In The Open Society and Its Enemies, the great philosopher Karl Popper posited two general types of communities. One was open to information. By multiplying knowledge, it sought to adapt to a changing world and improve the conditions of life. The institution that propelled and sustained the open society, Popper believed, was modern science. Its preferred political vehicle was liberal democracy.
The second type of community, which Popper sometimes called “tribal,” considered its laws and customs to be part of an immutable cosmic order and condemned innovation as a crime against the hidden forces that upheld that order. New information entailed the corruption of morals; the highest duty of those in authority was to freeze social relations in place. The tribal mind inclined to magic—that “charmed circle of unchanging taboos.” While this was a very ancient way of organizing humanity, Popper observed that it had provided a model for the totalitarian systems of the 20th century in their revolt against the open society.
I happened to be re-reading Popper when the controversy about a possible Wuhan laboratory spill staggered, zombie-like, out of its grave. That story is worth repeating. It begins with our abysmal ignorance about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that the first cases appeared in China, specifically in the city of Wuhan—where there happens to be a lab specializing in virology. We know, too, that the Chinese regime has persistently lied about and obfuscated the subject. That’s what it does in awkward situations.
We know, finally, that in April 2020, as the pandemic was ratcheting up its fatal course, then-president Donald Trump claimed to have seen evidence that the initial COVID-19 infections were the result of a leak from the Wuhan virology lab. Since Trump never asserted certainty on the matter, it’s fair to ask why a president would bandy about speculative theories on such a life-and-death question. But that’s what he did in awkward situations.
Trump’s statement was part of an intermittent and mostly unsuccessful attempt by Republicans and conservatives to shift the conversation on COVID-19 to China’s responsibility for the disease. In February, for example, Sen. Tom Cotton had brought up the lab leak theory and added, “Now, we don’t have evidence that the disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question and see what the evidence says.”
While Trump uttered opinions and hinted at dark secrets, Cotton had asked for evidence to falsify a hypothesis. He wanted new information on a subject about which we knew very little. In an open society, a reasonable reaction to his request might have been, “Well, sounds far-fetched, but we’ll heap that theory on the pile as we continue to collect data.”
What transpired instead was an uproar of denial that new information was needed. Predictably, the post-journalistic media led the charge. The Washington Post berated Cotton for “repeating a conspiracy theory that has already been debunked.” The New York Times mocked his “fringe theory of coronavirus origins.” NPR repeated the magical word, “debunked.” “Fact-checkers” in the media rose in a body against the request for additional facts. PolitiFact, for example, found the lab leak theory to be “inaccurate and ridiculous,” a “pants on fire” lie. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting spoke of “lunatic conspiracy theories” peddled, it claimed, for partisan gain.
We should ask, in the calm and clarity of hindsight, how such displays of fundamentalist certainty could arise in the face of almost complete ignorance about a subject. The justification was science. It was scientists who did all the “debunking.” It was the science establishment, vanguard of the open society, that provided cover for the media stampede toward dogmatism. This development would have shocked Popper but should be unsurprising to anyone who hasn’t slept through the last four years.
During that time, science was transformed from an enterprise that still largely valued the dispassionate study of nature into an avenging goddess of anti-Trumpism. Those who once drudged at gathering data were increasingly dragged in front of television cameras and asked to pass moral or political judgments on it. Scientists, in the end, are part seekers after truth, part institutional animals. No doubt they were flattered to be asked—but the answer, if you wished to be asked again, had to be the opposite of whatever Trump maintained.
In May of last year, Anthony Fauci, who embodied American science during the pandemic, ridiculed the lab leak theory as a “circular argument” and asserted that the data was “very, very strongly leaning” to an origin in nature for the virus. He made it sound like a settled question: the confident conclusion of an expert, based on the evidence. Yet the evidence was meager. Fauci had only delivered a spur-of-the-moment opinion, from which he would later, in part, walk away.
In February 2020, a group of 27 scientists published a statement in The Lancet “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The reason given for taking this stand was that fellow scientists “overwhelmingly” rejected such theories. In other words, it’s false because we say it’s false. Like Fauci, several signatories would later change their views to stay in harmony with the media noise. No matter. Here, in one remarkable document, was the voice of science in the age of Trump, arguing from authority and dealing in condemnation rather than information.
Popper, philosopher of science, had warned against those “possessed by the pre-Socratic magical attitude towards science, and towards the scientist, whom they consider as a somewhat glorified shaman, as wise, learned, initiated.” But that was in another era. The current vast shuttering of hyper-educated minds spread beyond the institution of science and reached a logical conclusion on February 2021, when the conclave of Facebook cardinals banned any discussion of the lab leak theory among the souls under its purview. Facebook’s explanation was cursory but typical: claims of human-made origins for COVID-19 were “false” and (of course) “debunked by public health experts.” Nothing more would be said out loud on this unseemly subject.
To be declared heretical by Facebook is not, as some have charged, a free speech issue. Mark Zuckerberg owns Facebook. It’s a giant sandbox in which he can play as he pleases. However, the herding instinct that drove Zuckerberg to his decision is a significant feature of our moment in history. The “experts” cited as authority for the ban were stimulated primarily by political feelings. They believed what they wished to believe despite the sparseness of available evidence. The media exaggerated the agreement among scientists and demonized any contrary opinion. It too had political scores to settle.
Finally, the greatest repository of information in the history of the species determined that, on this question, additional information would corrupt the minds and morals of the public. Very likely this was done out of the best motives. Our elites, being conformist and unimaginative to an extreme degree, wished to bestow these qualities on the rest of us. Nudged by the doctrinaire commotion from the top of the pyramid, Zuckerberg, who is nothing if not an elite himself, embraced the “charmed circle of unchanging taboos.”
In other words, this was a cultural rather than a political event. It concerned our ideals, not our rights: and the ideals of a great many important Americans appear at this time to be drifting away from the open society.
I have no opinion as to how or where COVID-19 originated. If I were to be honest, I’d have to confess to a lack of interest in the substance of the controversy. But I am deeply interested in how stories traverse our information landscape—how some stories feed and grow while others starve and die, what they reveal about the elites who concoct them and the public that must assent or dissent. Such shared stories, to me, can be compared to riddles from an oracle, which if properly understood will cast a powerful light on who we are.
The debunking of the debunkers over the last few weeks, for example, presents an interesting mystery. Why the sudden reversal? Credit has been given to networks of “amateur sleuths” for piecing together a compelling argument about the Wuhan lab. But little in the way of additional information has been provided, by them or anyone else, to dispel our ignorance—and these online voices, often working under weird pseudonyms like “The Seeker,” were routinely dismissed as cranks and conspiracy-mongers during the many months of denial.
The most obvious change, of course, has nothing to do with COVID-19: the name of the occupant in the White House. Donald Trump—he who must be denied—has been exiled to Mar-a-Lago. Evidently, it’s now safe for decent people to speculate. Facebook lifted its ban on the same day that the Biden administration ordered an intelligence review of the lab leak evidence.
Every story, everyone knows, has a moral. For the baffling case of COVID-19’s origins, the moral was given to us by Karl Popper, who back in 1945 defended “the idea that the other fellow has a right to be heard, and to defend his arguments.” “It is a great step forward,” he wrote, “to learn to be self-critical; to learn to think that the other fellow may be right—more right than we ourselves. But there is a great danger involved in this . . . for it is more likely that both, we ourselves and the other fellow, are wrong.” The citizen of the open society, almost by definition, must forever dwell under the shadow of doubt.