Last week, Senate Republicans released a report about the possibility of a lab-leak leading to the release of SARS-CoV-2. Lots of actual biologists have blown holes in it (some of fun stuff involves representing results froom published papers and mistranslations from Chinese). But we’re going to witness, once again, the return of a familiar phenomenon.
There are many people in The Discourse whose profession values cleverness about what could be. One of the few things I’ve learned over my years in biology is that predictions of what could be are often foiled by biological reality (including my predictions!). As a dissertation committee member, who was an accomplished theorist, once told me, “Mike, it ultimately comes down to those stupid fucking natural history facts.” The support for or against the lab-leak hypothesis is going to come down to technical details and actual facts, which involve domain expertise and experience (those are related, but not the same). Those are boring and often hard to understand. Biologists, while informed by theory and generalities, often are trying to explain very specific phenomena, aka natural history. While most biologists don’t go as far as (some) historians do on this subject, the details, biological and technical are going to matter here.
Related to this, we’re going to see another kind of stupidity, one creationists often use: the defense attorney strategy. That is, they will assume their hypothesis is a defendant at trial and the opposing hypothesis is a prosecutor, and it is incumbent on the prosecutor to disprove the ‘defendant’ hypothesis beyond a reasonable doubt–in this case, the defendant will be the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis.
That’s not how we do science. At all. Without arguing over the best statistical approaches and philosophies, in practice, when trying to explain complex, natural phenomena, we ask which hypothesis is most compatible with the available data*. Of course, the Senate minority committee won’t reverse the defendant and prosecution hypotheses either.
Things are going to get really fucking stupid and annoying.
*Don’t worry strict Popperians! If there are data that flat out falsify the hypothesis, in practical terms, that’s used to assess different hypotheses, even rule them out.