Lies, Propaganda and the Truth
A response to Michael Senger's response to my review of Snake Oil
Earlier this month, friend-of-the-blog Michael P. Senger wrote a generous and thoughtful response to my review of his book, Snake Oil. Everyone should read it, and buy his book and subscribe to his Substack, if he hasn’t already.
Our point of disagreement will surprise nobody: From the beginning, Senger has viewed the lab-leak theory of SARS-2 origins as an essentially unsupported hypothesis, deliberately put about as one element of the Xi Jinping’s lockdown propaganda. Your faithful eugyppius, on the other hand, tends to find the theory rather more convincing.
A fuller discussion will have to wait for my long-delayed review of Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s book Viral, which offers a good compendium of the evidence for the artificial origins of SARS-2. This will come soon. Here, I just wanted to revisit a few side matters, to prepare the way.
For a long time, I’ve tended to suggest that the enormous panic we’ve endured over Corona – a virus which just isn’t that special – owes something to the relationship between SARS-2 and the virus at the heart of the 2002/4 SARS-1 outbreak. Senger objects that the specific genetic relationship is underwhelming, as the genomes of both viruses have only about 80% nucleotide similarity. In this he is totally right. Even RaTG13 and the more recently discovered viruses from Laos are less than 97% similar – too distant to be any kind of direct relatives. The only reason RaTG13 matters at all, is that it was at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the outbreak. For anyone who accepts that the pandemic originated in Wuhan, then this is at the least a very bizarre coincidence.
Had I been more precise, I would’ve written not of the genetic similarity, but of the taxonomic relationship between these two pathogens. These are the only two sarbecoviruses known to infect humans on any scale. Even setting aside the question of lab origins, the SARS precedent here is significant. That earlier outbreak was a great wind in the sails of the pandemicists, responsible for making this previously obscure clade of bat viruses a major topic of research within virology. The disappearance of SARS after 2004 also gave at least some public health experts the illusion that contagious viruses could be controlled, or pandemics preempted, by policy interventions. Of course, once the decision has been made to lock down, it is suddenly in everyone’s interest to play up the taxonomy and draw parallels to that vastly deadlier, but far less successful pathogen, as Senger is quite right to emphasise.
These are mostly side matters, though. The core of Senger’s argument, is that “The Wuhan origin narrative has all the makings of a false flag,” and that we’re the victims of a sophisticated propaganda campaign: The Chinese, on the one hand, mimed a cover-up and pretended to favour a wet-market origins theory, while on the other hand quietly promoting, through back channels, the story of laboratory origins. This gives us the feeling of having discovered the laboratory origins of SARS-2 for ourselves, when in fact it was a little intellectual nugget that we were supposed to stumble upon.
A lot of the messaging around Corona has been highly sophisticated, and the possibility is far from easily dismissed. That said, I see two basic issues here:
Wuhan and the chronology of the earliest infections: Nobody can find the virus before Fall 2019. The Spanish preprint, which claimed to find genetic traces of SARS-2 in Barcelona wastewater from March 2019, was later revised and published without that intriguing claim; the evidence just wasn’t very good. We must remember that it takes time for the virus to spread and find its way to the more isolated and vulnerable people who will end up dying from it, and before that happens, it will be circulating out of sight. There was definitely community spread after October 2019 in Italy, and after November 2019 in France, but the virus hadn’t yet infected enough people in either country for authorities to notice. The Wuhan outbreak, by late 2019, seems to have been more advanced than anybody else’s. So we can be more precise about our coincidences: More people seem to have been sick with SARS-2 infection earlier in Wuhan than elsewhere, and in Wuhan there was also a research institute which had a few years prior sequenced what was to that point the closest known relative of SARS-2.
Information manipulation and propaganda: Here, I agree with Senger totally. All kinds of people have sought to manipulate our understanding of where SARS-2 comes from, and in fact different parties have favoured different sides of the origins question at different times. It’s surely significant, for example, that the lab-origins discussion first broke into the mainstream in 2021, during the vaccination campaign, when a lot of journalists were trying to come up with new reasons to fear Corona.
I would only add something I learned from one my great professional influences, an old German historian of ancient things who died some years ago. Once, in the course of discussing a difficult historical problem centred upon biased ancient accounts, he said to me: “Eugyppius, just because you’ve detected the programmatic nature of a source, doesn’t mean you’re any closer to working out what happened.”
Say we discover in a library somewhere an attack on my namesake, Eugippius, which is very down on the poor man. It is called Adversus Eugippium (Against Eugippius) and it says that he was fat and short and ugly and a terrible driver who rarely showered and also that he preached strange heretical doctrines about the Trinity. Well, that seems bad, but the whole thing reads like the ravings of a deranged lunatic. Happily, in rereading some other neglected sources, we find oblique references to Adversus Eugippium that we didn’t recognise before, which explain that it was written by Eugippius’s terrible brother-in-law, who always hated him and is not to be taken seriously.
What are we to do now?
My professor would have said, that we have two options: 1) We can either throw away Adversus Eugippium and forget about it, or – this is more dangerous but as curious humans it is what we will end up doing anyway – 2) We can try to assess what aspects of it might be plausible. What we can’t do, is invert it. We can’t assume that the truth is the opposite of whatever Eugippius’s brother-in-law says just because he’s biased and has an agenda. In doing that, we create a perfect inverted piece of propaganda, one in which Eugippius was tall and fit and beautiful and a great driver who always showered and taught nothing but the most orthodox Trinitarian doctrines. And indeed, it is easy to see that there is no surer way of smearing somebody you dislike, than telling unfortunate truths about them. If Eugippius were actually very tall, for example, it would be a bizarre approach indeed, to smear him as a short man.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying, that shadowy parties can circulate narratives of the laboratory origins of SARS-2 for dishonest purposes, whether or not these narratives are also true; and that the heavy fog of misinformation surrounding these problems will be very hard to see through, if we ever manage that at all.
While I tend to find the evidence leans in the direction of laboratory origins, I think it’s important to keep an extremely open mind, and to beware of where different analyses are in necessary contradiction, and where they’re not. Almost everything Senger writes in Snake Oil would still hold up, if we found direct proof that SARS-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology tomorrow. It is equally true, that a lot of the evidence for laboratory origins admits of multiple interpretations, and that dissembling and misdirection of Chinese authorities and laboratory staff point to something much more complicated, than a simple lab leak. If we are to regard lockdowns as a kind of economic warfare by China against the West, it doesn’t seem too extravagant to expect that they would’ve released the pathogen as well, rather than waiting for the right one to come along. But there are even more convoluted possibilities here, which I’ll raise in my Viral review.