Entrance of Wuhan lab, China. From Galileo to COVID-19: The perils of banning scientific dissent.

From Galileo to COVID-19: The perils of banning scientific dissent

Isn’t it strange that few highlight how several platforms for long silenced and ridiculed discourse questioning the zoonotic origins (natural transmission between species) of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19)? These approaches, silencing scientific dissent, go against the scientific mindset and method, and here’s why.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported on how the “U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak […].” According to WSJ, these findings are inconclusive, and the U.S. Energy Department “made its judgment with ‘low confidence.'”

Still, although we don’t know what their assessment relies on, the belief now aligns with that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). According to the WSJ article, other agencies claim the natural transmission theory is most likely, and two remain undecided.

And sure, I understand different parties have interests in winning the debate. Both political and financial interests.

Twitter response by journalist Mehdi Hasan about the suppression of lab leak theory in media. scientific dissent
Tweet from journalist Mehdi Hasan in response to criticism of journalists suppressing scientific dissent.

But the danger lies in the direct and indirect silencing of opinions on what might be one of the most critical events in our lifetimes: the COVID-19 pandemic. And why didn’t we want to hear that part of the story? Because they didn’t align with the consensus.

As scientists and thinkers, we should be wary of these types of censoring.

I’m not claiming that the lab-leak theory is the correct one. In fact, my committed readers may even have noticed that I’ve avoided this topic because of the uncertainties surrounding this topic. In short, it’s a heated topic with many interests and motivations.   

Mocking dissent in the name of science

From a scientific perspective, this topic matters, considering the backlash some have experienced since 2020 for doubting the zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Politicians, scientists, journalists, and others were mocked for questioning whether the virus came from natural transmission between animals and humans or a laboratory leak. As it became clear, consensus deemed the latter theory was a fringe conspiracy theory unworthy of our attention.

According to various news and social media platforms, the lab leak theory was taboo since scientists had already debunked the theory. As a result, many scientists and so-called “quack-exposers” or disinformation experts long ridiculed and hand-waved the idea of the virus escaping a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Headlines read, “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.” So, asking questions was out of the question. This hand-waving, consensus-driven strategy risks creating a sort of status quo. This dogmatic alignment doesn’t push science forward but, instead, stagnates it.

Opinion article from Peter Dazak on the Guardian about the lab leak theory.
Extract from a 2020 Peter Daszak Opinion on the Guardian titled “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.”

But, as Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, recently expressed, “There simply is no hard evidence either way, just historical precedent and circumstantial evidence.”

So, where are these voices of condemnation today? Should they somehow backtrack their original rhetoric or at least acknowledge they might have been wrong in directly or indirectly blocking scientific discourse? I don’t think that will happen. Let’s return to a business-as-usual mentality.

Still, if we lack hard evidence, why did so many people, including reporters, politicians, or scientists, get excluded from the discussion (and perhaps banned from platforms)? If we still don’t know where SARS-CoV-2 originated, how could we confidently seal the discussion and confirm the lab-leak theory debunked?

How should we treat scientific dissent?

I care about this case, not because I belong to one of the two camps, but because ridiculing and banning opinions that don’t align with the scientific consensus intimidates people – including scientists. It silences and punishes the few voices that don’t agree with the established view, sometimes scientifically motivated, sometimes not.

Science should not be about picking a side and bashing opponents with mockery. I might be a hopeless science romantic, but a scientist’s role – and that of journalists – should be to develop arguments based on existing evidence. Suppose a theory turns out to be ridiculous. In that case, we have the necessary evidence to show that’s the case.

On the other hand, scientists and science advocates should take threats to open and fair discourse seriously. The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) might ring a bell. Galileo’s support for the Copernican heliocentrism, the model in which the Earth and the rest of the planets from our solar system revolve around the Sun, didn’t align with the Catholic Church. At the time, the church held a geocentric view of the Universe (Earth in the center of the Universe), and it banned the teaching and publishing of heliocentric ideas. As a result, it ordered Galileo to abandon his teachings. Luckily, although he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, he refused to give up his conviction.

To avoid misunderstanding, I want to clarify that I’m not drawing direct parallels between Galileo and supporters of the lab leak theory. I’m merely pointing out that disagreements are inevitable and vital for scientific progress.

Silencing a scientific theory and only allowing one perspective – especially in the lack of evidence – goes against the scientific mindset and method. Scientists and science advocates should encourage open and rigorous debate on topics that matter so we can adopt the best explanations. In other words, mocking, banning, or censoring individuals promoting alternative views restrains the scientific mindset, including skepticism, critical thinking, and evidence-based reasoning.

We might not agree with our critics’ methods or arguments (e.g., they might ignore the scientific method). Still, we need to be able to have a conversation about these arguments and highlight these flaws without reflectively mocking them.

And consider this: how do we learn if we don’t allow for provoking ideas that go against popular opinion, including fake news and misinformation? If we censor or filter, who challenges our biases? And, importantly, if you favor some soft online authoritarianism, ask yourself, who watches the watchmen?

The SARS-CoV-2 origin story has demonstrated how interests and motivations can quickly get in the way of truth-telling or truth-seeking, biasing the discussion. In the future, I hope we can embrace open discussions and constructive criticism to propel scientific progress and benefit society. Keep questioning everything. But let others do the same.

If you don’t trust me, remember the giants in science:

These quotes might remind us better of what science should be about and how we should keep humble and open to others’ opinions.

“The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science.” – Carl Sagan

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

“The highest result of education is tolerance.” – Helen Keller

“A truly open mind means forcing our imaginations to conform to the evidence of reality, and not vice versa, whether or not we like the implications.” – Lawrence Krauss

That’s my rant… What do you think about this?

The featured image Wuhan Institute of Virology main entrance.jpg was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, under license agreement CC BY-SA 4.0(Author: Ureem2805).

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