Welcome back to The Upheaval Reading Thread, where I occasionally share an assortment of some of the more helpful or especially interesting things I’ve read in recent weeks, and you can offer your own thoughtful reading suggestions / argue about stuff in the comments.
I hope you’re excited folks, because this edition is all about Science! (Exclamation point mandatory.)
1. Katherine Eban, “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins” (Vanity Fair)
If you missed the blockbuster exposé on the origins of the coronavirus published last month in, of all places, Vanity Fair, it is a must-read. It contains too many jaw dropping moments to quote here, but summarizes itself like this:
A months long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with more than 40 people, and a review of hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes, and email correspondence, found that conflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19’s origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.
I start with the lab leak story because I don’t think we have even begun to grapple with what it might mean – for politics, for public trust, for “Science” etc. – if the COVID-19 pandemic is shown to have (or simply becomes broadly factually accepted by the public as having have) not only escaped from a lab, but potentially originated as the product of scientific tampering with an otherwise not-yet-infectious-to-humans bat coronavirus, and subsequently killed at least 4 million people around the world – or about 66,666 times the number that died from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. And then scientists and governments acted together to cover it up.
The consequences may be unpredictable, but consequences there will be.
2. Thomas Frank, “If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake” (The Guardian)
Chronicler of populism Thomas Frank (author of such books as What’s the Matter with Kansas? and The People, No) takes a first stab at thinking about some of those consequences:
The answer is that this is the kind of thing that could obliterate the faith of millions. The last global disaster, the financial crisis of 2008, smashed people’s trust in the institutions of capitalism, in the myths of free trade and the New Economy, and eventually in the elites who ran both American political parties… Now here we are in the waning days of Disastrous Global Crisis #2. Covid is of course worse by many orders of magnitude than the mortgage meltdown — it has killed millions and ruined lives and disrupted the world economy far more extensively. Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.
3. Matthew B. Crawford, “How science has been corrupted” (UnHerd)
American philosopher and big-tech critic Matthew Crawford (author of the fascinating The World Beyond Your Head and Why We Drive) takes a broader view, arguing that the process of how science is conducted and used has itself been corrupted over time.
He notes that, “Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority,” and is “invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest.” But:
For authority to be really authoritative, it must claim an epistemic monopoly of some kind, whether of priestly or scientific knowledge. In the 20th century, especially after the spectacular successes of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon landing, there developed a spiral wherein the public came to expect miracles of technical expertise (flying cars and moon colonies were thought to be imminent). Reciprocally, stoking expectations of social utility is normalised in the processes of grant-seeking and institutional competition that are now inseparable from scientific practice. The system was sustainable, if uneasily so, as long as inevitable failures could be kept offstage.
Not anymore: “The ‘anti-science’ tendencies of populism are in significant measure a response to the gap that has opened up between the practice of science and the ideal that underwrites its authority.”
4. Curtis Yarvin, “The self-licking napalm ice cream cone” (Grey Mirror)
Curtis Yarvin, an actual, honest-to-God monarchist who writes entertaining subversive material over at the Grey Mirror Substack, similarly argues that “gain of function” virus experiments, and the coronavirus that may be the result of them, are symptomatic of a professional scientific institutional system that is fundamentally broken:
Science, in the body of one institution, has gone from collecting and breeding rare fluffy bunnies, hairy frogs and cute jungle cats, to collecting and breeding deadly bat viruses. For no concrete reason that anyone can identify—beyond a grant writer’s boilerplate. Our great brain, our world brain, our history-ending brain, was delighted, for years, with this work. It puts Ukrainian methods of graphite-reactor testing in perspective. Now the reactor has exploded—undeniably exploded—and we are all wondering what’s happened to our brain. What even is going on here? Is science having a stroke?In the end it was decided that the chief engineer was not responsible for Chernobyl. The plant director was not responsible for Chernobyl. Not even the general secretary was responsible for Chernobyl. In the end, history decided, it was the USSR itself—all its institutions, and all its ideologies—that was responsible for Chernobyl. Was the cause of covid science itself—or rather, some systematic problem that affects how science is done today? Could that problem be even bigger than science? Shit.
Science, in the body of one institution, has gone from collecting and breeding rare fluffy bunnies, hairy frogs and cute jungle cats, to collecting and breeding deadly bat viruses. For no concrete reason that anyone can identify—beyond a grant writer’s boilerplate. Our great brain, our world brain, our history-ending brain, was delighted, for years, with this work. It puts Ukrainian methods of graphite-reactor testing in perspective. Now the reactor has exploded—undeniably exploded—and we are all wondering what’s happened to our brain. What even is going on here? Is science having a stroke?
In the end it was decided that the chief engineer was not responsible for Chernobyl. The plant director was not responsible for Chernobyl. Not even the general secretary was responsible for Chernobyl. In the end, history decided, it was the USSR itself—all its institutions, and all its ideologies—that was responsible for Chernobyl. Was the cause of covid science itself—or rather, some systematic problem that affects how science is done today? Could that problem be even bigger than science? Shit.
In his view, “The self-funding, self-managing, decentralized enterprise of 21st-century science falls prey to three dark patterns (among others)”: stamp collecting (doing science just for the sake of doing science), self-licking ice-cream cones (problems caused by the attempts to solve them), and playing with fire (self-explanatory). “Covid is a kind of perfect trifecta of all three tropes.”
5. Emily Waltz, “First genetically modified mosquitoes released in the United States” (Nature)
Science journal Nature brings us the news: Oxitec, a British biotech firm, has released a test group of bio-engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitos into the wild in Florida to eradicate the disease carrying pests to humanity in a novel manner.
The genetically engineered males carry a gene that passes to their offspring and kills female progeny in early larval stages. Male offspring won’t die but instead will become carriers of the gene and pass it to future generations.
Yes, science fiction fans, this is the genophage from Mass Effect, but for the little biters.
Will releasing a genetically transmissible plague into the world, even just for one species of dangerous mosquito, be safe or have unintended consequences? I don’t know, I wasn’t on that conference call or whatever. I guess we’ll find out.
6. Zachary Kallenborn, “Was a flying killer robot used in Libya? Quite possibly” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
According to a recent UN report, clashes between the forces of the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army of eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter were proceeding normally near Tripoli in March of 2020 when retreating Hifter forces “were hunted down and remotely engaged” by “lethal autonomous weapons systems” including a Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 drone “programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition.”
This would potentially mark the first time that, in other words, fully independent killer robots were unleashed on humans on the battlefield. Or as Zachary Kallenborn puts it here, we have now entered “a new chapter in autonomous weapons, one in which they are used to fight and kill human beings based on artificial intelligence.”
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