The self-licking napalm ice cream cone
"Is science having a stroke?"
When you’re debugging a broken system, the most interesting thing is when it works.
You are not trying to prove that it’s broken. You know it’s broken. The question is why it’s broken. This involves knowing how it’s supposed to work. When every once in a while the machine does work, reality flashes a light on why it much more often doesn’t.
In this case, our giant planetary brain is correcting an error. It is realizing that, despite its earlier statements, covid maybe probably did escape from a lab. Since the brain, like any brain, is supposed to be automatically self-correcting—this is the brain working.
This brain of course works very well in in many ways. But one thing it does not do well is proving itself wrong—especially if the error would cast it in a harsh light. Therefore, the mind of power tends to cling to its mistakes—especially its worst, most glaring, and most revealing mistakes. It is better just to adopt them, as comic-book canon.
If the word science has a broader meaning outside the understanding and control of nature, science means the systematic, self-correcting accumulation of knowledge. If this process is what it claims to be, it is reasonable for all other powers to defer to it.
But once all other powers do defer to it, and then it suddenly—changes its mind—on something huge, it’s best to pay attention. This doesn’t happen often.
Probably the best example I know of happened 70 years ago. The details are different; but no one at all disputes them now, so—I hate to digress—
From Poland to Samoa: a digression
Most people have heard about Stalin’s murder of the Polish officers in 1940 at Katyn. Most people do not know that until 1952, the USSR’s narrative was our own American narrative—that the Poles were shot by the SS in 1941. Which would have been rather atypical for the SS, but not that atypical.
In any case—it just wasn’t true. But everyone believed it. Here is how that happened:
Later, in 1945, Van Vliet submitted a report concluding the Soviets were responsible for the massacre. His superior, Major General Clayton Lawrence Bissell, General George Marshall's assistant chief of staff for intelligence, destroyed the report. Washington kept the information secret, presumably to appease Stalin and not distract from the war against the Nazis. During the 1951–52 Congressional investigation into Katyn, Bissell defended his action before the United States Congress, arguing it was not in the U.S. interest to antagonize an ally (the USSR) whose assistance the nation needed against the Empire of Japan.
(The USSR was of so much assistance against the Empire of Japan that for the whole war, between October 1941 and August 1945, American aid to the Soviet Union was delivered in American ships, flying Soviet flags, from San Francisco to Vladivostok. Amazing what a person can learn from Wikipedia.)
Didn’t Biden himself once scoff at the covid lab-escape theory? Did he bother to scoff? Hold my beer, says FDR. Meet FDR’s old friend, fellow socialite, fellow governor and fellow socialist, George Howard Earle III:
The son of prominent attorney George Howard Earle, Jr., Earle worked in his family's sugar business after graduating from Harvard University. During World War I, he commanded USS Victor, a submarine chaser which was also his private yacht. Though raised a Republican, Earle joined the Democrats out of dissatisfaction with the Republican Party's handling of the Great Depression. He campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election and served as the U.S. Minister to Austria from 1933 to 1934. In this role, he warned the Roosevelt administration of the rising danger presented by Nazi Germany.
Earle defeated Republican William A. Schnader in the 1934 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. As governor, he introduced an ambitious "Little New Deal" that sought to combat the effects of the Great Depression. Among other policies, his administration created a centralized Department of Public Assistance, eliminated the private police forces operated by several coal and steel companies, began construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, instituted Pennsylvania's first gasoline and cigarette tax, and established a forty-hour work week. The Little New Deal made Earle one of the most popular politicians in the country.
“There were giants in the earth in those days.” Well.. here is a thing that happened with George Earle:
In 1944, President Roosevelt assigned Earle to compile information on the Katyn massacre, the massacre of the Polish intelligentsia by the Soviet government. Earle did so, using contacts in Bulgaria and Romania, and concluded that the Soviet Union was guilty.
After consulting with Elmer Davis, the director of the Office of War Information, Roosevelt rejected Earle's conclusion, saying that he was convinced of the responsibility of Nazi Germany, and ordered Earle's report suppressed. At this time, the United States and Soviet Union were still fighting Nazi Germany and Japan.
The interesting relations between US and USSR in the 1940s are covered, if still quite imperfectly I feel, in Sean McMeekin’s new book Stalin’s War—a valuable supplement, at least, to Ernst Topitsch’s essential work of the same name.
If I had to summarize the relationship between FDR and Stalin, I would say that FDR and other American elites thought of Stalin not as our peer or competitor, but as our strong right arm—a troubling, troublesome, and invaluable assistant—in the process of one single progressive world revolution—a revolution against the past itself.
With that one revolution victorious, Stalin could no longer conceal that he was in it for himself and meant to be sovereign, not the hard-man stooge of some UN bureaucracy. FDR died and his plan for an actual world government fell apart—and now there were two revolutions. Those revolutions still collaborated against any remnant of the past, and their shared vision of the future was the convergence of the two systems. Which, arguably, happened.
But not without some shit along the way. Like—the Korean War? In 1952, it was no longer politically incorrect to criticize the USSR. In fact it was advantageous for everyone—for those Americans who had been collaborating with the USSR since the ‘30s, who needed camouflage; and for their opponents, who needed votes and money.
So the Katyn narrative was officially revised to the truth as we know it, by—Congress. The report of the Madden Committee was bipartisan, unanimous, and definitive—not that it harmed anyone’s career, or even much their reputation. WWII was already “in another country; and besides, the wench is dead.”
Similarly, without Trump in the White House, the old narrative is no longer useful. Denying the plausibility of a lab escape is an idea that has lost its selective advantage. Now that it needs be neither shield nor lance ‘gainst the dread orange dragon, the lie is just a sharp, heavy piece of metal. People will do it—but no one likes to carry a lie.
Therefore, in the marketplace of ideas, the playing field has turned almost level. And if not perfectly level, it is level enough for truth to prevail—or at least have a chance. Once the battle is won within virology by a few brave, stubborn virologists, the rest of the opinion-forming insiders have no choice but to listen to them; and the insiders have no choice but to tell the whole world what they now believe.
And therefore the self-correcting system works. A preference cascade proceeds, first within virology and then outside virology, and in a remarkably short time, the brain actually, genuinely, and maybe even permanently, changes its mind, in a way that has no choice but to logically admit that its earlier opinion was extremely bad and wrong.
But it’s still broken
But with the wrong gameshow host in the White House, this would never have worked.
And of course, it’s supposed to work immediately and automatically. It’s not supposed to suddenly lurch into gear after a year and a half, because of an election or something.
The self-correcting brain is still almost entirely broken. Either that—or almost entirely infallible. We know it must be one or the other: the brain hardly ever changes its mind.
An operational brain would have changed its mind immediately. It would have changed its mind many years before covid—and in fact, it tried to.
And failed. If the pandemic has an hero, it is Dr. Peter Daszak. Dr. Daszak tweeted in November 2019:
We’ve made great progress with bat SARS-related CoVs, ID’ing >50 novel strains, sequencing spike protein genes, ID’ing ones that bind to human cells, using recombinant virus/humanized mice to see SARS-like signs, and showing some don’t respond to MAbs, vaccines…
By “ID’ing ones that bind to human cells,” Dr. Daszak means “evolving ones that bind to human cells.” It is not clear whether he also means “engineering.” It can’t be clear, until his Chinese friends stop hiding their files—which, in any case, they’ve had time to forge.
What was the purpose of this research? What has it been used for? What could it be used for? I know what it wasn’t used for—stopping the pandemic.
These questions are actually easy to answer. This was publicly funded science, paid for by the US taxpayer. (Yes, Chinese scientists in China can receive US grant money—what’s wrong with that? What are you, some kind of bigot?)
America is the nation of accountability. And all publicly-funded science has a public explanation—and often even has a simplified PR explanation, for us rubes. Dr. Daszak, of EcoHealth Alliance, which funded this research, explains it well:
The PREDICT project seeks to identify new emerging infectious diseases that could become a threat to human health. PREDICT partners locate their research in geographic "hotspots" and focus on wildlife that are most likely to carry zoonotic diseases—animals such as bats, rodents, and nonhuman primates.
After scientists collect swabs or small amounts of blood, they analyze the samples in the lab to look for evidence of disease. The findings are catalogued in a database, that mathematical experts use to create predictive maps of potential disease outbreaks. This approach not only allows researchers to find new diseases, but also helps communities prepare for and respond to the threat of an outbreak.
Here’s the critical point—Ralph’s work shows, for some of our newly discovered SARSr-CoVs, putative SARS vaccine and MAb therapeutics don’t work. Viral discovery, therefore, is ID’ing GoVs related to a known pandemic strain, but that are able to evade vaccines/therapeutics!
As one who has asks other people for money, I know what that exclamation point means. It means: this is important! This is a relevant phenomenon which endangers the taxpayers and therefore deserves serious attention. In light of this new discovery, it’s best to think of last year’s budget as only a baseline. Here’s what we could do—
“Ralph” is Dr. Ralph Baric, the world’s leading bat-coronavirus expert, who has now quietly signed on to calls for an investigation. But that investigation is still a long way from touching Dr. Daszak—whose future remains so bright, he has to wear shades. The Times, six months ago:
Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised that, if elected, he will restore the program, called Predict, which searched for dangerous new animal viruses in bat caves, camel pens, wet markets and wildlife-smuggling routes around the globe.
The expiration of Predict just weeks before the advent of the pandemic prompted wide criticism among scientists, who noted that the coronavirus is exactly the sort of catastrophic animal virus the program was designed to head off.
The transparently suicidal nature of this program is almost funny. At least, “head off” is a pretty funny way to say “search for.” Again: head off how?
For example, how did all this work “head off” covid? Would it have “headed it off”—had there been more? More funding—more people—more frontpage news? More net bats collected, more viruses isolated, more viable viruses evolved, more terrifying viruses invented? “In the bowels of Christ—think of it that you may be mistaken.”
Scientists can “predict” earthquakes, in the same sense. They can “predict” that, after a series of earthquakes, there might be another earthquake, sometime, around here.
What is the action item? Evacuating bat country? Issuing every farmer in Yunnan with a shotgun and a tennis racket, paying a dead-bat bounty like Mao with his sparrows? To say nothing of the camel pens…
The closest argument to a rational explanation of this program of “prediction” I have found is actually in the Times itself, where Dr. Daszak explains his Pokemon strategy:
Scientists estimate that there are 1.67 million unknown viruses of the type that have previously emerged in people. Discovering and sequencing them should be a priority — a simple case of “know your enemy.”
A simple case of “know your enemy.” This is an all-time classic, like an alcoholic’s excuse for still drinking—in fact, it’s the perfect excuse for still drinking. And there are so many single-malts he hasn’t even tried! In the clear spirits and cordials, he fears, he has not even come to grips with the foe…
Clearly, not just as a citizen but as a scientist, he must continue exposing himself and everyone else to 1.67 million unknown bat viruses—plus any he can evolve by passage through ferrets, humanized mice, etc. Also: the nastier the virus, the more high-profile the paper. This is science, in 2021.
Here is Dr. Daszak’s absolute best case—constructed with all the hindsight of February:
In the aftermath of SARS, research on coronaviruses originating in bats has discovered more than 50 related viruses, some of which have the potential to infect people; this information can now be used to test for broad-action vaccines and drugs.
A radical shift is also needed in the way that tests, vaccines and drugs are designed so that entire groups of pathogens are targeted instead of individual pathogens that are already known.
In other words: if we catch all the bat Pokemon, we can use all the bat Pokemon to invent a vaccine that cures all bat Pokemon—even the bat Pokemon whose bats we didn’t catch and are still flapping around, hissing and squeaking, in the Mojiang cave.
Sure: having more coronaviruses can’t hurt in the development of a new, advanced, broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine. Which would be a nice thing to have. At least as such, it would be more or less impossible to test—ie, in pharma parlance, “develop.” The vaccines we have are of course narrow-spectrum vaccines targeted to specific viral sequences, which has some issues but is better than waiting ten years for an abstract research program which may be a little more realistic than fusion reactors.
This is really the best he can do. It holds up to any casual amateur examination. It is certainly good enough for Congress. It is how science and the world work these days.
What’s funny, and sad, and still yet funny, is the history of Dr. Daszak’s outfit. I and many young, curious minds in the Commonwealth publishing zone grew up reading the lovely animal-collecting memoirs of the great Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence. Gerald was a talented writer, if hardly a literary one, and recounted many colorful adventures around the world as he collected his own animals for his own Jersey Zoo.
In 1963, Gerald Durrell founded a trust for the preservation of endangered species. Again, Wikipedia has the story:
In the fall of 2010, the organization changed its name to EcoHealth Alliance.
The rebrand reflected a change in the organization's focus, moving from solely a conservation nonprofit which focused mainly on the captive breeding of endangered species, to an environmental health organization with its foundation in conservation.
“With its foundation in conservation.” Is nothing sacred—not even Gerald Durrell’s little lemur-farming charity? This is the world the grantwriter made. (Notice how many such institutions’ Wikipedia pages are obviously written by their grantwriters. Shame, in this world, is not a thing.)
Science, in the body of one institution, has gone from collecting and breeding rare fluffy bunnies, hairy frogs and cute jungle cats, to collecting and breeding deadly bat viruses. For no concrete reason that anyone can identify—beyond a grantwriter’s boilerplate.
Our great brain, our world brain, our history-ending brain, was delighted, for years, with this work. It puts Ukrainian methods of graphite-reactor testing in perspective.
Chernobyl goes straight to the top
Now the reactor has exploded—undeniably exploded—and we are all wondering what’s happened to our brain. What even is going on here? Is science having a stroke?
In the end it was decided that the chief engineer was not responsible for Chernobyl. The plant director was not responsible for Chernobyl. Not even the general secretary was responsible for Chernobyl. In the end, history decided, it was the USSR itself—all its institutions, and all its ideologies—that was responsible for Chernobyl.
Was the cause of covid science itself—or rather, some systematic problem that affects how science is done today? Could that problem be even bigger than science? Shit.
In retrospect, another big problem with the lab leak discourse is that many people acted as though virologists were impartial judges as to whether the worst tragedy in decades could be the fault of virology.
Yes. And well before this, many people acted as though virologists were impartial judges who could decide whether or not to cause the worst tragedy in decades.
But if the virologists are not impartial judges of virology—who is? Who should be making these decisions instead?
Fox News viewers? The politicians they elect? Some randos on Twitter? The Queen of England? The Catholic Church? The Caliph? The United Nations? Reddit? Do tell.
None of the people criticizing the virologists have any answer to this question. If the virologists are no longer in charge of virology, who is? How can the virologists not be the best people to put in charge of virology? And who else would do it—or could?
Even the great world brain at its best, admitting all its errors in the best possible faith, cannot begin to answer this question. Any possible answer is outside its philosophy.
The collectible self-licking napalm ice-cream cone
Dysfunctional science is not pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is factually or logically wrong. Dysfunctional science is just useless—and occasionally, as we see, dangerous.
Why does putting scientists in charge of science—and specifically, in charge of funding science—create dysfunctional science?
The self-funding, self-managing, decentralized enterprise of 21st-century science falls prey to three dark patterns (among others): stamp collecting, self-licking ice-cream cones, and playing with fire.
Stamp collecting means doing science just for the sake of doing science—or rather, of racking up genuine, novel, but pointless publication points. Self-licking ice-cream cones are problems caused by the attempts to solve them. Playing with fire is self-explanatory. Covid is a kind of perfect trifecta of all three tropes.
Indeed, when you find your psychopathic ten-year-old starting little fires on the deck, he has a very similar explanation. Fire, he explains, is very dangerous, and therefore very important to understand. Can a fire start on the deck? If a fire were to start on the deck—perhaps as the result of a carelessly-discarded magnifying glass—what would happen? Where would the fire go? How would it spread? Would the alarms go off? Would the dogs get out? These empirical questions can be tested by safe, controlled experiments, letting us predict when fires will emerge and practice heading them off. So that’s what he’s doing—it’s science. In the family’s interest, you see. When is dinner?
Chernobyl goes straight to the top. If I wink and nod and tell little Johnny to carry on with his arson experiments, maybe even bringing him a plate of mac-and-cheese while he works out the worst place someone could just leave a magnifying glass lying around, isn’t it I too who am the arsonist?
When we let virology be managed by the virologists, it’s obvious why these three types of dysfunctional science prosper in the virology marketplace of ideas. Stamp collecting creates work for scientists. A self-licking ice-cream cone rationalizes its own funding. And playing with fire gets everyone’s attention.
But who else would manage the virologists—or could?
If you’re a thoughtful person, as I’m sure you are, your favorite kind of question is the question for which you have no answer. Thinking about such questions is thinking. Thinking about any other kind of question is not thinking, just shouting at yourself.
Are you looking for answers? I have a lot of answers. Some of them must be wrong. At least I don’t know which…