July 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
For the House Republicans, the scientific method itself is now evidence of conspiracy
They seized on a snippet of a researcher’s email in which he and colleagues tried to disprove the lab leak theory. Yes, that’s science.
A scientific paper now ranks with the grassy knoll in the minds of conspiracy theorists. “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” (2020) has become an object of obsession complete with its own rich folklore. Last week, House Republicans devoted a three-hour hearing to haranguing the scientists who wrote it.
Two of the paper’s authors, Dr. Kristian Andersen and Dr. Robert F. Garry, were hauled before the committee to answer for their defiance from GOP orthodoxy.
The GOP party line is that Dr. Anthony Fauci somehow forced a group of university professors to publish a peer-reviewed paper arguing that Covid-19 wasn’t a bioweapon or a laboratory construct. Fauci supposedly wanted to discredit the lab leak because he helped the Wuhan Institute of Virology create the virus. No, really. They get indignant when you call it a conspiracy theory, but that’s the B-movie plot they’re pushing.
No, really. That’s the B-movie plot they’re pushing.
The proximal origin of Proximal Origin was not Fauci’s NIAID lair, but a teleconference organized by Dr. Jeremy Farrar, then the head of a UK research charity. Farrar set the agenda, invited the guests, and even provided tech support. The witnesses testified that Fauci hopped on the call but said little of substance.
Andersen also testified that, far from pressuring him to debunk the lab leak, Fauci had encouraged him to publish any evidence that he might find of a leak and offered to help him share any such evidence with the proper authorities. These are not the actions of someone orchestrating a massive coverup.
In lab leak lore, the researchers’ open-mindedness is evidence of coercion. The subpoenaed emails show that, far from being reflexive leak deniers, the authors of this paper thought they saw features that couldn’t have evolved naturally. If they couldn’t explain how the virus might have arisen in nature, that raised red flags that it might have been engineered. But once they delved into the quirks of SCV2 and explored the weird and wonderful features of wild coronaviruses, their doubts were allayed.
If Fauci was orchestrating a coverup, why would he pick scientists who said they took the lab leak seriously?
Another plank in the GOP conspiracy theory is that Fauci bribed Andersen to argue against the lab leak with a federal research grant. In fact, that grant was awarded before the pandemic started. As is standard for such grants, the award was based on high scores by independent reviewers, not the whims of Tony Fauci.
The majority falsely claimed in its report that the authors sent the paper to Fauci for editing and approval before it was published. In fact, Fauci received a copy of the manuscript that had already been accepted by the journal and didn’t offer any comments.
Most disturbing of all, Republicans tried to spin the scientific method itself as evidence of a conspiracy. They seized on a snippet of an Andersen email stating that he and his colleagues were trying to disprove the lab leak theory. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s science. Experimenters start with a testable hypothesis like, “Sars-CoV-2 leaked from a lab” and then they do their best to knock it down. If they can’t defeat it, the hypothesis survives to be tested again another day. As Andersen explained, they couldn’t definitively disprove a lab leak, but the evidence convinced them it was unlikely.
“My early hypothesis was that of a ‘lab theory’ and when I stated that we were “trying to disprove any type of lab theory,” I was specifically referring to the concept of falsification,” Andersen said in his written remarks.
“This is a text-book example of the scientific method in use.”
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.