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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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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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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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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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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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.


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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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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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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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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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> 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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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 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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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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