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How to Think About the Lab-Leak Hypothesis

Over the last month, an idea once condemned as a conspiracy theory and banned from social media and polite conversation – the so-called “lab-leak” hypothesis – suddenly became an idea worth considering.

The notion that the coronavirus variant that swept the world and left millions dead might have originated in a Chinese lab has been around since before the pandemic went global. But after a year of being dismissed in favor of the idea that the virus originated naturally (as had other outbreaks like SARS and Ebola), the notion that COVID might have come out of a lab jumped from scientists writing about it in long articles and blog posts, to the subject of mainstream news stories, as well as a serious investigation by US intelligence.

I will leave it to those versed in “polybasic cleavage sites” and “O-linked glycan shields” to guide you through the science that makes up this story. For purposes of creating a generation of logic-checkers/critical thinkers, however, I’d like to look at the lab-leak hypothesis through the lens of not just how we think, but why we think.

To do so, I’ll be touching lightly on topics drawn from a paper I gave on the origins of critical thinking (which you can read in its entirety here). In it, I locate the origin of the notion that there exists a form of thinking, distinct from intelligence and wisdom, unique enough to be called “critical” to the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

In an article Peirce wrote for a popular science publication, he proposed that thinking is not some quality of mind or soul unique to the human species, but rather a means to an end. And that end, he proposes, is not to know but to eliminate doubt. For doubt is an itch we have to scratch, a nagging irritation we will do anything to be rid of. And once doubt has been eliminated, thinking about whatever trigged that doubt ceases.

The trouble is, there are all kinds of ways to eliminate doubt without getting any closer to truth.

For example, we can use our thinking ability to convince ourselves that a new, doubt-inducing phenomenon actually represents something we already believe. Peirce called this a priori thinking, although modern cognitive science has given it the non-Latin title Confirmation Bias: the tendency to accept information that comports with what we already believe to be true and doubt or reject information that does not.

Another effective way to eliminate doubt is by accepting the word of authority figures, be they religious or political leaders, scientists, or social norms. At the same time, there will always be those who bristle at authority who have the disposition and tenacity to believe the opposite of whatever authority figures have to say.

While a priori reasoning or automatically accepting the word of authority or rejecting it through tenacity can do the job of ridding us of doubt, none of these methods is particularly good at getting at truth. If that is your goal, Peirce and his successors proposed a set of techniques long-time LogicCheck readers will recognize as the critical-thinker’s toolkit.

Getting back to the lab-leak hypothesis, I’ve often thought (and pointed out) that Americans might have done better over the last year had the pandemic not hit during election season, especially one where our political polarization prevented us from considering any aspect of the situation without taking into consideration whose political tribe was helped or hurt by the latest grim news.

Having a controversial and erratic President certainly stoked the fires we all should have been struggling to put out, but so too did the tendency to frame every question around whether it helped or hurt one or the other political party.

Once President Trump embraced the idea that the virus might have been manufactured in a lab, that hypothesis could have been laid alongside others (like the “wet-market” thesis that claimed natural origins for the disease) and evaluated based on the quality of evidence and arguments presented. Given that other pandemics like SARS had emerged naturally, Trump’s lab theory could have fallen into a “possible, but less plausible” bucket awaiting new evidence to confirm or contradict it.

Instead, those who trusted the President and his party came to accept the lab thesis not through critical analysis, but through Peirce’s authority method of doubt-elimination. Similarly, those who hated the President declared that even considering the virus was man-made was a paranoid, and potentially racist conspiracy theory. In other words, they approached the same problem of doubt-elimination through Peirce’s tenacity.

A priori reasoning also played a major role as everyone fit the latest news into their preferred storylines, just as we judged performance during COVID of US states based not on numbers or trends, but on the party affiliation of each state’s governor.

The news that social media companies will no longer ban mention or discussions over whether COVID had human origins should make us all worry whether those who own and control these powerful platforms are making decisions about what the public can read, see, and hear based on a priori reasoning, authority, or tenacity, rather than thoughtful judgement.

Given the stakes, we would benefit from using methods of doubt-elimination (i.e., thinking) most suited for getting at actual truth. For example, it makes a huge difference whether we need to invest in better lab protocols or protect against nature’s next unpredictable attack. It is also be worth thinking clearly about the geopolitical consequences if the lab-leak hypothesis turns out to be right without letting politics divert us from truth-seeking inquiries.

Even if your concerns continue to center on domestic politics, I’ve long warned people that biased reasoning (the result of Peirce’s three unproductive modes of thinking) can cause partisans to act against their own interests. For example, if “lab-leak” proves to be correct and Donald Trump rides back into office claiming people and institutions (such as the media and technology platforms) intentionally buried the truth he tried to tell, wouldn’t his opponents have been better off having not dismissed the original claim out of hand just because they loathed the person making it?

So whether you are a global specialist in medical forensics or humble civilian trying to make sense of the world, the advice to take from the work of Charles Sanders Peirce remains the same: rely less on a priori, authority and tenacity forms of doubt-elimination, and more on techniques that stand a better chance of getting you to believe true things (even if this means taking the risk of changing your mind about something).


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