausible natural origins hypothesis don't think it's unreasonable in that context to assume Tommy is trying to pull the wool over your eyes again.

The problem here is how to correct when the cranks happen to be right about something. But honestly the cranks are so often wrong and nearly always malicious, it's not a bad idea to take everything they say with a few pounds of salt.

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The dynamic you describe, and not being willing to say "maybe pushing back on Cotton isn't our too goal as journalists, and we should wait and do reporting instead", is part of the reason we have this very ecosystem you decry.

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"The problem here is how to correct when the cranks happen to be right about something."

This is only a problem if you just reflexively believe the opposite of what cranks say. The right response is to not let cranks influence what you believe. Figure out what you believe and then figure out how to respond to the cranks. It seems like the media goes about it the other way around figuring out how to respond to the crank and then using that to figure out what they believe.

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"Just b/c your enemies lie and mislead doesn't mean you should to. "

Agreed. But the first problem is that the vast majority of the MSM believes that Republicans are their enemies.

Kind of hard to report objectively when you consider one of the major political parties, (and half the country) to be your enemies.

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But it does seem to me that if the GOP was 100% accurate with all facts starting tomorrow, the media would correct pretty quickly. I do not think the reverse of this is true.

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I mean, Matt, and I'm not trying to harp here, but sometimes some actors have so thorougly discredited themselves that they don't really deserve nuanced analysis of what they'e saying. They can't be trusted. Tom Cotton can't be trusted. He's a fashy crank who thinks he's going to be president someday and he will say anything to get there.

I agree, I have definitely updated my priors at this point to where lab leak is just as if not slightly more probable than 100% natural origin, but man, getting upset about not giving Tom Cotton serious consideration? Really? He did that to himself.

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I think it’s fine if you don’t want to give Tom Cotton serious consideration. When he first spoke at a congressional hearing everyone ignored him. Fine. Senators say things that get ignored all the time. But then what happened over the next several weeks isn’t that he was ignored, it’s that he was *criticized for saying something he didn’t say* and I don’t understand how that’s acceptable.

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You pointed it out in the piece, but this is really a large problem within media itself at the moment, yeah? I've lost count of the number of times over the past few years where the media (and especially media Twitter) breathlessly reports something, and then I track the original quote (or whatever) down and it bears almost no resemblance to what's being reported. And then you see it become a talking point across the various ecosystems and you begin to feel like you're taking crazy pills.

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I agree it's a bigger issue. I think the bigger issue is that there is not one scientific journal that has said definitively where the virus originated. And that should be enough for the media. It wasn't and the letter by scientists asking for reconsideration of 'definitive' reports is only now making that clear to the general public. Instead, the liberal media became complicit with Trump and the conservative media in letting partisanship over-ride objectivity.

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"it’s that he was *criticized for saying something he didn’t say* and I don’t understand how that’s acceptable."

Agreed. And that's why even though I'm right of center, I read your commentary. Because even though we don't always agree I think you're arguing in good faith, and not twisting stuff to serve a political narrative.

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It seemed to me at the time that the lab leak coverage was pretty clearly intended to preemptively discredit anything crazy Trump may have done regarding China's role in the outbreak. A lot of us--maybe you too?--were pretty worried that he was going to use the lab leak theory to declare it an act of war or justify sketchy behavior around the election. I suspect editors were saying "doesn't matter if its right the impact of this reporting might be horrific" in the midst of what I remember being a pretty fucking fearful time.

I work in life sciences real estate, and we have a number of BSL facilities of different levels up to 3Ag. It NEVER surprised me that something got out of the lab, but at the time I didn't think it would be helpful to talk about this.

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I think you inadvertently hit upon the root of the problem. What (good or bad) purposes information will be used for is not relevant to whether the information is true/accurate or not. Argue against the resulting policies, not against allowing people to hear the information itself.

This is exactly what climate change deniers do: I don't like the policy implications if climate change exists, therefore I will argue that the information itself should be discarded, I don't care whether it is true or not. There are plenty more examples on the left side of the aisle too.

Once you add who/whom into the mix, you get yourself further from the truth. It's one thing to say that you need to see the source material because you distrust the person presenting the information. It's another to say that the information cannot be true because you distrust the person presenting it, and therefore we should prevent the people-who-are-not-as-smart-as-me from hearing it.

I'm all for pointing and laughing people who make declarative statements that turn out to be bogus. Preventing them from speaking because someone in my tribe might face negative consequences from resulting policy or attitudes is just plain censorship.

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"He and his party would be perfectly happy to have a media that only parrots their own party line."

You mean kind of like what the Dems have now with the MSM?

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Who’s giving up the own goal: Matt in pointing out that people were wrong about what Cotton was saying or the people who were wrong in their rush to attack Cotton? It seems to me the latter.

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Speaking as someone who profoundly disagrees with Cotton on most issues, Cotton is far better informed on China foreign policy than probably 99% of Americans, and it showed in this instance.

The single greatest predictor for whether or not you were taking COVID seriously in February 2020 was whether or not you followed China foreign policy discussion online. China hands understood how much of a BFD it was that the CCP had essentially ground its entire economy to a halt and started ringing the alarm bells, Cotton included.

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This I fully agree with. It's why a lot of people from all across the spectrum were getting extremely nervous in early 2020 -- it's why I was freaked out traveling through Heathrow in February and seeing no masking, no public health measures of any kind.

I was totally wrong about what kind of tsunami was about to hit us -- I thought it would come crashing down, kill a lot of people, and then be gone in a month or so, which clearly did not happen. But I remember being very scared, and the Chinese reaction was definitely what scared me.

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Yes, I definitely underestimated the duration of the crisis as well (I figured about a year domestically and it was definitely much longer than that) but completely agreed regarding the sense of impending dread throughout February. I was riding the train into NYC for work five days a week and I was dreading it every single day by the end of the month. I don't think I'll ever forget that period from like mid-February to early March right before everything in the city blew up.

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I have Chinese students in my lab who were starting to wear masks in January and warning us what was coming. I humbly admit that I didn't fully internalize the possibility until about one week before everything went down.

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Yep, when I saw China locking down a city I new it was going to be serious. But 10 boxes on N95 masks in January or February.

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I think there is....something to this, of course. Credibility is a finite resource, and Sen. Cotton depleted his stores of it long, long ago.

That said, I think we people who would like to consider ourselves nuanced critical thinkers have to be more careful about falling into the trap of dismissing points from partisan cranks just because they are, in fact, partisan cranks. Broken clocks, etc.

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Does CCP really have more credibility than Cotton?

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Not to my mind, no -- the CCP is objectively worse than Cotton in their credibility, their policies, their ideological rigidity, and so on. It's possible that I may prefer Xi's haircut to Cotton's, but otherwise the CCP is worse in every way.

However, most people who distrusted Cotton were not taking the CCP's word for anything here. Instead, they were trusting (what they took to be) the consensus of American scientists. So raising the issue of the CCP's credibility is kind of a red herring.

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Sorry, but the CCP is not worse in "every" way. It's not worse on climate change. It's also not worse on public health. I doubt it's worse on immigration, either. Or on trade. On the use of state power to crush dissent, I'd say they're about equal.

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"I doubt it's worse on immigration, either."

This is just objectively wrong to the point that it would make a Chinese state propagandist blush. There are more immigrants currently living in New York City than the entirety of China, which has like 150x the population. Even if Cotton had unlimited dictatorial powers and could completely halt illegal immigration and cut legal immigration by like 80% the US would still admit many orders of magnitude more immigrants each year than China.

"On the use of state power to crush dissent, I'd say they're about equal."

My goodness, I hope you're not serious about this. Cotton wrote an op-ed advocating for active duty troops to suppress violent rioters (not that I agreed with him). The CCP has over a million ethnic minorities in concentration camps.

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"On the use of state power to crush dissent, I'd say they're about equal. "

The people in China in actual concentration camps would disagree I'm sure.

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1. Immigration: China's Hukou system limiting internal migration for 1.4 billion people is worse than Cotton's external immigration policies.

2. Climate: Cotton's bad but China emmissions are spiraling upwards and all they offer is platitudes.

3. State Power: We don't know what Cotton would do with the power but he hasn't reached CCP level.

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Bad people can be right. And often bad people have biases that are odious to us but can influence them to perceive what are inconvenient truths to us. If you like China or think it isn't all that bad, you should pay more attention to what people who don't like China are saying to check your own bias.

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"Trust but verify" is actually good advice, despite the source. FWIW I more often apply it as "Distrust but verify."

As to Cotton specifically, "Interesting question about the lab but so what, COVID is here and we need to deal with it" is a much more honest and ethical rebuttal than "You're crazy talk about extra-terrestials which you never mentioned makes you sound crazy." I'd guess the latter gives the target audience more of a thrill, however.

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That's called a prior and it's not just the media saying in the past that Tom Cotton can be discredited, there was copious evidence of his dishonesty and disingenuousness.

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Ah yes, if we just refer to our unfair biases as "priors," it makes them respectable and scientific!

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Any citations, or should we just take your word for it?

Note disagreements about policy are not equal to dishonesty.

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Are there any policy disagreements that you think discredit people? For example, if I said I'm an antivaxxer are you not allowed to make any other assumptions about whether my ideas on taxes are good or not?

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Reporters who spend all day on Twitter marinating in groupthink tend to lose their bearings and priorities as reporters.

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The groupthink is awful, and Matt and others are right to point it out. But I think it is weird that the actual content of Twitter discourse (or lack thereof) is weirdly underexplored in this article and in the many others on this topic.

Matt’s postmortem largely scans as “Twitter is tribal and elevates the sensationalized stories that may be inaccurate”, but at some level one should ask how 140 characters is supposed to convey the complexity and nuance of a story. The issue here is less that nefarious actors are able to mislead the majority of high integrity journalists on Twitter, and more that high integrity journalists have convinced themselves that screwing around on Twitter is the same as journalism.

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"didn’t used to be common thinking in newsrooms."

This a rather idealized picture of newsroom practices in the past. Maybe does not apply to William Randolph Hearst's newsrooms? Here in the States, the relation between papers and political parties used to be closer to the model current in the UK, where papers are openly and explicitly partisan, and their reporting is, too.

The idealized vision of non-partisan papers is mostly a post-WWII creation -- rather like the idealized view of non-partisan legislation in Washington DC (i.e., when both parties bonded over segregation).

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There is definitely at least one Republican reporter at one of those papers, come on. This claim gets more extreme every time you make it.

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I agree with your perspective but would change the phrasing.

It's less about "objectivity." The criticisms about a view from nowhere are convincing to me. Rather it's a level of detachment that's missing. If you're a proud journalist/activist, how are you different from a PR Flak who's trying to push a narrative? You're not. In fact, in many cases, you're adopting the style of detachment to gain credibility without disclosing that you have an obvious axe to grind.

Graham is right in that journalists will fret about the political implications of their stories. There's no detachment between reporter and subject. That's bad. And it's so obvious. That's why they basically have no credibility. That's how you get logic like "Tom Cotton is a right-wing liar so whatever he's saying must be a lie."

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Those are both differences, yes. And newsrooms ought to do the first and avoid the second. We're not disagreeing about that.

My point was only about what is "common" in newsrooms, and how long it has been common. Many US papers in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th c did not try to be objective, and made up facts. If anything, the worst excesses now (e.g. Fox News) are more like a return to that model than some sort of new departure from what used to be common.

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I basically agree. Even if the "lab leak" hypothesis turns out to be true, the argument most proponents of it were actually making - that we should blame China and not Trump for all the bad things about COVID - is clearly not. When Trump, Pompeo and various Fox News hosts and guests made this argument, they were not really concerned about "ethics in virus research."

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Oh, GamerGate - a simpler time.

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I wonder if decades from now history textbooks are going to discuss GamerGate as significant historical event, along the lines of bleeding Kansas or the Zimmerman telegram.

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That's exactly my point rwlesq. In politics/influencing public opinion, why you make an argument is often just as important as the argument you're making. Like, if you are arguing a true thing, but there's a good chance you're arguing the true thing to advance a bad thing, you're still kind of doing a bad thing, and everyone involved has every right to question your motives.

Ethics in video games journalism, but her emails, benghazi, lab leak all this crap is like...technically true in some sense, and not as debunked as some media writeups would have you believe, but the people pushing that narrative don't actually give a shit, they have some other dumb goal like owning the libs.

What's happened is that it's become a fairly accurate heuristic to reject out of hand what some actors say because they are always trying to mislead you. When they happen to be right, (again, not because they care to be techncially correct, but because broken clock, etc.) it can cause problems.

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>> "if you are arguing a true thing, but there's a good chance you're arguing the true thing to advance a bad thing, you're still kind of doing a bad thing, and everyone involved has every right to question your motives."

IMO, this is the crux of what's wrong with journalism today.

Many journalists feel that part of their job is to discern which arguments/narratives are more likely to advance good things and which are likely to lead to bad things. Of course, because they're human, their discernment is inherently flawed and likely to be wrong as often as it's correct.

Then they use flawed assessments of likely good or bad outcomes, with the moral certainty of any crusader, to justify slanting/hiding the truth or making unfounded claims about motivations of supposed bad actors.

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> What's happened is that it's become a fairly accurate heuristic to reject out of hand what some actors say because they are always trying to mislead you.

It's such a dumb heuristic. When Cotton or Trump says something, the proper move is to ignore them because they are unreliable, not to immediately start believing the opposite.

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The worst part of this argument is that so many believe the other side of the coin:

Like, if you are arguing a [false] thing, but there's a good chance you're arguing the [false] thing to advance a [good]thing, you're still kind of doing a [good]thing...

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I'd quarrel with this a little bit in this instance, because as Matt shows, Cotton didn't necessarily come up with this idea all by himself.

The concerning element, from a journalism standpoint, is that the establishment media ignored other establishment, credible sources to dunk on Cotton.

I think he deserves to be dunked on, repeatedly, but not for this. Just like Republicans have lost credibility when it comes to their tinfoil theories, the media will lose (whatever is left of) its credibility with indiscriminate accusations of conspiracy theorizing.

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That's fine, and a fair point. It's a tough bind dealing with cranks. I would concede that the dunking was not productive, and the better response would have been to ignore Cotton or just emphasize that we don't have a clear picture rather than going hard in the other direction.

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It is indeed. I think one way to do this is to deconstruct the bad faith basis of the argument for what it is, but then address the merits of it with that in mind.

It's a tightrope act and requires tact and credibility that is being sacrificed.

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What has Cotton lied about?

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I think he gets branded as a liar partly because his "Send in the Troops" op-ed last summer associated him in many people's minds with a genre of conservatism that was characterized by fascist tendencies (and therefore, misinformation). Reminds me of a viral Tweet where some 18 year old Kamala Harris staffer was called a "War Criminal." I call it the "Birds of a Feather" effect.

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His military service. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/tom-cotton-army-ranger/

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So he completed ranger school which their expert says earns him the right to call himself a ranger. But even though it would be accurate for him to call himself a ranger, he should not do so in the context of referring to his military service because he wasn't part of a ranger unit. That seems less like a lie and more like stupid army drama about who gets to call themselves what.

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Many actual service people have spoken up to say that the definition of what constitutes a "Ranger" is pretty nebulous and that they have seen Ranger school grads call themselves "Rangers" and have no issue with it. This is a situation where basically different vets have different opinions and there's no clear "guide" to follow, so I don't think it was misleading for Cotton to apply the tag to himself, especially given that he served in combat.

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Maybe you picked at random, but if this is the most consequential example of lying that can be attributed to Tom Cotton, I really struggled to see how his trustworthiness should be meaningfully differentiated from that of an average politician.

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I picked the one at the top of my brain.

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Snopes has little credibility when it comes to assessing statements of conservatives. So I’m going to have to make a ruling on the field: CIB + Ranger Tab? I’ll allow it.

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lol https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/list/?speaker=tom-cotton enough?

(not defending what seems to be genuine misrepresentation of his claims on the virus, or even necessarily suggesting he lies more than many other politicians since we don't have hard statistics to go on there, but like.... Tom Cotton has indeed made many false statements)

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This was after what's discussed in the piece, but didn't he get on the "election was stolen" train?

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McConnell actually went to him once Hawley opened the floodgates on objecting to ask him to publish his op-ed on why he was voting to certify immediately, rather than after the vote, in order to stem the bleeding among the far-right members of the Senate.

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Even a broken clock designed to tell you the wrong time in bad faith in order to make you late for work might be occasionally right by accident.

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If you have a clock designed to deceive you, you should ignore it and pay attention to a good clock. Not endlessly stare at the deceitful clock to try to figure out in what way it is wrong and then go set your other clocks to the opposite of the deceitful clock.

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If you only have a broken clock, how do you know when it's right?

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Yeah, I'm kinda thinking the same here. Or really, I'm just confused why this focuses so much on Tom Cotton.

Look, I'm no expert on the origins of COVID than anything. But, reading this next to the Don McNeil piece that Matt also linked, it just feels like he's leaving out a bunch of information. Like how, apparently, at the Times they were being told by the Trump administration that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab. Or how one of the first articles blaming the Institute of Virology was run in the Washington Times and included a misquote of a biowarfare expert. Or 5 of the world's top virologists writing on an essay explaining why animal origin was very likely based on several specific aspects of the virus' structure. And how the leader of the lab was saying that it couldn't have come from their lab, and how they were telling us that the virus work being done was in more secure labs. And then more facts started to emerge- they were working with chimeric viruses, they were working in less secure labs, the lack of any true smoking gun for animal transmission, what appears to be a genuine about face by some experts, etc.

Look, it seems like news organizations should probably have started bringing this up earlier (though I don't really feel try like searching through the archives of articles to see when they started mentioning the extent of further debate). They also do seem to have misquoted Tom Cotton, which is clearly bad, even if he is a biased hawk who lies for political advantage.

But, if the stuff McNeil is saying here is true (and I have no reason to think it's not), then I am just not convinced that this is a 'fiasco' or a 'giant fuckup' or anything else. And it certainly seems misguided for Matt to not mention all the reasons why the media could have defensibly been very skeptical of the lab leak theory.

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I dunno, if some of this stuff was seen as genuinely compelling evidence, it really calls into question the judgement of those who were writing about it.

"Like how, apparently, at the Times they were being told by the Trump administration that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab."

Certainly motivated reasoning there, but they may not have been wrong? Would that be the first time a politician clung to a less probable but more favorable narrative?

"Or how one of the first articles blaming the Institute of Virology was run in the Washington Times and included a misquote of a biowarfare expert."

Our standard can't be that if right wing media builds conspiracy on top of a possible truth that we just ignore the possible truth.

"Or 5 of the world's top virologists writing on an essay explaining why animal origin was very likely based on several specific aspects of the virus' structure."

This is the only piece of evidence you offered that I think tips the scale somewhat in the direction of evidence against lab leak theory, but still, I don't think its strong enough to dismiss the lab leak theory. Very likely is not the same as certain. And, how many top virologists are there? How is that defined? And are these 5 the spokespeople? Would virologists (or, in particular these virologists), have an interest in defending the work of their profession as not having been accidentally harnessed to unleash a pandemic on the world?

"And how the leader of the lab was saying that it couldn't have come from their lab..."

To me, it seems almost counterintuitive to expect the potential responsible party should be assumed to be a credible source of evidence on what happened. Especially in China. Even if they had the courage to make an admission so violently at odds with their professional interest, you can bet the CPP would do its best to seek retribution against them and the rest of the personnel in the lab.

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This is a great exposition of clear and honest thinking, and the reason why i paid to subscribe.

There's another point that Cotton sort-of makes and that i think needs to be said out loud: China is an enormous country and the outbreak began in the vicinity of their major virology research lab. It would be an enormous coincidence if that lab were uninvolved. You don't need to go all the way to bioweapon or deliberate leak to find this persuasive, when accidental leak from legit research is completely plausible. Occam's razor says the bat-pengalin theory looks contrived.

The one weak spot is where MY dismisses calls for bans on gain-of-function research or recognition of China as a threat because he already knew that. Maybe he did, but it's not exactly consensus position in the US, and obviously the pandemic could be used to push for these positions, maybe even without being dismissed as a racist.

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>>>It would be an enormous coincidence if that lab were uninvolved.<<<

I don't think it's remotely the case that it would be an "enormous" coincidence if Wuhan's lab wasn't involved. Indeed, I suspect it wasn't involved (I certainly acknowledge the lab *may* have been involved, of course, and I'm glad scientists are looking into this possibility). The southern and south-central parts of China are home to many large cities as you know, all of them have open air markets, and the majority have handled the wild animal trade over the years. SARS1 got going in Foshan, a large city near Guangzhou. It seems to me with SARS2 it might easily have been Dongguan or Chongqing or Changsha...if it hadn't been Wuhan.

Again, this pandemic may be the result of a lab leak. But markets and dense Asian cities have been the launching pads for outbreaks of disease in the past, so the involvement of a lab is hardly a necessity in this case.

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"But markets and dense Asian cities have been the launching pads for outbreaks of disease in the past"

Here's the real policy issue going forward: we need to persuade Asia to go vegetarian. Meat-eating is the root cause not only of these pandemics, but of the annual flu-cycle as well.

The number of pathogens that jump from vegetables to humans is very small. Almost no one comes down with potato blight or corn stunt disease. True, I had a touch of tobacco mosaic virus once, but I found that repotting cleared it up.

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What makes it a coincidence which strains credulity is that the CCP has still failed to produce any trail of infections, human or animal, leading into Wuhan, leaving us to believe that the original infections actually occurred in Wuhan itself without any connection to the lab.

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But from my understanding, typically when the jump is natural the virus doesn't immediately have the capacity to work with the host's body to maximize contagion in the new host species, and has to develop that capacity over time. Evidence points to Covid 19 being highly contagious from day 1, which suggests gain of function adaptation.

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"It would be an enormous coincidence if that lab were uninvolved. "

It's no more a coincidence than the jewelry store robberies happening where the security cameras are. The purpose of the lab is to monitor and isolate emerging diseases from a particular reservoir - the range of the intermediate horseshoe bat, which is all of southern China and southeast Asia. Wuhan's the nearest big city with a good life sciences university so that's where the lab is.

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If the cameras were only where the only robbery was, that might be a good analogy. But there are security cameras everywhere and only one Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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That's a tautology. Obviously you wouldn't call it the "Wuhan Institute of Virology" if it was in Shenzhen.

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As the story says "Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens"

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https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487

There's dozens across the US, Europe, and Asia, and they're located in the regions from which novel pathogens emerge because where else would you put them?

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"The range of the intermediate horseshoe bat, which is all of southern China and southeast Asia." This is an enormous area with a huge population, but the outbreak was in the immediate vicinity of the lab. You really think this isn't noteworthy?

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"...where else would you put them?"

Anywhere you want; we have jets. Ebola Reston, for instance, did not arise in Virginia.

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As an example, the NIAID Rocky Mountain Lab is located in Hamilton, Montana because it started out studying Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the valley there.

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This analogy doesn't quite work. It's more like the jewelry store robberies happening where the security cameras are, but also the security cameras have a small chance to spontaneously spawn robbers inside the stores.

The presence of the WIV at the center of a major outbreak is not in and of itself suspicious. What -is- suspicious is that the CCP, the world's most capable surveillance state and probably the country with by far the highest level of overall state capacity in the world, remains completely unable to provide any evidence whatsoever of any infection trail leading into Wuhan from the disease reservoirs which you reference. To my knowledge, we still don't have so much as a single identified case occurring outside of Wuhan before the Wuhan outbreak, which, when combined with the fact that SARS escaped both Chinese and Taiwanese labs multiple times and the fact that WIV was conducting a lot of its coronavirus research at BSL-2, sends up an awful lot of smoke.

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" unable to provide any evidence whatsoever of any infection trail leading into Wuhan from the disease reservoirs which you reference."

Why do you think such a trail should exist?

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Well, if the virus came from natural reservoirs hundreds of miles away from Wuhan such a trail absolutely does exist - it's simply a matter of whether we can find it.

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If the zoonotic jump occurred at the wet market the only trail back would be sick (or in the case of bats) not sick animals, right?

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Yes, but the wet market has already been ruled out by no less than the CCP as the possible introduction of COVID in Wuhan.

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The analogy works if you assume the camera installers also case joints for later robbery (where they know how to disable the security cameras they themselves installed.)

But of course the reason we don't universally suspect the camera installers every time a store is robbed is because the employees aren't obviously rich off of the proceeds of fencing stolen gems. Similarly, the people who work at the Wuhan lab didn't have the antibodies against COVID-19.

"What -is- suspicious is that the CCP, the world's most capable surveillance state and probably the country with by far the highest level of overall state capacity in the world, remains completely unable to provide any evidence whatsoever of any infection trail leading into Wuhan from the disease reservoirs which you reference."

Because there's often no such thing and never will be, especially for a virus that spreads asymptomatically. And of course there's no single identified case before the first identified cases; that's what "first" means. You're arguing from tautologies.

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I agree. Reminds me of the often maligned Rahm Emanuel quote: “Never waste a good crisis”. After all, it’s politics. If gain of function research is bad as currently practiced, and we now have an insanely salient example of why, it doesn’t seem like that’s a neutral contribution to the discourse that wouldn’t translate into policy.

Plus, there are plenty of “consensus” issues (or, at least issues that have significant majority support) that don’t get votes because of lack of salience and the resistance of entrenched interests.

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Occam's razor is a way of organizing ideas; it doesn't constitute evidence on its own.

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And in any event Occam's razor suggests it was a "natural" species jump spillover, like numerous times in human history.

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I imagine if the Bad Orange Man (and yes he was really really bad) and the GOP had gone full lockdown authoritarian when covid broke out, we’d be on an alternate timeline where the left would have been screaming “open up” and “masks don’t work!” and the entire tribal discourse would have been 100% reversed.

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So, the only antivaxxer close relative of mine is a cousin back home in Europe. He’s so left-wing he thinks Merkel is a Nazi, yet he also shares articles on Facebook about how awesome Ron DeSantis is. (He has been to the US only once as a tourist years ago.)

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I'm not fan of Tom Cotton but at this point the main stream media is self-immolating. Between the blatant politicization (and silencing) of people and scientist that don't tow the line on subjects like the lab leak (which as a society, we should all want to get to the bottom of), to the Orwellian digital edits of old articles [1], you really cannot blame anyone for not trusting them.

The Chris Cuomo and Anderson Coopers of the world should see the writing on the wall, because they will not have viewership in a few years.

https://twitter.com/paulg/status/1396769717805780994

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And thank god for that - cable news is toxic for the discourse and the sooner it immolates, the better!

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Random minor point: it's "toe the line." Specifically, the line on the deck of the ship where you lined up with your crew, you put your toe there (probably).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toe_the_line#:~:text=The%20most%20likely%20origin%20of,to%20%22toe%20the%20line%22.

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Pedants always welcome at Slow Boring!

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Oh, they'll still have viewership, they'll just have less influence and trust among independents.

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Gen-Z doesnt even know who Chris Cuomo is. But, they probably have a few more years.

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As you can see in the replies to paulg's tweet, those Vox edits occurred in April 2020 and were not at all Orwellian.

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Ignorance is Bliss I Guess. It is happening in a lot of places, the NYT stealth-edited the 1619 project: https://quillette.com/2020/09/19/down-the-1619-projects-memory-hole/

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Hi smart people. I’ve been AWOL, because I spent the last couple of days working on my cabin. First a little diversions from my point on this article. I’m helping my brother-in-law do a remodel of a cabin I picked up last year. It involves framing, plumbing, installing a furnace, and redoing the whole electrical system in the house. No I consider myself a smart person. I’m not a smart as many of you, but above average. It is humbling on how much I don’t know. Now I know, that you can watch YouTube videos these days to learn just about anything call mom but it is not the same as watching a professional at work. The speed at which my brother-in-law can frame a wall is astounding. He let me frame for a little bit, and it took me six or seven times as long. Anyway, I just figured I would give a little shout out to the blue-collar Americans, that we profess to admire, but I suspect we don’t give as much credit to as they deserve.

Now on to the article. Though Matt is correct, that this one issue wouldn’t have really changed any concrete policy or reaction to Covid, I think that it does illustrate a deeper problem of media bias. Now I know Republicans do it to themselves, but even though this issue might not of been super critical this time, the next time this happens, it might be more important.

From a Laymans point of you, you can easily see why such a large percentage of the population skeptical about the prevailing views on any subject. Look at Masks. Masks are bad. Masks are good. Masks aren’t needed. I’m gonna wear masks anyway.

There are probably half a dozen subjects that I can think of where the prevailing view is similarly missing the boat.

For example, the rise in violent shootings over 2020. I read a Kevin drum post the other day, where the idea that it could at all be related to BLM protests and a pullback of policing wasn’t even discussed. In fact, I’ve read several articles that go out of their way to discount the possibility. Now, perhaps it isn’t related (I think it is), but it’s certainly just as plausible as any other theory.

Anyway, the original of the virus doesn’t concern me as much as the echo chamber of social media and it’s influence on the perception of the media.

Also, can we all agree that this was such a good and in-depth analysis of this story, and it’s history by Matt. Tracking down the specific history via tweets and stories had to of been tedious.

Also, I’ve missed you guys!

Also, once again this post was dictated. I did a really rush job of proofreading, since I’m sitting at an airport waiting to fly out to Winston Salem. I swear, I never get to stay in any place for long.

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Please tell me that the random "call mom" in the first paragraph was you placing a phone call in the middle of dictating the post. :D

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Lol. I have no idea. I did think about calling my mom earlier! Maybe I had verbal word vomit.

I even attempted proof reading.

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Polarization is boiling our brains. Analyses like this one may not impact policy but I hope they get those in media to do some more soul-searching. Also social media could probably benefit from a reaction button that says “I respectfully disagree but I could be wrong!” (It would immediately warp into something sarcastic I’m sure.) Seriously though, this is why I find Substack so refreshing, at least the Substacks of thoughtful, rationally-inclined thinkers like yourself- there’s room for nuance and it gets rewarded with thoughtful dialogue in the comments. (Unfortunately it also can reward rage pile-ons; the author sets the tone.)

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Of course, I totally forgot that this has a racist/anti-racist bent to it. By the law of transitive racism, Tom Cotton = racist; Tom Cotton says something about events in China = that interpretation is racist. I know I'm being snarky, but I sincerely saw things in the same way for a long time, I just regret it. https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/1397624206687457284 (For the record, not a Greenwald fan, there's some transitive weirdness there that I don't care to chase down, but it doesn't make him wrong on this one.)

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OK, props to her for backtracking: https://twitter.com/apoorva_nyc/status/1397671617732485123

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Seems she just deleted her account altogether.

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Whoa!!

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I’m sure she was getting a ridiculous amount of harassment. That sucks. Why do people suck?

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Because twitter (and the internet more generally), due to its semi-anonymous, impersonal nature, has lowered the barrier to harassment far too much.

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A few random thoughts:

1. How much of this could be solved by having the journalists writing the articles also write the headlines? Some of the really sensationalist headlines I’ve read, which seem to drive most of the social media engagement, often accompany basically solid journalism in the piece itself.

2. Journalism and science operate with completely different value systems; the former abhors “I don’t know” while the latter is motivated by it.

3. I don’t know what the solution is to this, but the incentive structure behind corrections in the media is not strong enough. I don’t think an asterisk and a footnote are sufficient to establish credibility with most people when the original reporting errors are egregious, and this makes journalistic defenses of matters where there truly is scientific consensus much less convincing.

4. Republicans do this to themselves. Conspiratorial thinking is such an integral part of the modern right that it’s only natural for the media to view you as the boy who cried wolf. It’s not good, but it’s natural.

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#1 -- that's a very interesting point. I'm glad I'm not alone in seeing atrociously bad headlines on a frequent basis.

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I've always thought the "journalists don't write headlines so don't bother us about misleading ones" was entirely about maintaining plausible deniability.

The headlines are written in a outlandish manner to get readers, proposed headline gets the okay from the journalist, story published, if journalist objects it is toned down.

Outlandish headlines are a big problem since many readers only read the headline. Journalists know this. If they dislike being held responsible for the headlines they should change the system.

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"Conspiratorial thinking is such an integral part of the modern right..."

And the modern Left.

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To the same extent? And with the same kind of influence on policy makers?

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Um, yes? Look at the conspiracy theory that Trump was being blackmailed by Putin.

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This actually proves my point: who in the Democratic party leadership or leading Democratic presidential nominees publicly stated this or pursued policy goals to address it?

You had Chait and Maddow and a quite a few voices in media who propagated this, but to put that on par with a majority of one of the two parties denying climate change, not accepting that the election is legitimate or

whole litany of batshit beliefs is a false equivalence.

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I agree with you, but also kind of disagree with you. I think we would all agree that the left has a commanding position in media and academia. I think we often don't appreciate how much this allows Democratic politicians the ability to step back, allowing them to be calm and moderate. The left coalition has a legion of other influential actors to push the edge.

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Fair and well made points. Certainly the left is not immune; pre-Covid, the Venn diagram of liberals and anti-vaxxers was alarming, but it's the equivalence that I take issue with here.

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“…who in the Democratic party leadership or leading Democratic presidential nominees publicly stated this or pursued policy goals to address it?”

Some examples:

https://thehill.com/homenews/house/332772-dem-reps-trump-is-moving-towards-impeachment

https://www.seattlepi.com/local/politics/article/Has-Trump-committed-an-impeachable-offense-11151344.php

https://www.chron.com/news/politics/us/article/U-S-Rep-Green-calls-for-Trump-s-impeachment-11146818.php

https://www.rollcall.com/2017/06/12/democratic-rep-sherman-drafts-article-of-impeachment-against-trump/

I mean, my god, man, were you paying attention at all?

None of the Democratic primary candidates said anything about it because by that point the entire conspiracy narrative basically had fallen apart.

I don’t know why you brought up climate change. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian Collusion conspiracy theory. Really, it doesn’t.

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I brought up climate change because the majority of Republicans, both rank and file voters and elected representatives, either believe it's a hoax concocted by a cabal of scientists and/or China - that's a conspiracy theory that has direct ramifications on the policy positions of one of the two major parties.

Trump wasn't impeached for the Russia collision conspiracy theory, and the fact that Democrats didn't pursue articles of impeachment in the wake of the Mueller report - I would even say that this disproves your point: a party totally consumed by that theory would have had enough grounds to do that, but they didn't.

I think what we're arguing about is whether the difference between the left and the right is one of kind or degree - I think it's the former, and you seem to believe that it is the latter (if there is a difference at all).

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Just in this narrow example ... I guess that would depend on how much influence you think the DNC had in directing Fusion GPS who subcontracted Steele and then any culpability they had in leaking it. I get they built a legal firewall but my suspicion is they played a larger role getting this whole Trump - Russia conspiracy out there. It does really all start with the dossier.

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Matt Taibbi's post about fact checkers is a good companion to this. I don't know if Taibbi has been declared an enemy of the state like Greenwald or not, but it was an interesting article about how "fact checking" in the traditional journalistic sense has morphed into some kind of arbitration of which opinions are 'right.'

Honestly the worst thing to ever happen to journalism was Trump calling them enemies of the people or whatever because now they act like every article written at the Post is the difference between liberty and fascism.

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This whole fiasco reminds me why I still trust the Economist as a source of news and analysis. I first heard the lab-leak hypothesis 2nd hand from a friend who had heard it on the Joe Rogan podcast, so I dismissed it as a crank conspiracy. But then I read an economist story explaining in great detail how a lab leak could happen and why it was at least possible, if not especially likely. This was all back in March or April of 2020 and what I read there still holds up.

Around the same time I got a subscription to the NYT. Time has not been nearly so kind to their early coverage of the pandemic

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This fiasco seems particularly relevant to the discussion of social media censorship. As I understand it, both Twitter and Facebook worked vigorously to suppress the lab leak theory from being circulated. This seems like an epic blunder in retrospect. Moreover, it vindicates much of the critique from the political right that "objective fact check" is heavily influenced by politics.

The case for greatly pulling back on the policing of public discourse has gotten much stronger.

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The right is correct about fact checking. One publication ran a fact check on Trump's claim Streep was an overrated actress.

1. Acting is inherently subjective. This claim can't be fact checked.

2. It cited all of her awards relative to her peers as evidence against his claim. It can just easily be used to support the claim. Meryl's a great actress but did she really deserve so many more nominations than her peers.

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This was one of my favorite ridiculous things that Trump said because I imagine that Meryl Streep probably thinks she is "overrated" because she is the most highly rated actress in the country so underrated is not a choice, and exactly accurately rated is a pretty small ledge. But it was one of many reminders that Trump is very small and it allowed Mattis to make a classic humble brag joke and class himself with Meryl Streep.

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I guess getting tons of nominations and awards would ipso facto be evidence that she's overrated. Unless, of course, she's actually a great actress and deserved all those nominations and awards.

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Nominations and awards only have utility if we have objective evidence. Acting doesn't provide it. The fact checker made your claim at the end. I was just trying to show how all those awards can be used argue the opposite. It simply isn't a fact checkable item.

As an aside Streep is an overrated actress. Talented but her performances tend to overly praised for technical abilities that are impressive to her peers (accents). Of course this is all opinion so you're entitled to say I'm wrong.

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Objectively, I can state that you're wrong. :-)

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founding

I'm not entirely sure about "pulling back on the policing of public discourse". I think a much more content-neutral policing would have been helpful, like, say, a complete shutdown of Twitter.

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The impact of Twitter on journalism definitely seems to be both powerful and 100% deleterious.

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Now that is a number that needs fact-checking.

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> My strong suspicion is that this is true across domains of expertise, and is creating a lot of bubbles of fake consensus that can become very misleading. And I don’t have a solution.

The solution looks like getting professionals the hell off of social media, at least to start. It spreads brainworms and in large doses causes internet poisoning. "Bubbles of fake consensus" are exactly the in-groups you mention and creating them at scale *is the entire business model*.

I work in Big Tech, I have downside exposure to what I'm saying, more than I could easily hedge against, and I want social media's influence to decline. It's steadily eroding our entire society. It makes you a bigger jerk than you used to be. It does that to all of us. It has to stop.

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Even if you got 99% off, the 1% could still look like the consensus to reporters who use Twitter as a main pool of interviewees. Getting reporters to understand how unrepresentative Twitter is seems like a key step.

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Great article. One disagreement: The stakes for China's prestige are high. If it does turn out that this worldwide epidemic started with a leak at a Chinese lab, that means that far from boasting about having won the war against Covid (as in the Lego-style propaganda video https://youtu.be/Q5BZ09iNdvo ), China will find itself on the defensive against charges that its carelessness and secrecy unleashed this disaster. This affects the balance of power between China and the US in East Asia (e.g. the fate of Taiwan).

Regarding what to do about media groupthink: the usual remedy for groupthink is to encourage a devil's advocate.

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I can't imagine what kind of Ceasar's-wife review process the devil's advocate would have to go through. Because I have a strong feeling that co-workers would pursue a takedown via Slack. Maybe that's only at the NY Times, but I doubt it. They fired McNeil for speaking per the Times' style guide, for Pete's sake.

But I agree. Lots of my friends have developed poor opinions of devil's advocate thinking, but it's a crucial part of a critical thinking process. You can't laud critical thinking while totally dismissing the role of devil's advocate.

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Yes, I quite agree regarding the stakes. The stakes for the US domestically are low, but the global geopolitical stakes are absolutely immense, as proof that the CCP covered up a pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide would be immensely damaging, if not fatal, to efforts by the CCP and Xi to cast China as a responsible world leader ready to replace an unreliable, unstable US.

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If the lab leak origin is correct, it also will be a blow to China's desire to become a scientific powerhouse. Accidents do happen, but not recognizing that there's been an accident and having the virus spread, or recognizing that there was an accident and covering it up does not reflect well on a nation's scientific prowess. And China really wants to be one of the top scientific powers.

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I would think much more important for China's prestige is the performance of their vaccines, which they are distributing widely around the world. There are some reports that they aren't that effective, and I'm not sure I'd trust official Chinese reports on trial outcomes.

If they turn out to be a bust, after millions upon millions of non-Chinese receive them, that would be a helluva black eye for China, in addition to prolonging the misery of those who turn out not to be protected.

See, e.g., https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-56713663

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The Brazilian trial that reported ~50% was apparently poorly carried out. Other trials are showing it to be much higher, on par with other vaccines (~70-90%).

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That's good to hear. It's not that I *want* the Chinese vaccines to underperform.

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Here's my source btw, although you can find others if you look for the most recent articles: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-11/china-s-sinovac-shot-found-highly-effective-in-real-world-study

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I appreciate this piece and I echo several voices here for why I am now on Substack. It saddens me that I can't trust MSM. But even in MY's reporting, I see a certain squeamishness toward truth that bothers me -- a certain delicacy for not investigating truth b/c the answers may be uncomfortable, couched in a framework that the truth may not matter anyway so why bother investigating it. Here's a quote from yesterday's post:

"As a journalist, I am frankly more interested in forward-looking policy solutions than backward-looking causal analysis. People often engage in rhetoric where the presumption is that “how do we fix Y” is very tightly linked to “X was the cause of Y,” but the real world often doesn’t work like that. If there’s shaving cream on the floor, you don’t jam it back into the canister. "

Sorry, but I read that as "I'm not so comfortable looking into why there is an increase in murder and violence now b/c the answer may not be polite, so let's just try to fix it." Does this make sense? I think knowing the reasons behind something not only allows you to fix it, but to prevent it. (To use the ridiculous shaving cream analogy -- if you don't find out how it got on the floor, it will happen again.)

And here again: it won't change management to try to find out where the virus came from. Disagree. But more than that, this is what journalists should do IMO. They should be looking for truth where they can, regardless of politics, regardless of where that truth lands you. I want truth, not spin, dammit. Truth matters. Marie Kennedy said it better than me: https://postwoke.substack.com/p/atlanta

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founding

I think the point is that regardless of whether *this* pandemic was caused by animal crossover or lab leak, we *already* have pretty conclusive evidence that *both* animal crossover and lab leak are potential sources of future pandemics, so we should *already* be taking the precautions against each.

If we know that our shop has the potential for big messes both because customers knock over jars, and because our shelves are shaky and sometimes spill jars on their own, then we don't need to figure out whether *this* jar was knocked over by a customer or by a shaky shelf - we should already be working on both problems.

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This article does a really good job documenting an important instance of the increasingly troubling cartel-like behavior of journalists, using "misinformation" as a cudgel against attempts to question established narrative and branding anyone who steps out of line as conspiracy theorists. I had no idea it was this bad in the case of the lab leak theory.

However, it's nuts to suggest that the actual stakes are low, or only political. We don't know what the policy implications will be because we don't know what exactly happened. It's one thing to question the utility of speculation but just saying what does it matter anyway is a weird stance to take regarding truth. It's good to know things. COVID has been the greatest global calamity so far in this century and the more we know about how it occurred the better. Of course it's true that we may never get a full picture, but we can't rule out the possibility of uncovering some sort of misstep that informs how we act in the future.

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The stakes are phenomenally high from a geopolitical perspective, but for the CCP, not for us. If it were in fact to be proven that the CCP covered up a lab leak of COVID, it would completely destroy the image they have tried to cultivate of a responsible, trustworthy, stable power as a contrast to the US, to say nothing of the immense rage towards the CCP which would most likely be generated among the major countries which have suffered hugely because of COVID.

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