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The new COVID origins debate
Plus: What Scott Adams said
COVID-19 was back in the news this week as the Energy Department released a new assessment that the coronavirus pandemic began from a lab leak rather than a natural origin. The report, detailed in the Wall Street Journal, has reignited the debate about the pandemic and has raised questions such as, “What does the Energy Department have to do with pandemic origins?”
To begin with, it’s important to note what the DOE assessment is and what it isn’t. As with many stories, most people trumpeting their opinions haven’t read beyond the headline, but the story makes two important points. First, the DOE made its assessment with “low confidence,” indicating a lack of concrete evidence for the possibility of a lab leak. Second, the DOE and the FBI agree that a lab leak is most likely, the FBI with “moderate confidence,” but the CIA and another agency not named in the article take the opposite position and consider a natural origin more likely. Two other intelligence agencies are still straddling the fence.
The bottom line is that we don’t know how the pandemic started, regardless of what people on either side of the debate are saying. We may never know.
Part of the reason that we may never discover just how the pandemic started is that it can be very difficult to trace the viral origins of a disease to both its human patient zero as well as the animal from which it jumped to our species. In the case of COVID-19, the virological sleuthing is made even more difficult by the Chinese government.
We all know that the Chinese government obfuscated and lied in the early days of the pandemic, but this isn’t necessarily evidence of complicity. Most of us would probably agree that governments lie reflexively. In the case of communist governments, the problem is even worse. They don’t need a reason to lie. They just do.
Nevertheless, there could be logic in covering up the outbreak of a new disease, even if China wasn’t at fault. The Chinese government, not initially realizing the severity of the problem, could have wanted to protect its image and avoid economic problems. Call this the “Amity Island” scenario from the town fathers who wanted to avoid scaring people away from the beach on a holiday weekend, but this type of thinking is seen in pretty much any disaster movie.
Once the cat was out of the bag, the motivation for the coverup could have changed. At that point, it would have become about saving face for the regime. Under any authoritarian government, Job One is going to be the continuity of the government and the party. The party’s survival would be threatened if the government revealed itself to be incompetent enough to kill billions of people worldwide.
That isn’t to say that it couldn’t have been a lab leak either. Despite the many unproven conspiracy theories surrounding the lab leak hypotheses, the circumstantial evidence, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology being located so close to the Huanan Seafood Market where early cases manifested, is difficult to ignore.
One thing that doesn’t seem to be at issue is whether the pandemic began as a result of a biological weapons project. A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified in 2021 found that the majority of the intelligence community did not find compelling evidence that the virus was engineered. Again, confidence was low due to the lack of reliable information, which incidentally, has not prevented cable news pundits from making their own assessments with high confidence, if not accuracy.
If you began reading this article expecting me to tell you that the pandemic was definitely the result of a lab leak or definitely natural, prepare to be disappointed. If US intelligence doesn’t know, I surely don’t. Neither does anyone outside the Chinese government. The difference is that I’ll admit it.
Dr. Fauci said it best in an interview with the Boston Globe after the WSJ story broke. A skeptic of the lab leak theory, Fauci said, “You have to look at the data. I don't see any data for a lab leak. That doesn't mean it could not have happened, and that's the reason I keep an open mind always about that.”
We need to keep looking for more evidence and not get locked into either particular viewpoint. Look at the evidence and see where it takes us. Use the scientific method.
We may never know exactly how the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic began. The evidence just isn’t available and may not be for years or decades. For the time being, we need to accept that all we have are educated guesses made with low confidence. That means not acting rashly.
And why was the DOE even making an assessment on COVID-19? As it turns out, the DOE is the parent agency of the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, an intelligence agency that “protects vital national security information and technologies, representing intellectual property of incalculable value.” The agency may seem to be far afield in a biological matter, but my guess is that is involved in Chinese matters because of the intellectual property mission.
WHAT SCOTT ADAMS SAID: If you were on Twitter over the weekend, you got to see a noted personality self-destruct. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip, “Dilbert,” posted a video in which he called black people a “hate group” and said, “The best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people; just get the fuck away.”
Predictably, there was a lot of blowback. Adams defended himself on Twitter and dug the hole deeper over the weekend. By Sunday, “Dilbert” was being dropped from newspapers and syndication, and Adams’s publisher canceled his book deal.
For my part, I’ve followed Adams on Twitter for years, even after he went off the deep end. While I strongly disagree with his comments, I do like “Dilbert.” The comic strip reminds me a lot of the offices where I’ve worked.
Adams has the right to his opinions, however unsavory they may be, but freedom is a two-way street. People and companies who find his behavior reprehensible also have the right to terminate their dealings with him.
Cancel culture is really just voting with your feet. Both sides choose to avoid giving money to people who upset them. Sometimes it’s for a good reason and sometimes it’s for a microaggression, but no one is forced to do business with people that they resent.
If you think the incident is overblown or that Adams was right, I’m sure you’ll have an opportunity to give him some money, but the majority seems to be deciding that they don’t like Adams’s behavior or beliefs. Public image is something that businesses have to think about and Adams should have considered that before taking his radical racial views online.
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