Covid is science's Chernobyl

Covid isn't China's Chernobyl. Or even America's. Covid belongs to science itself.

We know that Chinese labs in the Wuhan area were experimenting with humanized bat coronaviruses. We know that Wuhan is not bat country; winter is not bat season; the Chinese are not bat eaters; and the corona bats are inedible microbats.

We know the Chinese government refuses to release the records of Chinese bat-virus research. We know a “senior administration official”—Biden administration, that is, meaning straight outta the Deep Statesays:

This was just a peek under a curtain of an entire galaxy of activity, including labs and military labs in Beijing and Wuhan playing around with coronaviruses in ACE2 mice in unsafe labs, that isn’t understood in the West or even has precedent here.

One important epistemic skill in the modern world is knowing when to trust power. In this case: you can take power to the bank. While this doesn’t make up for the various shitty things the “intelligence community” has done, it shows there’s still value there.

The Deep State would never tell us this if it wasn’t true. It simply does not fit anyone’s bureaucratic agenda—also, frankly, no one in DC today has the balls to make it up.

We should just consider it true, forget about the popsicle theory (frozen kangaroo burgers from Australia) and the double zoonosis theory (bat to pangolin to human), and move forward from here. But we won’t.

We don’t need to know anything else. We probably never will know anything else. Until someone shows up with a smoking pangolin, a tainted bat or a contaminated Eskimo Pie, the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 was a Chinese lab accident is the null hypothesis. It goes in the place in your brain where you put all the other things which you assume are true, though you are still ready to consider any evidence against them.

What matters is not the lab hypothesis—but the implications of the hypothesis. Hardly anyone is thinking about these implications. Before we consider them, let’s understand the causes of this epistemic breakdown.

Some epistemic strategy

The lab hypothesis is useful to no one who matters, so it will never be the official theory. If there was a dissident establishment it might become the dissident theory. But of course there is no such thing as a dissident establishment or a consensus.

Worse, such a severe breach in the continuity of the narrative can easily exhaust the reasoning capacity not just of most dissidents, but of all dissidents. There are two kinds of dissidents: specialists and generalists. Generally they have nothing to do with each other. But both of them can all fail. This is bad and needs to be fixed.

When all generalists fail, it is because for a generalist being wrong about one thing is as bad as being wrong about everything. I am still haunted by something wrong I said on a podcast six months ago: I said Morocco was not a historical nation-state. I don’t know why I said this, as Morocco is the only historical nation-state in the Maghreb. Hopefully it was just a brain-fart.

It is true that few people even try to hold themselves to this kind of standard and God knows how well any of us succeed, but it is absolutely required of the generalist. Every time Ron Unz (with his IQ of 180) gets it wrong, he undoes all the things he got right. Unz has easily an SD on me, and he believes Covid was an American bioweapon. Which I guess is perfectly plausible, if you know nothing at all about the real US government. Lesson: the bigger your brain, the more information you need to feed it.

When all specialists fail, it is because they find or design a specialty and pour all their energy into it, forgetting that the only purpose of any specialty is general. While our society is full of specialist dissidents who can put enormous productive energy into a controversial question, these specialists tend to have two general flaws.

One is that they operate most efficiently if they operate under the curate’s-egg theory of government. While in this case everything appears to be completely rotten, in every other way all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. Some of these same specialists may privately hold generalist opinions; but they keep those to themselves; they have to; and they arguably should have to.

Two is that they focus all their energy on the hypothesis, leaving none at all for the implications of the hypothesis. The whole point of thinking clearly is to follow through the hypothesis—and see what is downstream of it. Instead, these dissidents just prove the hypothesis over and over again. They are specialists, after all.

Both these flaws are rife in the highest-quality dissident Covid research. Since this research appears to be true, its specialist dissidents can be of arbitrarily high quality.

The intellectual quality of the Covid dissident community is at least as high as that of any other specialist dissident community I have seen, and its institutional penetration is higher. This is because the situation is not (at present) strongly politically loaded, although its supporters should watch out if Republicans “seize on” their hypothesis.

Yet their impact on the permanent historical narrative of Covid is as yet by no means assured. And their expected impact on the implications of Covid is, basically, zero. An amusing analogy may demonstrate this point.

The Pripyat pangolin attack

If Soviet dissidents thought about Chernobyl this way, they would still be debating the conspiracy theory that the Pripyat pangolin attack “never happened,” that the nuclear plant was destroyed by a “research accident” rather than a pangolin assault team, and that the exclusion zone is meant to “keep civilians out”—not pangolins in.

These wild theories and more would be tirelessly debunked under #Conspiracy_theories at the Great Soviet Encylopedia entry for “Pripyat Pangolin Attack,” with a talk page longer than Trotsky’s rap sheet. Of course the “Chernobyl truthers” would seethe with intellectual discontent, pointing out a thousand inconsistencies in the mainstream pangolin theory—pangolins never attack, there are no pangolins in the Ukraine, and other total red herrings—the famous “Gish Gallop,” as perfected by ‘80s creationists.

No one ever would have dreamt that Chernobyl meant nothing, really, of itself—that what it meant, really, was Belshazzar’s feast for the USSR itself.

So when we assume Covid was a Chinese lab accident—or even just conclude, in retrospect, that experimenting with humanized bat viruses was a terrible idea—and move forward from there, what do we learn about the world we live in? And if the world could read and understand that writing on the wall—what would it do?

The research program

The right question for Covid, just as for Chernobyl, is what fundamental errors of human governance caused this accident. Even if we assume that Covid was leaked by a Chinese lab, we cannot even say that the ultimate cause of the accident is in any way Chinese.

In fact, I assert, it was not Chinese. True: the accident should cause us to think less of Chinese lab-safety procedures. I for one had not thought much of them at all. I think the CCP leadership had not thought much of them either. Now, I think, they have. I’m sure Mikhail Gorbachev has not yet lost his deep distaste for graphite-core reactors.

But the Chinese scientists doing this work were not (even while working at Chinese institutions) following a Chinese research program—but a Western research program. The Wuhan Institute was even funded by US tax dollars. Is this China’s Chernobyl? Or—is it ours?

The gain-of-function experiments

Chernobyl had its whistleblowers too. But they weren’t on Twitter.

For those of us who followed the early days of Covid, one of the best tweeters was Marc Lipsitch of Harvard, who earlier had blown the whistle as hard as he could on gain-of-function research (eg, humanizing bat coronaviruses). So far as I know, Professor Lipsitch has since Covid remained publicly silent about lab accidents. Why close the barn door, when the horse is out? But in 2018 he pulls no punches:

In lifting the funding ban, the U.S. government has said that it will establish scientific review panels to ensure that the benefits of such research justify the risks. What do you think of this approach?

I believe that gain-of-function experiments to date have given us only modest scientific knowledge and have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics, yet they have risked creating an accidental pandemic. Therefore, I think that a review of the sort proposed by the government should disallow most of these risky experiments.

But in Scientific American in 2015, the Professor pulls… one punch:

The creation of novel, transmissible, virulent influenza strains is exceptionally risky and has little public health benefit; such research should be stopped. Other types of experiments included in the funding pause, among them those that alter MERS and SARS viruses to adapt them to lab animals, might be different. 

Narrator: they were not different.

But we have an interesting thermometer of the honor and capacity of this scientific community. Like many Soviet critics of the graphite-core reactor, the best scientists really tried to get this research banned; and they even partly succeeded.

Furthermore, as Professor Lipsitch predicted, when the pandemic it was designed to help fight actually occurred, none of this dangerous research was even slightly useful. Even if it did not actually cause the pandemic, it was just a waste of time and money.

Apparently wasting time and money is not super unusual in science. But why?

The general problem with modern science

The general problem with modern science is that the currency of science is relevance. However, relevance can almost never be judged scientifically. Since it must be judged, it is judged doctrinally. Scientific decisions remain scientific; meta-scientific decisions, decisions about what science to do, have become completely dogmatic and bureaucratic.

Every field has a list of relevant projects. This list includes every real-world problem space that work in the field can be relevant to. Naturally, for everyone in the field, it is ideal for this list to be as long as possible, and the problems to be as broad as possible.

It is still difficult to expand the list—because it means horning in on somebody else’s budget. But contracting it is almost impossible. Moreover, even if taken wisely, these meta-scientific decisions rarely reduce to any mechanical or scientific logic; they tend to be phronetic. This suggests that some wise, unscientific power should be in charge of science—a conclusion that almost all scientists would vigorously resist.

What Professor Lipsitch did was actually very brave, if you think about it. He tried to get his peers’ funding taken away! I will bet dollars to donuts this man has never read Dale Carnegie’s great classic, How To Make Friends And Influence People. Has he never heard of… peer review? (Another modern invention, by the way.)

When you take a project off the relevance list, you are wrecking the careers of a whole cohort of scientists. Q: Who has the power to do this? A: pretty much, no one.

More important than the difficulty of mutating this relevance list (always informal—if you have any business knowing what problems matter, you know) is the inherently phronetic quality of curating it.

Science is a formula for thinking. A phronetic decision is a decision for which there is no useful formula—only intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. Most practical decisions are phronetic, not scientific. Meta-science—the decision of what science to do—is a customer of scientific knowledge, but its decisions are phronetic.

One of the foundational principles of 20th-century science is the idea that the British call the Haldane principle—that scientific funding should be directed by scientists. This seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, the 20th century was the golden age of the self-watching watchman. Also, the worst thing science can do is waste money—right?

It turned out that the Haldane principle was relying on the intelligence, knowledge and wisdom of the scientists themselves. When scientists had to be responsible to nonscientists for these decisions, science had no way to corrupt the nonscientists.

But when scientists were asked to make the meta-decisions as well, it turned out that wisdom and science have little to do with each other. Worse: the nonscientists didn’t have a conflict of interest in the meta-decisions, but the scientists did. When they did have any wisdom, that wisdom had to fight past this built-in bias.

In the beginning, the scientists still made good phronetic decisions—because they had been trained in a culture that predated the corruption of science by power. In the end, the arguments for every project became sterile and abstract—and there is no better example than coronavirus gain-of-function research, which even Professor Lipsitch thought (incorrectly) might be useful.

As soon as SARS-1, clearly a natural accident, happened, bat coronavirus zoonoses became relevant. Duh. Obviously. Because they had killed lots of people and almost caused a pandemic. Why not know more about this dangerous phenomenon?

Also, what better way to to investigate the problem of bat viruses becoming adapted to humans—than simulating the problem of bat viruses becoming adapted to humans? And we can do this best by… adapting bat viruses to humans.

To jump from a bat to a human is extremely difficult twice over. First, humans do not often interact with bats; second, bats are very distantly related to humans. As SARS-1 showed, nature can cross that bridge. But not often, not easily, and—as it turns out—not that well.

SARS-1, a true zoonosis, was in the process of adapting to humans, but it was stopped, and stoppable, before it got very far. It just grew too slowly in our cells—so it wasn’t contagious until it was symptomatic. It wasn’t really all the way across the bridge.

But the bridge is easy to cross in any lab. Why not cross it? We could learn something about the bridge, or bridges, or something. As we certainly have!

Infecting humans with bat viruses is Unit 731 shit, but it’s not a war crime if we infect special mice with a humanized ACE2. (Passaging viruses in ferrets is also common—SARS-CoV-2 loves ferrets and other mustelids, and has taken out whole mink farms.)

No wise decisionmaker, knowing either what we know now or what we knew ten years ago, would choose to fund this research. Unfortunately, wisdom is not any part of the science funding process; and any sort of simple, obvious irrelevance is irresistible to it.

Irrelevant science and the Chinese paper mill

There is no such thing as Chinese science. This is just a fact: China does not have a distinct scientific establishment. Chinese science is just a branch of Western science.

There is one ordinal ranking of scientific institutions and journals in the world. There are no scientific institutions that are shunned in China but respected in the West, or vice versa. In short: China has no brain of its own. Nor, of course, does anyone else.

But China is its own country and they do things differently there. In science today, China is famous for producing large numbers of low-quality papers. Exactly like—to quote our senior administration official—an entire galaxy of activity. This is not to say that no high-quality papers come out of China—just that there is an enormous amount of Chinese science which seems to be done just for the sake of doing science.

The Chinese government does not worry too much about bad science, because it is not investing in science—it is doing what it does best, investing in its own population. It is much better to be a scientist than a peasant; only slightly better to be a good scientist. And what’s the worst thing science can do? Waste money, obviously…

The first meaning of Covid-19

Covid-19 was a human accident, like Chernobyl. It happened because SARS-1, a natural accident, made it possible to fund science that was both dangerous and irrelevant.

Western scientists established the scientific relevance of gain-of-function studies on bat coronaviruses. China then performed a “galaxy” of these studies—going to bat caves to collect as many coronaviruses as possible, then adapting them to human cells in labs that US diplomats called “a serious danger.”

As in so many of history’s great engineering accidents, the question turns out not to be why the accident happened—but why it didn’t happen sooner.

The second meaning of Covid-19

Since most irrelevant science is not dangerous, when we find one instance of science that is both dangerous and irrelevant, we know there is much more irrelevant science.

Furthermore, if our institutions are supporting irrelevant science, there is little doubt that this is crowding out relevant science.

The well-known stagnation in technical progress may have many causes; but science’s systemic inability to make progress at a rate comparable to mid-20th-century science is probably related to its systemic inability to make good meta-decisions. Instead it pursues the same projects year after year, out of pure bureaucratic inertia.

The third meaning of Covid-19

Again, the currency of modern science is relevance. But should it even be?

Every paper, in every field, starts with an explanation of the work’s relevance. This relevance narrative, whether good or bad, is almost always boilerplate. It can almost never be judged scientifically; and it never is.

To every working scientist, this is completely normal. They would barely recognize the world of classical (prewar) science, whose currency was curiosity.

A scientist was, in the old jargon, a natural philosopher; his goal was to delight his peers by his discoveries of the beauty of nature; curiosity is a poor and slighting word for this search of intellectual excitement, really of God’s presence in the natural world; but we have no other.

Science in the prewar world was not generally funded by the government; and it was not regarded as a project which should deliver useful results for the government. There was zero “big science,” of course. Yet, paradoxically, the science of the old, curiosity-driven era seems to have delivered more for state and society.

Of course the apex of 20th-century science was the wartime mating of prewar science and its ethos of honorable curiosity, with the strong right arm and fist of government. World War II may easily have equaled twenty years of scientific progress; nor did its momentum die with peace.

Now the ethos is largely gone; the arm is palsied and the fist is open; and most science is stamp collecting. And when no one is actually thinking about the purpose of science, no one is actually thinking about whether that science is dangerous.

The end result of the universal focus on relevance is… pervasive, systemic irrelevance. Focusing on the symbolism of scientific accountability has driven out the substance. And there is no way at all to turn the train around. Why did we go in this direction?

Covid is a disaster. Yet it is only an indicator of the decline of Western science, which may even be a greater disaster; and that is only an indicator of the decline of Western governance, which is certainly a greater disaster.

The fourth meaning of Covid-19

The fourth meaning of Covid-19 is that no one is in charge.

The two best essays about Covid are from the very mainstream New York Magazine: on the origins of Covid by Nicholson Baker; on the West’s handling of Covid by David Wallace-Wells. Baker is one of our greatest writers and anyone doubting the lab hypothesis should read his story, although as usual it focuses on the hypothesis rather than its implications. Wallace-Wells isn’t saying anything we don’t know here at Gray Mirror, he’s saying it well. His diagnosis of the cause is different, naturally.

The negligent cause of Covid-19, and its inept handling, are logically orthogonal; but they stem from the same cause. There were no grownups in charge.

If in January 2020, Donald Trump had done what FDR would have done—delegated plenary power for all aspects of the pandemic to a single individual—the US would be where New Zealand, mostly by luck, is right now. And he would still be President. He was neither practically competent to manage—nor spiritually competent to delegate.

No one was in charge of the pandemic response. And no one—except the scientists themselves, who have a conflict of interest the size of the Ritz—was in charge of deciding not to fund gain-of-function research.

Professor Lipsitch, a grownup not in charge of anything, actually tried; he did the best he could; he and his friends even got gain-of-function research banned, in the US, for a couple of years. The Trump administration, for reasons no doubt having nothing at all to do with Donald J. Trump, managed to unban it.

The project never stopped in China—in the hands of Chinese scientists mostly trained in the West, and working entirely within a Western tradition. Alas, the custodians who cleaned up after them were not trained in the West—they were trained, more likely, in chabuduo. And thus East met West in just about the worst and dumbest way.

We see that this quality of anarchy—not violent anarchy, but bureaucratic anarchy, the state of no one being in charge—unites these two very different problems: the Western origins of Covid, and the Western mishandling of Covid.

One of the tragedies is that, while there is no realistic way to imagine independent grownups taking charge of science under Western governance as it exists today, it would have been very easy to imagine independent grownups establishing unity of command over Covid.

Heck, even the right general could have done wonders. And perhaps still could. Alas, both in government at large, and society at large, no principle is more despised as that of unified authority and responsibility—

The ultimate cause of Covid is that America chose a shitty form of government. For centuries, the continent’s natural advantages overcame this liability. Now the bill is coming due.

Our real form of government today is oligarchy: a fancy name for bureaucracy. If the least scrap of the smallest decision is made by some nonoligarchical mechanism, whether democratic (“political”) or monarchical (“authoritarian”), this is a grave abuse of power.

The hallmark of oligarchy, from the priests of Amun to the professors of Harvard (imagine if you had to wear a special headdress to teach at Harvard!), is the universal belief that all legitimate decisions must be made by the proper process.

This goes so far that most people do not define the power to make legitimate decisions as any kind of power at all. This lets them unconditionally hate power itself—an attitude which is easy to apply and extremely satisfying.

Any power that is not bureaucratic (ie, oligarchical) will be political (ie, democratic) or authoritarian (ie, monarchical). In every regime of every form we find these pejorative labels for competing forms of power. And the examples of these forms, too, are always the most sinister available—and there is no form of government that cannot go wrong.

The only source of monarchical authority in the present American constitution is, of course, the White House. It is interesting to game out what would have happened, and what could still happen, if the President had appointed a coronavirus “czar.”

This term was first used in DC to denote exactly what I propose: plenary imperium on a local issue. It experienced the same degradation of substance and turned into a “drug czar,”—who, far from having the power to order any arm of the state to do anything if it had anything to do with drugs, has no power at all and is actually a PR coordinator.

It is interesting to look at why any attempt to create a Covid czar—who could order anyone to do anything, if it had anything to do with Covid—would fail. It would fail differently for Democratic and Republican administrations.

In an R administration, a Covid czar fails because he is stepping on everyone’s turf—since everyone perceives him as an alien both barbaric and temporary. If he does anything even slightly silly, he will be mocked around the watercooler forever—not to mention mocked on the evening news forever. Anyone who collaborates with him is even more dangerous—an enemy inside the walls—this treason never will be forgot.

In a D administration, a Covid czar fails because he is stepping on everyone’s turf—since he is everyone’s friend. If he takes any power at all, he has to take it away from his friends. And what kind of a friend is that? Any backstabber of this kind will get repaid in his own currency long before he reaches any position of real prominence.

The D obstacles do seem smaller. It even seems possible that the Biden administration could appoint a true Covid czar—and since it is possible, I hope it happens. And in any case, not having a civil war in the middle of the process certainly can’t hurt. And…

The fifth meaning of Covid-19

The fifth meaning of Covid-19 is that it isn’t over yet.

The horse has long since left the barn. I hope all the cute little Chinese ACE2 mice are set free, too. But our little crowned demon doesn’t need its mutant lab-mice anymore.

The coronavirus is now mutating itself in many millions of bodies worldwide. As more of these bodies are vaccinated, the unique opportunities available to any mutation of its little spiky spikes, which happen to make it not shaped like our antibodies, which obviously are shaped like its old spiky spikes, grows exponentially. As more and more doses are given—the selective advantage of any vaccine-escape variant increases. In a virus that is copying itself, right now, a trillion times a second.

And as soon as this full-escape variant is born, the clock starts all over again. Using the legitimate process from the 1950s, the world has a year to test and distribute a vaccine. Maybe we can do it in nine months this time! Operation Super Warp Speed… Of course, the actual science takes two days; the bureaucracy takes the rest.

This remind us of is another military concept: the OODA loop, first developed by fighter pilots for a dogfight. We are in a dogfight with SARS-CoV-2. And before we can turn the plane, we have to perform an 80-year-old bureaucratic rain dance that everyone agrees is a miracle if it happens in less than a year.

As Tyler Durden once put it: how’s that working out for you?