How media’s groupthink effect led to bungling of COVID’s origin story

As the end of the pandemic mercifully nears, everything old is becoming new again. Nowhere is that more evident than in the ongoing debate — revisionist history and all — over the origins of COVID-19.

You may already be familiar with the widely accepted version of the story, which involves animal-to-human transmission beginning in or around a wet market in Wuhan.

If you are familiar at all with the competing “lab leak” hypothesis, it may be as a fringe conspiracy, parroted by a certain former president and peddled by the likes of Fox News. Recent events, however, have helped return this idea from the fringe to the mainstream.

The lab leak theory holds that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When this theory was originally posited, it was based on the idea of an accident. But in the frenzied political environment that was early 2020, the story morphed in some tellings such that China had released COVID as a bioweapon — a manifestly ridiculous idea that was all too easy to dismiss.

But there is now a reappraisal of the original lab leak hypothesis. Suddenly, everyone from Science magazine to the U.S. intelligence community is reconsidering the idea.

Needless to say, I am no expert, and the question of COVID’s true origins won’t be solved in this column. Actual experts, who have laid out convincing bodies of evidence on both sides, will sort it out.

But I am interested in the question of why we were so blind to this possibility in the first place, and just why the mainstream media has such a tough time which stories like this — ones that involve some degree of uncertainty.

To process these stories, we fall back on a collective obsession with fact-checking, lie-counting and sorting every political statement into tidy categories of True or False in response.

It’s an approach may have served us well when an inveterate liar occupied the White House, but this model has floundered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors and scientists simply have tools and techniques to understand this virus that are not available to the public.

That is why, as far back as a year and a half ago, scientists like Alina Chan at Harvard were discussing the lab leak as a viable hypothesis.

But because the theory’s political messengers came from the right, including Sen. Tom Cotton and former president Donald Trump, the theory was distorted and then dismissed as a dangerous lie or conspiracy theory.

Politifact rated the idea “Pants on Fire” and the other so-called fact-checking outlets followed suit. Recently, many of them have been forced to issue retractions, but the media’s powerful groupthink effect was already hard at work.

Scientists who backed the wet market theory were spotlighted and booked on TV; scientists who were skeptical of it were shunned and silenced on social media.

This had the overall effect of making it seem as if a scientific consensus existed, when in fact there was none. Rather, it was simply the media’s perverse incentive structure at work.

Once again, helped along by political polarization, public opinion calcified in a way which was exceedingly unhelpful.

In part, this debacle is a lesson in politics and the dangers of polarization, which can clearly blind us to important lines of inquiry. Progressives, who were rightfully concerned with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, dismissed the idea out of hand for all the wrong reasons. At the same time, politicians like Trump or Cotton, who have built their careers on xenophobia and general dishonesty, make it virtually impossible to take anything they say in good faith.

Part of this debacle is also a lesson in humility, especially for those of us in the media who prognosticate for a living. The fact-checking/industrial complex should be scaled back in favour of reporting that helps the public to understand the complexities inherent to these issues.

When it comes to COVID-19’s origins, the truth of the matter may never be known, thanks in large part to China’s obfuscation and the WHO’s shameful acceptance thereof.

But the rest of us need not be blind forever — unless, of course, we choose to.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 30, 2021.

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