Lessons from the Lab Leak Theory

By Benjamin Ayanian

In November, Dr. Anthony Fauci called the idea that COVID-19 originated in a lab “essentially molecularly impossible.” But last week, the U.S. Department of Energy joined the FBI in saying that a Chinese lab leak is the most likely origin of the virus. 

At the onset of the pandemic, it was denounced as conspiracy. Then, as more evidence trickled in, it was seen as plausible. And now it’s the official position of two government agencies. What can we learn from this apparent epidemiological flip-flop?

The term “Conspiracy Theory” has little value anymore

By definition, a conspiracy theory is not necessarily false. In fact, plenty of “crazy conspiracy theories” have turned out to be true. But today, the phrase is used almost exclusively as a way to dismiss ideas without critical engagement. 

While certain theories sound pretty ridiculous – such as claims that 5G technology caused the pandemic – the media overuses the label “conspiracy theory” to disregard simple skepticism of government positions. 

And in recent years, the media has been using the label more and more. So when the mainstream rushes to label an idea a conspiracy theory, we should ask if they’ve actually critically engaged with the idea. 

Too often they have not.

The media shouldn’t blindly follow their favored experts

Some might argue the media was merely following the experts on COVID-19’s origins. Do they deserve backlash for maybe getting this one wrong? 

The issue is that the media only followed their favored experts.There were always scientific authorities and respected commentators who disagreed with the mainstream stance. The media mostly ignored them. 

I say mostly, because some contrarian voices made it onto the opinion pages. Back in October of 2021, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by two scientists who argued that the scientific evidence supported the lab-leak theory. And as far back as April of 2020, The Washington Post published op-eds that argued the theory is at least worth consideration. 

Despite this, The Post took until June of 2021 to correct a 2020 story that said Senator Tom Cotton was pushing a “conspiracy theory” that was “debunked” when he endorsed the lab leak theory. Say what you want about Tom Cotton, but it was probably inappropriate to characterize the Senator as a conspiracy theorist for taking the lab leak theory seriously.

The mainstream media should engage in good faith with individuals who present evidence that counters mainstream narratives and not over-rely on their favored experts. Science, like civil society, requires open and transparent disagreement. 

Censorship has consequences

By labeling an idea a conspiracy theory, the media gives everyone an excuse to treat it with contempt. Facebook followed the trend and implemented a policy to remove posts discussing the lab leak theory. A New York Times reporter even tweeted, “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots…” 

It’s pretty difficult to have good-faith conversations when one side is dismissed as conspiratorial or racist. And when mainstream media and government officials demonize opposing viewpoints, they undermine faith in our institutions and make it much harder for citizens to engage in civil discourse. 

Alternative media is valuable

If this debacle proves anything, it’s the importance of alternative media. While mainstream media has valuable access to government officials, they too often parrot the government’s claims without critical evaluation. There are an endless number of podcasters, Youtubers, and local media outlets willing to ask hard questions and critically address controversial topics. Like the old, somewhat conspiratorial saying goes: The truth is out there.

Of course, we shouldn’t believe everything we watch on Youtube. But we clearly shouldn’t believe everything we see in the mainstream media either. Should we all suddenly trust the FBI now that they agree with the minority view? Maybe, maybe not.

But we should all keep an open mind.

Benjamin Ayanian is a contributor at Young Voices. He has been published in Newsweek, the Star Tribune, Yahoo News, and more. His Twitter is @BenjaminAyanian