Why the left doesn't like the lab leak theory

The lab leak theory officially entered the mainstream on 14 May, when a group of experts wrote to Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. That group included some of the biggest names in infectious disease work, such as Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and the veteran coronavirus researcher Ralph Baric. Until then, the lab leak had been widely dismissed as a “conspiracy theory”, thanks to an earlier letter in the Lancet penned by another group of scientists.

But why, even today, are many people on the left so hostile to the lab leak theory? As Matt Ridley (who’s co-authoring Viral with Alina Chan) notes of the recent Channel 4 program, “this is the first time a British television network has run a full documentary on the possibility of a lab leak having caused the greatest public health catastrophe in at least a century”. And as philosopher Peter Boghossian points out, you can infer with “a very high degree of certainty” that someone on Twitter will reject the lab leak theory if he or she has pronouns in the bio (which is, of course, a reliable indicator of left-wing views).

18 leading experts have said, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data” (I’m quoting from the letter in Science). So why are many leftists still so reluctant to concede that COVID might have escaped from a lab?

The conventional wisdom says that the lab leak theory is “racist”, or is at least considered as such, and has therefore fuelled stigma against Asian Americans. In a piece titled ‘How the Liberal Media Dismissed the Lab-Leak Theory and Smeared Its Supporters’, Jonathan Chait goes through many examples where left-wing journalists wrote off lab leak proponents as bigots. Likewise, a recent op-ed in the Washington Post is titled ‘We need to investigate the lab-leak theory — without inflaming anti-Asian hate’ (though it’s mainly about the inflaming, and less about the need to investigate.) And let’s not forget the New York Times reporter who referred to the theory’s “racist roots” ten days after the letter in Science.

Another possibility is that the lab leak theory makes China look bad, and since wanting China to look bad seems like a right-wing nationalist “America First” sort of thing to want, left-wing people are inclined to oppose the theory. (The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that.) If true, this would be in keeping with a long tradition of left-wing appeasement of the West’s actual or supposed “enemies”. For evidence, listen to William F. Buckley’s rants, or read George Orwell on English intellectuals.

To my mind, however, neither of these explanations cuts the mustard. Though each contains an element of truth, none provides a really satisfying explanation for the left’s rejection of the lab leak. Why? The reason is simple. Each explanation also applies to the main alternative theory: that the virus came from a Chinese wet market.

As Charles C. W. Cooke observes in a satirical piece for National Review, the suggestion that exotic Chinese eating habits are what gave us COVID-19 is far more “racist” than the idea of an accidental lab leak. (Obviously neither hypothesis is “racist”, but you know what Cooke is getting at.) There are advanced research labs like the one in Wuhan all over the Western world, and many of them have had leaks. By contrast, Chinese wet markets are strange from a Western point of view. And the wet market theory plays into stereotypes of Chinese people as voracious consumers of endangered wildlife with questionable hygiene practices and little concern for animal suffering. (I’m not aware of any stereotypes of Chinese people as careless lab workers.)

For this reason, the wet market theory makes China look bad just as much as the lab leak theory does. Either way, the virus came from China, and it escaped partly as a result of negligence on the part of Chinese people – whether those were animal catchers, food sellers, public health officials, or lab workers. There’s no getting around the fact that China – America’s “enemy” – is in sense some to blame.

So why does the left, particularly the woke left, dislike the lab leak theory? As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons: one less important, and one more.

The less important reason is that the lab leak theory makes experts look bad. Since leftists want us to “trust the experts” and believe “SCIENCE IS REAL” (as we know from the yard signs), they’re inclined to doubt the theory. Why would confirmation of a lab leak make experts look bad? First, it would indicate that Chinese scientists had failed to heed proper safety protocols while carrying out risky experiments, thereby unleashing a deadly virus upon the world. And second, it would indicate that Western scientists had penned a letter to the Lancet that was at best hopelessly wrong, and at worst an outright lie. (The latter would be particularly embarrassing for the left, given that “conspiracy theorist” has become their insult du jour.)

What’s more, the wet market theory actually makes experts look good. How so? If the virus came from a wet market, that means epidemiologists were prescient in warning about the dangers of such locations in the mid aughts. The original SARS coronavirus – which killed 774 people between 2002 and 2004 – is believed to have come from a wet market in the Chinese city of Guangdong. Consequently, several papers identified wet markets as a major biosecurity risk. The authors of one 2007 paper even claimed, “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Why do I say this is the less important reason? Although the Democrats like to market themselves as “the Party of Science”, and liberals report greater trust in scientists than conservatives, virology isn’t a major flashpoint for ideological conflict. Unlike, say, climate change or Darwin’s theory of evolution, the science of infectious disease doesn’t particularly threaten right-wing sacred values. Even the most stalwart Trump-voting, bible-thumping conservative recognises that viruses can be deadly, and that it’s probably worth doing research to better understand them.

So what’s the more important reason why leftists don’t like the lab leak theory? Simple: it makes the right look good. Since early on in the pandemic, right-wing Republicans have been claiming that a lab leak was possible. Tom Cotton – the senator who sparked a conflagration in the New York Times by writing a piece titled ‘Send in the Troops’ at the height of last year’s mostly peaceful riots – entertained the theory in February of 2020. Then in April, Trump himself said he’d seen evidence to support it. From what I can tell, his comments were partly based on cold political calculations (dissing China tends to rally his supporters), and partly based on actual intel he’d received.

Whatever Trump’s exact reasons, the lab leak theory came to be associated with the political right. And today, polls consistently show that Republicans are more likely to believe it than Democrats. Leftists don’t like Trump to be right even about trivial things (they probably grumble when he says “USA” right), but if it turns out that he correctly called the origins of COVID-19, they’d be absolutely incandescent with rage. Trump right, and the media, the “experts” and all the respectable people wrong? That would be a very bitter pill to swallow.

Can wanting the right to look bad really be that big a motivator? Yes, it can. One of the key findings from public opinion research over the last ten years is the emergence of what’s called “negative partisanship” (i.e., disliking the other side more than you like your own side). Among both Democrats and Republicans, straight ticket voting has increased, while ratings of the other side have plummeted. Hostility toward the other party’s candidate is now a better predictor of party loyalty than warmth toward one’s own candidate. As Iyengar and Westwood note, partisans discriminate against one another “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race”. In short, liberals and conservatives just don’t get along.

Go back to the start of 2020, when we didn’t know much at all about the origins of COVID-19. Suppose Trump had come out and said: “Folks, this virus came from a wet market in Chi-na”. Suppose he’d invoked all the stereotypes about Chinese people I mentioned above, and he’d repeatedly bashed the Chinese authorities for failing to learn the lessons from SARS-CoV-1. “This happened before, folks. It’s tremendously sad. I warned you about China. Didn’t I warn you about China?” Would leftists have really stuck with the wet market theory? I highly doubt it.

We still don’t know where COVID came from. Of the two main theories, the lab leak remains distinctly unpopular on the political left. One possible explanation is that the theory’s “racist”. Another is that it makes China – America’s “enemy” – look bad. But those explanations don’t work, since the wet market theory is more “racist”, and it also makes China look bad. So why doesn’t the left like the lab leak theory? Well, it makes “experts” look bad, and – more importantly – it makes the right look good.

Note: this article has not dealt with the actual veracity of the lab leak and zoonotic spillover theories. For those who haven’t been following the debate, I’d recommend this paper in Cell, which makes the case for the zoonotic spillover theory. And then I’d recommend Alina Chan’s response, which argues that all the evidence is consistent with both theories.

Image: Andrew Horne, A view of Wuhan, 2007

The Daily Sceptic

I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first examines how much effect lockdown had on UK mobility. The second asks whether Australia will be able to contain the more transmissible Delta variant. The third summarises a recent cost-benefit analysis finding that the US lockdowns weren’t worth it. The fourth notes that England’s age-standardised mortality rate in July was about equal to the five-year average.

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