John Robson: Lifting the Taboo on Discussing COVID’s Possible Lab-Leak Origin Signals a Return to Sanity and Civility

John Robson: Lifting the Taboo on Discussing COVID’s Possible Lab-Leak Origin Signals a Return to Sanity and Civility
Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19, in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Feb. 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
John Robson

So it’s official. COVID came from a Chinese biological warfare lab unless it didn’t. Glad we got that one straightened out.

I grasp that in today’s polarized world, those who already thought it was man-made are liable to trumpet this finding while those who did not will brush it off. And that it’s not the first time politics got so divided that Marc Antony could nail up Cicero’s severed head and hands in the Forum in 43 B.C. to mixed reviews as to its tastefulness.
I also realize that the big news story, from the Wall Street Journal, concerned a report I haven’t seen and neither have you. Or the reporters. So why am I excited? Because I always thought the lab leak probable?

No. Though I did. But you may well ask, especially since the WSJ relayed some classic political obfuscation via broken telephone: “The Energy Department made its judgment with ‘low confidence,’ according to people who have read the classified report.”

When the IPCC announces “medium confidence” in some climate finding it sounds pretty solid, until you realize for them it means a coin toss and “low confidence” means a one-in-five chance. So I have low confidence that anyone knows what these shadowy “people” meant here or how they knew. Quite possibly the main idea was, “Let’s not go to war with China right now.”
So a big nothing? Not at all. It’s extremely significant because the report, and widespread press coverage of it, means the taboo on discussing COVID’s origins has been broken. And public debate should not be governed primarily by taboos.

They have their place, of course. Some things ought to be regarded with universal loathing, including triumphantly displaying dismembered bits of your political enemies. (Or ignoring foreign meddling in your elections.) But as a rule, free societies flourish by debating vital questions, particularly uncomfortable ones, and stagnate or collapse when censorship or ostracism crushes free inquiry. And COVID was very alarming in that regard.

When it first emerged, I supported drastic measures because if, as seemed possible, it was as contagious as flu and as lethal as Ebola we couldn’t afford to find out too late. But within a couple of months it was clear that it was no Black Death. And that debating drastic measures would get you cancelled. (Even humorous or merely geographical names were somehow banned, from Wuhan Virus to Kung Flu.)

I wasn’t that disturbed at the authorities talking contradictory nonsense, from masks being vital after not working, to lockdowns carrying minimal economic or psychological costs, alternative treatments being quackery, and natural immunity being rubbish. Politicians spout smug gibberish routinely. But what did frighten me is them suppressing debate with the enthusiastic support of much of the intelligentsia, including rhetorical assaults on people like Matt Ridley and Alina Chan (authors of “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19”), remarkable less for their virulence than for the acquiescence of so many in the chattering classes in character assassination to suppress inquiry.

It was a very strange performance and prompted much pointed commentary, including a cartoon about supposed rebels pivoting from “Stick it to the man” to “Stick it in my arm.” I grew up with the left in particular questioning authority with a tenacity that verged on idiocy, especially once they became the Establishment but still considered themselves the Resistance. Then suddenly they were doing the opposite, and the natural immunity of a free society to outright censorship and crushing social and professional pressure to conform seemed to have been suppressed somehow, perhaps by an unhealthy lifestyle.

It wasn’t just scary. It was weird. What if we took that approach to climate change? Or gender? Hey, wait a minute.

Not incidentally, the WSJ also just ran an opinion column by Allysia Finley headlined “Three Years Late, the Lancet Recognizes Natural Immunity” in which she declared indignantly that “The Lancet study’s vindication of natural immunity fits a pandemic pattern: The public-health clerisy rejects an argument that ostensibly threatens its authority; eventually it’s forced to soften its position in the face of incontrovertible evidence; and yet not once does it acknowledge its opponents were right.”

Well, no. Pride is like that, and clerisies tend toward vanity. But the reason I’m so encouraged by this rumour about a report expressing uncertainty is that we are now debating it. Finley griped that “now that experts at the University of Washington have confirmed it in a leading – and left-leaning – journal, it’s fit to print.” And yeah, it’s annoying. As it’s annoying that the Lancet has a discernible bias. But in this troubled world any sign of a return to sanity and civility, and the enduring power of truth even over the left, should be greeted enthusiastically.

Lifting this taboo is precisely that kind of sign. So bring on the debaters, and send off the Inquisition.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”
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