Journalistic Integrity or Just Plain Dumb?

If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake

This incredible article is by Thomas Frank, a respected journalist and author (What’s the Matter With Kansas? – an exercise in urban political myopia) who is a well-educated and well-read member of the liberal urban media. Here’s an excerpt of his political touchstones:

Like everyone else I know, I spent the pandemic doing as I was told. A few months ago I even tried to talk a Fox News viewer out of believing in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins. The reason I did that is because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab-leak theory wasn’t true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only deluded Trumpists believed it, that it got infinite pants-on-fire ratings from the fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I am the sort who has always trusted the mainstream news media.

[Ah, yes, it’s Trump’s fault. LOL.]

If an individual whose entire career and livelihood is wrapped up in ‘getting it right’ is so easily misled by our dominant media sources, what hope is there for the rest of us who have better things to do? Now he’s wondering if he’s gotten it all wrong and the larger consequences.

This is the problem with the urban corporate media that started to seriously degenerate after the 2000 election. But we have also learned how it started long before, as alternative media such as cable news, Talk Radio, and the Internet have presented an existential financial challenge for traditional media outlets, especially print newspapers and broadcast news.

Mr. Frank and his colleagues in corporate media (NYT, WaPo, LAT, Fox) need to undergo a serious bit of soul searching to discover if they have a role as the Fourth Estate in our information economy, or if they should just go pursue a career in real estate somewhere. Journalists today have to understand that nobody is going to hero worship them as the modern-day Woodward and Bernstein. Honest journalism and reputational capital is it’s own reward and can actually be lucrative on platforms like SubStack.

So here is what Frank has discovered:

  •  Lab leaks happen. They aren’t the result of conspiracies: “a lab accident is an accident,” as Nathan Robinson points out; they happen all the time, in this country and in others, and people die from them.
  •  There is evidence that the lab in question, which studies bat coronaviruses, may have been conducting what is called “gain of function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent. By the way, right-wingers didn’t dream up “gain of function”: all the cool virologists have been doing it (in this country and in others) even as the squares have been warning against it for years.
  •  There are strong hints that some of the bat-virus research at the Wuhan lab was funded in part by the American national-medical establishment — which is to say, the lab-leak hypothesis doesn’t implicate China alone.
  •  There seem to have been astonishing conflicts of interest among the people assigned to get to the bottom of it all, and (as we know from Enron and the housing bubble) conflicts of interest are always what trip up the well-credentialed professionals whom liberals insist we must all heed, honor, and obey.
  •  The news media, in its zealous policing of the boundaries of the permissible, insisted that Russiagate was ever so true but that the lab-leak hypothesis was false false false, and woe unto anyone who dared disagree. Reporters gulped down whatever line was most flattering to the experts they were quoting and then insisted that it was 100% right and absolutely incontrovertible — that anything else was only unhinged Trumpist folly, that democracy dies when unbelievers get to speak, and so on.
  •  The social media monopolies actually censored posts about the lab-leak hypothesis. Of course they did! Because we’re at war with misinformation, you know, and people need to be brought back to the true and correct faith — as agreed upon by experts.

With this we get Mr. Frank’s revelation:

If it does indeed turn out that the lab-leak hypothesis is the right explanation for how it began — that the common people of the world have been forced into a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost — there is a moral earthquake on the way.

Because if the hypothesis is right, it will soon start to dawn on people that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, or not enough censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above, to understand that there is no such thing as absolute expertise. 

Yeah, no kidding. And that’s a bad thing? It’s doubly ironic that most of the voices haranguing us to “follow the science” were really constraining true science. Critical thinking is merely what real scientists have been telling us all along, as opposed to those succumbing to “political” science. There are no absolutes in science, only skepticism and hypothesis testing – this applies to the pandemic as well as climate change and systemic racism and Modern Monetary Theory. And mea culpas won’t save journalists from the anvils of “I told you so’s” that will rain down upon their heads.

Generalists vs. Specialists

Specialization has led to great economic gains over the course of civilization. But specialization as such is an economic imperative, not a humanistic or evolutionary one. Evolution, as this article argues, may strongly favor the generalist capabilities of a species. And it rewards individuals with its humanistic benefits, if not in material gains.

As an unrepentant generalist across many disciplines, I especially appreciate the intangible benefits and payoffs (if not the monetary tradeoffs!).

I’m reminded of the academic distinction: a generalist is somebody who knows nothing about everything, while a specialist is one who knows everything about nothing.

The Generalist Specialist: Why Homo Sapiens Succeeded

By Gemma Tarlach | July 30, 2018 10:00 am

 

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Being a generalist specialist, a unique niche, is the hallmark of our species, say researchers — and the reason Homo sapiens (left) are still around but other hominins, including Neanderthals (right), are not. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some animals are jacks of all trades, some masters of one. Homo sapiens, argues a provocative new commentary, are an evolutionary success story because our ancestors pulled off a unique feat: being masterly jacks of all trades. But is this ecological niche, the generalist specialist, the real reason our species is the last hominin standing?

When paleoanthropologists and archaeologists define what makes our species unique, they usually focus on our use of symbolism and language, as well as our skills in social networking (long before Facebook) and technological innovation. Those arguments for human exceptionalism have been challenged in recent years, however, as researchers have uncovered evidence that other members of the genus Homo, notably Neanderthals, were capable of similar cognitive processes, from artistic expression to producing fire at will.

But maybe, say two researchers, we got it wrong. What defines our species, and has allowed H. sapiens to survive and even thrive after all other hominins went extinct, is not about making better stone projectiles, or networking, or sprucing up the cave walls with a little ochre artwork. We’re the last hominins on Earth because we’re really good at adapting to a huge range of environments, including the extreme.

Over The River And Through The Woods (And The Tundra, And The Desert…)

To make their case, researchers mapped out the likely ranges of archaic members of the genus Homo according to current fossil, paleoenviromental and archaeological evidence. Being a fan of the scientific method, I think it’s worth noting here that this map almost certainly will change as new finds turn up. But for now, working with the best body of evidence we’ve got, it’s clear that early H. sapiens, once they left Africa, seemed to explode across the Old World, moving into territory previously occupied by one or at most two other hominin species.

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A map of the estimated ranges of archaic members of the genus Homo, spanning the period H. sapiens emerged in Africa and dispersed across the rest of the Old World, roughly 60,000-300,000 years ago. (Credit: Roberts and Stewart, 2018. Defining the ‘generalist specialist’ niche for Pleistocene Homo sapiens. Nature Human Behaviour. 10.1038/s41562-018-0394-4)

To be clear, there is good evidence that other hominins called extreme environments home. Denisovans appear to have adapted to high-altitude life in Central Asia, for example, while diminutive H. floresiensis was at home in equatorial island rainforests. It’s been argued, heatedly (no pun intended), that Neanderthals were high-latitude specialists. But only H. sapiens turn up in all of those environments. What might not be immediately evident from the map is that early H. sapiens dispersal wasn’t just about setting foot on a new continent; it was also about moving into new and often extremely challenging environments, from deserts to arctic climes, from treeless, high-altitude plateaus to dense tropical rainforests.

Nevertheless We Persisted

It’s the “unique ecological plasticity” of our species that’s our defining trait, argue the researchers, and it’s what gave us a leg up on surviving, whether moving into new territories or adapting to changing climate conditions. While this conclusion may seem obvious to us now, it’s only been possible to reach it thanks to the flood of new evidence that’s revised the timeline of human evolution and dispersal.

The new research has shown our species evolved earlier than once thought (our start date is now at least 300,000 years ago) and spread beyond Africa sooner than expected: Consider, for example, the first H. sapiens fossil found in the Arabian Peninsula — once thought inhospitable to early humans — and described earlier this year, or a H. sapiens partial jaw from Israel that’s 177,000-194,000 years old.

The key to proving their hypothesis is correct — and to understanding how this ecological plasticity arose in our species — will be acquiring not just more evidence of a H. sapiens presence at different sites, but also strong paleo-enviromental data, particularly in Africa where the earliest H. sapiens lived.

In the meantime, the researchers have coined a novel niche for the intrepid early H. sapiens: the generalist specialist. The team looked at the ecological niche profiles of specialists, such as pandas, and generalists, like the trash panda (aka the raccoon). They concluded that H. sapiens’ unique generalist specialist niche allowed early members of our species to adapt to, and specialize in, living in wildly different environments.

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Pandas are considered specialists because all individuals utilize a single food web. Raccoons, on the other hand (paw?), are generalists adept at exploiting whatever food web they can find, as anyone who has left an unsecured trash can out at night probably knows. Our species has often been considered a generalist, but the authors of today’s commentary propose a new ecological niche for us: the generalist specialist, with different populations capable of adapting to and specializing in a wide range of environments and resources. (Credit: Roberts and Stewart, 2018)

While occupying the unique niche of generalist specialist will no doubt appeal to fans of H. sapiens exceptionalism, it’s unclear that it provides what the researchers describe as a “framework for discussing…how our species became the last surviving hominin on the planet.” Specialists tend to face extinction, for example, only if their specialized ecological niche is wiped out — or they are out-competed by an invasive species. Ahem.