The ‘Can We?’ and the ‘Should We?’ of Science

by Twilight Patriot at

The remarkable journey of the COVID-19 virus — from bat caves in Laos to freezers in Wuhan, through test tubes and gene-editing machines and “humanized mice,” and finally out into the rest of the world and through your lungs and mine, often two or three or four times by now — has made a lot of people think long and hard about whether they can trust scientists, as a whole, to do the right thing.  As well it should have.

Defenders of the status quo are quick to admonish the plebs for not trusting the experts, as they point to the fact that most professional virologists are in favor of keeping gain-of-function research going.  How can you, a pleb, act as though you know more about virology than the average virologist?

And yet the problem with trusting the experts isn’t that they don’t know enough about their chosen fields of expertise.  Rather, it’s that most of them are biased in favor of their own institutions and, for a mixture of emotional and careerist reasons, they avoid thinking too hard about the chance that they are employing their prodigious knowledge in service of useless or even harmful ends.

The virologists in Wuhan really did know a lot more about virus evolution than the man on the street.  Hence their ability to modify bat viruses to infect human beings.  I lack the knowledge to do this, or even to describe in detail how it can be done, and in all likelihood, so do you.  And it’s true that these scientists’ work did contribute, in a small and marginal way, to the body of scientific knowledge, by answering questions like “what modifications to a bat virus’s spike proteins will best enable it to get past the human immune system?”

But having knowledge isn’t the same thing as having wisdom.  It’s one thing to ask if you can do something and another to ask if you should do it.  It’s difficult for people who can answer the first question with a “yes,” and who naturally want their hard earned expertise to be important and useful, to answer the second question with a “no.”

Nor is this a peculiarly Chinese thing.  Obviously, China’s lax lab safety standards, plus the low value the CCP places on human life, made this kind of research easier to do in China than in the United States.  But one must not forget that the American government had a hand in funding it.  And if you want another reminder that our own country isn’t that innocent, just think about our contributions to psychopharmacology, a field that’s been chock-full of tawdry conflicts of interest since before gain-of-function research was a glimmer in Anthony Fauci’s eye.