The Covid-19 Sensemaking User Guide
Explaining suppression of the lab leak hypothesis by analyzing media incentives
I was recently privileged to sit in on a Twitter conference call with 200 attendees on the topic of Covid-19 sensemaking, specifically related to ivermectin treatment, hosted by Alexandros Marinos. Marinos was recently quoted by Scott Alexander in his well-written and well trafficked attempt at sensemaking of ivermectin treatment for Covid-19, to which Marinos recently began a substack to host a rebuttal. Both are worth reading.
In this call we heard testimony from several MDs in South Africa about the Omicron variant, how the media’s approach to it is overblown, how the government is interfering with their ability to give certain treatments, and how they swear they aren’t conspiracy theorists but they can’t understand why the institutions are behaving the way they’re behaving. We heard testimony from people on the ground in New Zealand, where the government is going to permanently ban all unvaccinated people from doing anything but going to the grocery store or gas station, despite the fact that Covid-19 can be transmitted among the vaccinated population. They too said they aren’t conspiracy theorists but can’t understand why the institutions would behave in this way. The topic of the call, largely, was about the idea that a large portion of the world is under mass psychosis, and what could be done to combat that.
They aren’t HWFO readers.
If they were, they’d have a crystal-clear understanding of what’s going on. I tried to explain it in my short time on the call, but I fear the explanation probably went over their heads, because they haven’t followed along with the HWFO explanation of how and why sensemaking about all things, not just Covid-19, is fundamentally broken. And the easiest way to explain this to them, and to the world at large, is to look very carefully at the case of the “Lab Leak Hypothesis,” as an explainer of why a thing that looks like a conspiracy may not be a conspiracy at all, but rather is just an expression of a broken system doing what broken systems do.
Lab Leak Sensemaking
We now know that Peter Daszak invented the idea for a thing identical to Covid-19 in 2018. We know that his company Eco-Health submitted a proposal to DARPA to build this Covid-19 like thing at laboratories in the University of North Carolina and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We know that DARPA told Eco-Health that the idea was dangerous and stupid and they weren’t going to fund it. We know that Covid-19 appeared in Wuhan in late 2019. We can deeply infer from this chain of known circumstances that either Eco-Health went ahead with the research with a different backer (such as the Chinese) or under a classified program outside of DARPA, or the Chinese stole the idea and ran with it themselves as they’ve been known to do in literally every other field of research. And we deeply infer it escaped the lab.
We also know that if a brand new never before seen pandemic virus emerged from a Pacific rim wet market every single year since the birth of Jesus Christ there’d still only be about a twenty percent chance that one emerged from the Wuhan wet market, purely because there are so many wet markets in East Asia. And we’ve known this tidbit the entire time. Simple statistics proved “zoonotic origins” false before the Floyd riots even started. Anyone capable of rudimentary critical thinking had “Lab Leak” as the most likely case by summer of 2020 if not sooner.
Further, we know that almost all the public facing “scientists” involved with virus research at the time said the idea that the lab leak hypothesis was a racist conspiracy theory. We know “Lab Leak Is Racist” was such a dominant position in our overall sensemaking apparatus in 2020 that scientists were literally not allowed to talk about it publicly without losing their jobs until Biden won, and that the former director of the CDC got death threats from other scientists for entertaining the lab leak theory. These are things we know.
So let’s start there.
All of those things are a tell. They are an indicator of who is being honest and who is speaking performatively. This problem of “speaking performatively” about Covid-19, parroting certain narratives to gain virtue within the overall social media organism, is interfering with sensemaking. We can use this tell, which is completely transparent, to prune our sources of the performative speakers and narrow our focus to who is speaking honestly. It’s a simple procedure. Build a list of every individual and every institution that said that the lab leak hypothesis was a racist conspiracy theory and remove them from the room. Ignore them. They are no more than robot NPCs and their opinions about Covid-19 are tainted, untrustworthy garbage. Here’s a list of people whose opinions you can completely throw out based on this one test.
Peter Daszak and every coauthor of the now infamous Lancet Letter, which would include Charles Calisher, Dennis Carroll, Rita Colwell, Ronald B Corley, Christian Drosten, Luis Enbjuanes, Jeremy Farrar, Hume Field, Josie Golding, Alexander Gorbalenya, Bart Haagmans, James M Hughes, William B Karesh, Gerald T Keusch, Sai Kit Lam, Juan Lubroth, John S Mackenzie, Larry Madoff, Jonna Mazet, Peter Palese, Stanley Perlman, Leo Poon, Bernard Roizman, Linda Saif, Kanta Subbarao, and Mike Turner.
The authors of the Nature Medicine snow job, which would include Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, and Robert F Garry
The Guardian (who, interestingly, gave Daszak a platform for that extremely ripe link)
There are obviously more, but this is a good starter list, with historical links.
The implication of the above list is pretty clear. All left of center media sources are not reliable sources of information about Covid-19. If you search Google with a specific 2020 date range for the terms “lab leak conspiracy” you will get a wall of basically identical articles to the ones linked above, with a scant few links saying that the lab leak hypothesis may be viable or shouldn’t be ruled out. Every single one of those scant few is right leaning. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
Ad Fontes Media hosts the now infamous Interactive Media Bias Chart. You can follow that link, find each of those sources above, and identify their location on the graph. Every single one is left of center, many of which are even considered “reliable” by the chart. You’ve probably seen this chart before, in some form or another:
For something to be a “conspiracy,” there must be some secret cabal orchestrating the conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists are very good at picking out patterns, but often very bad at assigning blame for those patterns. They presume central coordinated action in cases where central coordinated action may be extremely difficult, or even impossible. What we see here, with lab leak denial, is instead a kind of a distributed conspiracy related to basic HWFO media analysis, rooted in game theory.
A Distributed Conspiracy
Fans of HWFO have heard this song and dance before, but I’ll try and condense it for new readers. Every organization in the above chart makes about a third of a penny per click. Each of them writes articles that seek virality, because they make their fractions of pennies from social media shares. Social media shares happen within information silos, known widely nowadays as “echo chambers.” Each media organization (across both sides of the chart) plays to a target audience, to try and get the shares, to try and get the penny fractions. At some point in 2020 Trump said that the virus came from a lab, so getting the penny fractions from the left-wing information silo required the left-wing media organizations to write articles that said the opposite. It was literally that simple. If Trump had said the virus didn’t come from a lab, they would have said it did, because their profits depend on it.
In a way, the only central figure in what became a distributed conspiracy to say one thing, was the one public figure who said the opposite thing.
We’ve seen an abundance of articles in mid to late 2021 within the overall media space that have attempted to explain how the media got lab leak so incredibly wrong. None, as far as I’ve seen so far, had the correct explanation. Robot NPC media writers farming clicks from outrage porn, because farming clicks from outrage porn is literally their job, never seem to enter into the discussion when the discussion is being held within the outrage porn click farming institutions. And every attempt at an explanation I’ve seen, in some way or another, was itself attempting to farm a different kind of outrage porn, for more penny fractions, because no media organization can quit this behavior without going out of business.
We don’t see this behavior only with the lab leak. We see it with mask efficacy. We see it with vaccinated transmissivity. We see it with Australian quarantine camps, both for and against. We see it outside of Covid-19 as well, with gun policy, with the facts of the Rittenhouse case, with “Russian Collusion,” and with the Hunter Biden laptop. On the other side of the coin, we see it with topics like climate change denial, and Q-Anon, and such.
And as we continue as a species to pivot our overall sensory experience away from real life and towards Zuckerberg’s Meta, this is just going to get worse. The poor folks in the Covid-19 conference call yesterday were struggling with how to escape mass psychosis, without realizing the forces they’re up against. Those forces are baked into our entire sensorium and cannot be fought. It. Is. All. Mass. Psychosis.
Welcome to HWFO.