Shadow hunters in the hazard lab

How fearmongering about virology is an important funnel towards lab leak conspiracism

Chapter 1: Amplification dynamics favor untruths

Why influencers are bad for science

Contempt for the conman, compassion for the conned.

People do not deserve to die because they got sold junk information

You want to know the truth on the origins of SARS-CoV-2? Better start opening your wallet then! We take credit cards, Maestro, Payball or direct transfers. Also subscribe to my newsletter, Facebook group and high tea session… Gee, with all those services, I do hope Patreon subscribers get at least an exclusive headstart on ‘the truth’?

The complete lack of supportive evidence does not stop many influencers from amplifying conspiracy fantasies

Being first with a wrong ‘hot take’ is unfortunately way more profitable in the attention economy than being second with the correct take.

Hot take: Generalities aren’t illuminating when it comes to how often a pandemic was caused by a zoonotic jump in history! (every time so far!) … But her evidence-free insinuations of an ‘extensive and sustained’ cover-up are of course very smart and ‘illuminating’.
I like how he says the quiet part out loud. Lab leak is not a “scientific” theory, but a “forensic” one. Ergo, Lab leak proponents should not be expected to provide positive evidence because it is all covered up. At the same time, he asserts that science will be unable to ever falsify a lab leak given the “officially” available evidence, because who knows what ‘they’ are hiding. This is of course textbook conspiratorial gibberish. Even “forensic” theories (whatever they are) still require scientific evidence to have any merit, and we do have forensic evidence for a natural origin of SC2 (it’s called phylogeny in virology)
Hot take: Hey, she just learned about seamless cloning techniques, so when others explain that there is no evidence of genetic engineering of SC2, it is an ‘attempt to gaslight the public’… She does however not have the scientific depths to know that there are specific features in the SC2 viral genome that directly contradict engineering. Claiming “we just can’t know” about engineering, when experts actually do know, at least in this specific case of SC2, seems more like ‘gaslighting the public’ to me.
Oh, I know. Because in early 2020, the lableak theory was synonymous with the conspiracy ‘Chinese bioweapon to hurt Trump’, which some scientists thought needed public condemnation, so that maybe ‘all those who raise questions’ (= riled-up MAGA/QAnons and other lunatics) don’t go out harming scientists or Chinese Americans? We really don’t need more pizza gate-style vigilantes storming dim sum places. Also, insinuating a ‘massive conflict of interest’ is a bit of a stretch, given one of the 20+ scientists in the letter ‘failed to disclose’ his knowledge about an unfunded DARPA proposal, of which he happened to also have the expertise to know that the work proposed by it could not have lead to SC2. Either way, the lancet letter did not stop scientists from investigating all possible origin scenarios, including lab leak. As far as we can tell, most scientists were not even aware about the existence of this op-ed at the time. But meh, influencers and details. Nice begging the question there though Jamie, while being totally uninterested in the answer. But I get it, what you really wanted to say in this tweet is that there surely must be a conspiracy behind it all!?!?
Damn, it’s almost been another year and this stupid house of cards is still standing, huh?
Hot take: Asking questions is and should not be a partisan issue! How dare you suggest me begging the question is anything but honest inquiry! Outrageous! (Others might find the skirting of journalistic norms to write a slanderous article about scientists based on nothing but hearsay and speculations & in the service of recycling conspiracies for clicks just a tad “outrageous” as well. Opinions differ, I guess. Good engagements though, congrats!)

Chapter 2) Biosafety fearmongering & virus hunting panic

Does the person have a good understanding of the benefits, or are they just fearmongering about dangers?

Uiuiui, that does sound pretty bad. Endless risk and no benefit? Ban that shit immediately if it is that obvious! (Must be those virologists just have no idea about risks or benefits because they are all half-baked idiots… But luckily, influencer bro here who never saw the inside of a virology lab has deigned to guide us through these difficult times!)
  • Pandemic frequency

One cannot aim to find something new and useful without exploring many avenues, including some ‘riskier’ ones

  • Knowledge saves lives
  • What about economics?

Does that mean we have to kiss our loved ones goodbye anytime the ‘virologists’ are at it again?

Hot take: The BSL-2 labs where scientists investigate viruses are basically dentists’ offices, and you should find this disturbing! Of course, this fearmongering is as factually false as it is manipulative. BSL-2 labs and dentist offices are not in any meaningful way comparable. But the “Hey, I’m on your side, you can trust me because I want to change that one blatantly false thing I just made up to scare you” tactic works quite well on social media.
Oh, did you like Richards hot take? Why not add one of your own too? Hot take: ‘It is incomprehensible to normal people (not smart ones like her!) how risky BSL-2 work actually is’ … Funny, because it is actually not complicated at all. Also, virologists who have done work involving SARS-like viruses know that many experiments (not all!) are indeed appropriate to be conducted at exactly this safety level. But what do experts really know, right? Better take the word of somebody who has no relevant experience in biosafety or virology!

We need dedicated scientific institutions and domain experts to come together regularly and figure out the rules of conduct, not social media grifters, cranks or influencers to dictate their “hot takes” as self-evident truths.

Do you rather let the viruses have a go at humans first, or do you prefer humans have a go at studying them?

Ehm, I’m gonna go with no? Like to all of it. The GVP did not inadvertently cause the pandemic. The project’s aims are about predicting viral emergence, not creating pandemic viruses. Not that it matters, because the timeline also doesn’t work, the GVP was not yet in action, and no virus hunting for the GVP has taken place before the pandemic, and for some time after, because the *pandemic* delayed said activities. But who can trust the scientists involved who all said the same thing, right?
“Look, the GVP basically continued project DEFUSE. Now it’s all a secret ops with the Chinese Academy of Science pulling the strings.” (don’t you love how these overlapping conspiracies about a rejected DARPA grant causing the lab leak in Wuhan seamlessly flow to the most recent thing (GVP) actually causing it… everything is connected mate, WAKE UP SHEEPLE)

Vicious personal attacks from dissenters can make any discussion so painful that scientists are just driven away from the public sphere

Richard likes to use the opportunity to slap the whole endeavor of “virus hunting” down with an apt variation on the “reckless cowboy” metaphor, a recurring theme of lab leak proponents. Indiana Jones hunting in the bush! Sassy! (Also, a well-packaged backhand that everybody who disagrees with your hot take must be stupid, irrational, or corrupted! Nice! Extra points!)
Of course, a fine brush like the above does not always work so well with this fella. Even a broad brush is often too small for his absolutes. “THERE ARE NOT LAWS & VIROLOGISTS ARE RECKLESS COWBOYS” is of course a less surgical hot take that flies way better with certain audiences on social media. Yours truly got an honorable mention though once or twice as well.

Chapter 3) Channel the created unease to sow doubt about science and the scientific process

Funny how all the tangentially related topics always seem to find their way back to bolster the original conspiracy, isn’t it? Never mind that all proposed lab leak scenarios have been scientifically dead for some time now because they are incompatible with existing evidence.
So let me get this straight, the wider virology community lie about Chinese virologists doing something wrong so they can mislead the public about biosafety for their own personal gain (of skirting regulations), all with the wider goal of framing honest truth seekers like yourself as conspiracy theorists? Uh-huh. Sorry to break it to you honey, the world does not revolve around your pet theory.
Nice way to paint with a broad brush some collective guilt onto all virologists. One would assume that if she wants to advance this argument, that the burden of proof is on her to show first that A) virologists neglect their responsibilities & B) some behave like reckless cowboys & C) that this alleged behavior is collectively condoned/ignored by their peers, right? Nah, just kidding. You come out swinging girl, people need you to tell them who the real baddies are!
It’s bad when you misunderstand phylogeny and epidemic simulations so hard that your attempt at sarcasm betrays you. She wanted to ‘own’ the scientists by taking their ideas ad absurdum; only problem: She completely misses the point of the argument. It’s like saying: “Look at these idiots saying 2 different puzzle pieces come from different boxes, so a 100-piece puzzle most come from 100 different boxes then… haha idiots”… When the actual argument was about whether one or two LEGO pieces better fit in the missing space in the LEGO tower. Or maybe it’s just meta-sarcasm?
Newsflash: Evidence-free insinuations, lies and misrepresentations of scientific work are extra heroic
No matter how strong the evidence on climate change, deniers will keep denying and see themselves as brave heros against the mainstream conspiracy. Lewandowsky S., The conversation, 2013
The peer-review must be rigged!!!
Always good to put your book with the hashtag you cultivated. Marketing 101, know your audiences.
Alina Chan profiled by MIT Technology Review, Mai 2021. I’m sure all be forgiven and forgotten if she will just feel ‘extra’ terrible about it too.

Being threatened by a social media troll army every time an influencer puts a spotlight on you or your research intimidates scientists and hampers the scientific process.

Hey, she is not calling for suppression and/or censorship of a scientific study whose results contradict her theory! Get the heads out of the gutter; she just wants independent peer reviewers to have the ‘opportunity’ to be following her lead or face harassment by online trolls… you know, so they know the stakes
Look, Nature Medicine, I’m gonna give you a chance: Give me a signal boost to taint somebody else’s work, or I’ll create a social media shitstorm about your journal. Trust me, I can whip up people. Who cares that scientifically, there is nothing wrong with Proximal Origins? Did you not read my book how it came about by a conspiracy?!?
You establishment shills with your conflict of interests better take care not to say there is solid evidence that disproves my pet conspiracy! I’ll drag you through the mud too if I have to!

Silly scientists talking only about evidence, instead of pre-bunking eventualities, right!?!

How indeed do we make sure whatever happened to a scientist like Alina Chan does not happen again?

Conclusions

  1. People, this was a rant…
  2. what sources did you expect?
  3. “Chan et al., Journal of social media grifting, 2022?”
  4. Seriously? Well okay, I’ll do some disclaimers:
  5. Rants like this are opinion, and while I certainly made sure to not deliberately misrepresent the views of people to the best of my knowledge, you will have to trust my judgement that I was not cherry-picking tweets to dunk on them, but that these are just representative of a larger sample size and my longer interaction experience with the actors.
  6. Personal judgements are not always reliable, so feel free to get more opinions
  7. However, on the larger frame about the toxic communication tactics, there actually is some good scientific literature on, you might want to check Lewandowsky & Cook for example. Climate scientists and sociologists have been playing these games for decades and now I feel awful for them.
  8. Don’t hate the players, hate the game. While there is some individual responsibility these grifters hold, they are also products of the algorithmic environment that warps all our minds. Spend your energy on changing the system, not harassing people that are awful in it. There is a mute button, you know?
  9. Thank you for raging with me, see you next time with some de-personalized #scicomm again!

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Science holds the keys to a world full of beauty and possibilities. I usually try something new.

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Philipp Markolin

Philipp Markolin

Science holds the keys to a world full of beauty and possibilities. I usually try something new.

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