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…”.

The WHA coronavirus resolution is not great for science

On May 19, member states of the WHO moved a vote in the World Health Assembly (WHA), asking for an independent investigation into the sources of the novel coronavirus.

Their exact demands were spelled out in a draft resolution that asked the WHO to, among other things, “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions”.

The resolution was backed by 62 countries, including India, and the decision to adopt it was passed with 116 votes in favour, out of 194. This fraction essentially indicates that the overwhelming majority of WHO’s member states want to ‘reform’ the organisation towards a better response to the pandemic, especially in terms of obtaining information that they believe China has been reluctant to share.

The resolution follows from Australia’s demand in April 2020 for a public inquiry against China, suggesting that the Asian superpower was responsible for the virus and the global outbreak (not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump expressed his support). Together with the fact that the document doesn’t once mention China, the resolution is likely an expression of concern that seeks to improve international access to biological samples, specific locations and research data necessary to find out how the novel coronavirus came to infect humans, and which animal or avian species were intermediate hosts.

As it happens, this arguably legitimate demand doesn’t preclude the possibility that the resolution is motivated, at least in part, by the need to explore what is in many political leaders’ view the ‘alternative’ that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The WHA vote passed and the independent investigation will happen – but by who or how is unclear. Let’s assume for now that some team or other comes together and conducts the requisite studies.

What if the team does find that the virus is not lab-made? Will those WHO member states, and/or their politicians back home, that were in favour of the resolution to explore the ‘lab hypothesis’ let the matter rest? Or will they point fingers at the WHO and claim it is too favourable to China, as President Trump has already done and to which the resolution’s reformatory language alludes?

In fact, the investigation is unlikely to zero in on the virus’s origins if they were natural because too much time has passed since the first zoonotic spillover event. The bread crumbs could have long faded by the time the investigation team sets out on its task. It won’t be impossible, mind, but it will be very difficult and likely require many months to conclude.

But what if the investigation somehow finds that the virus was engineered in a lab and then leaked, either deliberately or accidentally? Will the scientists and those who believed them (including myself) stand corrected?

They will not. There’s a simple reason why: they – we – have thus far not been given enough evidence to reach this conclusion.

Indeed, there is already sufficient explanation these days to claim that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin and insufficient explanation that it was engineered. A study published on March 17, 2020, collected evidence for the former (and many others continue to do so). An excerpt from the conclusion:

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimised RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

If there is any animosity at all directed at China for supposedly engineering the virus, the countries that backed the resolution could only have done so by actively ignoring the evidence that already exists to the contrary.

In this particular case, it becomes extremely important for the representatives of these countries to explain why they think the evidence that scientists have not been able to find actually exists, and that they are simply yet to discover it. That is, why do they think some pieces are missing from the puzzle?

There is of course room for a deeper counter-argument here, but it isn’t entirely tenable either. One could still argue that there might be a larger ‘super-theory’ that encompasses the present one even as it elucidates a non-natural origin for the virus. This is akin to the principle of correspondence in the philosophy of science. The advent of the theories of relativity did not invalidate the Newtonian theory of gravity. Instead, the former resemble the latter in the specific domain in which the latter is applicable. Similarly, a ‘super-theory’ of the virus’s origins could point to evidence of bioengineering even as its conclusions resemble the evidence I’m pointing to to ascertain that the virus is natural.

But even then, the question remains: Why do you think such a theory exists?

Without this information, we are at risk of wasting our time in each pandemic looking for alternate causes that may or may not exist, many of which are quite politically convenient as well.

Perhaps we can assimilate a sign of things to come based on Harsh Vardhan’s performance as the chairman of the WHA’s executive board. Vardhan was elected into this position at the same WHA that adopted the draft resolution, and his highest priority is likely to be the independent investigation that the resolution calls for. As it happens, according to OP8 of the resolution, the resolution:

… calls on international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to … address, and where relevant in coordination with Member States, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation particularly in the digital sphere, as well as the proliferation of malicious cyber-activities that undermine the public health response, and support the timely provision of clear, objective and science-based data and information to the public.

India as a member state is certainly a stakeholder, and Nitin Gadkari, one of the country’s senior ministers, recently said in an interview that the novel coronavirus was made in a lab. This is misinformation plain and simple, and goes against the call for the “timely provision of clear, objective and science-based information to the public”. Will the chair address this, please – or even future instances of such imprudence?

Ultimately, unless the investigation ends with the conspiracists changing their minds, the only outcome that seems to be guaranteed is that scientists will know their leaders no longer trust their work.

Featured image: The assembly hall of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, where the World Health Assembly usually meets. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.