Broken clocks during the pandemic

Proponents of conspiracy theories during the pandemic, at least in India, appear to be like broken clocks: they are right by coincidence, without the right body of evidence to back their claims. Two of the most read articles published by The Wire Science in the last 15 months have been the fact-checks of Luc Montagnier’s comments on the two occasions he spoke up in the French press. On the first, he said the novel coronavirus couldn’t have evolved naturally; the second, he insisted mass vaccination was a big mistake. The context in which Montagnier published his remarks evolved considerably between the two events, and it tells an important story.

When Montagnier said in April 2020 that the virus was lab-made, the virus’s spread was just beginning to accelerate in India, Europe and the US, and the proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis to explain the virus’s origins had few listeners and were consigned firmly to the margins of popular discourse on the subject. In this environment, Montagnier’s comments stuck out like a sore thumb, and were easily dismissed.

But when Montagnier said in May 2021 that mass vaccination is a mistake, the context was quite different: in the intervening period, Nicholas Wade had published his article on why we couldn’t dismiss the lab-leak hypothesis so quickly; the WHO’s missteps were more widely known; China’s COVID-19 outbreak had come completely under control (actually or for all appearances); many vaccine-manufacturers’ immoral and/or unethical business practices had come to light; more people were familiar with the concept and properties of viral strains; the WHO had filed its controversial report on the possible circumstances of the virus’s origins in China; etc. As a result, speaking now, Montagnier wasn’t so quickly dismissed. Instead, he was, to many observers, the man who had got it right the first time, was brave enough to stick his neck out in support of an unpopular idea, and was speaking up yet again.

The problem here is that Luc Montagnier is a broken clock – in the way even broken clocks are right twice a day: not because they actually tell the time but because the time is coincidentally what the clock face is stuck at. On both occasions, the conclusions of Montagnier’s comments coincided with what conspiracists have been going on about since the pandemic’s start, but on both occasions, his reasoning was wrong. The same has been true of many other claims made during the pandemic. People have said things that have turned out to be true but they themselves have always been wrong, whenever they have been wrong, because their particular reasons for something to be true were wrong.

That is, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. Unless you can explain why the time is what it is, you’re not a clock!

Montagnier’s case also illuminates a problem with soothsaying: if you wish to be a prophet, it is in your best interests to make as many predictions as possible – to increase the odds of reality coinciding with at least one prediction in time. And when such a coincidence does happen, it doesn’t mean the prophet was right; it means they weren’t wrong. There is a big difference between these positions, and which becomes pronounced when the conspiratorially-minded start incorporating every article published anywhere, from The Wire Science to The Daily Guardian, into their narratives of choice.

As the lab-leak hypothesis moved from the fringes of society to the centre and came mistakenly to conflate possibility with likelihood (i.e. zoonotic spillover and lab-leak are two valid hypotheses for the virus’s origins but they aren’t equally likely to be true), the conspiratorial proponents of the lab-leak hypotheses (the ones given to claiming Chinese scientists engineered the pathogen as a weapon, etc.) have steadily woven imaginary threads between the hypothesis and Indian scientists who opposed Covaxin’s approval, the Congress leaders who “mooted” vaccine hesitancy in their constituencies, scientists who made predictions that came to be wrong, even vaccines that were later found to have rare side-effects restricted to certain demographic groups.

The passage of time is notable here. I think adherents of lab-leak conspiracies are motivated by an overarching theory born entirely of speculation, not evidence, and who then pick and choose from events to build the case that the theory is true. I say ‘overarching’ because, to the adherents, the theory is already fully formed and true, and that pieces of it become visible to observers as and when the corresponding events play out. This could explain why time is immaterial to them. You and I know that Shahid Jameel and Gagandeep Kang cast doubt on Covaxin’s approval (and not Covaxin itself) after the time we were aware that Covaxin’s phase 3 clinical trials were only just getting started in December, and before Covishield’s side-effects in Europe and the US came to light (with the attendant misreporting). We know that at the time Luc Montagnier said the novel coronavirus was made in a lab, last year, we didn’t know nearly enough about the structural biology underlying the virus’s behaviour; we do now.

The order of events matters: we went from ignorance to knowledge, from knowing to knowing more, from thinking one thing to – in the face of new information – thinking another. But the conspiracy-theorists and their ideas lie outside of time: the order of events doesn’t matter; instead, to these people, 2021, 2022, 2023, etc. are preordained. They seem to be simply waiting for the coincidences to roll around.

An awareness of the time dimension (so to speak), or more accurately of the arrow of time, leads straightforwardly to the proper practice of science in our day-to-day affairs as well. As I said, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. This is why effects lie in the future of causes, and why theories lie in the causal future of evidence. What we can say to be true at this moment depends entirely on what we know at this moment. If we presume what we can say at this moment to be true will always be true, we become guilty of dragging our theory into the causal history of the evidence – simply because we are saying that the theory will come true given enough time in which evidence can accrue.

This protocol (of sorts) to verify the truth of claims isn’t restricted to the philosophy of science, even if it finds powerful articulation there: a scientific theory isn’t true if it isn’t falsifiable outside its domain of application. It is equally legitimate and necessary in the daily practice of science and its methods, on Twitter and Facebook, in WhatsApp groups, every time your father, your cousin or your grand-uncle begins a question with “If the lab-leak hypothesis isn’t true…”.