This seems mistaken. Yes, if we never figure out the truth of Covid’s origins, the dangers of media groupthink will be the only lesson we can draw for absolutely certain. But if we could find out the truth, and it turned out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology really was the epicenter of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the revelation would itself be a major political and scientific event.
First, to the extent that the United States is engaged in a conflict of propaganda and soft power with the regime in Beijing, there’s a pretty big difference between a world where the Chinese regime can say, We weren’t responsible for Covid but we crushed the virus and the West did not, because we’re strong and they’re decadent, and a world where this was basically their Chernobyl except their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe.
The latter scenario would also open a debate about how the United States should try to enforce international scientific research safeguards, or how we should operate in a world where they can’t be reasonably enforced. Perhaps that debate would ultimately tilt away from China hawks, as David Frum argues in The Atlantic, because the lesson of a lab leak would be that we actually need “more binding of China to the international order, more cross-border health and safety standards, more American scientists in Chinese labs, and concomitantly, more Chinese scientists in American labs.” Or perhaps instead you would have an attempted scientific and academic embargo, an end to the kind of funding that flowed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the U.S.A.I.D., an attempt to manage risk with harder borders, stricter travel restrictions, de-globalization.
Either way, this debate would also affect science policy at home, opening arguments the likes of which we haven’t seen since the era of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island about the risks of scientific hubris and cutting-edge research. This is especially true if there’s any chance that the Covid-19 virus was engineered, in so-called gain of function research, to be more transmissible and lethal — a possibility raised by, among others, a former science writer for this newspaper, Nicholas Wade. But even if it wasn’t, the mere existence of that research, heretofore a subject of obscure intra-scientific controversy, would become a matter of intense public attention and scrutiny.
That scrutiny might not lead to wise decisions, just as the panic over nuclear power arguably led both energy policy and environmentalism astray. To return to the bet with which we started, the regulation of science has to exist in a balance between Martin Rees and Steven Pinker, between healthy pessimism about human blundering and healthy ambition about what human ingenuity can do. If the pandemic blossomed from a reckless blunder, any reckoning could easily go awry, with a crusade for safety pushing us deeper into technological stagnation.
But if we find out that a single laboratory and a few scientists are responsible for one of the greatest human catastrophes in generations, it’s no use to wish the reckoning away.