Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Covid’s Origins and the Death of Trust

Public releases the Proximal Origin documents. What they show, and why they’re historic

Jul 20, 2023

Public has just published the cache of communications of the scientists who penned the key article, The Proximal Origin of SARS CoV-2, that was used to dismiss the possibility that Covid-19 was caused by a lab accident. Michael Shellenberger, Alex Gutentag, Leighton Woodhouse, and the rest of the staff of Public can’t be commended enough for doing the hard work to get this material out — you can find it linked here — and I strongly recommend that anyone with time read the docs from start to finish.

If you read the documents up at Public like a novel, and follow the chorus-like Slack exchanges between the four key scientists as a drama with a beginning, middle, and end, it’s hard to miss the brutal lesson. Four people whose job was to divine truth through scientific analysis were waylaid by social and political considerations that you can see attacking each of the characters with ferocity, even in their little digital haven of a private chat. With everything on the line, and millions of lives at stake, they were not only unable in the end to say what they really thought, but as my partner Walter Kirn points out, they joined up with a mechanism that worked to suppress and stamp out the very thoughts they themselves first had.

The problem that’s been threatening Western democracies for years, and which is captured in books like Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public, is the widespread loss of faith in institutional authority. At first this was a technical problem, caused by a monstrous new surfeit of information on the Internet, allowing the public for the first time to see warts that were always there. What’s happening now is different. Even those of us who never trusted leaders before at least trusted such people to act in their self-interest. We thought that in emergencies, even the worst officials would suspend their stealing and conniving long enough to do the bare minimum.

As these documents show, however, we can’t even have that expectation. Once people see an institutional malfunction on this scale, it’s like walking in on a cheating spouse, they can’t unsee it. That’s what these scientists were risking when they played around with a lie this big: everything. They may not have been evil exactly — “more Three Stooges than Ocean’s Eleven” is how one scientist put it to me — but their bumbling inability to find their consciences under pressure in the first months of 2020 might end up having lasting consequences, for society and science. In any case, conceding that in media we get lost in the moment a lot and often think what’s happening today is far more important than what happened yesterday, what they have over at Public is historic stuff. I hope you find time to discover it for yourselves.

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