Those best placed to know

Bret Weinstein, in discussion with Heather Heying, makes some interesting observations on why “scientific consensus” is not always the virtuous thing it seems. His topical example is the increasing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally released from the virology laboratory in Wuhan, as the evidence for the “wet market” hypothesis becomes less and less persuasive.

Weinstein points to the way in which the former possibility was shut down for discussion very early on in the pandemic – too early on, in fact – by the very people most in a position to know – the lab-based theoretical virologists. Being the experts in the field, their certainty led the scientific and medical communities as a whole to opt into their consensus, and conversely to denigrate the alternative as an anti-Chinese conspiracy theory. Needless to say, if the laboratory escape hypothesis happens to be right, then a year has been wasted investigating the wrong cause, and Chinese politicians have had plenty of time to tidy up the evidence.

Weinstein’s main point, though, is that the gain-of-function experiments at Wuhan and elsewhere, although banned in the USA, were the product of another consensus in virology – that zoonotic viral mutations are an increasing and overwhelming threat to mankind, making gain-of-function research a necessity.

Heying points out that this consensus was reached on theoretical grounds in the literature a decade ago, explaining how Wuhan came to be funded by Dr Fauci’s department and other western virology donors, so that (as Weinstein says), the responsibility for the research is not solely a Chinese issue, but that of the worldwide virology community – the consensus body.

Weinstein simplifies the issue to a binary, which is a useful one: either the theory of zoonotic pandemic risk is true, in which case the wet-market origin of COVID is a prime example of it, and the gain-of-function research would have been better if done sooner. Then the “virology consensus community” are the heroes of the piece.

Alternatively the zoonotic theory was wrong, or at least overblown. In this case, the gain-of-funtion experiments, followed by an accidental escape, achieved intelligently what real viruses could only have achieved with great evolutionary difficulty, if at all. If that were so, the interference with nature at Wuhan would be responsible for the worst socio-political and medical disaster since the Black Death, and the whole tribe of virologists who pushed the research are, in fact, the villains responsible for a couple of million deaths, so far.

Weinstein’s stated conclusion is that the concerted effort to divert attention from the Wuhan laboratory, rather than to insist it be investigated as the first option, is what makes them culpable, rather than merely mistaken. But needless to say, it also shows the near-inevitability, in a heterogeneous subset of humans, that the community would come to the consensus most likely to exculpate the group. The first to speak up would, psychologically speaking, probably be the most self-seeking and careless of public good – in the scheme of things they might already be the the most vocal spokespersons for the field.

With that option (in this case the wet-market hypothesis) on the table, it is easy for the middling majority to agree with their leading voices, and of course by that to influence the overall views of those in unrelated sciences, governments and the press. By the time careful independent thinkers in the field actually weighed the available evidence and concluded the answer was both different from the consensus, and likely to bring it into disrepute, speaking out would lead to ostracism, and would not even succeed. The consensus would be further reinforced.

The truth of this psychology is shown both by the treatment of those who have disagreed with the consensus, even (and especially) by members of their own profession, and by the repeated stories one hears over the whole COVID area from “dissidents” who attest to how many colleagues have approached them saying they agree, but how speaking out would endanger their livelihoods and reputations.

This particular psychological dynamic must, surely, be at work in any controversial field of science, particularly where it has affected public policy. Climate change is the obvious example: if the severity of global warming is not anywhere near as great as climatologists claim amid great publicity, then they are guilty of diverting the economies of the whole world in new and very costly directions for no purpose. Who is going to be the first to put their hand up to that?

Other examples would be major dietary theories, and the associated medical treatments, which have dictated public policy for decades across the world. It’s not just that the medical consensus has its own momentum, nor even that reputations and whole fileds of study stand to lose should the underlying theory prove to be mistaken, but that the whole medical profession (of which, remember, I was a part) would bear the guilt for the metabolic diseases said to result from that consensus, together with a multitude of other effects on commerce, agriculture and the rest of the economy.

The best of us is going to weigh dissenting views less rigorously if, as well as putting us out of kilter with the majority of our peers, they make us (and them) appear to be villains. There’s scarcely likely to be conscious consideration over the matter – none of us is easily persuaded that we have inadvertantly done great harm to the world throughout our lives, and even if we are persuaded, to own up to it in public.

The conclusion? “Collective responsibility” is another of several reasons to be wary of the phenomenon of scientific consensus, and even more so a consensus that appears early and excludes alternatives out of hand. No doubt such a consensus will include some evidence, but it’s likely to be skewed. The same factors that make its members “those best placed to know” also make them “those best placed to obfuscate.” “Consensus” is, after all, only one variety of the argument from authority, whoever is involved and however authoritatively it is presented.

No doubt one’s own inexpert attempts to assess the available evidence in a given instance will be highly fallible. But once one realises that reliance on an expert consensus is possibly more open to doubt (depending on what hinges on it, of course) then that uncertainty is seen to be the state we live in about nearly everything.

And in any case, uncertainty and liability to error are human rights – provided our error does not kill millions unnecessarily.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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