Science has become a cartel, by Matthew Crawford

Cartels go hand-in-hand with government, even in science. From Matthew Crawford at

The idea that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a laboratory, and then escaped accidentally, always had a certain plausibility. The virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, where there is a laboratory that conducts research on bat coronaviruses — one of only a handful in the world to do so. Yet this possibility was dismissed quite forcefully and from the beginning of the outbreak by prominent virologists.

Now that same lab-leak hypothesis appears to be on the verge of acceptance as the most likely. Such reversals happen; it is the nature of science. In an emergency, it is understandable that a research community might commit to one theory over another, even if prematurely, in order to focus its intellectual energies and resources. Surely that’s what happened here.

But there may be more to the story. On 2 May, the veteran science reporter Nicolas Wade published a long, detailed account of the career of the lab-leak hypothesis. His reporting appears to have triggered a cascade of defections, not simply from a consensus that no longer holds, but from a fake consensus that is no longer enforceable.

Now 18 scientists have signed a letter in the journal Science with the title “Investigate the origins of COVID-19”. The New York Times notes that “Many of the signers have not spoken out before.” “Speaking out” is an odd locution to use in a scientific context; one expects to find it in a story about a whistle blower. If, during the Covid fiasco, scientists have not felt free to speak their minds, then we have a serious problem that goes beyond the immediate emergency of the pandemic. Regardless of how the question of the virus’s origins is ultimately decided, we need to understand how the political drama surrounding the science played out if we are to learn anything from this pandemic and reduce the likelihood of future ones.

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